Looking ahead to 2023: Three Church leaders on their hopes for science-faith engagement
The last year has seen exciting and challenging scientific developments, from the launch of the James Webb space telescope, to a breakthroughs in nuclear fusion technology. We asked three Church leaders about their reflections on the year just gone, and their hopes for the year ahead.
Revd Prof David Wilkinson, Project Director, ECLAS
“This month I had the privilege of being in the audience to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Ogden Centre at Durham University, which was founded to find answers to five big questions of contemporary physics.
“The five questions concern the natures of dark matter and dark energy, how neutrinos are connected to the matter-antimatter asymmetry, the nature of gravity, and the origins of planets. Researchers at the celebration event reported that while considerable progress has been made in the last 20 years, none of those questions has yet been answered.
“These are big and fascinating questions. Indeed, the core of science does not always lie in the answers, but in asking the right questions. One of my hopes for the future of science and its place in society, whether in education or media, is the embodiment of the joy of curiosity. This means investing in science as a questioning activity – not simply about equipping students to pass an exam, or for companies or governments to gain technological advantage.
“My second hope for science is that we recognise how important these questions are for our self understanding. How planets form may seem an interesting but largely irrelevant question for modern life. Yet, if planets form in a way that enables the development of an atmosphere, with liquid water, in a planetary system that is stable for billions of years, might primitive life develop into intelligent life? What would that mean for our understanding of the place of human beings? These questions provide both opportunities and challenges for Christian theology, a chance to join the conversation and offer insights from a long intellectual tradition on anthropology and eschatology. Underneath all the big questions is the remarkable and non-trivial recognition that we can ask these questions and have faith that the human mind can find answers.
“So as we emerge into 2023, it would be good to confirm what we think dark matter is. And if we can’t do that? Then I will remain excited by the opportunity that science gives me to remain curious.”
Bishop Graham Usher, the Church of England’s Lead Bishop for the Environment
“Looking back on 2022, climate change seems to have dominated much thinking and little action. Many conversations at the Lambeth Conference, the gathering of Anglican Bishops from around the world, mentioned the impact of climate change on peoples’ lives and communities, with the resulting patterns of misery, migration and conflict. I will never forget the Bishop of Vanuatu describing how his islands are ‘sinking into the sea’ as the water level rises. The IPCC’s reports increasingly sound the alarm, as do the poorest in the world and the young, but where is the real transformational action being taken? All of us need to learn to live more simply so that others might simply live. That takes translating the science into moral questions about the stuff that we hoard and our insatiable appetite for more. We gather into barns whilst failing to live God’s call to be stewards of creation. We need to catch a glimpse in these scientific reports of God’s view of the Earth being ‘very good’.
“In 2023 I hope that the Communion Forest will really take off. This is a global initiative, launched at the Lambeth Conference, comprising local activities of forest protection, tree growing and eco-system restoration undertaken by provinces, dioceses and individual churches across the Anglican Communion to safeguard creation. I’m a firm believer that to plant is to hope; to restore is to heal; and to protect is to love. I dream of every Anglican planting a tree, getting their hands in the soil, watering it, and seeing the first buds swell and burst into leaf. From that comes a sense of the wonder of creation, as well as thankful hearts that photosynthesis gives us our breath. The leaves of the trees will be the healing of the nations.”
Dr Olwyn Mark, Lecturer in Practical Theology, Union Theological College
“The ethical questions that arise through advances in biotechnology and biomedical science offer much scope for opening up important conversations between science and theology. In 2022, Union Theological College was delighted to host these conversations in various settings as part of our Science for Seminaries project. A highlight was the Bioethics film events, delivered in partnership with Stranmillis University College, with over 400 Religious Studies pupils and their teachers in attendance. In response to the issues raised in the film ‘My Sister’s Keeper’, pupils posed questions around preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), as well as questions related to suffering and death. The questions were thoughtful and insightful, reflecting the complexity of the moral issues raised, and highlighting the contribution that theology can make.
“My hope for 2023 is that we will continue to build on this engagement with schools, considering how we use film and other resources to open up these bioethical conversations.”
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