Preaching Science: Three scientists choose their favourite Bible passages to preach on
This is the fifth post in our series on Science-Engaged Worship.
There is a place for science in preaching. “Exploring the world, asking questions, and engaging critically are all appropriate for Christians,” writes the Revd Jennifer Brown in her guest post for our series on Science-Engaged Worship. “These things are all ways of engaging with faith and can lead us to a deeper faith and knowledge of God.”
In this post, three scientists of faith have shared with us their approach to weaving science into sermons, from finding appropriate analogies between faith and science to the Bible passages that inspire them in their faith and work.
Paul Ewart, Professor of Physics and Head of the Department of Atomic and Laser Physics at Oxford University
“I have spent my life doing science, and as a physicist, working with entities like atoms and molecules that cannot be directly seen, I rely on imagination and models to aid my understanding. This leads naturally to using analogies based on experience to illuminate explanations. In the same way, perhaps, a shepherd could come to think of God as a shepherd and write a psalm where the analogy becomes a metaphor – The Lord is my shepherd … and we all know the rest.
“Wherever I see an analogy in science that can illuminate a concept of faith I will use it to help others open their minds to the possibility of God. That light is both a wave and a particle – “two in one” at the same time – opens my mind to the possibility of “three in one,” the God who is a Trinity. The practice of Science relies upon honesty and humility and both of these are Christian virtues. When we think about God, we need to be honest with ourselves and humble enough to recognise our limitations and our need for God’s help. Thinking scientifically will take us only so far. At some point we need to act, and that requires faith.
“The physics of the quantum world opens my mind, enabling it to accept concepts that look like nonsense if we rely only on common sense and experience of the visible world. We cannot go through solid walls because, as the laws of electromagnetism explain, the repulsive electrical forces between atoms prevent us. The same kind of classical laws of physics convinced Lord Kelvin that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible because of the law of gravity. We would still believe that Kelvin was right had we not discovered the laws of aerodynamics. I was once involved with some experiments where we changed the quantum state of Helium atoms so that they could literally pass straight through one another. The laws of quantum physics superseded the laws of electromagnetism, effectively switching off the repulsive force between the atoms. I find this helpful in seeing the possibility that God could use laws of his Creation, as yet unknown to, or even unknowable by, us to resurrect the dead Jesus and allow him to pass through a wall.
“I still need good reasons to justify my beliefs and to interpret evidence in a coherent way. God gives us evidence of his power in Creation without overwhelming us and coercing us into belief, but our faith and trust in Him is rationally justified. Science leads our thoughts to see order in the universe, the signs of mind and hints of purpose. Science-based thinking recognises its limitations and so if we want to know more, the honest thing to do is to take the step of faith that will lead to further experience and a growing confidence in the reality that is God.”
Grace Wolf-Chase, Senior Scientist and Senior Education & Communication Specialist with the Planetary Science Institute, and Vice President of the Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science (CASIRAS) Board of Directors
“During the past few decades, research into how stars and planets form, as well as searches for planets orbiting faraway stars, tell us similar stories: we have good reason to think there may be even more planet-sized worlds than stars in the Universe, and there’s a good chance that many of these worlds have environments that could support extra-terrestrial life. I think these findings would please Alice Meynall very much. Alice Meynall was a Roman Catholic mother of eight and prominent suffragette who imagined what it might be like to compare Gospels with alien civilizations in her 1917 poem, Christ in the Universe, which was written years before science fiction became popular as a literary genre.
“I’m an astronomer who’s been part of developing the scientific story of the birth of stars and planets since the 1980s, and I’m also a practicing Lutheran who has taken inspiration from many parts of the Bible. In the Christian Scriptures, especially in John, Colossians, and Ephesians, you can find verses that place Christ in a “cosmic” context, and in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalms and Job are my favourite “go-to” books for awesome imagery of the natural world. During the last four chapters of Job, God takes Job on a humbling tour of creation. For some, the overriding message is that ignorant humans will never understand the world God created; for others, the story contains a subtle invitation to learn more about God’s “very good” creation, rather than assuming we know how God operates. These chapters call humanity away from anthropocentric views of nature, and they inspire awe, wonder, humility, and reverence for creation’s Author.
“There are many great resources to get you thinking about how to incorporate science into your homilies. The Clergy Letter Project, an endeavour to demonstrate the compatibility of religion and science, maintains a list of sermons across diverse religious traditions that address scientific topics. You can check out my webinar for the Catholic Theological Union’s Preaching with the Sciences project, and I highly recommend George Murphy’s book, Pulpit Science Fiction, which has some great suggestions on the use of science fiction in preaching story sermons.”
Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?
Job 38:31-33 (NRSV)
Tom McLeish FRS, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of York and lay reader in the Church of England
“Sermons can illustrate how a Biblically-informed mind can address current scientifically-linked issues. A perfect example was presented by the pandemic in 2020. The appropriate public response was to restrict activity, maintain distance to others, wear masks, and make many other sacrifices of freedom. Yet none of the measures benefitted the practitioner very much – it was all about keeping the vulnerable of the community safe. Many people objected to their freedoms being imposed upon in this way, but this was a gift to the church to show the way of loving our neighbour as ourselves.
“This could be addressed using Paul’s illustration of the Body (1 Cor 12), or Jesus’ challenge to who our neighbours are and how we serve them (Luke 10), or taking up a cross to follow Jesus (Luke 9).
“I have found, as did many Biblical authors, that the natural world, and our investigation of it (think about the tour of nature’s wild side of Job chs. 38-42, or the creation story of Proverbs ch. 8) provide helpful metaphors and pictures for preaching and teaching.
“How might we illustrate, for example, the Biblical narrative arc of the work of the Holy Spirit? Sporadically visiting prophets, priests, and Kings in the Hebrew Bible, the Spirit is focused tightly into the person of Jesus in the gospels, before diverging universally into the early church. This reminds me of the way a lens brings a broad beam of light to a point of focused energy, before it diverges again, illuminating a wider and wider space.
“To develop a second example, Paul uses the biological illustration of a seed germinating and growing a plant (1 Cor 15) as a natural illustration of the difference between our present physical bodies and the resurrection body. The science of germination only adds to the richness of this picture, the ‘word’ of who we are carried through the process in the DNA present in every cell.”
How Can Science Be Used in Preaching and Teaching? by Ruth Bancewicz at The Faraday Institute. A highly practical guide to approaching a science-based sermon based on what you want to invoke or achieve.
Science and Faith as Lenses, by Lucas Mix. A full-text sermon and service plan based on Isaiah 52.
The Lord is My Light – Lockdown Reflection, by Paul Ewart for Kidlington Baptist Church. Video reflecting on 1 John 1:5-7.
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