Sermon: Bible Sunday, 28 October 2018, St Mary Magdalene

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

 

I don’t know how many of you recognised the tune to which we sang our second hymn, the one just before the gospel reading. Just in case you didn’t know it, it was the tune used by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

Allow me to pursue the Tallis theme a little further.  Last June Fee and I were down in St Ives in Cornwall for our annual visitation and we discovered that there was an art-installation by someone called Janet Cardiff in a disused church in Penzance.

So we went along. Forty speakers were placed in a circle through which was played Tallis’ forty part motet Spem in alium – one voice per speaker.

I found it a moving experience but also disconcerting. The music seemed to be denuded not of all spiritual significance but certainly of its specifically Christian significance.

And that was reinforced by the environment, a slightly down-at-heal ex-church.

The whole thing seemed to me almost a demonstration of the decline of the Christian church in our country over the last few decades – a decline that seems to continue relentlessly.

Christianity has become deeply unfashionable in our society. No doubt there are various reasons but one major contributor has been a perceived conflict between science and faith. It’s taken for granted by many that there is such a conflict.

So that’s my subject this morning. Is there an inevitable conflict between science and Christian faith? And by science in this context I mean the hard physical sciences.

Well, it won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t believe there is any conflict. To my mind the idea is utterly cock-eyed. And I hope to give you at least a hint of why I believe that to be the case.

Perhaps I should enter one caveat before I continue. There is a conflict between science and that particular brand of religious faith that usually goes under the name of creationism.

If you believe that the universe was created in six 24 hour days about six and a half thousand years ago, then I think it’s fair to say that scientifically you have a problem.

Many of those who subscribe to this notion of a science/faith conflict give the impression that all Christians are creationists, which of course is very far from the truth. But it suits their agenda to peddle that deception. They may well believe it but, if they do, it just goes to show how little they know about Christianity.

One historical event that is often thrown at Christians as proof of the incompatibility of science and religion is the trial of Galileo in the early 17th century, and it’s true that he was treated very badly by the Catholic Church – specifically by the Roman Inquisition.

The point at issue was whether the sun revolved around the earth or vice versa. The traditional belief (espoused by the Church) was that the sun did indeed revolve around the earth.

Now, as you may have noticed, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It’s natural to think that the sun revolves around the earth. Based on everyday observation why would you think anything else?

Then Copernicus came along and with his clever calculations demonstrated that, no, no, it’s the other way round.

There was controversy for decades about the theories of Copernicus, including among scientists. The truth of those calculations was far from obvious. And the Church got it wrong.

It has to be said that the Church was rigid in its views and cruel in its behaviour – though not as cruel as some people claim. As far as I’m aware, Galileo was never physically harmed.

The Church – in the broadest sense, not just the Catholic Church – has made many mistakes over the centuries in its attitude towards science.

All that shows is that the Church is an institution, whose members are fallible. Just like the members of any other group of human beings – even groups of scientists.

It shows that there has sometimes been conflict between science and religion but not that it must be so.

But some people would claim that there’s an intrinsic, an inherent conflict between science and religion. Well, here’s why that seems to me an erroneous view.

The late Stephen Jay Gould, an American palaeontologist and an atheist, came up with the idea that science and religion are what he called non-overlapping magisteria – a fancy word by which he meant that science and religion each represent different but legitimate areas of inquiry.

Well, I wouldn’t describe the Christian faith as an area of enquiry exactly. It’s a little more than that but basically I think that Professor Gould had a valid point.

The domain of science is the material world, the universe around us – and within us – in all its manifestations. It has absolutely nothing to say about whether there is, for want of a better term, a spiritual realm or whether God may be at the centre of that realm. Science purely as science should always be agnostic about the existence of God.

Here’s a particular hobby horse of mine. You’ll sometimes hear people describing themselves as scientific materialists. Scientific materialism – sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It implies that matter is all there is and that this has somehow been scientifically proven.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Materialism, the belief that the material world is all there is, isn’t a scientific belief at all. It’s a philosophical belief and in my estimation it’s untenable philosophy.

Many scientific discoveries are actually very congenial to religious faith. The big bang would be an obvious example. Another would be the fact that the way the universe works can be described in mathematical formulae, which is very difficult to explain without recourse to God or something like God.

Science may actually be the friend of faith, though – as I said before – science is basically agnostic about God. We arrive at belief in God by other means. Occasionally science may be extremely helpful – but on its own it could never prove there’s a God.

Science and religion may be two separate magisteria, as Stephen Jay Gould put it, but there is only one truth.

So Christians need to respect science but, impressive though science is, I would have to say that in the last analysis Christian truth is more all-encompassing, more about love than about molecules, so to speak – and therefore more complete.

I’ll end with some of those words of John Mason that we sang earlier to that tune by Thomas Tallis.

As he speaks of God, his words take us beyond science, beyond our limited perception and knowledge, essentially beyond human thought, to that which is the source of all existence:

Thou art a sea without a shore,
  A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
  Thy place is everywhere.

About Revd Alan Sykes

Revd Alan Sykes is a self-supporting minister (SSM) based at St Mary Magdalene. He was ordained in 2009. He has worshipped at St Mary’s for over 25 years. No longer employed, he gave up his job as a librarian early in 2009. His interests include poetry, classical music, cricket and football. Which team he supports remains a closely guarded secret as he does not wish to cause merriment among the congregation.
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