I am currently watching an excellent series on the BBC called The Story of Science. The third episode, which I have just watched, is called 'How we got here'.
It of course raises all the red herrings and difficult questions surrounding geology and biology, but one observation from the presenter hit me squarely between the eyes.
The episode ended on a geological note, Dr Mosley talked about how violent Earth is, with the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes caused by continental drift, and the tsunamis that occur when those events happen underwater.
His point was that the development of life is not in spite of Earth being so violent, but is actually helped by it. Some catastrophic events do wipe out entire species, but most of the time the violence actually encourages life to flourish by giving it new opportunities. His best example was the Rift Valley in East Africa, which is home to hundreds of thousands of animals and birds.
I found this a fascinating argument, that natural 'disasters' help and encourage life to flourish far more often than harming it. And it made me think – well that's exactly how God operates, bringing life out of death, even totally dead and arid places like the deserts of East Africa, transformed into lush savannah by the violent separating of two continents.
It should not surprise us that he created the world in such a way – that no matter how dreadful the catastrophe, life always survives, somehow, somewhere. Even at its most harsh and devastating, creation does exactly what it says on the tin.
I have long disliked the central place that 'chance' has in modern scientific theories, particularly the 'random' mutations that drive evolution forward. As a Christian I don't like the idea of utter randomness, of chance being the determining factor in the development of life.
I am also aware that as a concept it is lauded by many of the new atheists as the final nail in God's coffin: there is no need for God, there is no proof for God's existence in nature; everything is down to chance, and therefore there is no creator, and no ultimate purpose to life.
A good friend pointed me recently to this article, by Paul Ewart. It is one of those articles that forced me to look at something from a slightly different angle, which is no bad thing.
Paul Ewart argues that – maybe – chance is a necessary aspect of theology, because it helps us to understand the relationship between a sovereign creator and human agency (often called 'free will' – I'm not sure humans actually have free will, but that's another argument).
Perhaps life is like a game of chess, with God as 'an infinitely wise grand master.' No matter what we do, which moves we make, God always wins, the outcome is always good, in the end: 'God adapts his actions in sustaining the world in existence to take account of whatever happens.'
Of course, we would want to argue that God also knows which moves we are going to make, before we make them. We don't 'catch him out' with our wickedness. We mustn't take the chess game analogy too far; instead it is perhaps a helpful way for us to understand how the world appears sometimes (that there is no benevolent almighty God in ultimate control) with what the Bible insists is the case (the Lamb is on the throne).
I saw the end of a programme last night called Horizon, which was looking at the theory of gravity. The bit I saw was the tail-end of the explanation of Einstein's theory, which moved into the theory of quantum gravity (or the quantum theory of gravity..?).
It was all very interesting – I used to read New Scientist so I'd read a lot of it before – but the closing moments of the programme really made me sit up. The presenter was summing up his conclusions, saying that a full understanding of gravity won't come from looking at the stars and galaxies, but from the smallest particles. He said that this would help us to explain what happened at the Big Bang, and – here it comes – why we exist.
Now, I have no doubt he has great credentials as a scientist, but it was my understanding that science looks into the question 'how it is' that we exist, not 'why'. I suppose that may be a technical distinction, but it is an important one, because it goes some way to showing how science and faith can go together: science looks empirically at the world to find out how it works; faith listens with gratitude to the Creator of the world to find out why it exists.
I'm sure that discovering how gravity works will be a huge step forward for modern science. But it will not help us one bit in discovering why gravity works, or who made it work. That is why we need both science and faith, why scientists can have faith, why scientists should be careful not to make grander claims for science than are warranted (for example, Professor Dawkins), and why theologians should be careful not to make sweeping scientific statements based on theological reasoning (for example, young-earth creationists).