Here are video interviews with Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson during the first Diocese of Leeds clergy conference in Liverpool earlier this week.
September 9, 2016
September 9, 2016
It is purely coincidental that our clergy conference discussion between Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson took place just before the announcement of more funding for parishes to engage in scientific exploration. Brian and David both told me they didn't hesitate to come to the conference to present and discuss 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning' (although the request from Eric Idle that Brian should get a photo of him amongst 400 clergy and post it on Twitter as 'The Life of Brian' got an obvious 'yes' from me) as this is precisely the sort of conversation and engagement we need to see more often.
Anyway, the Church of England is taking this seriously, as is the University of Durham and the Templeton Foundation. You can read about the “Take Your Vicar to the Lab” and “Scientists in Congregations” initiatives here.
I'd like to put up more – and do a resume of the dialogue between Brian and David, but, as is the way of things, I am in a school this morning and in meetings all afternoon and evening. There will be interviews with both Brian and David on our website soon.
September 8, 2016
I have just got back from the first ever clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds. We met at Liverpool Hope University – a place to which I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. I grew up half a mile away.
It went remarkably well. The last few years have not been easy as we dissolved three dioceses at Easter 2014 and worked to keep everything going while creating something new. This conference was a turning point and felt like a celebration.
However, it wasn't just the atmosphere that did it. The speakers excelled. The particular highlight for most of us was yesterday's presentations and conversations by Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning'. Their presentations were superb, clear, stretching and totally engaging. The enthusiasm for science was palpable, but also held in a rooted sense of curiosity and wonder. I am not sure we all understood all the equations, but we were able to span the enormity of the universe (and multiverses) whilst earthing the whole thing in questions of meaning, existence, faith and the possibilities of God.
What was great was the mutual respect and serious engagement between Brian Cox and David Wilkinson as I moderated a conversation between them following their presentations. After lunch (and a million requests for selfies and autographs – not mine, obviously) we had an hour of questions, observations and conversation that ranged widely and really intelligently. The standing ovation for our guests was richly deserved.
This offered a model for how serious engagement can take place where difference is respected. Our public discourse – especially our political and media discourse – in the UK is not great at the moment. See the whole Brexit business, if you don't believe me. There is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to modelling good conversation on contentious issues… and, especially, where prejudices about the conflict between science and religion too often polarise positions before arguments have even been articulated, let alone listened to or heard.
Brian Cox is doing a tour. Book now.
September 7, 2016
I am currently at Hope University, Liverpool, for the first clergy conference of the Diocese of Leeds. Nearly 400 clergy have crossed the Pennines, beginning yesterday with input from me (setting the scene: a theology of hope, an anthropology of hope, a hopeful ecclesiology, and a hopeful missiology) and the Dean of Salisbury, June Osborne. Ignore the 'ologies' – we were basically looking at what it is (or should be) that fires and shapes us as a church. June did a brilliant job of opening up challenging thoughts about how the church negotiates its own missional agenda in a world that is going through a serious and far-reaching paradigm shift.
Today we have the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, leading us in a Bible study – tomorrow we have the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool doing similar.
It is a funny feeling for me being back where I grew up, where my parents and other family members still live, and on a site where I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. The university is excellent and we could not have chosen a better conference venue.
This morning we have two presentations on the theme of 'Science, the Cosmos and Human Meaning'. Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson will then follow up their presentations with a conversation mediated by me. After lunch there will be a question and answer session with the two scientists.
Why do this? I want us to model how to have a serious and respectful conversation, listening to the generous clarity of Brian Cox as he engages with theologian and astrophysicist David Wilkinson. I want us as clergy to step out from our territory and catch a glimpse of some of the debates going on around us – perhaps even prompting us to re-think how we engage as clergy and churches with the agendas set by the world beyond our walls and our own preoccupations.
We'll see. A report will emerge on the diocesan website (and, depending on time) maybe here later.
July 31, 2015
We have lots of foreign visitors to stay with us. Last night we had some friends from Switzerland and it was great to see them. Last week we had a family from the United States and I took them to Liverpool for a day so they could get some culture. It was funny to see them standing outside the barber shop at Penny Lane and know the soundtrack that was running through their heads. (I used to get my hair cut in that shop when I was a kid.)
What was great was that their curiosity grew as we saw the sights of my home city and wandered round the museum of curios peculiar to Liverpool. When you are actually there, questions arise that weren't anticipated from seventy miles away. It's as if you have to get on the move for curiosity to get awoken and imagination to be teased.
I think this is how children live and learn: constant undisciplined questioning and unbridled wondering about the world and taste and smell and touch and sight and sounds. They don't need telling that the world is full not only of sound and fury, but also of still small voices that penetrate the noise and tickle the soul. Sometimes, when you are in the thick of it, the fires of imagination burn only dimly; but they can't be extinguished.
This might sound odd, but I think curiosity is the key to enjoying and understanding the world. When Jesus told his bemused mates that they'd have to become like children if they were to live in his world, I think this is what he was on about. Children never stop asking questions, pointing out embarrassing truths, wanting to know “why” all the time. It does your head in, but it is in enjoying the wondering that curiosity wakes up and we go on a journey of imagination. In fact, this is what drives science.
Well, knowing me and possibly knowing you, I guess this might just ring a bell. If, as Christians believe, we are made in the image of a curious and questioning God, then we'd better make the most of it. I'd rather be a curious questioner than a frustrated superstar who thinks he's got it all nailed.
February 19, 2012
Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).
According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.
Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.
Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.
As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?
Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.
I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.
This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.
Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.
September 12, 2010
Tomorrow I go to Oxford for the annual meeting of the College of Bishops. Before it finishes I will head off to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission. (See last post for more.) So, I am interviewing ordinands, clearing the correspondence and catching up on ‘loose’ reading. (I am also speaking this evening on the great, late German lay theologian, preacher and politician, Johannes Rau.)
Catching up on unread back copies of Third Way (subscribe to it today – it’s the best Christian magazine on the market), I stumbled across Charles Foster’s wonderful account of some Christians’ reaction to his latest book, Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience. I say ‘wonderful’, but it is also sad. What are some Christians afraid of? He asks perfectly good and reasonable questions and finds himself accused of ‘heresy’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘poor scholarship’, ‘literary treason at its worst’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘worthless’. And all this because he takes Augustine‘s dictum seriously and follows it through: “Nature is what God does.”
Now, anyone who sticks their head above the parapet knows what it is to get it shot at. The certainty of ignorance certainly fires the venom of people who, I am sure, are normally quite pleasant, but become nasty when their little worldview is challenged.
Foster goes on to ask what it is that motivates such people:
There are many possible answers. I would like to believe that the main motivation is charitable: that they genuinely think that people like me endanger eternal destiny, and that my opponents pick up their verbal swords reluctantly, more in sorrow than anger, to protect the weaker brethren. But it doesn’t read that way. There is one absolutely unmistakable smell about the responses: it’s the stink of fear.
He later goes on to muse:
What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of questions. They’re afraid of leaving the ghetto. They’re suffering from a paralysing spiritual agoraphobia… They choose a view of the ghetto wall when they could have a view of the universe.
And, in a final swoop at luddite theology that cannot be challenged by the outside world, he concludes (putting words into their mouths, of course):
We are the faithful remnant, and the more of a remnant we are, the more faithful we must be. If sacience doesn’t help to reassure, cognitive dissonance will.
This evokes two memories for me: (a) growing up knowing church cultures that displayed this security in being a remnant (as opposed to shrinking because they have nothing attractive to offer), and (b) Jacques Ellul‘s The Meaning of the City in which he describes Cain building the city he calls Enoch (Genesis 4) as a way of creating meaningful space in a meaningless universe without God (and alienation from his created purpose). I picked this up in one or two of my books as it vividly illustrates the predicament of human beings seeking to create meaningful space and the choices we face when the universe is opened up to us – full of threat as well as promise.
Foster is right to identify fear as the smell that fires such indignation. What is there to be afraid of in opening up to questions about the world and its ways? As someone once observed, if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.
Get a life. Get an imagination. Get a bigger vision of God and the enormity of the universe. As Foster concludes:
If you don’t ask [honest] questions,… I might suspect that it’s because you don’t really, truly, in the early hours of the morning, trust God to have the answers.