A Sermon from Sherborne

The Interpreter

It is probably unsurprising that I have been reflecting on nearly 42 years of stipendiary ministry, now that it is drawing to a close. And I realise that one of the roles I have often had to fulfil is that of interpreter. You see, when people come to me with their problems and their tragedies, they do not want explanations. They want interpretation.

For example, a son or daughter has been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. The parents already know the whys and hows of the matter: the doctor has explained that they must both be hitherto unsuspecting carriers of the recessive gene, which has given their children a one in four chance of developing the disease. Science, in this case medical science, provides the explanation, and we pray that one day it will provide a cure. But now the parents need help with questions of a different order: how do we cope with the guilt we feel as the unwitting transmitters of this dread disease? How do we help our child to come to terms with the likelihood that she will not live beyond middle age, and may die much sooner? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in all this? Is there any point in prayer? And I must help them to interpret what they are going through in the light of the love of God.

Another example of the different roles of science and religion was provided in my first weeks as an assistant curate at St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol. Bristol General Hospital was in the parish. The Vicar was the Chaplain. He visited three of the nine wards each week; his two curates divided the remaining six between them. I was given a geriatric ward, the gynaecology ward and the psychiatric unit. The consultant psychiatrist in charge of the unit invited me to a staff meeting, where the cases of the various patients were discussed with clinical rigour. At the end I was asked if I had any questions. ‘Just one’, I replied. ‘Here are you, all with a wealth of experience on top of years of medical and psychiatric training. Here am I, fresh out of theological college and still wet behind the ears. What on earth can I offer your patients that you can’t?

The consultant smiled. ‘Oh, that’s easy’, she replied. ‘Many of our patients here are riddled with guilt. Sometimes it’s appropriate guilt, because they really have done something wicked, though not usually criminal. More often it’s inappropriate guilt: they have become obsessed with some small misdemeanour, real or imagined, and their minds have made mountains out of molehills. We have all sorts of techniques and therapies for helping them to understand why they feel guilty and to explain what has triggered it. There are drugs which will take them back to experiences in childhood or infancy, long buried in the sub-conscious, which have caused their illness. We can do all that and more. But you can tell them that they are forgiven.’

So I discovered that science and religion are not competing rivals. Science explains. Religion interprets. We need both. So when someone like the late Stephen Hawking says that science has rendered redundant the role of a creator for the Universe, my faith is not affected in any way, because neither the Bible nor Christianity itself claim to be explanations of life and its beginnings. They are interpretations of life and its meaning, and that is very different.

Thus, for example, the first chapter of Genesis, which we heard read just now, gives us a creation story. The second chapter gives us a completely different creation story. The Hebrew mind was not daft: those who compiled the stories knew what they were doing. They were not providing either scientific explanations or historical accounts of creation. They were interpreting creation, drawing out its significance, helping us to understand our part in it. Tell me, who best understands the butterfly? The entomologist, with scalpel and microscope, or the artist, capturing with brush and paint its beauty and its grace? It is the wrong question. We need both, for each works in a different realm of being, significance and expression.

That doesn’t mean I have no questions for Professor Hawking, especially when he tells us that the Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics. Now I am no physicist, but it seems to me that physics can only have laws because physicists have discovered that there is order and pattern in the universe. But who decided in the first place that the universe should develop according to order and pattern, rather than at random? The Bible has an answer. ‘In the beginning … the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…. Then God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’ [Genesis 1: 1-3]. As a scientific explanation it may not satisfy Professor Hawking, but as a theological interpretation of where order and pattern began, it continues to make sense to a great many men and women of science.

John Polkinghorne was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity when I read Theology there. But he was already contemplating a change of course. In 1982 he too arrived in Bristol as an assistant curate. By 1986 he was back in Cambridge as Dean of Trinity Hall, and in 1989 became President of Queens’ College. I am going to give him the last word:

The idea of creation has no special stake in a datable start to the universe. If Hawking is right, and quantum effects mean that the cosmos as we know it is like a kind of fuzzy spacetime egg, without a single point at which it began, that is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant. When he poses the question, ‘But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary, or edge, it would have no beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?’ it would be theologically naive to give any answer other than ‘Every place – as the sustainer of the self-contained spacetime egg and as the ordainer of its quantum laws.’ God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries. Creation is not something he did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something he is doing now. [Science and Christian Belief, 1994, p.73]

And for that, thanks be to God.

Canon Eric Woods 16/02/2020
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne