Bishop Guli's Thought for The Day broadcast on BBC Radio 4, 19 May 2020

On science, faith and not knowing

There’s a widespread belief that science and religion are incompatible. That science is about facts while religion dabbles with ideas that can’t be proven. Certainly in the current pandemic it’s scientists we look to for solutions but sometimes I wonder if we burden them with unreasonable expectations. There’s often talk of following the science as if it’s a single identifiable entity - a magic bullet that’ll provide the solutions. In truth, it’s rather that there are scientists striving to better understand a new and unknown virus. It’s no surprise then that there’s disagreement, for example, about whether or not to wear masks, when to ease lock down or send children back to school.

I heard Professor Brian Cox speaking recently reminding us that there’s far more that scientists don’t know compared to what they do know. Referring to the 20th century physicist Richard Feynman, Cox said the most valuable thing about science is that it teaches us to embrace uncertainty and doubt - and that not knowing is to be welcomed rather than feared.  And this, for me, takes us into the territory of faith. There are those who dismiss faith because it can’t provide clear answers to the existence of God or the problem of suffering or any number of other questions. But for my way of thinking, if science is a mindset – a desire to know and understand more about nature – then faith too is a mindset – a desire to know and understand more about the creative force behind the universe, what many people call God.

The priest and poet Mark Oakley describes belief in God as stemming from a place of intuition, a sense of awe, surprise, wonder, beyondness, epiphany, perhaps not unlike the starting place for many scientists. Thus faith emerges and then begins a journey of gradual discovery. There’ll always be more that’s unknown about God than those things which are discovered but this not knowing, what we might call mystery, is to be embraced and welcomed not feared.

In the end it’ll be scientists who find a way to lead us out of this pandemic. Out of the not knowing we hope and trust clarity will emerge - a cure, a vaccine, some kind of treatment. Meanwhile, for those who choose it, the gift of faith is an invitation. For Christians it is an encounter with the loving presence of God through the person of Jesus Christ. This is not just in the hope of a better future but in the very darkness of suffering and the uncertainties of life.

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