The Point of Religion in an Age of Science

July 28, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Luke 11.1-13, at Eucharist on Sunday 28th July 2019, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity.

The Lord’s Prayer is possibly the most familiar passage in the New Testament, so let’s come at it today from a new angle, to find other facets to a prayer which for many is our daily bread. The relationship between science and religion, here in the UK, can offer us this new angle.

The Christian think-tank Theos has recently produced a report on this theme. These are the headlines: the idea of a pitched battle between two cultures and two groups, the creationists and the scientists, is false. There are some creationists in the UK – people who believe that the world was made in seven days and is only a few thousand years old – between one in twenty and one in ten of the population as a whole; but the public antagonism between the sides tends to exists in pockets and be driven more by atheists.

In between the extreme camps there’s a wide area of uncertainty: religious people, especially, worry about GM crops and gene therapy – they see it as interfering with the natural order. But the area where the majority is the most unsure is the relationship between evolution and the status of humanity. While most are happy to accept evolution as the way in which life on earth developed in general, many question how well evolution explains the development of human characteristics, such as consciousness.

My own worry about the tension between science and religion is more pragmatic: science is self-evidently useful, and so in practice tends to be the way we frame our lives. As I sit in front of my laptop, receiving messages from a host of people and organisations, connected to the world-wide web and to data storage far greater and more reliable than my own memory, I can hardly deny the practical benefits of science.

But what about religion? How is it useful and relevant? You’ll remember that the Lord’s Prayer springs from a little scene. The disciples have watched Jesus praying, and when he has finished one of them asks how they should do it. Jesus has clearly provided a very alluring example of prayer, and they want to know his secret.

So Jesus is asked how they should pray. We know his reply all too well, but let’s consider what he’s trying to teach his disciples. We might think it’s a form of words to be recited, to set them apart from John the Baptist’s, or set Christians today apart from Muslims or Hindus. But that wouldn’t take us very far.

Try this instead: Jesus is praying. He is concentrating. The passage come just after the one our curate Katie expounded so vividly last week about Mary and Martha. Martha was distracted by many things; Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying, and the Lord commended her for it. What Jesus is offering here, then, is help to his disciples to become more concentrated, more potent human beings.

Religion has a very practical bent. It is the science of souls. Not souls in the sense of individuals apart from their relationships or environment, but in the sense of persons in their inner me-ness, the vital agents that we are in the world. Jesus is giving his disciples a total, energised orientation in the world.

And through this prayer, Jesus is taking his disciples into a landscape where we can all discover exactly who we are and what we are meant to be. But as time is short, I can only sketch some of the features of this landscape of the soul.

The first word is, Father: in principle there’s no reason why eventually there should not be a complete account of the origin of consciousness through evolution. But this account cannot explain its ultimate purpose. This prayer tells us that our minds our meant to find and connect with a transcendent, personal reality, who summons us, his children, into growth. In responding to God as Father, with all our heart, mind and strength, we are seeking life in relationship.

Hallowed be your name: science makes many things possible but cannot tell us what is right. It can be used and abused. Religion has a bad name because it is ideological and therefore blind to the facts and other positions; but how about an ideology based on hallowing? Living to please God above all things means living with a profound reverence for all things good, true and beautiful, and embracing not only the full facts but also values.

Give us today our daily bread: reverence for life means living in simplicity of spirit. We need only basic stuff to live – food, shelter, loving, learning, meaning – and to know that these essentials should never be taken for granted but always understood as gifts, daily, and therefore not as goods to be exploited or withheld from others.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us: our age believes in human rights. We must stand up for them and insist on them, whether as persons and nations. But Christians start instead with the idea of ourselves in solidarity with each other, able to be damaged and to do damage to each other, and therefore constantly in need of forgiveness and needing to forgive. This sort of vulnerability doesn’t fit easily into an assertive, competitive and aggressive culture.

And do not bring us to the time of trial: the root of the problem of souls is fear – of not surviving, of being crushed – a trail beyond our resources or imagining. We pray that God keep us from this testing, or at least gives us the strength to endure it. Seeking God’s mercy and power under the shadow of death is far better for the soul than seeking, out of fear, to annihilate our enemies or protect ourselves by as many ranks of comfort and distraction as we can muster.

If we pray the Lord’s Prayer as our Lord meant it, we have in our hands and hearts a tool to revolutionise our entire awareness and agency. We can become, by God acting on us, in us and through us, new beings in Christ. As our first reading advised those on this journey of transformation: ‘continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving’.

It is no surprise that people worry about science in relation to consciousness. It’s not so much that consciousness is really complex and evolution seemingly quite blunt tool to have made it. It’s more that science’s supposed objectivity is hard to reconcile with the extreme subjectivity of each one of us being uniquely a-self. We cannot deny within ourselves a universe of meaning and potential, hardly tapped, even in the course of a lifetime – a soul of infinite value.

Religion – Christianity, certainly – offers a discipline to fashion and forge this precious soul. Look around and we see not a lack of science but a lack of people who can take responsibility in a volatile climate – those who come hell or high water look to our Father in heaven, live with reverence for life, with simplicity and gratitude for all that is given, live in vulnerability and reciprocity rather in striving and self-assertion, who face their primal fear of dying with faith and trust in God.

God needs more agents like this to make this world grow in righteousness and truth. People who, above all else, are thankful for being alive – alert to the task of becoming more self-consciously human. In this relationship with religion, science, alongside the arts and humanities, finds its place as a way to serve the freedom and fulfilment of all creation.