Sir John Houghton
After lunch we had a short, informal session with Sir John Houghton who is a highly respected climate scientist, former head of the Met Office, founding member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and president of the John Ray Initiative. He has recently published his autobiography, In the Eye of the Storm, which is a great book. It gives a fascinating insight into the development of meteorology, a discipline which exploded through the second half of the twentieth century with the development of computers and satellite technology. Sir John was at the forefront of the field all the way through those changes and the book charts his journey as he faces storms of public opinion, bureaucratic obstinance and powerful vested interests.
Sir John outlined the current understanding of climate change and some of the challenges facing us at the moment and then gave a brief introduction to his book. I didn’t make any notes so I cant remember if this was something he said or a thought prompted by what he said but the thing that I took away from his short talk was the desperate need for the church to be scientifically literate.
Science versus Christianity?
Somehow we have ended up with the perception that science and Christianity are incompatible, that one has to choose between them. This myth is perpetuated by biblical literalists who argue from the book of Genesis that the earth is 6,000(ish) years old and, because science suggests that that may not actually be true (by, you know, actually looking at the world…), then science must be wrong. Now I’m sure most Christians wouldn’t actually put it as bluntly as that but nevertheless there is a suspicion of science which runs deep, certainly in western evangelical Christianity.
When I was 18 I went to university to study Physics and suddenly found myself as one of, I think, 4 Christians on a course of 200 students, many of whom were quite vocal atheists. I very quickly had to learn to defend my faith against this idea that science and Christianity are incompatible and, although I probably wasn’t very eloquent about it at the time, ended up at the following basic position:
- I believe that God created the universe.
- When I look at the universe I am seeing what God created.
- When I study the universe (i.e. when I do science) I am learning about how the universe that God created works.
The early Christians knew this and referred to nature as “the second book of God” (with the Bible being the first). As the apostle Paul put it, ” For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” or, as the psalmist put it more pithily, “The Heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the works of his hands”. I think the reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, meant that people became wary of seeing God in nature for fear of becoming pantheistic (seeing everything as God). This, combined with the challenge of new scientific understanding such as evolution which challenged traditional teaching, have given rise to the current state of conflict.
A scientifically literate Church
The big problem is that our planet is groaning under the burden of human greed and, to paraphrase Paul in Romans 8, it is waiting for humans to step up, recognise that they are God’s children and start acting like it. There is no doubt that the challenges facing us are many and complex and, as good as people like Sir John Houghton are at simplifying the issues, they are not simple. We cannot simply rely on politicians to turn things around, this is a spiritual challenge as much as a practical one and requires us to change the nature of our relationships with one another, with our possessions and with our planet. The Church has the potential, and responsibility, to lead the way on this but to do so it needs to be able to handle both the science and the theology effectively.
This is where organisations such as the John Ray Initiative, the Faraday Institute and others are great in that they make the issues accessible to everyone but this can’t just be a niche interest for geeks like me. We need to get over our suspicion of science and begin to rediscover the Second Book of God and as we do, and as we begin to realise the full extent of the damage our greed is doing, we can begin to humbly repent and start on the long, hard road to change. If we are grounded in scripture, rooted in nature, informed by science and working in community then we might just be able to do this.