Glamorgan Chaplain Preaches on Radio Wales

Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, an Associate Chaplain of the University of Glamorgan, preached the following sermon on the BBC Radio Wales Celebration programme at 07.30 on Sunday 1st May 2011:

Last September, I was in Birmingham for the annual British Science Festival. At the special dinner for physicists, I found myself dining alongside a young researcher who worked in nuclear physics. After about an hour of pleasant conversation, he finally plucked up the courage to ask me a question.

“You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”, he said.

Well, I could hardly deny it – I was wearing my clerical collar after all – and happily admitted that I was.

“But you’ve got a PhD in astronomy…?”

Again, I readily confessed that I had.

“But how can you study astronomy without believing in the Big Bang?”

I now had a question to ask him. “Can you remember who invented the Big Bang theory?”

After a pause for thought, he couldn’t, so it fell to me to remind him that the mathematics which describe the Big Bang were developed by one Georges Lemaître – a Catholic Priest from Belgium.

My confused dining companion then admitted to thinking that all Christians believed that God created the world in 6 days. And you can understand his confusion – because if you pick up a Bible and open to the first page, that’s precisely what you will read. We’ve just heard the story of the first few days read out; on day 5, Genesis goes on to describe the creation of fish and birds, with land animals and human beings on the sixth day. On the seventh day, of course, God rested.

I believe in the Big Bang.

This makes it a lot easier to be a professional astronomer, but it does mean I’ve got some explaining to do if I also want to be a Bible-believing Christian minister. So here goes an explanation:

There are lots of places in the Bible which speak of the wonder of the natural world. In the Book of Job, God describes the creation of the world in detail and stuns Job into silence by asking “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” Several of the psalms praise God for the beauty of creation. St John’s Gospel begins by poetically calling Jesus the “Word of God” and saying, “Through him all things came to be”. Even in Genesis, chapter 2 tells the story of Adam and Eve, giving a different story of creation which doesn’t quite match what we heard in Chapter 1.

So… could it be that what the Bible is trying to say is something about the beauty of the world and the power of God, and not offering a blow-by-blow account of how God actually created the world around us? Words can be used in many different ways. We know that a text about someone becoming a Princess which begins “Once upon a time…” is to be understood rather differently than one which starts “according to sources at Buckingham Palace…” Many Bible scholars suggest that for an ancient reader of Hebrew, the opening lines “In the beginning,” were a cue to read what came next as poetry, not history.

I know that many Christians will disagree with this approach, and I’m happy to acknowledge this. After all, there’s no problem about Christians disagreeing, as long as we are honest about our starting points. Scientists, who we expect to objective about facts, disagree with each other all the time! Some of the best scientific research begins with the need to resolve disagreements.

As an example, take two superb theories from the world of science. Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is an excellent description of how gravity works for exceptionally heavy objects, such as galaxies and black holes. Quantum Theory is an equally well proven description of the behaviour of the tiniest objects imaginable; without it we wouldn’t be able to design the microchips which make our 21st century technology work. And one aspect of Quantum Theory, the famous Uncertainty Principle, says that we can’t pin down the location of any object to an exact pinpoint in space. But what would happen if you had something that was both massive and tiny – a mini-black hole? Relativity says that NOTHING can escape. Quantum Theory says that nothing can be confined in such a small point. They can’t both be right – yet both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are superb theories that no physicist would dream of abandoning.

The correct solution must involve a small tweak to at least one theory – and perhaps both.

In the same way, there is room in the Church for Christians who believe in the Big Bang, and for those who believe that God Created the Universe in a more hands-on way. All that I ask of the Creationist Christians is that they admit that the evidence from archaeology, biology and cosmology all points towards a story which is rather different from any of the accounts in the Bible. If God did make the whole Universe by a miracle, can we agree that he made it looking as if it has been around a lot longer, with the fingerprints of a Big Bang and the kind of evolution that Charles Darwin described?

On the other hand, every Sunday in church, I recite the Creed along with my congregation, saying: “I Believe in God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth”. So I’ve still got some explaining to do to the Creationists. Physics can explain a lot without needing God’s help. Physics can even account for ways in which matter can appear out of nothing. Though this sounds rather implausible, it has been borne out by experiment – if you don’t want to take my word for it, look up the term “Casimir effect”. OK, it’s still a big jump from there to suggesting that physics can explain how the whole Universe could appear out of nothing – but not so big a jump as to be unthinkable. Current research, using machines like the Large Hadron Collider – the Big Bang machine at CERN in Geneva – aims to pin down the laws of physics in extreme circumstances to see if they do allow this. Physics might be able to explain the whole Universe as a possible or even necessary consequence of the mathematics which governs the whole Universe.

So what do I mean by calling God the Creator? The God of the Bible introduced himself to Moses as “I am the one who exists” and Jesus said “I am the Truth”. If there is a mathematical theory which explains the whole Universe, that doesn’t do away with God – it’s a manifestation of the truth which is God, and with St John I can cheerfully agree, “through God’s Word, all things were made”.

But I wouldn’t want to limit God to being a statement of mathematical truth.

I also believe that God took flesh in Jesus Christ, and worked miracles as a sign of His love for all humanity. As this month of May brings us the beauty of spring and the hope of summer, let’s receive beauty of nature not as a proof of God’s existence, but a reminder that God wants to be involved in our lives – by worship and by prayer.

About chaplaincy

We are the Chaplaincy to the University of South Wales
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