I’m speaking tonight, the Feast of the Epiphany, not in church but to a gathering of scientists and theologians interested in the interface between those two subjects. It’s really important, and outfits such as the Faraday Institute here in Cambridge do great work keeping the dialogue going and developing public understanding in an often polarised discussion.
Some of the themes that come up are the perennial big ones of origins and ends. In between are other issues of identity and — particularly at the moment — sexuality. The idea of Epiphany gives us a particularly helpful way in to what is a difficult topic. Epiphanies are showings. In the theological and literary tradition they are where two stories intersect, where the things of this world are shot through with the things of the beyond, and they are often the turning point of the story. James Joyce’s Dubliners was for instance explicitly conceived as a sequence of fifteen such events.
In them we are taken into the territory of wonder and mystery, and new meaning emerges. Accompanying people to their threshold is a key part of the work of the church — and whether it is through worship, or the sacraments, or the scriptures, or silence, or the awe of the universe, we see time again that as they encounter the Other their lives are transformed for good. Research too, in my experience, may be 99% perspiration but usually hinges on the 1% of inspiration, the sudden insight, often out of the blue, that sets its direction.
Closed doors are the enemy of epiphanies, the blockers of transformative insight. So my second suggestion, as we address the vexed issues of sexuality and identity, is that we can make common cause across the science-religion divide to keep the doors open, to oppose fundamentalist positions which close down the questions, and then close down the answers. And more positively (since just opposing fundamentalism breeds a sort of fundamentalist liberalism of its own) to sponsor new spaces in which such open discussion can take place.
It’s not an easy path to tread. One of my first experiences as a bishop was the so-called Indaba process at the Lambeth Conference, which deliberately tried to create such dialogue — and was roundly attacked from all sides for not coming down on any of them. Discussion is something an Institute such as the Faraday does rather well, but issues to do with homosexuality may prove challenging even for its members whose churchmanship is varied: so how might we go about it?
Both theologians and scientists have something to bring to the table here to create a dialogue that could just possibly draw in others too. On the theology side Reasoning, in which people of various faiths expound their scriptures together, might prove a useful model for explorative exposition. When the Lambeth Bishops picketed Parliament I was given a copy of the Poverty and Justice Bible, with all the relevant verses highlighted. Far more than any to do with sexuality. So, for instance, how do biblical teachings on justice and sexuality speak to each other?
Then from the science side, we have been quite fleet-footed in relating the Biblical accounts of Creation to our scientific theories about the origins of the universe. Could we read across some of that sophistication to build up an equal expertise in dealing with a verse such as “male and female he created them”? And just what is the current science anyway about male and female? I for one, even though I am relatively conservative on this issue and happy to live within the Church’s guidelines, see it as essential that genuine scientific insights are factored into and not out of our theology.
So — are there ways in which all of us could use our experience and positions to underpin a more creative debate in the church than the one I fear we may end up having? I pray for epiphanies!
Bishop of Huntingdon