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Chemist finds the formula

With doctorates in natural sciences and in theology, scientist/priest the Rev Dr ANDREW DAVISON is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He talks to Nigel Bovey about those overlapping worlds

Spending time with patients was the most rewarding thing that I did

Dr Davison, your call to the priesthood came after your research into lymphoma and your pastorally supportive work in a hospice.
Why doesn’t an all-loving, all-powerful God intervene to stop human suffering?

There is no easy rationale for suffering. For centuries, theologians have wrestled with the question of evil. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said that it verges on the immoral to suggest to a grieving person that their tragedy would ‘make sense’, if
only they could see the bigger picture. The big question is the existence of evil. A materialist might explain evil and suffering by saying that there’s no over-arching meaning to suffering, because there’s no over-arching meaning to anything – that there’s only the random behaviour of atoms and the faceless, valueless sweep of evolution.
In contrast, a Christian confronted by evil says: ‘This should not be.’ Rather than an explanation, this is a form of authentic protest. One Christian response is to say that God gave humankind freedom over their actions and reactions. He also gave humankind moral responsibility. As part of that, he is not a God who tinkers.
If we are concerned about human suffering, we need to ask ourselves what we can to do prevent it.

How involved is God in natural disasters known as ‘acts of God’?
The likes of earthquakes are natural phenomena that are part of the Earth’s natural processes. We might wish it were different, but we also realise that they are part of the same processes that give life. These are ‘natural’ phenomena, but their impact also depends on human decisions. The reality is that earthquakes of the same magnitude in cities in two different parts of the world can result in widely differing death tolls.
In the developed world, civil authorities invest in quake-proof buildings. In poorer countries, there is no money for such investment. Those are decisions people have made, and rich countries can do more to help.

How, pastorally, do you respond to a grieving parent who asks why God took their young child?
It is one thing to say that God acts in all action, which I’d want to say, and another to suggest that the way things turn out is because God has directly ordained them. Again, Christianity teaches that God wants to bring good out of evil and that God accompanies everyone in, and after, their suffering.
On the other hand, I would be very reluctant to say that God ‘took that child’, as if to say ‘it wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but God made it happen’.
God created a world with laws and with freedom. Chance and contingency undergird a lot of what is good about human life. The other side of that is that genes mutate and cause death. In time of personal tragedy, the main Christian response should be to be alongside people in their suffering.

Why should people of faith take notice of science?
Thomas Aquinas maintained that if you make errors about creatures, you will make errors about the Creator. Without chasing every new scientific mood, the person of faith will want to ensure that their understanding of God resonates with what they see in the world.

What does theology have to say to the scientist?
Theology bears upon the questions that the scientist takes for granted. For example, that things exist at all, and that the world is orderly and open to reason. Philosophers talk about the ‘transcendentals’ – goodness, beauty, truth and being. It’s significant that these topics, which are of great interest to the theologian, undergird the scientific endeavour. The relationship between goodness and truth isn’t a matter of the science, but is something that a scientist relies upon. It is not a scientific proposition that ethical practice undergirds the methods by which we learn something of the truth, but it is through honesty, openness and good record-keeping that science progresses.
Similarly, scientists often say that beauty is a good guide towards the truth. They talk about the elegance of the right solution.

What is the selfie about?
The selfie shows that whatever the technological advances, the core things of what it means to be a person remain unchanged – belonging, relationship, time and place.
Selfies are about saying you were in that place doing those things with those people at that time. The selfie is a beautiful example of how current technology bears witness to the abiding centrality of ancient themes.
Throughout the ages, people have known that, in essence, human life is about place, time, experiences and people.
I find the ubiquity of the smartphone fascinating. There’s a lot of discussion about how people having implants or chips will be the one giant step to ‘transhumanism’, when we can interact with all that data directly.
That’s part of the danger of thinking that the technological revolution is always in the future and not noticing what is happening in the present.
In terms of what it means to be human, the big shift is already here. The smartphone enables people to have in their hands instant access to most of the world’s knowledge. They can perform tasks remotely. They can have face-to-face communication with someone the other side of the planet.
Whether I interact through my finger and eyes or via a chip implanted into my body is immaterial. The question is: In terms of being human, what does it mean to live with these devices? 

The War Cry 28 May 2016

Andrew Davison photo by Nigel Bovey


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