Popular cosmologists and evolutionists are fond of poking fun at the Bible as unscientific. Russell Stannard, however, finds its insights rather less facile than their theological pretensions
Occasionally I receive letters that begin "I am not a physicist, but ... " My heart sinks; I know what is coming. The writer has heard one of my broadcasts or read my books about relativity or quantum theory. He is about to point out how Einstein made a silly mistake, and all modern physics is nonsense. By implication, we professional scientists must be very dumb if it takes an amateur to point this out.
These claims, of course, are never substantiated. Within a few sentences, such letter-writers invariably betray their own limitations - basic misunderstandings arising out of their lack of formal training in the subject. Fortunately such people are in the minority. It is more common for members of the public to revere the pronouncements of scientists. So much so, I sometimes think I could talk utter tosh and still be accorded a respectful hearing merely on the grounds I am a scientist.
How different it is for theologians. Their lot is to be constantly challenged by those having no training in their specialisms. Everyone has an opinion about God.
Take books popularising the latest scientific developments - especially those dealing with cosmology. Having dealt expertly with the science in the main body of the book, the author finally succumbs to the temptation to wax philosophical and theological on the supposed implications of the scientific findings. The phenomenon is so prevalent it has been designated "last chapter syndrome". I reckon all such final chapters should start with the words "I am not a theologian, but..." Theology is a discipline as academically rigorous as any other. It is just as easy for the uninitiated to make fools of themselves here as it is in science.
What kinds of errors do people make? We might begin with the way evolution by natural selection is supposed to have "caught out" the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. Nothing could be further from the truth. But to recognise this, one has to take the trouble to find out what kind of writing one is dealing with in this part of the Bible. And for that one must turn to those who have made a lifelong study of ancient civilisations, how they thought, and how they customarily passed on the fruits of their wisdom to successive generations.
This, we are told, was done in the form of myth. In this context, the word "myth" is being used in a specified, technical sense. It refers to a story - one that acts as a vehicle for conveying timeless truths. For instance, we read that Eve was made from a rib taken from Adam's side. This episode was never intended as a scientific account of the origins of women. Rather it is making the statement that man is not complete without woman, nor woman without man. It is speaking of marriage - a statement as relevant to our own times as any other.
Or take the story to do with Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit - the act of disobedience that led them and their descendants (you and me) to be banished from Paradise. It is saying we tend to be self-centred rather than God-centred. If we want something, we take it, whether or not we are entitled to it.
This doctrine of "original sin" is not popular. We would rather regard newborn babies as perfect. If they end up as yobbos on the football terraces, that must have been due to bad external influences. But Genesis maintains otherwise; the seeds of sin, it asserts, are deeply sown in each of us from the moment of conception. One of the fascinating aspects of evolutionary theory is that it allows us to understand the mechanics of how this comes about. As part of our evolutionary survival kit, we come into the world to some extent preprogrammed. We have tendencies to behave in certain ways that were conducive to the survival of our ancestors - genetically influenced behaviour. In the main it inclines us to put our own interests first - those and the interests of our close kin with whom we share the same genetic material. Without this natural tendency to grab whatever food and shelter there was, our ancestors would not have survived, and we would not be here. Thus, far from disproving Genesis, evolutionary theory comes up with an explanation as to how this in-born selfish trait comes about.
The nonliteralistic interpretation of Genesis is not new. One of the greatest Christian teachers, St Augustine, thought that in the beginning were created only the germs or causes of the forms of life, which were later to be developed in gradual course. Nothing to do with Darwin's theory based on natural selection, of course, but an evolutionary theory of sorts. So much for the so-called challenge of evolution to religious thinking.
What of cosmology? As everyone must know, the Universe came into being through a Big Bang. This occurred some 12,000 million years ago. Clearly this had nothing to do with a creation taking place over six days. But again, one must not jump to the conclusion that there is a clash between this discovery of modern science and what Genesis is saying. Genesis is not advancing here a rival scientific account of the origins of the world. Nor is this a case of Biblical scholars hurriedly cobbling together a new approach to the Bible in the light of modern scientific developments. St Gregory of Nyssa, who like Augustine lived in the fourth century, wrote: "What man of sense could believe that there could have been a first, and a second, and a third day of creation, each with a morning and an evening, before the sun had been created?" That being so, what was the point of a creation story based on six days? One of its prime functions was to stress the need to observe the sabbath - the practice of taking time off in order to concentrate on one's devotions to God. With the advent of Sunday shopping, perhaps this is another truth we need to recall in our own times.
The Big Bang was not like any other explosion. It did not take place at a particular point in space. Space is an integral part of this universe, and like everything else, it came into being at the time of the Big Bang. When today we see distant galaxies of stars receding into the distance, (the Hubble expansion of the universe) it is not that they are moving out into what was previously empty space; it is the space between us and them that is continuing to expand from its initial point-like beginning and, in so doing, sweeps the galaxies apart.
But it was not just space that came into being at the Big Bang; time itself had its origins at that instant. One of the consequences of the theory of relativity is the recognition that time and three-dimensional space are not separate entities. They are welded together as a four-dimensional continuum. There can be no space without time, nor time without space. It follows that if space had its origins in the Big Bang, the same must be true of time. There was no time before the Big Bang. But if that is so, how could there have been a God who at first existed on his own, then at some point in time decided to create a world, and lit the Big Bang touch paper? Does the lack of time before the Big Bang get rid of a creator God, as some would claim? Here one needs to make a clear distinction between "origins" and "creation". "How did the world begin?" is a question to do with origins. For an answer you must consult a scientist.
The creation question, on the other hand, is of the form: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" As such it has no particular concern with the first instant. Instead, it asks why there is something now - and at all other instants of time. In other words, what is responsible for existence itself. And to that kind of question - one lying outside the province of science - the answer given by the theologian is God.
There is nothing new in this. Theologians traditionally refer to God the Sustainer whenever they talk about God the Creator - a reminder of God's day-to-day involvement with creation. Creation was never regarded as a one-off action, after which God could leave the world to get along without him.
There is not even anything new about the absence of time before the world came into existence. St Augustine arrived at that conclusion 1,500 years ahead of today's cosmologists. It did not bother Augustine, so why should it be of concern today?
Another thought stemming from the idea of a four-dimensional spacetime continuum, is that, in some sense, all of time exists at each point in space, in the same way as all of space exists at each point in time. Not all physicists are persuaded of this "block universe" interpretation, but many of us think the conclusion unavoidable (provided we are not pressed too hard on what exactly we mean by "in some sense"). This has intriguing significance. In theological thought it has long been regarded that God has foreknowledge. This has always been a difficult idea to accept. How can God possibly know the future before we ourselves, for instance, have decided what we are going to do? Perhaps not surprisingly, certain theologians - those belonging to the process school of thought - reject the notion. However, if physicists are right, and the future does exist, then I should have thought it would not be beyond the wit of a God to find a way of taking a look at it. This is one of those cases (like original sin in relation to genetically influenced behaviour) where science, far from being a hindrance to religious belief, can be a help.
Russell Stannard is professor of physics at the Open University and a reader in the Church of England. He is delivering this year's Gifford lectures at Aberdeen University.