Matthew, Mark, Luke Skywalker and, er, John

March 25, 2005

It is not every day that one meets a theologian who is also a theoretical astrophysicist and an expert in the spirituality of Star Wars films to boot, but then David Wilkinson is no ordinary academic.

For Dr Wilkinson has two PhDs from Durham University, one in theoretical astrophysics, and one in systematic theology. And he combines the two in his post as Wesley research lecturer in theology and science.

His post is partly funded by the Methodist Church, where he is an ordained minister, allowing him to lecture nationally and internationally to non-academic audiences on Christianity's relationship with science and popular culture. He can attract audiences of more than 1,000 when he talks on the spirituality of the Star Wars films and his book on the subject is a bestseller.

"It was reviewed very well in the secular press and badly reviewed in the Christian press," he said.

"I think that sometimes Christian theology says if you do engage with popular culture, you have to do it extremely critically, and I was writing sympathetically. As I travel around, I find it's not that people aren't spiritually hungry, but they find the Christian church completely irrelevant. That's because the Christian church hasn't made sympathetic links with contemporary culture. It's almost back to a conflict hypothesis, but from the Christian side, that says 'We need to stay away from all that'."

Dr Wilkinson laughs as he recalls distinguished biologist Lewis Wolpert saying science was about reason and Christian theology was about faith, "denying 2,000 years of high-level academic study in one sentence".

Both science and theology involve evidence, reason and trust, he says.

Scientists make judgements on the basis of limited evidence, which they trust. "That's what faith means," he says.

Dr Wilkinson's role models were simultaneously committed Christians and scientists, including former Durham professor George Rochester, a founder of modern particle physics, and his PhD supervisor, the former Astronomer Royal, Sir Arnold Wolfendale.

As an undergraduate, he found that faith boosted his scientific interest.

Growing up in a Methodist household in a former mining village near Durham, he had found the church boring, but he became a Christian just before going to university.

"I fell desperately in love with a girl in the local Christian youth group so I started going to church in order to go out with her. And I was into the music of Bob Dylan in a big way. He was going through his Christian phase and suddenly I heard something about Christian faith in a culture that related to me."

At school, science had appeared mechanistic but, as he studied it at a higher level, it became more exciting.

"Kepler once said science is thinking God's thoughts after him. I wouldn't have been able to articulate that but there was a sense in which God the creator and what he had created became more important to me," he said.

This Easter weekend, does he approach Christ's resurrection differently as a scientist and a theologian? They ask different kinds of questions, he says, but they are intersecting rather than separate circles of knowledge.

"As a scientist, I want to ask questions about the evidence. And my scientific training says to me: if the evidence is strong enough I believe the explanation even if it goes against common sense," he says.

Dr Wilkinson believes that the "untidiness" of the Gospel accounts shows the writers trying to put into words something beyond their experience, something different about the risen Jesus. "There's a suggestion that he transcends time and space. I'm not sure I have the answer to any of these physics questions, but I want to ask them."

He agrees both with the current Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, that there is compelling historic evidence for the resurrection, and with the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, that it is "more than a conjuring trick with bones", given that the risen Jesus is still experienced by people today.

But if science were to disprove the existence of God, which hat would he wear?

"That's a good question. I don't think I've ever been asked that before," he says.

He pauses, then adds firmly: "I would still wear both hats.

"But I can imagine a situation where science may produce evidence that is overwhelmingly against the existence of God. Many people's perception of who God is in that kind of argument is very far from the kind of God that I believe in. I'd want to ask the person making the claim: 'what type of God are you disproving?'"

Dr Wilkinson acknowleges that scientists can be arrogant about other disciplines. He jokes that he used to believe physicists had the greatest intelligence, chemists were people who couldn't quite do physics, and biologists were people who couldn't quite do chemistry.

"And I won't tell you what I thought of sociologists," he adds.

"Now, of course, we know you can't reduce things just to physics. When atoms get together in molecules, you get a whole new area called chemistry; when those molecules come together into living organisms, you get biology; when human beings come together you even get sociology with its own study and discipline and methodology.

"I'd argue the same for theology, that it gives us a particular level of description of the world which can't simply be put up against physics."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Durham University

MY FIRST JOB WAS

as a Post Office counter clerk

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS

planning life in a way that glorifies God and allows me to enjoy my wife, my children, my work and myself

WHAT I HATE MOST

is my laziness and blindness to the needs of others

IN TEN YEARS I

hope and pray that Newcastle United will have won at least one trophy

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

Have you ever seen an elephant in a floppy hat, sunglasses and a raincoat? Shows that it's a good disguise! (Courtesy of Adam and Hannah Wilkinson).

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