By John D. Gibbon
This week I am in Vienna at the Wolfgang Pauli Institute (University of Vienna) speaking at a fluid turbulence meeting. The grand and beautiful Viennese baroque palaces tell the story of a once powerful Empire that ruled over half of Europe before its sudden collapse in 1918. At that time, the Europeans considered their Empires to be almost eternal, yet their demise began a period of unprecedented and accelerated political, cultural and technical change. My mother died in late 2013 but when she was born in 1915 the German Kaiser, the Russian Tsar and the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef still sat on their thrones, while the sun had not yet set on the British Empire.
One example of accelerated cultural change has been the aggressive secularization undergone by western societies in the last generation. Some changes have been welcome, some have crept upon their victims like an illness in the night, while others have had an even stronger negative influence. The effect of secularization on western societies has been like the rolling shell-fire of WW1. When the dust and noise have subsided, a ruined, pot-holed, spiritual landscape has emerged. The grass and trees may re-grow and the birdsong may re-start, but the contours of the land have changed forever. Secularism has been trustingly ignored because its championing of personal freedom above all else has beguiled us into thinking that it is a benign or, at worst, a neutral force. In reality, the sheer scale of its blanketing fire has changed our societies and forcibly re-moulded many areas of the church to such a degree that they are almost unrecognizable from a generation ago.
As biblical influence on western societies has been discarded, a strange melange of not only religiously-tinged populist physics but much cruder forms of sci-fi beliefs concerning aliens, multi-faith religions, eastern mysticism and astrology have been sucked into the vacuum. The result has been a blurring of any perspective on the ultimate biblical questions regarding the origin and destination of humankind. The canvas of public opinion has thus become open to the painting of any shape or form that appears to be the fashion of the moment among a people whose minds have been formed by influences totally different than their ancestors. When mixed together with extreme versions of materialistic individualism, a Jackson Pollock-like painting has emerged which represents what popular western culture thinks of as ‘theology’ which is unrecognizable to the Christian.
In “Science and the Knowledge of God” I have endeavoured to sketch some of the new results and ideas that have swirled around the scientific world in the 21st century. To the usual favourites such as cosmology, astronomy and high energy physics, we could also add newer areas such as artificial intelligence, theories of the mind, genetic engineering and editing, astro-biology and complex computer networks. All of these have been much hyped by the science writers of the day and have tickled the popular imagination. In the media, the millions of regular technical papers and results are rarely mentioned for understandable reasons, but the phenomenon of what I call ‘populist science’ has turned into a form of anti-religious propaganda put out by a small set of celebrity scientists who, while extremely distinguished in their own fields, use their professional positions to propagate their own opinions on the existence or non-existence of God, the future of the human race or the validity of religion. This material is shaping the minds of this generation who think they are being led into a new world of thought unspoiled by more conventional and (in their eyes) tarnished religions. Numerous examples of this influence lie in cosmology, complexity and evolutionary biology. On occasion some well-known name cannot resist the impulse to appoint himself or herself a high-priest-scientist — a familiar stereo-type — by moonlighting as a philosopher or secular prophet. The resulting book is usually couched in popular scientific language but propagates ideas that lie well beyond the rigorously established results of the author’s technical expertise and, more often than not, contains quasi-religious personal opinions. The book reviewer Brian Blank once acidly referred to this style of writing, common-place in cosmology, as “science fiction with academic cachet”.
How are Christians to deal with this? The old Puritan adage about “preaching to the condition of your hearers” ought to be taken seriously. If your hearers are steeped in a culture driven by secular values that may, in part, be hostile to the Gospel, how will you be able to talk to them and answer their questions unless you have understood how their minds have been formed? Whatever the situation in which we find ourselves, serious Christians ought to use the minds they have been given to understand the issues and grapple with them in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and also faithful to the Bible.