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faith-and-science

 

 

 

 

 

We have seen that since its origins in the early modern period (in the seventeenth century) a distinctive “scientific” approach to the world has emerged and gone through a series of transformations. The basic scientific worldview makes a number of basic assumptions about the structure and nature of reality that have been well supported by the success the scientific method has enjoyed. Among the most important and most basic of these assumptions are:

  • The behaviour of the world we observe is uniform and predictable – what happens here and now is the same, fundamentally, as what happens in every place and at every time. Without this assumption the experimental method is impossible since new experiments would not be relevant to laws governing past events in different places.
  • The predictability of the world is of a kind expressible in mathematical laws that state that given a set of conditions the next event is calculable with exactitude – the world is mathematical in its basic structures. Again, the experimental method is impossible without this assumption since it would be unclear whether new results did or did not conform to the laws used to explain or describe past results.
  • Causation operates from the past to the future. To know what is going to happen it is necessary only to know about things that have already happened. This, too, is a necessary condition of the experimental method since if some of the causes of events were not captured in the description of a particular event then it would be impossible to know whether past descriptions or explanations had been discredited by a new result.

It is important to grasp that these basic assumptions are not obvious (they would not have been accepted by pre-modern people) and are not in principle provable, although we have good reason to accept them given the successes they have enabled. A reality in which none of them hold is imaginable and would still be compatible with what we know about the reality we actually inhabit. Indeed I would argue that they are all subject to some degree of qualification in light of the contemporary scientific story about the nature and history of our universe. (For more see part 1 of this series)

We have also seen that over the last 150 years there has been a distinct shift in the basic picture of the nature of the universe held by “science”. Before the middle of the nineteenth century a “Newtonian” view held sway. This asserted that the basic framework (space and time) and constituents (matter) of the universe were essentially fixed and unchanging. The events that occur are reducible to movements of matter through absolute (“real”) space over periods of absolute time. Time and space were the same for all matter and matter itself was not subject to change, only to movement. This enabled the thought that everything that was going to happen was in principle predictable given sufficiently detailed and accurate knowledge about the past and the present, an idea particularly associated with the eminent French mathematician, scientist and politician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).

With the development of geology and Darwinian evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century there emerged an awareness of “historical” or developmental processes in the physical structure and the biological population of the natural order. With the linked development of cosmology (the science of the Universe at the largest scale) and particle physics (the science of the smallest scale structures of reality) this awareness has been extended to the fundamental constitution of all reality. The observable universe has a beginning, now fairly accurately dated, and a history. Even the most basic particles did not exist at that beginning and the history shows the emergence of more and more complex structures, each successive level having its own sets of behaviours governed by new laws which must be deployed to describe and explain what happens.

Even space and time themselves are emergent properties of this process of development and it is now a point of debate in cosmology whether events do, in fact, flow straightforwardly in time or whether, now time is regarded as one dimension of the unified “space-time” of General Relativity, we should conceive of time as a dimension along which movement is, in principle, possible in the other direction (a theory called the “block universe”).

 

The tendency to see reality as structured into “layers” with more complex entities emerging over time and having their own law-governed behaviours not straightforwardly reducible to those of simpler levels introduces the possibility of “top-down causation” in which events describable using the categories of the lower levels cannot be fully explained without recourse to those at the higher levels. One example might be the complex chemical reactions that take place within a living organism. These can be described using only the tools of chemistry but this would not explain how they come about, since without the complex structures of the organism they would never occur, since the precursor chemicals have had to be created within the organism and brought together under the correct conditions. The extremely complex chemical structure of the DNA of a plant or animal can be described using chemical formulae but would never come into being without the long and complex chain of events that produces this particular living thing. (For more see part 2 of this series)

So what does theology have to say about all this and what difference does any of it make to theology? This has been an area given great attention by theologians over the last few decades and increasingly so over the last decade. There is a huge amount of material and a wide variety of positions. I would like to single out a few that seem particularly important and fruitful and which are common among many of those writing in the field.

 

Firstly Christian theology must always insist on the importance of purpose, goal and the future in thinking about the base structure of reality. It has been an important insight for and from the scientific approach to reality that much of what happens is explicable and much that is going to happen if predictable from the past. Many events are fully determined by their preconditions. However it is fundamental to the way Christians conceive the relationship between God and the created order that there was a purpose in God’s creation and that God is still working that purpose out. Christians can differ about the precise nature of that purpose (or purposes) and about the ways in which God works to bring it (or them) about but I would argue one cannot be a Christian and deny the meaningfulness of Creation to God or that he is striving to realise the purpose or purposes he has for it. A full explanation of reality will have a purpose-related (teleological) dimension.

 

Secondly theology will be interested in and should be open to the shift away from a fully deterministic picture of the Universe. This has two key elements. In the first place there has been the recognition and acceptance of what I referred to above as “top down causality”, that is to say the emergence of genuinely novel and irreducible causal laws when structures at higher levels of complexity emerge (which we now know to be a historical process in time). Full explanations of events become more complex (have more kinds of cause at work) as we move forward and this is not, as far as we can see, fully reducible to explanations at the lower level.

Secondly there are two forms of radical unpredictability now recognised in the structures of reality. At the level of quantum mechanics (the tiniest particles and smallest units of energy) there appears to be no way of specifying what particular events will take place. There is statistical predictability such that one can say what the probabilities of particular outcomes are over large sets of events and this good statistical predictability gives rise to regularity and predictability at the scale of objects we can interact with in our everyday lives but at the base level there is extreme and irreducible unpredictability. On the other hand at the level of the largest and most complex systems (like the planetary weather system) chaos theory has demonstrated that very small differences in the starting conditions can lead to very large differences in outcomes (the famous “butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil causing a storm in China”). In these highly complex systems radical unpredictability (at the level of detail) is caused by these chaotic effects (although again statistical methods allow a good level of prediction at the level of the system, as in weather forecasting).

 

This openness of the future and amenability of outcomes being affected “top down” by causal mechanisms acting at higher levels of organisation or structure are both welcome to theology and in part at least explain, I think, the increased interest of theologians in scientific matters more recently and the greater willingness of scientists with faith to engage actively with theological questions.

 

So theology wants to assert the importance of teleological (purpose-related) explanations and welcomes the loosening of the grip of reductionist (everything is explicable in terms of physics) and determinist (everything can in principle be predicted) ideas within the scientific world-view.

 

There is a third vital dimension to the interaction between theology and science in the contemporary world. There is, I think, a shift in the way the act of creation is thought about. 150 years ago it would have been quite natural to think of God’s creative act as something that happened in the past and is now finished with any further involvement of God with Creation as something fundamentally discontinuous with and different from it. This idea is very difficult to maintain in face of a picture of the Universe in which fundamental change has been a constant reality. Creation now tends to be thought of as an unfinished and ongoing project in which God’s final purpose requires further changes to the structures of reality (even if these are thought of as only at the highest levels of complexity).

 

All these points of intersection will be further explored as this series goes on to look at two areas of particular interest to Christian theology:first the nature of consciousness and its relation to Christian ideas about the nature of human being; and second the final destination and fate of the universe, the end of all things, how it’s all going to turn out.

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cosmic_evolution

If science is defined as a method or project based on the assumption that there are laws of nature that can be defined mathematically and discovered experimentally then what it produces is a steadily richer set of descriptions of aspects of what exists. These descriptions themselves are modified as new theories replace discredited ones but the observations that enable them are preserved and re-thought rather than abandoned. Thus our basic model of the solar system has a lot in common with that of Newton even as its theoretical underpinning has been totally transformed. We still plot orbits of the planets around the Sun even as the nature of gravity has been totally rethought and the idea of the Sun as stationary been replaced with one in which the Sun itself is part of a complex galactic system in motion both around its own centre of gravity and with respect to other galaxies.

This second part of our series on faith and science touches on two domains of contemporary scientific description, cosmology and biological evolution, and attempts to integrate them into a single “story of everything” before reflecting on the implications of this story for Christian faith.

It is now thought that everything we can observe (the Universe) had its origins in a single event 13.8 billion years ago usually called the Big Bang. At that point there was a single undifferentiated point in which all the matter-energy that now exists (remembering that matter and energy are convertible into one another by the formula {\displaystyle E=mc^{2}} where E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light). The space into which this was compressed, which was all the space that then existed, was smaller than the smallest particle. The laws of physics that govern our reality did not yet (could not yet) apply and the forms of matter and energy with which we are familiar could not yet exist.

There was a  rapid expansion and cooling of this initial state and after something like 1 microsecond the energy levels dropped sufficiently so that elementary particles (protons, electrons and neutrons) were able to exist stably and within a few minutes the first nuclei of elements (hydrogen and helium) “condensed” out of the soup of sub-atomic particles so that the expanding universe could be thought of as a gas cloud, although this process was not completed for some hundreds of thousands of years. No more complex structures than that had yet come into being.

There followed a period of structure formation when, over very long periods, slight differences in the density of the gas cloud led to gravitational forces pulling large amounts of hydrogen and helium together into galaxies and stars. The best estimate for how long it took for the first stars to come into existence is 200 million years. Sufficient matter had by then been brought together by gravity for nuclear fusion to begin, releasing energy and creating atoms of a range of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These heavier elements are released both during the life of a star and more especially when it comes to the end of its life and explodes as a super-nova.

The galaxy of which our Sun is part is thought to have formed 13.6 billion years ago and our Sun to have ignited within it about 4.5 billion years ago with the earth and the other planets being created as part of the same process which drew together heavy elements from the remnants of an earlier generation of stars within the galaxy.

The first appearance of life on earth is thought to have occurred between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. There is no consensus on how the transition to self-replicating life came about. The chemical building blocks (organic chemicals) are widely dispersed throughout the universe but the processes whereby the complex processes of life appear have not been determined.

The “last common ancestor” of all current living things is thought to have been about 3.5 billion years ago and was probably a single-celled organism most similar to a modern bacterium. Photosynthesis producing oxygen evolved among the bacteria around 3 billion years ago and began to transform earth’s atmosphere. By 1.2 billion years ago sexual reproduction had emerged among the single celled organisms and by 800 million years ago multi-celled organisms had appeared.

At 500 million years ago the first evidence exists for life that could leave the water and shortly after that for vertebrate fish with true bones and then for land-based plants. Before 350 million years ago the earth began to resemble its current state, with plants and animals including insects on the land. At around 250 million years ago a major extinction event wiped out around 90% of then existing species. A second major extinction event before 200 million years ago allowed the rise of the dinosaurs.

At 66 million years ago another large extinction took place that wiped out most of the dinosaurs and made space for the rise of the mammals, birds (and ants!). At 35 million years ago another big change includes diversification of grasses and of mammals with many modern types appearing.

Somewhere between 65 and 55 million years ago the hominims, which include the chimpanzee, modern humans and the totally extinct Australopithecenes first emerged.  The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (our nearest living relatives) is thought to have been 4 to 8 million years ago. The first emergence of the genus Homo sapiens is dated to about 2 million years ago with biologically modern human beings (people genetically identical to us) appearing in Africa about 250,000 years ago. The migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa is thought to have happened 50,000 years ago and the last other human species (Neanderthal) to have become extinct 30,000 years ago.

A distinction is made between biologically modern humans and behaviourally modern humans. Behavioural modernity is a way of life recognisably continuous with all modern humans. This is a controversial and much debated distinction but behavioural modernity is generally thought to include; abstract thought,  planning, trade, cooperative labor, body decoration, control and use of fire. Along with these traits, humans possess a heavy reliance on social learning. Archeological markers of these traits are accepted as; burial of the dead, fishing, figurative art, use of pigments for self-decoration, use of bones for tools, transport of resources over long distances, blade technology, diversity, standardization, and regionally distinct artifacts, hearths, and complex tools.

Whether behavioural modernity emerged suddenly, about 50,000 years ago, or gradually culminating at that time is a matter of debate. In either case it was not present at the first evolution of biologically modern human beings and was present at around the time of the migration out of Africa. It is also generally agreed that some kind of religion was present no later than 30,000 years ago with some scholars claiming to have identified evidence of religious practices even before the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The next major event in this story is the so-called Neolithic Revolution of around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. At that time human beings began the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life that involved them getting their food from the existing environment to an agricultural way of life where they controlled and tended their sources of food (primarily wheat and domesticated animals). These first agricultural societies began a process of cultural evolution that brings us to the current day.

Over the next four sessions we will explore the implications of this picture for theology.

  • We will consider what it means for our ideas about a creator God and his relationship to Creation when we recognise that Creation is not and has never been stable. Right down to the most basic physical constitution of the Universe we see processes of change and development within time that still continue.
  • We will think about the nature of human beings and the relationship between the modern scientific view of them and the special place they occupy in Christian theology as the “image of God”. This will involve thinking about modern neuroscience and the puzzle of consciousness.
  • We will think about ideas about the ultimate destination and purpose of the Universe/Creation in light both of scientific projections and of our tradition of thinking about the End

einstein

I’ve been doing some thinking about science and religion recently. There are a number of reasons for this. The immediate cause was a request from the weekly Bible study group at one of my churches to run a short series exploring issues of faith and science. These issues have arisen repeatedly during other series of discussions and we felt it was time to approach them more directly and thoroughly.

This was opportune because I’ve reading quite a bit of the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who has some very interesting things to say on this question (my reading of Pannenberg was in turn prompted by writing a review for the journal Theology in Scotland of a work on ecclesiology heavily influenced by him which made him sound indispensable, which I have come to think he is).

Finally, my initial intellectual formation was heavily scientific (I studied scientific disciplines exclusively between the ages of 16 and 20) and followed by immersion in a philosophical tradition (Hegelianism) that aimed at an integration of all knowledge into a seamless unity, rejecting any attempt to rigidly separate domains, for example, of facts and values. For this reason the apparent difficulties of integrating scientific and theological ideas has been a source of embarrassment to me since my conversion, in my 30s, to Christianity.

It has been a delight, therefore, to find what a lot of really interesting work has been going on in this area over recent years. Not all of it is entirely to my taste but I have found a great deal to like. I have been particularly drawn to the work of Nancey Murphy who is both an ordained Christian minister and someone who identifies primarily as a philosopher although she is also a theologian. Murphy’s work can be seen, in some respects, as a reconstruction of some of Pannenberg’s insights about the relationship of science and theology on the basis of more recent philosophy of science than Pannenberg takes as his starting point.

The developing relationship between science and philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other has been enabled by new thinking on both sides of this pairing. The ways in which scientific theory understands its object (let’s call it the Universe) on the one hand and the way in which those who try to make sense of the scientific enterprise itself (philosophers of science) understand what science is and how it works have both been undergoing rapid and radical change in the last decades.

At the same time there has been a profound shift in some parts of the theological world towards a new interest in what one might call “natural theology”. For a long time theologians had a tendency not to want to engage too much with science and in the work of the Reformed thinker Karl Barth (whom almost everyone – including at least one Pope – acknowledges to be the most influential and important theologian of the twentieth century) this was made a point of principle. More recently a wave of post-Barthian thinkers, of whom I rate Pannenberg highest, have rejected this rejection of integrating Christianity and the scientific enterprise.

There is a huge amount to say about all of this, and I will be tying to say some of it in my Bible Study sessions and here, but there are a few key general points I would like to make at the outset.

  1. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is nothing inevitable about the scientific method. It was an innovation of the early modern period but, like all innovations, it required certain things already to be in place. Among these preconditions, many historians would now argue, were a set of theological ideas about the orderliness of creation and in particular the existence of universal laws of nature. This basic foundational idea of the scientific enterprise can (and should) be seen as a theological idea. (One of the main theological interpreters and advocates of this idea is Alister McGrath, who holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – see here for a relevant extract from his book Scientific Theology)
  2. The picture of the Universe that has emerged from the cosmology centred on the idea of the “Big Bang” has led us to a generalisation of the idea of evolution from the field of biology to the whole of science. The Universe is seen as having had an origin and to have undergone very fundamental change since that origin. The possibility that it has a terminus, that our Universe will not always exist is also a genuinely open question in contemporary scientific theory. Elementary particles, chemical elements, planets, stars and everything else we observe are now seen to have emerged from processes within the history of the Universe. This dynamic view of physical reality connects with developments in theology.
  3. For a variety of reasons there is much more interest in theology than there was before the twentieth century in the Biblical view of God’s relationship with Creation being historical and oriented towards bringing about new states of that Creation. The idea that we should think of God as working to redeem Creation, common in both the Old and New Testaments but somewhat foreign to the Christianity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, became more influential in the twentieth and is on the way to being the consensus view of the twenty-first.

There are then three basic intellectual trends towards: 1) recognising that science needs to presuppose ideas we would recognise as within the domain of theological (although not necessarily demanding any particular wider theological framework); 2) understanding the profundity of the shift in our vision of the nature of reality implied by contemporary scientific theory and; 3) seeing how deeply our conception of God’s basic relationship to Creation is being remade.

These three together provide a moment of tremendous opportunity and many theologians are working to grasp it. Besides those I have already mentioned notable other include John Polkinghorne, theologian and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Professor of Divinity and former co-Director of the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” research programme at Harvard, and Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

One preliminary conclusion I have personally come to is that the task for theology is to re-integrate science into itself. The question of the relationship between science and theology should be recast not about their compatibility but about the best way of absorbing science completely into theology. We ought to be setting ourselves the challenge of making theology once again the “queen of sciences”, not by challenging or denying the scientific method but by demonstrating that it is a fundamentally theological enterprise, making the necessary adjustments to our theological frameworks to allow this fully to be true, in ways pioneered by the work of Pannenberg who showed that it is possibly to do this while in no way abandoning the determination to remain “orthodox” in one’s trinitarian Christianity, who indeed showed that it is precisely such a faith that can explore and vindicate the theological bases of scientific thinking.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)

What does Jesus, as reported by John, mean when he says that whoever hears and believes has “eternal life”. Answering this question requires us to work with a series of difficult concepts. First we need to get an idea of what “eternal life” might be and secondly we need to understand what “having” eternal life means. Having grasped these things we then need to work out what “hearing” and “believing” are, in this context and finally we might want to think about how hearing and believing are conferring possession in this case.

None of these steps seem easy.

Beginning with “eternal life”. One suspects that the definition of “life” (Greek zoe) that is at work here is something more elusive than the “signalling and self-sustaining processes that Wikipedia offers as distinguishing the living from the non-living (here). Jesus does not, I think, intend us to understand that whoever hears and believes will be able to carry on regulating their internal environment, the integrity of their structures, metabolising, growing, responding and reproducing for ever.

“Life” must mean something other than these purely biological phenomena and “eternal” something  other than “unending”.

“Eternal” here links to the enduring existence (beyond the limits of the created order) associated with God and “life” implies a form of existence connected to that of God, which does not imply these dynamic bio-chemical processes. On the other hand both words can only mean something to us in connection with time and biology. We are being offered a vision of our connection with the divine that draws on and is in fact inseparable from our experience of being living beings and as such a bundle of processes in time but which differs markedly from it.

“Eternal life” in this sentence of Jesus’ can’t just be an infinite extension of the life we currently know but neither can it be something unrelated.

So what would it mean to “possess” this “eternal life”? I’m not sure that we would normally talk about something “having” life, except metaphorically. We would more naturally talk about “being” alive. Once the living thing is no longer living it can’t “have” anything. Being alive might be thought of as the precondition of possessing rather than as itself a possession. When life is gone possession also ends, on the biological understanding of life.

My feeling is that this remains the case where we’re talking about the “eternal life” here. A person (and this can only be people, I think) can be alive without having eternal life. Eternal life is something extra that might be added to one alive. It is not, simply, life. What’s more those who do so have passed through death, have emerged from death into life.

The biological life that does not possess eternal life is already death. To live simply biologically, simply as processes in time, is to live within death. The phrase “dead man walking” applies to us all, except insofar as we come into possession of eternal life by hearing and believing. “Life” in this restricted sense is a few moments snatched against a background of death and in its permanent shadow.

“Eternal life” reverses this picture. Eternal life is God’s life which is the precondition for biological life. It is misleading to say, even, that God’s life pre-exists biological life, because that would put it within the sequence of time whereas God’s life is outside time altogether and forms the background against which all temporal processes take place.

On this understanding all life that is bound to God’s life steps, in that way, outside temporal process. In this perspective it is death that is passing, as is the biological life that is bounded by it. The participation of the process of “life” in “eternal life” suspends death within this broader (non temporal, eternal) horizon. Death is passed through, even while life persists.

From this viewpoint before and after themselves lose their meaning. All of time and its passage resolves to an “eternal now” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich). This is why one can possess eternal life while still facing biological death. Eternal life is “always already” beyond death because it is a- or post-temporal.

Why then are hearing and believing important?

This is a difficult and intractable problem in the realm of soteriology, the speaking about salvation. In John’s gospel having eternal life IS what being saved is about. Eternal life IS about being profoundly connected to, partaking in, the realm of the divine, of the life of God. The way in which this is possible is through connection with Jesus, the incarnate Word, the one who is both a human being and God.

Jesus has, perhaps even is, eternal life for human kind. By being at once a biological, a temporal, being, and also God, outside time and beyond death, Jesus makes possible, is the very possibility of such life. When we hear and believe we are joined to Christ and when we do so we are given possession of this eternal life.

 

The saying from Romans “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) is a puzzling one from a variety of angles. What does it mean to say that death came into the world through the sin of Adam, as Paul does say repeatedly? In a contemporary setting where we (mostly) accept that human beings are part of the evolutionary story of the development of life it seems to make little sense to claim that death (which is an essential part of that story) can have an origin in sin.

It gets more difficult again when we notice that earlier in Chapter 6 of Romans Paul has offered us the thought that ” all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death” (Rom 6:3-4). Death is not only that which comes as the wages of sin but also the way into new life in Christ – to be in Christ is to die, baptism is a death.

Further complexity is added by noticing that “sin” in Rom 6:23 isn’t (or isn’t primarily) something we do. It is a power to which we are enslaved. In verses 16-22 Paul presents the idea that the existential decision human beings have to make is to whom they will enslave themselves. On the one hand there is sin, impurity, wickedness; on the other obedience, righteousness, holiness, God.

It is this that sets up the idea of “wages”. We place ourselves in dependency and servitude to one of these two contending powers and in return receive what they have to give us. On the one hand death and on the other eternal life.

What is disorienting in the context of the movement of the argument of this chapter is that one has to have died (in Christ) to receive life. The eternal life God offers us in return for enslaving ourselves stands on the other side of baptism as death. This passing through baptism is not an isolated thought in Paul, the two sacraments are everywhere in his writing and the association with Christ’s death is especially marked here but far from unique.

Death then is not, simply, negative. The way to eternal life is also through death. This is entirely consistent with Paul’s general project of re-reading and reviving the Old Testament in the light of Christ. After all the relationship between God and God’s people through the whole OT story acknowledges the indivisibility of life and death, the necessity of recognising their mutual and complete entanglement. This is the meaning of the sacrificial practice of the Tabernacle and Temple which provides the background and key to Christ’s death on the cross.

The emphasis on punishment that has eclipsed the sacrificial in much Christian theology has been profoundly unhelpful in understanding this key passage from Romans and has in turn distorted our reading of the background story of the expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3. We are wrong to see the expulsion (to deny access to the Tree of Life) as being punitive. There is nothing in the text that says that this is so.

An alternative reading would see that, once they have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, the people have to embrace the mortality that is their natural lot (the Tree of Life alone can deny death). To know good and evil requires death, for human beings, unless they subordinate themselves willingly to God, which their desire to know for themselves prevents.

Without mortality a finite being cannot feel the weight of things sufficiently really to know their value. Without death there is no mortal morality. Willing to know good and evil is willing to die.

That is not to say that death is an eternal condition but rather that to go beyond death is to go beyond good and evil, and that it the great terror and abyss that Christ opens up. His willing death, his embrace of a death constituted by obedient surrender to a judgement that hears no mitigation, it is this alone that puts human being beyond the realm constituted by ethical judgement. There the unlimited judgement of a God beyond law reigns alone, a judgement incomprehensible and inaccessible to the finite judgement of the creature.

The slavery to sin of which Paul writes can’t be understood until you recognise that sin is “everything that does not come from faith” (Rom 14:23). Even our best efforts to know and to do what is right are sin. Every independent judgement we make (even if we imagine it to be based on the word of God in scripture) is sin and will repay us in the coin of death.

Eternal life does not come through “repentance” if that repentance is understood as being a grasping of what mode of life is and what isn’t “sinful”. Eternal life comes only through passing through Christ’s death, his surrender to judgement, into slavery to God, into a giving up of independent judgement and acceptance of our creaturely incapability to know good and evil.

Seen in this light the death that sin repays isn’t so much the biological process of the cessation of life. It is the death that is a permanent part of life, the knowledge of our own impermanence and our own ultimate insignificance. This knowledge is both the precondition of imagining that we can judge and the ground of the realisation that we cannot.

Is this how it worked?

Nobody really knows how many biological species are currently becoming extinct but it is fairly clearly well above the “background” rate and at least some people believe we may be in the course of a “mass extinction” event. How many of these events there have been during the development of life on earth is a matter of debate and of judgement but a minimum figure of five would be generally accepted.

Something like 99% percent of all species that have ever existed have become extinct and a large proportion of these extinctions occur in a set of events, some of which are named. The most devastating was the Permian-Triasic extinction 250 million yers ago in which 96% of marine and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species became extinct. It was this event that cleared the way for the dominance of the dinosaurs. This dominance came to an end with the extinction of the dinosaurs during the Cretaceous-Paleogene event around 65 million years ago.

These scientific hypotheses are (as far as I can tell) reasonably secure and will be assumed here to be correct: most species have a limited life span, evolution has depended on extinction and especially on catastrophic mass extinctions caused by a wide range of different factors including volcanic activity, sea level falls, impacts by large extra-terrestrial objects (e.g. asteroids), rapid changes in global temperature, various kinds of chemical and other changes in the atmosphere or oceans, and even nearby nova or super-nova events.

What interests me, from the point of view of theology, is that these events are “natural” and alter the environment so radically that fitness and adaptedness to the prevailing conditions is not greatly helpful to species in surviving them. Mass extinctions are, to some large extent, external to the species affected, they are, in the language of insurance “acts of God”.

This should give theologically reflective people cause to ponder on the way in which we talk about Creation. Unless we want to come up with some alternative to the best prevailing science (and I don’t) we have either to give up talk of God and Creation (and I don’t want to do that either) or see God’s activity in the story science tells us. We have to say that God was at work in the extinction of that 99% of species that no longer exist.

Also if we want to use the Biblical idea or story of human beings having been created in the image of God we have to make that somehow work with this scientific tale of mass destruction as the precondition of our very existence as a species. The evolution of mammals and hence of homo sapiens depended on the mass extinction that freed them from competition with the dinosaurs.

I don’t have a worked out theology of creation that would enable this but neither do I see it as something that should be beyond our capabilities. I suspect, though, that it might challenge some aspects of contemporary religious discourse in creative and interesting ways.

It would force us to think about “nature” as dynamic rather than static, to see that “history” is not a uniquely human phenomenon. Often the theological gloss given to environmental concerns is deeply and problematically conservative. It seeks to conserve what is already in existence and to speak of it as if it came pristine from God’s creative hand. Any attention to the science of life on earth undercuts this. “Nature” is not and has never been static. Creation is not something done once but is clearly an ongoing and active process.

It would force us to think hard about the place of humanity in creation. We are late comers to the biotic party but we are clearly pretty special, whether in a good or in a bad way. If human activity is causing something like a mass extinction event how should we interpret that in light of the idea that we are made in God’s image? What does that phrase even mean? What kind of image are we? Is there something about us that constitutes us as such? Is it rather something about a function we perform or should perform?

It might well encourage us to return to a more sustained and intentional reflection on Christian apocalyptic. We all know that eschatological and apocalyptic thinking has been part of the tradition and remains prominent in some parts of the church. My hunch is that theological attention to the evidence for discontinuities in the processes of evolution would benefit from this eschatological traditions in Christianity.

At any event ignoring this stuff can’t be a good idea.