Faith and Science in a Global Pandemic
Rev. Prof. David Wilkinson is the Principal of St. John’s College, Durham University in the UK.
St. John’s College, Durham https://www.dur.ac.uk/st-johns.college/
Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science http://community.dur.ac.uk/christianleadership.science/
Rob Haynes 0:10
What does the intersection of faith and science have to say about things like a global pandemic? Does a global pandemic serve a purpose? In the midst of even pandemic, what do we mean when we say God is in control? Welcome to World Methodist Evangelism’s Real Faith Real World podcast, where we connect the faith within us with the world around us. Our mission at World Methodist Evangelism is to provide resources and events to strengthen discipleship and equip Christ followers to share their faith in Jesus Christ. My name is Rob Haynes and I’ll be your host today. I’m excited to share this conversation with Reverend Professor David Wilkinson, who recently joined me via Zoom. David is the principal of St. John’s College at Durham University in Durham, England. He is a scientist, a theologian and a Methodist minister, and he provides some insightful response to this global pandemic and the Christian’s action in it. This podcast is made possible through the generosity of Christ Church Global in Memphis, Tennessee and we thank them for their support. When we ask you to rate and subscribe, we would appreciate your five star rating so that others can know about this podcast and the ministry we offer through it. We also want to encourage you to visit our website WorldMethodist.org/podcast. There you’ll see more information about how to subscribe and you can find instructions where you can upload your Ministry Minute so that we can hear more of what God is doing in your part of the world. Please visit WorldMethodist.org/podcast. I’m pleased to welcome my friend and colleague, the Reverend Professor David Wilkinson. Welcome to Real Faith Real World, David.
David Wilkinson 2:04
Thank you, Rob. Good to be here.
Rob Haynes 2:06
Tell us a little bit about yourself, help our audience get to know you some.
David Wilkinson 2:10
Sure. I’m British. I’m from the North East of England about 240 miles north of London. I trained first as a scientist so my area was theoretical astrophysics, which is basically twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are. And then I’d felt a strong call to church leadership. I trained and was ordained as a Methodist pastor, and led a church for a number of years in Liverpool, in the northwest of England. And then the Lord drew me back to Durham University where I’d been a scientist but this time to teach theology. I taught theology here for a number of years and I’ve continued to do that, but a large part of my time now is leading a college called St. John’s College, which is one of the 16 colleges that make up the University. It is a unique place because we train church leaders alongside undergraduates and postgraduates who are doing all subjects across the University, from physics to sociology, from biology to economics, and it’s a really interesting mix.
Rob Haynes 3:24
So many people, David, have tried to place science and theology as opposites of one another. What motivates you to see the way that those are drawn together?
David Wilkinson 3:36
Well, part of it was my own personal discipleship. So when I began as a scientist I had just become a Christian. It seemed to me that if Jesus was Lord, He needed to be Lord not just what I did on a Sunday in church, but also what I did on a Monday in the lab. But secondly, I found a huge number of scientists, both in history and in the present day, who held together with integrity, their science and their Christian faith. Now, this isn’t without questions, and some questions in my own life I still don’t have easy answers to. I’ve found and these other scientists found that by bringing the two together, it increased one’s passion for science and also one’s passion for Christian faith.
Rob Haynes 4:27
So what is it then in the life and teachings of Jesus that motivates you to this kind of work?
David Wilkinson 4:33
A number of things, Rob. When our kids were small and if anyone came into our kitchen, there would be a number of our children’s pictures pinned to the wall or to the refrigerator. If people came in and said, “Those are great pictures,” to be honest, they were lying because our kids have many qualities to them but great artists they were not. We would look at these pictures and we’d say, “Yeah, they’re brilliant, aren’t they?” because we knew the people who’d created them. If you know the person who’s created something, the value of that creation becomes even more special. To me as Jesus and the resurrected Lord showed me what God was all about, then what God had actually done in Creation, what he created became even more important, even more special. So part of my passion for science came out of this deep understanding that I was getting to know the One who created it, the Creator. I think also science is an intriguing subject. My journey with the Lord Jesus is never one where there’s sometimes easy answers. Sometimes there’s a sense in which God gives us gifts in order to explore what it means to be disciples in this world, how we care for the world, how we look after it. For me, science is a gift from God, something that God gives us for us to use responsibly under His Lordship.
Rob Haynes 6:20
In the first quarter of 2020, the COVID 19 pandemic has challenged the way many people think about some of the things that you’re talking about: God’s good gifts and creation, the natural world and humanity’s place in it. What does the Bible teach us about these things?
David Wilkinson 6:41
Rob, the Bible says many things but it doesn’t give any easy answers. One of the things that I’ve been struggling with during the process of lockdown and all of the pressures that we’ve all been facing, is trying to understand where God is and what God’s doing in all of this. I guess, although I don’t have any simple answers, I got some principles that seem to me to be important. I think, first of all, the natural world and God’s Creation is sometimes not easy to understand. The inherent human tendency after the Enlightenment is to try and give an explanation, an easy or simple explanation to everything. Sometimes the world is just a little more complex than that, and God’s purposes are a little more complex. I think the second thing is the natural world often reminds me of my vulnerability. Yes, I know the love of God. Yes, I know the power of God. Yes, I have this sense of being a child of God, but that doesn’t somehow keep me safe from the fragility of the natural world. I know that some other Christians during this time have been ignoring some of the guidance from medics on lockdown and not meeting together by claiming somehow, there’s some exceptional grace given to Christians during this time. I don’t think God promises that. I think in fact, God says we remain children in a fallen world moving toward a world of new Creation, a new Heaven and a new Earth which we long for. As Paul talks about in Roman faith, there’s something about this world straining towards that which is to come. That it is almost crying in the pains of childbirth, there’s a fragility of vulnerability to this world. And sometimes, things just get out of sorts within the world. So for example, I remember a biologist friend of mine, a very strong Christian, said to me many years ago, even before this pandemic, that to certain biologists viruses are very beautiful things if you study them in the lab and you see how they work. He said it’s when viruses get in the wrong context, in the human body, for example, that things go wrong. Now, we don’t know why the Coronavirus has gone into a wrong context, whether it’s something that we’ve done as human beings, whether it was mistakes, whether it was by practices of not looking after the natural world in the way that we should have done or whether it was just the fragility and openness of this world, we don’t know. What’s happened is that the COVID pandemic has reminded us of our fragility as human beings, our vulnerability. For many of us, including myself, I thought that science, technology, education, and money would really control the world and give us a certain future. Things like this remind us that actually, the future is not in our hands. We can’t control everything. We can’t simply make nature to do what we want nature to do. There’s something beyond us on that. And that takes us back I think to the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, they were very interesting in their time, because in 1755 there was a massive earthquake, one of the biggest that affected the world, it was in Lisbon. It happened on the first of November during the Feast of All Saints and it killed many Christians who were in churches that collapsed at the time. In fact, there had been earthquakes in London just a few months earlier. John and Charles typically wrote about these things. Charles even composed a whole number of hymns about our response to earthquakes. They said a number of things, first of all, natural disasters are a reminder of the need for us to repent and trust in God. They also saw natural disasters as great levelers, it affects both the poor and the rich, although often it affects the poor more than the rich. If you’re rich that doesn’t protect you from these things. They also saw these things as pointing towards that new Creation of a new Heaven and a new Earth. Of course, they also saw the opportunity for us to serve as Christians, particularly for those most vulnerable in our society, those who were struggling with poverty in the midst of great earthquakes or indeed pandemics. Now I find all of that a very helpful way of beginning to think about these things. I don’t have an easy answer to where pandemics come from. I do understand the importance of a response in Christian discipleship that cares for the poor, that shows repentance and humility before God and looks forward to this new Creation.
Rob Haynes 12:31
So many rich things to discuss there. Let me follow up with two questions: first, whether it be science or divine or some combination, does the pandemic have a purpose?
David Wilkinson 12:48
I’m not sure that I could answer that Rob. I think sometimes, we long to find a purpose in everything. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters, of course, have often place natural disasters as a direct judgment of God. You will remember yourself, that when Katrina the hurricane in 2005 that hit New Orleans, some Christian leaders talked about how this was God’s judgment on corruption, drugs and the immoral playground of New Orleans. The trouble with that is, there’s an awful lot of immoral playgrounds around the world. Why does God seem in this model, to target a judgment against a particular city, where again I need to emphasize that it’s often the poorest who were hit the worst by it? I think some other people kind of go to the other extreme and say that God is not involved at all in this world. This is what we call deism, the belief that God starts the universe off, but then basically goes for a cup of tea, not to have anything more to do with it, until perhaps the end of time when he reappears and says, hello again. Now, the God of the Bible is not that kind of God. In fact, if you have that kind of deistic God then sometimes you don’t have to answer the problem of evil as we call it. If God can’t do anything in the world, then He can’t be blamed for allowing some things like pandemics. I want to avoid both of these easy answers, either that God simply sends this little pandemic as a judgment to a particular place or He has nothing to do with the world at all. Therefore, I don’t want to go to easy answers. I want to say, somehow in the purposes of God, God works through the fragility, the evil, the sin of this world, the pain and the death of this world, to bring about something that is greater, but how He does it? I’m not too sure. Some people will say, “Well, why do you believe in the goodness of God? Why do you believe in the midst of all of this?” In fact, I was talking with a distinguished scientist who said to me, “When you look at the world and you see pandemics and you see natural disasters, why do you still believe that God is good?” Well, the conference that I was at talking with him was in a place called Jerusalem. What I said to him was, “Just look outside the window onto the streets, the reason I believe that God is good, is not because I try and interpret every bit of the world, the natural creation. But the reason I believe that God is good, is because 2000 years ago a man called Jesus of Nazareth walked these streets. In fact, He was put to death on a cross and then raised again to a new kind of life. And it’s because I see the love and goodness of God in Jesus, that I’m prepared to live with the unanswered questions of I don’t know what the purpose of this is.”
Rob Haynes 16:24
It’s so comforting to sometimes realize that we don’t have to have all the answers as we move through these types of situations. You bring up something really interesting about the natural world, in March and in April, as the lockdowns were in their full effect, there were reports in the news and on social media of animals coming out in urban centers and in cities where they had not been seen in quite some time, and some people’s reaction was well, then this proves that it’s humans that are the virus and the problem. How do we understand our role in that if God is so good, are we the problem in this? Is this humanity’s fault? Maybe it isn’t just a divine judgment, but maybe it is some sort of a natural reaction to what we’ve done? What would you say to those kinds of ideas?
David Wilkinson 17:20
I think sometimes it can be but we’ve got to be very careful. In particular as we’re going through these things we’ve been too definite. I think sometimes it’s very clear that pandemics and epidemics are caused by human choices. About 160 years ago here in the UK, we had a cholera epidemic. It was very clear that the reason for that was due to bad sewerage systems within the UK. It needed a combination of Christian reformers, local clergy, and scientists, to stand together against some of the bad science of the day, to say there was a link here between bad sewerage and public health, and that we needed to guard public health by better sanitation. Often Christians have been at the forefront of understanding the scientific reasons and working against it. That’s why I’m grateful for the many Christians at the moment, working across the world on medical treatments and indeed a vaccine for COVID 19. I think there are other areas where we can’t directly make a link between human action and something that goes wrong with the world. And that’s because, in a sense, we’re all connected in this sense of the natural world. Sometimes we don’t know what the long term consequences of small actions might be. We don’t know whether some of the ways that we mess up the environment actually have longer term effects upon the world in which we live. The Bible does talk about this connecting of sinfulness on the part of human beings, leading in some way to the brokenness of the world in which we live. Again, I don’t want to be too simplistic about this relationship. Remember, that at times those who were before Jesus talked about how a parent’s sin was passed down onto next generations and Jesus at times had to correct that and say, “Look, it’s not as simple as that, the world’s much more complicated than that.” What we’re about, says Jesus, is whatever the purpose is about bringing healing. That’s what we’re called to do as Christians. And so we’ve got to get this balance right I think between trying to understand everything, and the danger there have been too simplistic, and actually doing the right thing. I had a friend who, many years ago, lost his sister when he was a child and a local clergy person came to visit him in his grief. He said to my friend, who was I think only about seven at the time, “Well, don’t worry, God wanted another star in heaven.” Now my friend, even at the age of seven knew that was untrue because he knew how stars were formed. He also knew of the circumstances in which his sister died in a road traffic accident and you knew that there were people to blame for that. Now what that clergy person was trying to do was to give an overly simplistic explanation to people in the midst of grief and pain and illness, really what the church leader should have done was simply go round and be with my friend, and offer sympathy and prayer, not trying to give an explanation to everything. Sometimes, and I think this is true in the Psalms, isn’t it, as we read some of the Psalms, sometimes a Psalmist cries out and says, “Lord, why is this happening? It feels so unjust, I can’t explain it. What’s going on?” And often in that crying out of the questions, rather than the simple answers, we find God.
Rob Haynes 22:07
So I think you bring up a really interesting point that will be the next step in that. Oftentimes, I’ve heard people deal with difficult situations like this with something to bring comfort to them and they say, “God is in control.” How do we reckon with those sorts of things, because at one level, we say that God is in control and will bring us through this, but if you take that to God being in control then that means he’s caused the disease and sickness and illness and death of every person who’s affected? How should we reconcile that with a Biblical understanding?
David Wilkinson 22:51
That’s a really difficult one. It’s very easy to talk about God being in control, and again, to go to different extremes, one that you’ve described that God seems to be controlling every part of this and is God sending the virus into one person and not another? The other extreme is that God has no control at all in what’s happening in the universe. I think part of the problem is that word “control;” God is supreme in His movement of history towards a new Heaven and a new Earth, but then often God works through the freedom of human beings, the fragility of the world, and working out His own loving purposes. We know, those of us who are parents, or spouses, that how you work out purposes in love is a different thing from being in control. I can’t control my children I have to say. I mean there are times I wish I could, but actually, I love them, I want the best for them. Therefore how I work with them in achieving a good end or an aim, whether it be their studies or their development as people is a different kind of thing. Now, I think this is where again, our Wesleyan heritage helps us. Remember that Wesley, amongst his fellow Armenians, didn’t believe that God predestined everything that happened in the universe. He believed that there was a degree of freedom that God gives in love to human beings. The Holy Spirit was always at work making possible the choice for good, but then ultimately, there was some responsibility held by human beings. Now a number of Christian thinkers have developed that to say, perhaps God gives a degree of freedom not just to human beings but also to the natural world, that’s where we get this fragility of the natural world. God is the one who works through the uncertainty and the gift of freedom to bring about ultimately the good. There’s an old story told by many preachers about carpet weaving. In some societies, there is a loom where you start weaving a pattern of a carpet and the parent will help the child in the family develop on how they weave carpets. The parents start at one end of the loom and the child starts at the other end. Now, as the child makes the occasional mistake and the pattern from the child’s end isn’t what should be followed, the parent is so skillful, that they’re able to work that mistake, that problem, that difficulty, into a beautiful pattern at the end of the day, because love’s able at times to work with the freedom in order to bring out the purposes. Now again, people will say, “Oh, come on, that’s a bit woolly isn’t it Wilkinson? Surely, how do you know that that kind of thing God does.” Well, for me as a Christian, one of the profound moments of what God is all about, is that when God works through the death, the pain, the torture, the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth, which involves political and human decisions, which involves uncertainty and yet God works through Jesus’ death on the cross to provide a mechanism of forgiveness and new life to all who trust in Him. So there’s something at the heart of the Christian faith which reminds me that God can work through all of that, but even more than that, that actually, God is there experiencing the suffering with us. This is a profound thing for me within the Christian life, that this is a God, who maybe doesn’t give easy answers to questions, but He’s not a God who sits up there in heaven divorced from the pain of the world. This is a God who experiences death, pain, uncertainty, this is a God who experiences vulnerability, not a part from the world, but in a way that shares fully my humanity.
Rob Haynes 28:19
What a beautiful place to wrap up the conversation. David, let me follow up with this. Two questions, one, what opportunities does the church have in this current state following the initial results of the pandemic and the world locked down?
David Wilkinson 28:48
Yes, thank you, Rob. I think there are many things that the church should be doing. I think, first of all, we should be affirming the science and that means everything from praying for our scientists who are at the forefront of some of the research to battle the pandemic, I think we should be praying for them and valuing their work just as much as we value rightly those working in health services or those providing the things for us to eat in supermarkets and delivery drivers. There’s something about affirming the science and therefore, there’s also something about us following what the scientific advice is all about. Now, there’s a lot of fake news out there. There’s a lot of Christians saying, “Oh, well, we know better about some of these things.” I think the church should be a symbol, a light, saying we’re going to embody the advice that comes from scientists and government, that we’re going to respect social distancing, that we’re not going to simply say well, because we’re Christians, we don’t have to do it. And therefore I think it’s been a great testament around the world, that churches have moved to online worship as a way of saying, “No, we’re not going to break some of this advice, we’re going to follow it, we’re going to embody it, we’re going to lead with the way that technology can be used to bring together worship.” I think that’s the first thing. I think secondly, we’ve got to stand with those who are most vulnerable in our society and that is that when workers are laid off by companies, the church should be protecting those workers who work for the church supporting them financially. And then the putting our hands in our pockets for those who are poorest in our society for whom this is the most difficult thing. I think, thirdly, the church has a message of hope and that is that wherever we are, whether we’re stuck in our bedrooms recording podcasts with Rob Haynes, or whether we’re trying to find out how best to work in a very different world post COVID and that, actually, we have a message of hope to share, that this world is not the only thing, that actually there’s deeper spiritual realities, that there’s a new Heaven and a new Earth to come. And that actually, we believe in a God, who, though the earth be moved and the hills be carried into the midst of the sea, the Lord of Hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Rob Haynes 31:49
David, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your insights in the ways that this has impacted your own discipleship as well and in bringing that to a very rich conversation. My second question is, how can people get in touch or how can they learn more? Where would you point them?
David Wilkinson 32:05
Well, one of the projects that we do here at St. John’s College Durham University, is called Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science and if you Google Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science, you’ll find a number of resources that are not just about responding to COVID, but also about how science and faith can be held together with integrity. I think also there’s some very good work done by Bio Logos. Again, if you Google Bio Logos, you’ll find some rich resources in that and those would be the things I would go to if people wanted to follow up some of the things that we’ve been talking about.
Rob Haynes 32:56
Reverend Professor David Wilkinson, my friend, thank you so much for your time and all that you’ve offered to us here on the Real Faith Real World podcast today.
David Wilkinson 33:05
Thank you Rob.
Rob Haynes 33:07
You can find links to the things that David referenced in today’s show notes. Thanks again to Christ Church Global for sponsoring this episode. Please be sure to rate and subscribe. I’m Rob Haynes and you’ve been listening to World Methodist Evangelism’s Real Faith, Real World podcast.
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