As a Cambridge icon closes, Nick Spencer of the ever-interesting Theos think-tank, muses on what it gave us – the idea that good relationships are what mark a good society. I enjoyed this article and thought you might too.
This book’s author, my friend Dr Ruth Bancewitz, confesses that as a teenager she rather geekily enjoyed those books that showed giant cutaway models of things and explained how they work.
This book, though for adults, would be perfect fodder for teenagers who think the same way. Taking the work of six scientists, helped by some elegant writing and classy illustrations, it surveys some lovely science, slowly cranking up the view from the molecular all the way to the large trends and patterns that appear across species in evolutionary theory.
Then it does something that’s relatively rare in popular science: it turns the camera back onto the scientists themselves, what their discoveries mean to them, and how they integrate what they’re finding in the microscope with what they believe about God and the universe.
So as well as being popular science itself, the book offers correctives to two perhaps lazy assumptions that pervade quite a lot of popular science writing — that atheism is the only basis to do science from (it isn’t); and that the scientific process is somehow divorced from the humanity of the scientists themselves. (It isn’t: science is social construct, a tribal religion, just better than most tribal religions–we hope–at coping with the width and depth of reality).
I particularly like this book because it’s slow (in my terms): not strident, not argumentative, challenging popular assumptions just by being elegant, rigorous, beautifully illustrated and out there, inconvenient, like an unexpected piece of rogue data.
‘You’ve got liver disease,’ my heart consultant said recently. ‘But you won’t die of it.’
This is a surprisingly comforting thought. Not least because you can add to it all the other things you won’t now die of:
- Trying to land a spacecraft on Mars
- Swimming the English Channel
- The guillotine
- Flying a light aircraft under a bridge
- Being eaten alive by piranhas
- Trying to break the world record for jumping a motorcycle over 42 double decker buses.
Really, it’s liberating. When you are a teenager, and happily raised in a land when you have some opportunity to express yourself, the possibilities are enormous. You can’t totally rule out, for example, being trampled by a herd of zebras or finding the end of hostile bayonet, or disappearing in a caving accident, or finding your attempt to cross the ocean on a giant rubber duck going horribly wrong.
It’s true that when young, if you’re lucky, all sorts of possible lives seem to present themselves, but they are accompanied by even more sorts of possible deaths.
Instead, as you ripen, with any luck or grace, you may be happy enough to find youself settling — into a life with people you love, things you love, work you love and times you love. Leaving those will be hard, and you will not want to let them go, even though some banal and workaday illness will finally prise your fingers away. But at least you found them and had them for a season, and thus perhaps, as I believe, sampled eternity.
A friend of mine for more than 25 years has just died. He was a soldier, then a taxi driver, then in his final couple of years he worked at our local hospital, helping clear the rubbish from the wards and driving a vehicle than carried all this waste, snaking through the underground corridors. He struggled with health conditions all his life, a chest that wouldn’t sweep out infections, and he had been given just a few years to live when a teenager. He swallowed antibiotics every day. He sometimes swelled with arthritis until a new medication was found, and for many years plugged himself into a C-PAP machine, like a vacuum cleaner, every night.
He stayed a soldier in civilian life, gleaming shoes, immaculate taxi, always on time. For several decades he had contracts to shuttle materials between Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the nearby Papworth Hospital, the pioneering transplant centre. The contract only ended when Papworth become the Royal Papworth and moved onto the Addenbrooke’s site. Carrying radioactive materials for transplant purposes, he never let the patients down, and took on extra work, like taking mail between departments that otherwise might miss the collections. He told me once of a girl he’d taken home from the city centre, almost too drunk to give her address, certainly too drunk and incapable to pay her fare. He took this vulnerable girl home, knocked on her door, handed her over to her father, made sure she was safe, like she was his own daughter, and went on his way.
He was the beating heart of our men’s breakfast group, instigator of our weekends away in the Lake District, organizing them himself for many years, army style, with rations allocated and he would have had us travelling in convoy if we’d let him. He sought old army friends out and welcomed them in. He loved a curry. He loved his family and quietly fought his infirmities, every day, to keep going for them. His self-medication took him hours in a morning, and yet he was early to work every day. He had an encounter with Christ almost the first time he walked into our church (his daughter was at Sunday School) and followed him faithfully ever afterwards. I love his example of an ordinary life, each ordinary day, like his shoes, burnished, gleaming with grace.
Unintentionally or not, I took the summer off, and hope you had as good a one as we did.
At the moment I am spending a lot of my time adding to the database of articles which is one of the sources of the prayer handbook Operation World. If you mine this database horizontally, you can dig any number of fascinating seams.
- The rise and perhaps the teetering, of the autocrat.
- The way autocracy vs. liberal democracy has turned rural areas against urban ones, with the rural ones in the ascendancy over the past few years, to the consternation of city-dwellers, who like to set the trends. You can see this in the UK, the US, India, Russia, Turkey, Japan and almost wherever you care to look.
- The decline of radical Islam, or at least its popular decline as a fashion-statement and rallying point for the underwhelmed-with-life.
- The non-impact of the church in India (Christians in 1950, 2.3%, Christians in 2020, 2.3%)
This is all good stuff and enjoyable in its way. It also happens to be a big piece of what I do for a career. But it’s also like walking around a housing estate rather than striding out across the fields. Where in all that is play? Texture? Subtlety? Creativity? Ambiguity? Beauty? Carefreeness? Where does the soul get fed? Where’s the joy of walking with a creator who is extraordinarily big, extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily tolerant of me, and extraordinarily, and unsettingly, original?
Much of this blog over the years has been about how my Christian faith animates these latter things, rather than the workaday business of machining truth – vulnerable, lovely, lively, teasing, elusive truth – into tidy journalistic widgits.