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Archbishop Rowan answers questions from Faraday Schools

Tuesday 11th September 2012

Students from the Faraday Schools project sent a bundle of letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking about science and religion, why people read the Bible, what it's like to pray, why God allows natural disasters, whether Adam and Eve really existed, and why there are different faiths.

The Archbishop offers his thoughts on these questions below:

Archbishop Rowan on science and religion


The natural sciences are a wonderful way of approaching the world to ask questions about how it all works.  It’s amazing how in the last century or so we’ve advanced by leaps and bounds, finding better and better questions to ask as we get better and better answers.  And one of the excitements of science is that there will always be more questions to ask.  You’re never just looking for something that will give you the final word on the world around us.

Fine - but there are so many areas of our lives where, if we ask scientific questions, we don’t even begin to get sensible answers.  “Do you like me?” says somebody – what kind of a scientific question is that?  “Is that a good piece of music?” – is there a scientific answer to that?  And as you’re growing up, “Who should I marry, who do I spend my life with?” – scientific question?  Not exactly.

Religious questions are much more like those personal questions than they are like scientific questions.  It doesn’t mean they’re opposed to scientific questions, and it certainly doesn’t mean that religion gives you mysterious answers to matters of fact that you don’t have to work for as you do in science.  It just means there are different kinds of evidence that we appeal to in our lives, just instinctively.  And the kind of evidence that works for personal relationships, for the things that you value and enjoy like music or sport or whatever – those are more like religious questions than straightforward scientific ones.      

Archbishop Rowan on reading the Bible


If you ask why the Bible matters, or why I might trust the Bible or find it important, I’d start by answering that it shows you the kind of impact on people’s lives that discovering God or being discovered by God has. 

For example, in the Old Testament in the Bible, you have this tremendous story about how God leads his people out of slavery.  His people are slaves in Egypt, and God inspires somebody to take them somewhere else – to move right out of slavery, to become free.  And the Bible tells us it was hard work.  Some of them didn’t much want to be free – then they’re gradually moulded into being a proper community with laws and customs.  And that says: when God really comes through to people, it’s quite hard work, it’s quite difficult, but it sets them free.  It makes them relate to each other in a very new, very different way.

That’s the kind of thing that matters to me most about the Bible.  It’s a story about the impact of God on human beings.  Over a long period of time – if you look at the Bible, the stories extend from thousands of years before the birth of Jesus to about a hundred years or so after his birth – you watch that impact of God gradually making a bigger and bigger difference until the biggest difference of all, which, for me as a Christian, is in the life and the death of Jesus.  

Archbishop Rowan on what it’s like to pray


People sometimes talk about religion as if it were all a matter of what you read in books and what you do.  But talk to anybody who’s really serious about it and you realise it’s part of who they are – it’s absolutely bound up with how people think about themselves and others.

And it makes a big difference to how you spend your time.  A religious person will often spend time every day being quiet, listening to God, just trying to be there, to absorb the reality that’s coming at you. If you want to understand religion properly, you have to try and do a bit of that.  You have to try to put aside the ideas and the words and the chatter and the debates, and perhaps from time to time say “If you’re there, I’m here.  I’m at home.  Knock on the door and I’ll try and open.”

Learning how to be silent, how to breathe and take the mystery in to yourself – that’s very important.  I’ve had some very moving experiences in schools where I’ve seen children being taught meditation, being taught about how they can settle down and be quiet and invite this mystery in.  What’s really surprising is that, although you might think it’s quite hard for young people to be quiet, they love it after a bit and they say “Can we have more?”.

So if you really want to understand, if you really want to explore whether this is valid and true for you, there are things to do.  Not just books to read, not just ideas to think about, but just experiencing it a bit.  As you experience it, you may or may not feel anything.  You may feel something very special – or you may not.  And that’s when you look for somebody who has got a bit more experience as a religious person and talk to them about it – say “What should it feel like?  What do you think it feels like?”  and discuss it together.

Archbishop Rowan on why God lets natural disasters happen


The question about why God allows natural disasters, or diseases for that matter, is one of the toughest there is for anyone who has a religious belief.  And I’m not going to pretend there’s an easy answer to it, but I’d start thinking about it like this.

The world we’re in has natural laws – regular patterns of things happening.  And it’s those regular patterns that help us live on Earth.  It’s because plants and seeds have certain natural laws that we’re able to grow our food; it’s because various chemical things have the properties they do that we can develop scientific advances, and so on.  Those natural laws are good.  They’re part of what it is to be in the world we’re in.

But of course, if the world obeys its natural laws, and we get in the way of a natural law unfolding, well, terrible things can happen.  If I jump into a river, the natural law of my weight and the water will mean that I’ll probably drown if I can’t swim.  And if I were to say “Can’t we have a God who gets me out of the river every time I fall in?”, I don’t really think we’re taking the world seriously enough.

Natural laws, regular patterns, they’re part of the world we’re in.  And they’re a good part.  We use those things so that we can make ourselves safer and happier.  But there’s a price to pay, and I don’t think we can expect God to suspend natural laws every time things might go wrong for us.  It’s tough – as I say, nothing makes it easier, but that’s the beginning of thinking about it.

Archbishop Rowan on Adam & Eve and evolution


I don’t think the Bible is meant to tell us exactly what happened thousands of years ago.  It’s meant to tell us how we got, generally speaking, to where we are now.  If you think “What are the problems we as human beings face?” one of them is “How do we cope with temptations to do the wrong thing? What are the effects of our choices?  Do our choices make life really difficult for ourselves and others?”

So here’s a story about a man and a woman, right at the beginning of everything, faced with some difficult choices.  And they make the wrong ones - and it has a terrible effect on absolutely everybody for ever afterwards.  That’s what the story is meant to get home to us.  But the question then is not so much whether we would find a grave in the Middle East marked with “Adam and Eve: loving husband and wife” -  I doubt that we would.  But we can say that right from the very beginning, human beings being human, we’ve had the same problems, the same temptations, and we make the same sort of mistakes.     

When we talk about evolution, I think we’re talking about all the ways in which the world got to be the way it is physically.  It’s a wonderfully complicated, wonderfully rich world – we couldn’t ever have imagined just how rich it was when we started looking.  That’s wonderful – but for me it doesn’t in any way contradict what I believe as a Christian person.  Because what I believe as a Christian is that everything that’s around me – all those processes of evolution, all the mysterious abundant life of the world – all of that is there simply because God wants it to be.

Archbishop Rowan on why there are different faiths


One of the biggest changes in my lifetime has been how much more aware we are of people who’ve got other faiths and other cultures from our own – and particularly where faiths are concerned, that can be a bit disturbing.  You think, “I believe what I believe, and they believe something completely different – who’s going to tell me who’s right?“  

Nobody is going to be able to tell you, once and for all, who is right.  You can’t go to a museum or library and look up a book which will tell you “this is right, and this is why”.  You have to discover something of that yourself. But it’s very important to remember that we are looking for the truth, not just what suits us or what we’ve inherited.  We are looking for truth.  And how we work out what’s true and what’s not so true depends on what sort of risks we’re prepared to take in exploring the ideas and the experiences. 

If you want to know if religion generally is true, why not try praying or meditating and see what it feels like?  Look at the books, the customs and the teachings of different religious traditions and say “Does that bit of it cover all I understand by what human life is really about; does that really account for this or that problem; does it hang together?”  There may be no answer that will keep you absolutely secure and tell you once and for all “this is it”, but you’ve got some questions to ask.

It’s worth asking.  It’s worth exploring.  You don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Well we’re all different, aren’t we?”  - truth does matter here. 



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