When you read the Gospel stories, or hear them read at liturgical services how do you understand them? What about the Old Testament? I’m often inclined to think that so much of the many books of the Bible are beyond us, unless we have some understanding of the time in which all the different books were written.
Some weeks ago I attended a talk given by Kieran O’Mahony, who is a renowned expert in biblical scholarship. Listening to him I became conscious how readings from the Bible can so easily go over our heads if we are simply hearing them out of the blue. I often wonder how the Scripture readings at liturgical services can touch us when we are so often unfamiliar with the background in which they were written.
Is the mix of belief and reason something akin to that of oil and water? Do faith and reason contradict each other?
A colleague suggested to me last week that I should watch a YouTube interview between Prof Richard Dawkins and Fr George Coyne. Dawkins is a world-renowned evolutionary biologist and author, who happens to be an atheist. Coyne, who died in 2020, was a Jesuit priest and astronomer. He was director of the Vatican Observatory between 1978 and 2006. The interview between the two men took place in 2008 to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species.
It’s clear that both men liked each other, scientists who respected one another and indeed in so many places sang off what we nowadays call the same hymn sheet. I listened to the interview not as a scientist, not even as a priest but as someone who is interested in the God question. I immediately empathised with Fr Coyne when he told Prof Dawkins to call him George, the name his mother called him, rather than Fr Coyne. I liked that. And in turn all through the interview I observed how Dawkins was clearly impressed, even animated by Coyne.
Of course they both tell different stories. One man believes in God, the other does not. All through their exchange Coyne keeps insisting that he does not believe that God makes a direct intervention in the universe. He says that he is speaking not on behalf of the church but in a personal capacity, adding that there are far more opinions and ideas within the Catholic Church than is generally appreciated. He points out that there are very great divergencies within the church, that there are many points of view on many subjects and that there is no official Catholic view on evolution.
At one stage the atheist asks the believer what his opinion on miracles is. With a smile, Coyne asks Dawkins if he has any easy questions. The priest admits this is where he has some great problems and concedes that he has difficulties with many miracles, but he does believe in the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. He does not believe in many of the instances he has heard or read about because they are superfluous. God does not need to do this. With a smile he asks Dawkins not to push him on this subject.
He goes on to say that he believes in the God of Love who wants to save us.
And that’s exactly the story of tomorrow’s Gospel (John 11: 1-45) where Jesus expresses his love in such a manner that he raises Lazarus from the dead. Surely isn’t that another pointer in our faith in the resurrection, which Fr Coyne points out as one of those very few moments in the history of the universe where God directly intervenes. And of course, it is a matter of faith. But having said that, Fr Coyne insists that does not mean that God directed the hands of the individual authors as they wrote the books that today make up the Bible.
I strongly recommend the YouTube interview. I found it helpful and it encourages me in my faith in the God of Love.