Thinking Anew – The wonder and genius of nature

Study of nature informs religious belief

Since its launch in French Guiana on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has journeyed about a million miles into space where it is expected to spend as much as 20 years exploring the very first stars and galaxies "that lit up the foggy aftermath of the Big Bang and initiated the grand crescendo of evolution that produced us, among other things . . ."

With that in mind what are we to make of the Genesis creation story which is one of tomorrow's appointed readings. It begins: "These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens", etc, etc. There are similar creation stories in other ancient cultures, attempting to answer questions we ask to this day: where did we and everything we see around us come from and what is its meaning and purpose? These are questions for anyone who marvels at the wonder and genius of nature which David Attenborough has been demonstrating so vividly in his TV series The Green Planet.

The English anthropologist Dr Jane Goodall is well known for her 60-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. She attributes her interest in chimpanzees to the fact that as a child, her father gave her a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee instead of a teddy bear. She says, "My mother's friends were horrified by this toy, thinking it would . . . give me nightmares." Jubilee sits on her dresser in London to this day.

In her early years of research, she found that chimpanzees experience emotions previously believed to be uniquely human. "It isn't only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought [and] emotions like joy and sorrow". She is perhaps best known for challenging the belief that only humans could construct and use tools. Up until then humans had long distinguished themselves from the rest of the animal kingdom as "Man the Toolmaker". Noting her findings, her mentor, Prof Louis Leakey, wrote: "We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human."

Jane Goodall’s study of nature informs her religious belief. She said: “I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it.”

That is a feeling shared by many as they marvel at the wonders of creation and one that Goodall further explains in her foreword to the book The Intelligence of the Cosmos by Ervin Laszlo, a philosopher of science, when she wrote: "We must accept that there is an Intelligence driving the process [of evolution] and that the Universe and life on Earth are inspired and informed by an unknown and unknowable Creator".

Her beliefs were strengthened by experience as she explained in a recent radio interview. While in Paris at a time of personal difficulty she visited Notre Dame cathedral early one morning. She recalled being alone, with the early morning sun shining through a great rose window while an organist played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

As she sat there overwhelmed by the beauty and magnificence of the building she concluded: “This cannot be chance; all the brilliant minds that have created this fantastic moment when the sun and the music combine, that’s the moment that I realised that it wasn’t chance – that there was a purpose behind the universe.” And is that not what those long-ago authors of Genesis and the other ancient were saying?

The renowned psychologist Carl Jung insists religious experience is real: "Religious experience is absolute. It is indisputable . . . No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses the great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning and beauty and that has given him a new splendour, to the world and to mankind".

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