Science-Faith lecture on Plagues and Pandemics
Plagues and pandemics have afflicted human societies throughout the ages. Read the report on Professor Bob White's talk on the pandemic from a scientific and theological perspective.
Report by Nick Brewin and Patrick Richmond
On a sunny summer evening, over seventy people met through Zoom to explore the impact of plagues and pandemics, against the current challenge of Covid-19. The speaker was Professor Bob White FRS,Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge.
Although we often hear that the current crisis is “unprecedented”, Bob began by noting many ways in which this is not the case. For example, in 1918, Spanish ‘flu killed about 50 million people worldwide. Smallpox killed over 300 million people in the first half of the 20th century, before vaccination eradicated it. Globally, tuberculosis kills 1.5 million a year and diarrhoea 1.6 Million, a third of these being under 5s. Even ‘flu caused 26,000 deaths in the UK during the winter of 2017/18.
Plagues and pandemics recur in the Bible and throughout human history. Almost by definition, they force us out of our comfort zone and make us re-define our values and priorities. At a personal level, there is the challenge of coming to terms with sickness, suffering and death. At a more practical level, there is the need to show love and support to those in difficulty. In recent times, science and medicine have played an increasing role in helping people to understand and resolve these problems, but Professor White argued that there is still an important part to be played by the faith communities.
From a scientific perspective, here viewed what is known (and what is still unknown) about Covid-19. This coronavirus is endemic in horseshoe bats, but it has now suddenly jumped across into the human population. Most people are susceptible to infection, although the severity of the illness varies enormously. There is currently no vaccine and no cure. Not surprisingly, the uncertainty surrounding this situation has created a great deal of fear and apprehension. While medical science and virology can provide some facts and observations, the strategy for dealing with the pandemic must depend on political and social action. This is where Christian faith can help, just as it has in the past.
From a theological perspective, Bob argued that it is a sign of God’s goodness that he has made a world that is understandable by science which can be used for the common good. Bacteria and viruses have essential roles in the rich tapestry of biology, evolution and ecology. “Nature is what God does” – said St Augustine in the 4th century. Modern science began with the desire to discover the secrets of the natural world “to the glory of God the Creator and to the advantage of the human race”, as stated in the 1663 charter of the Royal Society which is, in effect, the UK’s national academy of science.
One example of a scientist motivated by his Christian beliefs was Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823). Jenner’s major contribution to medicine was to show that the skin sores isolated from a cowpox infection could serve as an effective vaccine for smallpox. To explain the theological basis for his actions, Jenner said that “the whole creation is the work of God’s hands. It cannot manage itself.”
Professor White provided several other historical examples of Christians providing compassionate help and support during plagues and pandemics, going back though Martin Luther to St Cyprian in the 3rd Century. Perhaps the most poignant illustration was the story of self-isolation during the Black Death in 1665. In the village of Eyam, Derbyshire, there is a plaque commemorating the fact that the local priest, Rev William Mompessom, led the self-isolation of the village in order to prevent the spread of the plague to neighbouring communities. Of the 800 residents, 300 people died in the village. Today’s heroic stories of self-sacrificial care by front-line workers should thus be seen as part of a long social tradition with distinctive, Christian roots.
Christianity is a religion that is firmly based on the concept of right relationships and mutual support within communities. Profound crises, such as plagues and pandemics, cause people to re-examine their fundamental concept of life’s purpose and value. Perhaps this is why periods of social crisis and uncertainty often lead to a resurgence of religious activity.
At the present time, the viral pandemic and the imminent climate crisis both emphasise the fact that we live in a fractured world in which social inequality and injustice are commonplace. Although Covid-19 can affect anyone, just as with global warming, it is the poor and disadvantaged who suffer the most, not only in our own country but around the world. The biblical perspective is that disasters often occur because humankind has failed to care for the ‘very good’ world that God created. To put it another way, our human civilisation is not in harmony with the natural environment. As we confront the global problems of the twenty-first century, we can only hope that effective solutions can arise from the combined perspectives of the science and faith communities.
After the talk, there were wide ranging discussions and questions. How far can we blame humanity? Shouldn’t scientists engage more prophetically and politically? How can we trust politicians to provide effective solutions that are socially just? How best to limit human population growth? Where is the leadership from the faith communities? Everyone has a role to play in finding a way forward.
Professor Bob White FRS is a distinguished scientist with a research interest in earthquakes and volcanoes. As Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, he promotes the view that science and faith are two ways of looking at the same world which,together,give a richer and deeper view than either on their own. He is the author of several books on this general theme, for example: Robert S. White (2014) “Who is to Blame? Nature, Disasters and Acts of God” (Oxford: Lion Hudson).
Science and Faith in Norfolk (SFN) is a Norwich-based group which aims to explore the broad interface between science and religious belief. For further information, Contact Professor Nick Brewin (07901 884114); firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit the SFN Homepage or follow SFN on Facebook.
Pictured Professor Bob White