By Julie and Peter Webb, SANTRM.
The 2013 Backhouse Lecture was delivered at Australia Yearly Meeting, University of Canberra, on 7th January by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a professional astronomer and life-long Quaker.
The lecture was presented in a way which reflected Jocelyn’s long experience of, and love of, teaching and lecturing. Although the lecture had been prepared (and adapted for publication) many months in advance, there were topical references which helped to engage the audience in what could have been merely a technical scientific discourse, but was in fact an engrossing journey, even for those, like us, with little scientific knowledge.
After talking about the Quaker-astronomy connection in the early days of Canberra Regional Meeting, and her own background growing up in a Quaker family in Northern Ireland and moving to a Quaker boarding school in England at the age of thirteen, where science and, eventually astronomy, became her passion, she warned her listeners that some may find her conclusions about science and religion difficult to accept.
Much of the lecture concerned the growth of knowledge about astronomy, particularly over the last fifty years or so. We heard about scientific theory, stars, planets, moons, galaxies, the universe, dark matter and dark energy. We heard about the widely-accepted Big Bang at the beginning of time and the likely future of the universe.
Jocelyn then explained her personal theology as it stands now. She cannot accept a “God of the Gaps” as the explanation for everything that science cannot explain. In weighing up her scientific understanding and her spiritual experience, she sees the existence of human suffering as one of the keys to her understanding of God. If all-loving and all-powerful, why did God create and allow suffering? Either God is indifferent to our suffering, or the universe creates it independently of God’s power. Jocelyn’s conclusion is that God is a God of love, not of omnipotence, and not able to control the laws of the universe.
She quoted from the Quaker Advices and Queries 5 and 7 (BYM)…..Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light…. Appreciate that doubts and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth… Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways… Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come?
Jocelyn has shown us one way forward in our spiritual beliefs. While some may have been troubled by her scientific or theological conclusions, we were delighted to hear such clarity and heart-felt expression of her beliefs and some of her reasons for them. She accepts that, as science discovers more truths, she may have to re-assess her religious beliefs. She was also clear that even people with similar scientific background may draw different conclusions about religious beliefs.
This lecture stimulated much discussion in the following days of Yearly Meeting and it was a delight to see Jocelyn immerse herself in the gathering, talking with Friends over meals and being a “microphone-runner” at one of the formal business sessions. We hope that the printed version of the lecture will be a stimulus to further rich discussion and consideration in meetings throughout Australia.