“Being Sure of Our Ground” (COSAC Devotion #4)

Being Sure of Our Ground
Reading 2 Timothy 1:8-12

We’ve been reflecting on examples from Tasmanian history of scientific endeavour, drawing parallels with Christian endeavour.

John Franklin kept on, an example of persistence in scientific endeavour which parallels that required of us as followers of Jesus. We are called to put our hand to the plough and not look back.

Charles Gould was across the issues of his day, and someone determined to stick to the facts, like the man born blind who saw the currents of opinion swirling around him but remained clear about what he knew – that Jesus had restored his sight.

Roald Amundsen, that competitive Norwegian, is both an example of someone who understood to whom he was accountable, someone who was clear where his loyalty lay, but also someone who understood that luck was no substitute for application, for preparedness, for commitment to service. Resources are to be put to work in the service of the King, as the unfaithful servant was reminded when he buried his bag of gold.

The foundation professor of geology at the University of Tasmania died in March 2002 in Hobart. Sam Warren Carey grew up outside Sydney and perhaps like some of you found when he entered university to study science that he needed a fourth subject after automatically enrolling in Chemistry, Physics and Maths. A friend talked him into Geology, although Carey later said he didn’t at first even know what it was! Like Mawson, TW Edgeworth David had a big influence on young Carey, and even agreed to deliver the inaugural address at the geology club which Carey started.

Carey’s first job after graduating was searching for oil in the Sepik region of PNG, but after a fascinating five years in PNG, war intervened.

During the war, commando Carey dramatically proved to the sceptical Americans that limpet mines could be useful. He did it by personally infiltrating the mined harbour at Townsville with his team and attaching 45 dummy, sand-filled limpet mines to the 15 American warships berthed there!

Towards the end of the war, he moved to Tasmania as Government Geologist, in the footsteps of Charles Gould, was then invited to set up a geology department in the science faculty in the Tasmanian University, and became the first professor of geology in 1946, holding that post until retirement in 1976.

But Carey is remembered for something very different from promoting the use of magnetic mines.

Carey had a mantra he liked to trot out which ran,

“We are blinded by what we think we know; disbelieve if you can.”

Back in his early twenties, Carey read a translation of German scientist Alfred Wegener’s book The Origin of Continents and Oceans. Carey was strongly taken by Wegener’s ideas and, as they say, the rest is history. Carey became a major, if not for many years, the major proponent in the English-speaking academic world of the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.

Orthodoxy at the time in the scientific community was that the continents were fixed.

Carey read, debated and researched to make the case for continental drift, or plate tectonics, leading in 1956 to his hosting a seminal international symposium on the subject. This resulted in many scientists switching sides and prompted important confirmatory research.

Carey is probably best remembered for sticking to his guns over plate tectonics. There always seemed to be an element with Carey of wanting to be seen to be outside the ‘establishment’, and of wanting to step as far back as possible to get the widest possible view. His published 1988 review was titled Theories of the Earth and Universe: a History of Dogma in the Earth Sciences!

Remember his mantra

“We are blinded by what we think we know; disbelieve if you can.”

But there is an irony here. I’m no geologist as you know, but my understanding is that the mechanism of plate tectonics is understood to be that of subduction, where plates collide and one slides under the other. Carey’s explanatory mechanism was that of the expanding earth, and as late as 1979 commented that the adoption of subduction was “an unfortunate and regrettable mistake’.

Well, that’s scientific endeavour, isn’t it – healthy scepticism, inductive thinking, trying to see the big picture, modifying or even rejecting the hypothesis when it no longer fits the observable facts.

The Christian faith has a different foundation from empirical observation and inductive reasoning leading to hypotheses.

The apostle Paul, from what might seem a defeated position of being incarcerated in a dungeon in Rome, writes (2 Tim. 1:12) in these terms:

I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.

Paul’s confidence came from his personal relationship with, his knowledge of, Jesus as his Lord and Saviour.

And on the basis of that knowledge, that tried and tested relationship, Paul could confidently commit himself, his present predicament and his future to God.

Yes, we need as Christians to work at our faith, to grow in our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, to use our God-given faculties to explore the world around us.

But most of all we are to build our lives – both for now and for the uncertain future – on that personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the One who, standing at the grave of a friend said, (John 11:25,26)

I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Professor Carey is rightly honoured for his preparedness to go against the flow, to persevere with his research to support and develop a new and unpopular theory. But like all of us I guess, he found inconvenient facts creating headwinds for aspects of his cherished theory and was confronted with the challenge of backing down, of changing his mind. That’s in the nature of all human endeavour.

But with God, we can have confidence. Our faith is based on eternal, unchanging truth because it is based on a person, on God’s intervention in human history in sending his Son to be, through his life, death and resurrection, our Saviour. We know ‘whom we have believed’.

With that sure knowledge, with that firm foundation to our lives, we step confidently out into whatever endeavour God gives us to do – whether in scientific research, in Christian ministry, in family and community life.

May God bless you and continue to guide and guard each one of us as we serve him.

Let us pray . . .

See, COSAC – Conference: Science & Christianity 2011  and  “Keeping on” (COSAC Devotion #1)

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