Dr Bethany Sollereder – theologian (#64)

bethanysol

Bethany Sollereder is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Science and Religion. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering. Bethany received her PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver.

Website: https://www.theology.ox.ac.uk/people/bethany-sollereder


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I was told that scientists found indirect evidence for life 4.1 Billion years ago, trapped in zircon crystals in Western Australia. What is amazing is that that people a) knew where to look for crystals that are older than any rock formations, b) were able to look for and interpret data from these sand-like crystals, and c) that it means life seems to have formed nearly as soon as the earth cooled enough to make it possible. If life showed up that early, maybe life’s emergence was not a grand fluke. If that’s the case, with the amount of exoplanets we are currently finding, it is likely that the universe is full of life.

 

How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

I think of wonder as the emotional response to a good surprise. Awe is the sense of the grandness of existence, and how little I am in comparison to it. It seems to me that awe is a perspective on the world that puts us in our proper place: infinitely valuable, but rather powerless in the scheme of things. Curiosity is a positive word today, but in the tradition of thought curiosity was always a vice. The reason is that curiosity was trying to know things so that you could use the knowledge for power, prestige, or wealth. Curiosity was contrasted with “study”, which is the proper use of the intellect. A good analogy is to compare how you look at knowledge compared to how you can enter a romantic relationship: curiosity seeks knowledge because it wants to experience pleasure or because it wants to look good on the arm of someone attractive. Study seeks knowledge because it cares for the other person and wants to know them better. A good book on this is Paul Griffiths’s The Vice of Curiosity.

 

Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

As I hinted above, I think that wonder comes from a good surprise. Therefore, we can train ourselves to be on the lookout for little surprises that populate every day. Take the time to notice just how beautiful green leaves are against a blue sky. Notice how odd it is that metal tubes full of people weighing thousands of pounds fly over us every day. Be amazed that your body turns food into new body. There are countless opportunities for wonder (including the fact that these words will fly instantly around the world as soon as they are posted), if only we will look.

 

The world is full of wonders but it is also full of a lot of crappy suffering (e.g. wars, illness, natural disasters). You research the theology of the problem of suffering. What is the problem of suffering?

The theological problem of suffering comes from trying to hold three truths together: that God is good (and therefore presumably wants good things for us), God is powerful (and therefore should be able to stop suffering), and that real evil exists. Any two of these are fine. God could be powerful and evil, so suffering would not come as a surprise. God could be good and powerless, so God could not prevent evil. Or, if evil did not exist, then the goodness and power of God would seem obvious. But how do you hold all three together?

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How do you personally resolve “God is love” with the orchestrator of a suffering world?

I think any approach has to start with the nature of love. We often think love would act like Prince Charming: it would come charging in on a white horse, sword raised, to save the day. But when we think of how parents love their children, it is quite different. Yes, some of the time they do charge in. But most of the time, they guide, persuade, and teach. Much of a parent’s life is holding back—allowing the child to make mistakes, to grow into themselves. I don’t think God makes the suffering that exists, but I think God does give the freedom that leads to suffering because there is no other way the world could grow up.

 

It seems the whole development of the universe has come about from a dance between life and death. From heavy elements being formed in the heart of stars long since supernovaed to evolution by natural selection. Why is death needed for life?

We sometimes talk about “life beginning in the womb”, but that is a mistake. Life doesn’t begin in the womb—life continues in the womb. It carries on in the long unbroken line of life that began with the first cell and lives on in us. But, if every early life form was around, they would take up all the available energy from the sun and there would be no room for any new life. We wouldn’t be here if other organisms had not died. So, life doesn’t technically require death, but new life does. A flourishing human life certainly needs the death of millions of our own cells a day, so the death of our cells leads to a healthy whole body. Death isn’t needed for life: you could have cells live forever. That’s actually more or less what cancer is—a type of cellular immortality. But that is just the problem: cells that live forever don’t leave room for anything else. The cancer ends up beating out every other type of cell and causing the death of the organism. Any organism that didn’t die naturally (and there is a new type of ‘immortal’ jellyfish, the Turritopsis dohrniim but thankfully it is only 5mm big!) would slowly take over the world if it was not in danger of being eaten. Death makes room for others, and supports other life. We cannot live without causing death to other life, even if that is only plant life.

 

If you were to design “Hell” what would it be like?

Non-existent.

 

How can we live lives that flourish despite the surrounding suffering?

Actually, suffering is necessary to our flourishing. There are people who are born without the ability to feel pain—it is not a blessing, but a curse. Pain protects us by telling us how to live in a world where things can harm us. Without it, we would lose a necessary defensive mechanism. So, rather than try and avoid our pain or anaesthetise it, it is actually important to listen to our pain and work within the limitations of our bodies and our environments.


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