Perhaps some of you watched Oak Tree: Nature’s Greatest Survivor in the last fortnight. It was a fascinating story of a year in the life of a four hundred year old tree, using the most modern methods of analysis. I found it riveting.
We saw the acorn springing into life, for all the world like an embryo, following the ingenious plan which ensured a new, unique, pattern of genes each time. We studied the root pattern with all its flexibility needed to ensure the right nutrients, and the right support for the great mass of the tree. At each change of the seasons we saw how the tree recognised the changes and produced the various hormones required to prepare for coming conditions.
Strictly, one cannot refer to an intelligent tree, but certainly we are looking at a highly complex, flexible and intelligent system – one good enough to keep the tree in good fettle since it was born at the time of the Civil War. And I rejoiced in it because God was right at its heart. Through his wonderful idea of evolution, this marvel was made. And, if I had to discern God’s major characteristic, without any other evidence, I would say that he is in love with, besotted with, life.
Of course many of a scientific mind would laugh at my credulity. Everything, they would say, can be explained though cause and effect – even if we don’t yet have all the answers. They would call me superstitious, and I am glad of that because the word literally means ‘to stand above’. I do not believe that the oak tree explains itself. I do not believe that the natural world explains itself. I do not believe that human life explains itself. I do believe that the world has meaning precisely because there is an infinite power which ‘stands above’.
I am reminded of the late Frank Sheed, the great lay Catholic theologian. He taught that every atom of the universe is a sign of God’s presence because it is held in existence by his active creative will. Were he to withdraw his will that atom would revert to its previous condition – nothingness.
Nowadays I see the beginnings of a change in the scientific mind. I am not thinking of the troll-like undergrowth whose instinctive reaction to belief is mockery. It is the thinkers I have in mind. They may not know the answers, and some may wish to avoid the answers. But the questions still come. Is there a purpose to my life? Why do I know that I must achieve good and avoid the evil? What is love? What does choice mean in a world of cause and effect? Science is good at finding out facts, but it cannot address the big questions. And, in the end, it is the big questions which matter.
Oak Tree is on Iplayer, available until 22 October, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06fq03t/oak-tree-natures-greatest-survivor