Faraday Institute, Cambridge Courses in India. November 2019

At the end of November, I had the privilege of joining members of the Faraday Institute, Cambridge for a two week trip to South India. We delivered 3-day courses at three different centres: the Christian Ecumenical Centre in Bengaluru; the Church of Divine Patience (held in a hotel) in Madurai; and the Christian Medical College, Vellore. I gave eleven lectures and took part in three Q&A sessions at these courses. The lectures from other speakers included biological, medical and physics aspects of science and faith, my own contribution being essentially in the areas of Bible and science, and environmental theology/climate change.

In Bengaluru the large CEC campus was green and leafy, with a mini-farm at one end, and with many of the 70 staff living on campus. There were various eco-focused signs amongst the trees, and one read: ‘The six best doctors anywhere and none can deny it are sunshine, water, rest and air, and exercise and diet. These six will gladly attend if only you are willing. Your ills they will mend, your cares they will tend, and charge you not a price’. (I suspect that in the original this said ‘shilling’ not ‘price’to rhyme.) There were around 200 delegates in total, mostly from three different Christian theological seminaries, but some others, including a Buddhist monk from Nepal. There were some scientists or those with a science background, but not many. There was a very interesting group of five delegates who came from Bangladesh and were particularly engaged with all the discussions. The Faraday speakers were Prof Denis Alexander, Prof Russell Cowburn and myself. There were two local speakers: Dr Mathew Chandrankunnel who spoke on ‘Science and Faith in the Indian Context’ and Dr. Ashok Alur (Hindu I think) spoke on ‘The Environmental Challenges of Modern India’ and who had a real passion for environmental care. There was an excellent atmosphere at all times and those of us from Faraday were constantly photographed and asked for selfies.

In Madurai, the Course was a joint collaboration between Faraday and the Mens’ Fellowship of the Church of the Divine Patience, Madurai. The course was held at the JC Residency, a hotel owned and run by Christians in the middle of Madurai. In a predominantly Hindu country it was interesting to see the symbol of five loaves and two fish and the reference Matthew 15:15-21 on the outside of the hotel. There were sixty delegates (the capacity of the venue), all from local churches, and mostly evangelical Christians, largely middle-class, from educational and business backgrounds, for whom the topic of science and faith was quite new. There were no local speakers because this was a church-based course. I had been asked to do 3.5 hours (in total) on the context of the New Testament churches (helped by some excellent cartoon-style American videos supplied by our hosts via the internet), including a session on the Pauline epistles. I think the idea here was that ‘science’ includes archaeology, history and cultural analysis, and so this was all part of the course. Denis Alexander gave two separate lectures on ‘Creation and Evolution – Do We Have to Choose?’ at two local Colleges: Lady Hope College (female only), originally founded by missionaries’ this was attended by about 400 undergrads plus a few rows of male pupils from a local school; and the American College founded by Scottish missionaries in 1881.

The third course was held in the Christian Medical College in Vellore, which included the CMC hospital, seven kilometres away, treating 9000 outpatients each day. The speakers were: Denis Alexander and myself plus Prof Hill Gaston (who joined by Zoom), and local speakers: Mr Neil Vimalkumar Boniface, Dr Joshua Kalapati, Dr Oby Cherian, Dr Anuradha Rose, Revd Noel Prabhuraj and Prof Dr Latha Christie. The first two days of the course were held on the CMC campus in a big examination hall; the third day was held in the hospital, which was founded by missionary, Dr Ida Scudder. The hospital is one of the top three in India and its reputation is high amongst all religious communities. It has 22 chaplains and the senior chaplain was the main organizer and compere of the course. There were 71 delegates, nearly all from CMC – mostly clinicians, lecturers, and chaplains, although about 200 were present at the evening public lectures, numbers largely boosted by big groups of students coming from local colleges.

Generally, at all three venues, a literal engagement with the Bible demonstrated a need for biblical hermeneutics. The three Courses were good at helping Christians in their thinking about science and faith, though Hindus were also present at the Bengaluru Course, and especially at the Vellore public lectures. There were also some atheists.

Two weeks before we arrived it had been reported that there were levels of dangerous particles in the air – known as PM2.5. Particulate matter (PM) is a term used to describe the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. Particulate matter (including soot) is emitted during the combustion of solid and liquid fuels, such as for power generation, domestic heating and in vehicle engines. In Delhi, it was at well over ten times safe limits. Although a restriction on cars had been imposed, they are not believed to be the main cause of Delhi’s toxic air, with experts pointing instead to crop burning by farmers in neighbouring states to clear fields. Health officials asked people to stay indoors and refrain from doing any physical activity as millions are at risk of respiratory illness. Schools were closed as the city choked under a thick blanket of smog. The smog creates a lethal cocktail of particulate matter – carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide – all were worsened by fireworks set off during the Hindu festival of Diwali at the end of October. Construction and industrial emissions have also contributed to the smog. This event gave me an immediate opening illustration for my lectures on climate change and the environment.

I met no climate change deniers and all three audiences seemed to be supportive of mitigation activities by the Indian Government, although they did admit that there were plenty of good intentions, but apart from India’s exceptional progress in renewables, little other action. India accounts for about 4.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and has committed that by 2030, at least 40% of its electricity will be generated from non-fossil sources. It is at present ahead of its target. India is running one of the largest and most ambitious renewable capacity expansion programs in the world. In 2019 at the UN climate summit, Prime Minister Modi announced that India will be more than doubling its renewable energy target. It is the fourth-largest wind power producer in the world and has both solar parks as well as roof-top solar panels (three of the top five largest solar parks worldwide are in India including the second-largest solar park in the world at Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh). Wind or solar photovoltaic paired with four-hour battery storage systems is already cost-competitive, without subsidy, as a source of dispatchable generation compared with new coal and new gas plants in India.

The weather while I was in South India was warm, 32oC most of the time, and with high humidity. I also had the joy of experiencing monsoon rains on the car journey from Vellore to Chennai – bow waves from passing lorries overwhelming our taxi! It was good to return home without mosquito bites, dengue fever or stomach upsets. However, the 3oC temperature at Bedford railway station was a shock to the system. All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I believe, worthwhile.

Rev Dr John Weaver is Vice-President of JRI