What do you do when COVID-19 restrictions hit your face-to-face conference with more than 50 speakers lined up?
You stage it online from one location, with five separate studios and a small face-to-face audience.
Speakers included doctors, theologians, students, physicists, bioethicists, bushfire experts, climate scientists and film makers.
Then, what do you do when, two days out, new restrictions mean the team can’t work from one location -and no face-to-face audience is allowed?
You run it from lounge rooms and kitchens.
That’s the story of ISCAST’s 12th annual Conference on Science and Christianity – COSAC 2020.
Held in mid July over one weekend, COSAC 2020 linked its broad range of speakers with the theme ‘A Hopeful Future? Christians, Creation and the AI World’.
From Australia and New Zealand, speakers included doctors, theologians, students, physicists, bioethicists, bushfire experts, climate scientists and film makers. The variety and depth of presentations was impressive and those who attended enjoyed robust discussions that followed.
Opening the conference was Tony Rinaudo, the ‘forest maker’ and winner of the alternate Nobel Prize, who presented a story that can only be described as a modern-day miracle. When Tony and his wife arrived in Niger as agricultural missionaries many years ago, they were greeted with an environment on the brink of collapse. The landscape was denuded, with little vegetation and no habitat for predators. The local communities were in crisis, unable to grow enough to sustain their families. After over two years of tree planting with little success, Tony felt helpless.
Strongly believing he was sent to Africa for a purpose, he asked God to forgive Western people for the destruction we had caused to his creation which resulted in suffering for so many people. Soon after, God blessed Tony with a light-bulb moment as he fixed a puncture on his car in the desert. He then began a farmer-managed revegetation plan that has transformed the landscape and arrested its decline into desert.
The expansion of this program across an area larger than Tasmania in Niger and across Africa is truly amazing. Almost-dead ecosystems have been restored and millions of lives sustained through improved and radical farming practices.
Scripture needed to be intelligible and culturally versatile, according to Andrew Brown.
Another outstanding COSAC moment came from Dr Natasha Moore, of the Centre for Public Christianity, with her curiously titled “Welcome to the Apocalypse!” Moore reflected on cultural pessimism and highlighted its renewed popularity in our society. She noted that many of us have taken to ‘doom-scrolling’, as a way to feed our negativity.
Moore thinks our cultural pessimism is of greater concern than the catastrophes it feeds on. She directed us back to our faith, pointing out we should a have a healthy pessimism about the destructiveness of our human nature but, because of grace through Christ, there is much more hope than we are inclined to think.
Rev. Dr Andrew Brown closed the ISCAST conference with a clear presentation about how the relationship between science and faith has been understood through history. The early chapters of Genesis can be a fundamental conflict for some but Brown reminded us that Scripture was never intended to be factually comprehensive, culturally neutral, or to describe natural processes in a scientific mode. However, Scripture needed to be intelligible and culturally versatile.
Brown encouraged us to interpret the Bible and our scientific understanding in light of these intentions.
Although we missed meeting and chatting over meals or a cup of coffee, we saw some advantages to the all-online format. Delegates from overseas countries such as India, Singapore, the USA, Canada and New Zealand, could now attend, as well as those from all states of Australia who otherwise would not have been able to make it. As well, the recorded presentations can be watched well after the conference has ended – check the special ISCAST site for viewing details.
Given these positives, perhaps COSAC 2021 will be a mixture of both digital and face-to-face events.
Dr Sarah Wilson is ISCAST Program Director. ISCAST is a network of people, from students to academics, who share the vision of engaging Australians in constructive conversation between Christian faith and the sciences.