Cambridge Festival asks the big questions about God, faith, and religion

Does AI present a threat to Christianity? Are religious texts dangerous? Do they incite violence? Does God exist? If so, what is God?

God

These profound questions are set to be debated at the Cambridge Festival by researchers from the University of Cambridge Faculty of Divinity during a series of talks and workshops that explore aspects of religious belief systems found all around the world.

The Festival, which runs from 31st March to 10th April, is the University of Cambridge’s leading public engagement event. With over 350 online and in person events, it is the largest event of its kind in the country. Almost all the events are completely free.

The last decade has seen dramatic advances in AI and robotics, raising tough questions about the implications for Christians. In The robot will see you now (31 March in person), Professor John Wyatt considers how Christians can respond to these issues – and flourish – in the years ahead. The talk is based on his recent book, The Robot Will See You Now: Artificial Intelligence and the Christian Faith (SPCK, 2021). John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics, Ethics and Perinatology, University College London, and Faraday Associate at The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. He has a special interest in the interface between medical ethics, technology and Christianity, and co-led a research project on the social, ethical and theological implications of advances in artificial intelligence and robotics based at The Faraday Institute.

Conflict, war, and violence are common in the world today. Many people think religion and scripture fan the flames. Are they right? Should seemingly violent passages in scripture be rejected, embraced or ignored? The interactive workshop, Scripture & violence (31 March in person) examines violent-sounding passages from the Bible and the Quran and considers how religious communities approach these texts. The event includes an introductory presentation about the Scripture & Violence Project (a Cambridge Interfaith Programme initiative) followed by an in-depth participatory discussion of a sample passage from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The workshop is led by researchers from the Scripture & Violence Project: Dr Julia Snyder, Lecturer in New Testament at Westcott House, Cambridge and Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, whose areas of research include both early Christian texts and contemporary interfaith relations, and Dr Daniel H. Weiss, Polonsky-Coexist Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies, whose research focusses on Jewish religious thought and philosophy, classical Jewish texts, and interreligious relations.

Dr Snyder explains: “Many people today express concerns about violent-sounding passages in the Bible and the Quran. If you study these texts in detail, however, and learn about how religious communities engage with them, you usually discover that they’re not as problematic as they might have seemed at first glance.”  

Drs Weiss and Snyder have also co-created a short film about this topic, in collaboration with professional animator Riitta Hakkarainen. This is due to premiere at the Cambridge Festival’s Creative Encounters event (9 April in person and online).  

Dialogue between people of faith has become increasingly important for those who seek to prevent violent conflict. In its most basic sense, interfaith activity involves people or groups from different religious/spiritual worldviews and traditions coming together. In Sacred: Scriptural Reasoning with Cambridge Interfaith Programme (5 April in person) people from different faiths (and none) are invited to an interactive session, reading and reflecting together on passages on the theme ‘Sacred’ from Muslim, Jewish and Christian scriptures. The event will be led by Dr Giles Waller (a Research Associate with Cambridge Interfaith Programme), Rabbi Dr Tali Artman-Partock and a co-facilitator from Cambridge Muslim College.

Scriptural Reasoning is a tool for interfaith dialogue whereby people of different faiths come together to read and reflect on their scriptures. Unlike many forms of interfaith engagement, Scriptural Reasoning is not about seeking agreement but rather exploring the texts and their possible interpretations across faith boundaries. The result is often a deeper understanding of others and one’s own religious texts, as well as the development of strong bonds across faith communities.

Recent debates between theists and atheists have argued for and against the logical credibility of belief in God. Atheists have argued that belief in God is unreasonable, while theists have argued that disbelief in God is immoral. Yet both sides share a belief that the questions of religion can only be settled by the correct use of reason and logic. In The logic of religion: beyond atheism versus theism (7 April in person), PhD student Ryan Haecker – whose research explores the intersections of ancient Platonism, medieval scholasticism, and modern idealism – explores the recent debates between theists and atheists arguing for and against belief in God.

Further related events include:

  • The big questions of religion, philosophy and ethics: Cambridge in your classroom (31 March online). Can we prove God’s existence? What is the apocalypse? Are all Muslims the same? Does God have a gendered body? Experts from the Faculty of Divinity answer some of the big questions of religion, philosophy and ethics in this series of Cambridge in your Classroom. Aimed at students aged 14-18, Cambridge in Your Classroom is a joint project by the Faculty of Divinity and the Faculty of Education Religious Studies PGCE course.

  • Britain, The West Indies and the case for (and against) reparations (2 April in person). Does the history of Britain’s relationship with the West Indies (constituted by 350 years of slavery, servitude and colonial exploitation or neglect) demand the making of reparations? This talk sets out a case for reparations and considers frequently put objections. With Revd Dr Michael Banner of Trinity College and Professor David Fergusson from the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. Chaired by Professor Esra Özyürek, Sultan Qaboos Professor of Abrahamic Faiths and Shared Values, Academic Director of Cambridge Interfaith Programme, and University of Cambridge Race Equality Champion.

  • Festival evening service: the eight words of the passion with the Tim Boniface jazz quartet (3 April in person and online). Don't miss this year's University Church service for the Cambridge Festival, featuring the renowned Tim Boniface Quartet. The Revd Dr Tim Boniface is a Fellow of Girton College and the Girton College Chaplain, as well as an acclaimed jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer. In addition to Boniface on saxophones, the quartet features the explosively talented rhythm section of Phil Merriman (piano), Ed Babar (bass) and Jon Ormston (drums).

For the full programme and bookings, please see the Festival website: www.festival.cam.ac.uk

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