5 March 2021
On the radio I heard an interview with a Christian who was using the Bible to prove the world was flat and the sun revolved around the earth.
In a universe. where there are estimated to be about 50 billion galaxies;, extending across some 300 billion billion light years of ever-expanding time-space -.in a world where when we look at the skies where stars are still being born, like the processes which took place when our own sun came into being, how could someone try to interpret scripture in this way and more importantly why on earth would they wish to confine this amazing universe to a static model of past centuries? In doing so they cut off anyone who has any sort of scientific curiosity from belief .
His understanding that any credible theology and the spirituality that follows from it must seek to integrate all human knowledge is one we should share. But he can?t ignore contemporary knowledge to keep his image of God.
Our collective self understanding depends on how we see the world. And our understanding of our world is very different to that before the age of Galileo. For Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, star-gazing was a spiritual exercise. Ignatius's material world, was defined in Aristotelian and Ptolemaic terms, as a biological system with the earth at the centre of the cosmos. The "heavens," were part of the physical world.. The stars fixed in their crystalline spheres were made of the same fiery element as the fiery element in humans. Growing things drew their strength from the moon, gold and silver from the sun and moon respectively, copper from the planet Venus. If he listened hard he might hear the music the stellar spheres were supposed to make as they were moved.
When Galileo invented the telescope and made observations which questioned this long held view he implicitly questioned the prevailing image of God and Copernicus, who followed, in pushing his observations that the earth was not the centre of things but moved around the sun drastically changed human self understanding as being the centre of the universe.
It was theologians who defined the universe at this time. The way the universe was perceived to work was intimately bound up with the way in which God was seen to be.. Fiddle with the universe and you fiddle with God. That is where this person I heard being interviewed was coming from. His interpretation of the bible led to a particular understanding of the universe.
Seventeenth century Europe was torn apart by years of religious warfare. Into a longing for stability and constancy, came Isaac Newton. with his mathematical laws of motion. This pictured a universe which carried on with clock-like regularity following the pre-determined laws of motion. Humans could work with the laws and appear to have control over their world.
It was also an appealing model for society. For Newton this order proceeded from God?s will. An image of a timeless, unchanging and trustworthy deity, whose universe reflected his characteristics.
This God is the divine clock maker who winds up the whole system and leaves it to get on, occasionally intercepting problems, [the divine spanner]. There is a real problem in this image of God.
This God is not the Holy one, whom Jesus reveals, who is with and part of all creation. This is the God of deism. This God's main purpose is to give an explanation for the beginning and it is sometimes called the "God of the Gaps". A God who fills the gaps when needed as an explanation for things. As the gaps got smaller, this God has rapidly become redundant, been retired and is now totally irrelevant. Unfortunately, many equated this God with the Christian understanding of God, and assumed that they also had to throw their Christian faith away . God cannot be reduced to an explanation.
When I read a superb biography of Charles Darwin who put forward the theory of an evolutionary origin of the species, , I could not understand how a man who could think so logically was so inept at exploring his own faith. Darwin had a great fear about destroying people's faith by putting forward his theory. One reason was that the biblical account was questioned, but the second was that basically he had a deist God who had shrunk to almost nothing once a blind evolutionary process was thought to have produced humanity.
That world view did not offer Christians a way of integrating a God who was also amongst God's creation as Trinity, Son and Spirit. . .
A split developed between so called objective "facts" and this was left to the scientists and mathematicians, and faith and human dynamics which was left to the theologians and social scientists.
For example, we get the 20th century dualism about Jesus of Faith and Jesus of history from this split. Also Protestants emphasised Jesus as the primary revelation of God through scripture and tended to ignore nature as a place of revelation.
Ever since Newton, our wider environment has been primarily defined by scientists rather than theologians. Those scientists have not been able to resist doing the pre modern thing of extrapolating their discoveries into making claims about the whole of which we humans are a part. . The French biologist Jacques Monod insists that the universe is indifferent to us. Mature human beings accept they are totally isolated in the universe. British zoologist Richard Dawkins considers human freedom is an illusion, living organisms exist for the benefit of DNA rather than the other way around and Steven Weinburg, Nobel prize winner in physics says the more the universe seems comprehensible the more pointless it seems.
What do Christians do with these statements?
When I did my degree in Science, we spent the first two years at University unlearning all the things we had been taught in school. Even Einstein did not have the final word. There was now an unpredictability when we got to speeds beyond the speed of light, and with subatomic particles. Suddenly, the seemingly stable world was once again thrown into chaos. Touch and sight was no longer as dependable as we had learned. All was not as it seemed. And the discoveries have continued and some are very exciting.
Today's scientific understandings can give us new images which integrate our image of God and our human knowledge without the need for a splitting into different realms, and which put humans into the universe. David S. Toolan describes it as the double accounting system of Newtonian times can now revert to one system.
The standard scientific understanding of the universe being indifferent to humans who think. reason plan and understand is challenged.
Stephen Hawkings and those like him, who look at the origins of the universe, deal with matter at the sub atomic level and this matter behaves quite differently to that described by Newton and to some extent Einstein.
It is now accepted that the universe had a beginning , time has a history, and somehow at the beginning it was exactly calibrated to produce life.
Is this mere coincidence? The strongest theory [time constraints will not allow exploration of all theories today] says, much to the horror of many scientists, that there is a purpose. That from the very beginning the universe has been working toward us. We belong here, are a vital part of the universe's immense journey.
What one can safely say is that when a modern star-gazer reflects in faith on the startling initial conditions of the universe, he or she contemplates once again like Ignatius, an amazing grace. Quite literally, we are the fallout of the stars, and unless Carl Sagan discovers extraterrestrials, we are probably the only ones in the cosmos who will be able to tell its story and say what it shall mean. [Toolon]
We also find that as pure energy is absorbed and reordered that the end of things are the beginnings of new things. Energy, light, heat is changed and transformed, miniscule changes can make huge differences in the large scheme of things. Chaos theory - misnamed it is about this reordering and puts it like this: Butterflies flapping their wings in Africa can make a storm over China.
So where does this put us cosmologically?
It puts us in a universe that would have been familiar to the Hebrew prophets - one on the move, rich in possibility, rich in promise where the God of Rainbow covenants with creation.
Toolon suggests that "this post-Einsteinian universe offers signs of grace and gives birth to diversity on a scale never dreamed of by our medieval ancestors. The sheer scale and immense creativity of the cosmos can serve the believer as an image of the greatness, creativity, and generosity of the Holy One. The One who breaks our boundaries, who stretches us, whose "thoughts are not your thoughts" and whose ways are "as high as the heavens above the earth" (Isa. 55--59). A place where we belong.
And what of Jesus? That itinerant preacher of good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden
The one who is described
God wanted all perfection to be found in him
and all things to be reconciled through him and for him,
everything in heaven and everything on earth ...(Col. 1:15--20)
Born of woman and the Hebrew gene pool, Christians also understand him as born from the Spirit's wind. He is earth-stuff doing the will of the Father of Mercies. He is also seen as the axis of cosmic time, and the one who is the embodiment of our species. The carrier and vessel, the fleshing out of the Creator's great dream for the universe. He embodies the rainbow covenant and reveals what from the outset the Poet-Creator imagined for the profusion of quarks that over the course of 15 billions years would take the form of human beings
For those who followed him, it sounded as if the desire of the everlasting hills had at last surfaced in the throat of a man, and that in hearing him, they were listening to the voice of the Creator who would have the very atoms of their bodies leap in ecstasy. The Word, they cheered, "was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory ... full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). A minority of one, a miniscule disturber of the field in first-century Palestine, would alter the course of history.
Notice what happens at Jesus' Last supper. Jesus, both channel of Spirit-Energy and cosmic dust himself, freely but simply identifies with the fruits of earth - the ash of a dying star present in bread and wine - He converts these gifts of earth, the work of human hands, into another story than the nightmarish one we have been telling with them. Inanimate earth-stuff is converted into a common table, a feast of unconditional love and forgiveness - a sign that communicates plentiful, tangible grace."
Today with the wise men, we follow the dancing stars of God?s unimaginable universe and find they lead to this Jesus, in whom all things have their being.
Footnotes and references
For the world in which a medieval person - and presumably Ignatius Loyola - dwelt, see Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988 ), 76--77.
David S. Toolan, S.J Cross Currents, Fall 1996.
Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 172--73.
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Heinemann, 1986), 126.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, updated ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 154.
But what if this is untrue? Suppose we really belong here, are in fact a part of nature's thrust, as nearly everyone before the seventeenth century claimed. What if the evolution of mind is what this universe has been about since the first three seconds?
Curiously, physicists now toy with the notion that mind, after all, may be a fundamental aspect of nature, and not just an incongruous accident. They call it the "anthropic principle" (from the Greek word for "human being") - which holds that the cosmos, from its very opening, was precisely programmed for the emergence of life and mind. Cf. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). For a discussion of its theological implications, see John F. Haught, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1995), 120--41
David S. Toolan, S.J Cross Currents, Fall 1996.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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