Cosmology & Theology – start here?

Recently I came across this short essay which asks some the key questions on the debate between cosmology and theology. More can be found on Diarmuid O’Murchu’s website.

 

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From Universe to Multiverse

(READER’s NOTE: Officially, the word multiverse means several universes existing simultaneously. It is sometimes used to refer to the possibility that other universes existed before the present one, and others may succeed it. I use the term with BOTH meanings in mind).

Galileo was hammered by the Catholic Church for endorsing the Copernican theory  that the Earth revolved around the Sun, putting the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the Milky Way galaxy. We were awakening to a new expansive view of the universe, although it would take almost another 400 years before we would break the firm grip of ecclesiastical control and scientific reductionism. In 1650, the noted Biblical scholar, Archbishop James Ussher calculated that the creation of the world took place on Oct. 23rd, 4004 BCE, and that the end of the world would occur at noon on Oct 23rd., 1997. That became standard Catechetical teaching in many parts of the Christian world up to about 1960.

Meanwhile, a mind-shift had happened in the early 1900s with Einstein’s theories of Relativity and the formulation of the Quantum Theory. It was no longer the Earth that engaged the searching mind but the universe at large, now so complex and mysterious that talk about its beginning or end seemed short-sighted and even irrelevant. 

Towards the Big Bang

With the Hubble discoveries of the late 1920s and the pioneering work of the Belgian priest-astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, the seeds were sown for the leading theory of 20th. Century science: The Big Bang. The term was coined by Fred Hoyle in the 1940s but only became a formal theory after the discovery of the cosmic background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1963. From a single point of energy, 13-15 billion years ago, everything we know in creation today began to unfold, including Planet Earth which first evolved about 4.0 billion years ago.

That which gave us the evidence for the Big Bang threw up other imponderables, particularly the discovery of powerful gravity in the distant horizons of time-space. The strength of the gravity waves suggests that great quantities of matter exist out there somewhere. Its nature and location we know nothing about as yet, but scientists are forced to the bewildering conclusion that the observable world comprises at most 10% of the known universe, which means we know nothing about 90% of the created universe.

It has taken discoveries of this nature to challenge the arrogance with which we humans study and propose theorise about the created universe. The real issue of course is neither discovery nor study, but POWER. We feel we have the right to be in control, absolute control and this is still the driving force behind a great deal of modern science, and sadly behind a good deal of religious dogmatism as well.

Another Quantum Leap ?

Finally we come to the real big stuff: the multiverse. The story can be traced back to 1957 when an American doctoral student, Hugh Everett (supervised by the Princeton professor, John A. Wheeler), proposed the possible existence of several rather than one universe. His argument is based on mathematical equations derived from Quantum Theory which also leads to the notion that the universe is self-creating and poised for indefinite growth and expansion.

In the 1981, the idea of a multiverse got an added boost from Alan Guth’s inflationary theory. Quantum theory postulates the existence of an original empty space (hence, the quantum vacuum), consisting of energy movements (fluctuations) from which all matter is shaped and formed. Guth proposes that the fluctuations initially manifest like bubbles in a foam, and shortly after the big bang, these bubbles expanded (inflated) each becoming a mini-universe in its own right. A great deal of experimental evidence supports this proposal. And it is strongly endorsed by leading scientists of our time including Andri Linde (Moscow & Stanford), Marin Rees (Cambridge), Brian Green (Columbia), Paul Davies (Sydney).

I find the adoption of fractal geometry particularly inspiring: “Recent versions of inflationary theory assert that instead of being a ball of fire, the universe is a huge growing fractal.” (Andrei Linde). Fractals are revolutionary new mathematical image-like concepts, in which we find repeated patterns buried deeper and deeper (a bit like a Russian doll). The more we unravel the observable pattern (through computer simulations) the more we find it repeated in the subsistent layers. It is a wonderful exposition of the leading principle of the new physics: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, yet the whole is contained in each part. (for more on fractals see my book, Quantum Theology, 2004, pp.51-53).

Theological Implications.

For those who wish to delve deeper, the web pages I cite at the end will provide additional information on these complex ideas. How do we relate these discoveries to the realm of faith, Christian or otherwise? I offer a few thoughts.


1. Long before religion ever evolved, humans believed that the divine was intimately involved in creation. All the religions support this idea. Is creation then a kind of primary revelation of God to us? If so, we need to attend carefully to how we understand creation.

2. Our human tendency especially in the past 2000 years is to reduce creation to a human artefact, one we can use and subdue to our advantage; all the major religions, to one degree or another, endorse this orientation. Consequently, we can no longer assume that the religious understandings of creation are in any way adequate – spiritually or theologically.

3. Although scientists also embrace the addictive preoccupation with power and control, many of their intuitions into cosmic and planetary life may be much more spiritually informed than the insights of formalised religions. On the other hand, several of these scientific insights are congruent with those of great mystics from all the religious traditions of humankind.

4. Christian theologians exhibit strong concern about the notion of creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing). They wish to retain this belief in order to safeguard divine initiative, and presumably their understanding of divine power. Today, we understand the primordial nothingness as a substratum of seething creativity. Perhaps, for God, the notion of a beginning-point is of no significance. Might it not be another anthropocentric fascination!

5. Scriptures of all traditions allude to the end of the world. It is very explicit in the
Christian and Muslim traditions. Contemporary science is rapidly moving towards the notion of a world without beginning or end. Might this not be a stronger indicator of truth, rather than the anti-world stance that underpins some of the major religions?

6. The big fear – scientifically and religiously – generated by many of these new ideas  concerns our human place and role in the plan of creation. It is abundantly clear that we are not in charge, that we are not the ultimate species in any sense, that we rely on many other aspects of creation to survive on earth, that we are one small organism among so many others, and disturbingly, not as wise as we would like to think. So what is our purpose? Of all the responses to this question the one I find most challenging and inspiring is the proposal that we are creation becoming aware of itself. Our unique vocation – and contribution to creation – is to enhance the growth in consciousness. An awesome responsibility! (Perhaps, this is what all the great mystics were, and are, about!)

7. Theologically, the crucial issue is around the notion of revelation. If the divine has been disclosing creativity and meaning in the entire story of creation, throughout these billions of years, why restrict the empowerment of the divine to religiously-validated time and culture boundaries? Somehow, it does not seem to make sense anymore!

Useful Source material:

For a useful overview of current thinking on the Multiverse, see: George Ellis, “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” Scientific American, Vol 305 (Aug 2011), 18-23.
John Gribbin (2009), In Search of the Multiverse.
Joel Primack & Nancy Abrams (2006)The View from the Center of the Universe.

WEB Pages:
http://www.astro.ucla.edu/research/cosmology.shtml
http://www.edge.org: edited by John Brockman,engages leading scientists in ongoing dialogue.

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What is the Scottish Vision?

saltireJohn Drane explores a new spiritual vision for Scotland when he writes….

The first thing to say is that Scotland is not the same as England! We have different legal, educational, and healthcare systems from our nearest neighbours, and soon we might even be a foreign country. Our churches are also different.

Anglicans are Scottish Episcopalians. The national church, the Church of Scotland, is Presbyterian. And whatever you do, don’t confuse the Free Church of Scotland with the Free Churches in England! But the challenges and opportunities with which our churches are wrestling are the same as everywhere else in the developed countries of the western world.

The difficulties facing our churches are by no means unique, though we do have some distinctive historical baggage: in common with other European countries where the Reformation had a more stridently puritanical flavour than in England, Scotland is arguably a more secular country than other parts of the UK and many people are openly cynical about the role of religious institutions. Rapid and discontinuous cultural change has also taken its toll on traditional church life and though there are pockets of new life, in many places the story is one of declining numbers and aging congregations.

More than a decade ago, the Church of Scotland’s Church without Walls report (2001) gave a focus for new thinking about the nature of a missional church. In 2011 another report (Reformed, Reforming, Emerging and Experimenting), which I jointly authored with Olive Fleming Drane, documented the emergence of new forms of Christian faith community and highlighted the need for fresh thinking that would recognise these ventures within the structures of the church.

As the Joint Emerging Church Group of the Ministries Council and the Mission and Discipleship Council reflected on all this, the obvious conclusion was that the Church of Scotland should become a partner in Fresh Expressions. One church leader recently suggested that this is the first time since the Reformation that the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have collaborated on specifically missional issues (as distinct from social and political matters). I have no idea whether that is entirely true, but it is undoubtedly a momentous opportunity for churches on both sides of the border.

Of course, Fresh Expressions has been represented right from the start in Scotland through those congregations that belong to the Methodist Church and more recently the URC and Salvation Army. They will welcome the Church of Scotland’s partnership, not least because the Kirk is numerically dominant over all other Protestant denominations (seven or eight times bigger than all the rest put together) and when it embraces something, that often creates an environment in which others can flourish more easily.

Unlike other denominations though, the Church of Scotland has a presence throughout the country. So this is a significant moment for those who are concerned with the re-evangelisation of Scotland. Central to this vision is an invitation to every parish to explore the possibilities of establishing an appropriately contextualised fresh expression of church by the year 2020 – something that will hopefully be pursued in an ecumenical context.

This will be a major challenge to many congregations, where change of any sort can seem alien and threatening. But a growing number of people have already glimpsed new possibilities and are eager to push forward with a new vision.

Since 2010, more than 200 individuals of all denominations have completed the mission shaped ministry course in Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, whilst vision days have taken place in other locations. The new partnerships will hopefully create spaces in which these people will be released to be in the vanguard of the development of fresh expressions in both urban and rural locations.

For there is no doubt that – especially at this time of national uncertainty, as we consider our relationship with the rest of the UK – our people need a new spiritual vision that will take us forward into what by any definition is an unknown future, to hear the gospel afresh in ways that will be comprehensible within today’s culture while also remaining true to the call of Jesus.

All very fine – but what is the vision and more to the point how do we make it happen?

Want to study the reformation for free?

If you have ever wanted to know more about the 16th Century Reformation and is lasting effect today, why not try the free course at the Khan Academy. It reviews the whole history of that era in a non-partisan way by exploring the personalities, politics and theologies involved. There is also the opportunity to comment and ask questions of this ‘sea-change’ that still influences Christian witness here and now.

 

Here is its link:

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/history/1500-1600-Renaissance-Reformation/protestant-reformation/a/an-introduction-to-the-protestant-reformation

 

Good studying !

Elijah v Baal Score 1-0!

flames Be honest! How true do you think the story of Elijah beating the Prophets of Baal in getting the BBQ going is? Did Elijah really set a load of wet wood on fire without match? Was it some form of spontaneous combustion or a lightening strike? Could it have indeed been the divine spark? Or with all this dancing around by the prophets of Baal, was it a comic story, there to mock the pagans. Is it a sort of Monty Python ‘dead parrot’ sketch to show that minor deities were never alive?

 

Well, all these explanations are possible yet not that important. What is important was why it was recorded in the first place and what effect it had. Since it seems that Elijah and his bonfire is set out to warn against not so much about worshipping other gods exclusively but to stop the worship of a panoply of gods. God then is portrayed as the ultimate being without either equal or lesser divine supporters.

 

Now this idea of a singular ultimate being was hugely novel to the primitive peoples in history who saw the divine world populated by a plethora of gods. God as God alone initially arose in the theological understanding of tribes of Israel. So much so, it defined their religion and conferred on them the status of a chosen people. Or put another way, if the Israelites had fallen into syncretistic habits of holding a pantheon of deities as holy then they would no longer be – Israelites. Doubtless then they would have faded from history. Therefore it was the result of their choice that day – that choice to again proclaim that The Lord is God – that allowed their survival as the people of faith.

 

Well, it would appear on a first look that multi-god worship is not a problem in hype- sophisticated Britain today. After all, Broughty isn’t littered with temples to Apollo, Jupiter or even Baal. Yet it has its other temples. Places where things are revered rather than God. Dare, in the same breath, I mention shopping malls, car showrooms, sports sites, work locations and even new housing estates; loci where hearts and minds are captured by desire and ambition. Objects that are points of destination rather than mere tools for a better way of living. In essence, jealously guarded achievements that weave their stories into ours and demand choices of us for their possession.

 

So what is our Elijah-like story that can compete? What is the tale we tell as Christians? How do we make those worshippers of lesser gods proclaim with us the Lord – he is God. Well that enlightening story is less told from our protestations than from our actions.  For while the prophets of Baal danced around their pyre with increasing frenzy, all Elijah did was feed the widow humbly and revive the son caringly.

 

And something like this came to my mind during a lunch break at the General Assembly. Maybe it was both the warmth of the day and the length of the week. But either way I gradually realised that my fellow commissioners seemed no more companionable, no more hospitable nor better mannered that the people walking by on the Royal Mile; indeed in some cases considerably less so. Therefore this community of committed Christians – despite much wordy protestations of fellowship in the hall – were no better or even worse than those without the gospel in their hearts. And that realisation left me dispirited.

 

 

May we then in our smaller and possibly less august body – here in St Luke’s – choose to do better. Let us commit ourselves to act always – one to another – with humility, valuing and concern. Let us like Elijah enflame our neighbours’ damped sense of community by our humble lives. Let our compassionate spark reflect the divine fire that will draw attention away from the god of self. Or as I saw on Facebook this week a blessing from William Channing; may your life preach more than your lips.

 

There was once an old missionary home from foreign parts on furlough in London. He was invited to a party at which many of the great and good were present. Maybe not surprising then he felt a bit like a fish out of water. Not least when each was required to say or do something to amuse the other guests. A singer of note, sang. A pianist played a show-time hit. A famous actor recited a piece from a popular play that included the Lord’s Prayer. Then it was holy gentleman’s turn. He protested he knew nothing or could perform anything. But they would not take no for answer. So he said the only words he could remember were the Lord’s Prayer and that had already been given. The company nevertheless accepted a repeat with a good grace and he started to speak. At the end, there was silence. Then the actor stepped forward and said I knew Christ’s words but our missionary friend clearly knew the author.

 

May we then this day make choices that shout to the rafters – the Lord is God – the Lord is my God. May our actions tell a story to set the hearts afire of all who are distracted by unworthy things. May the fibres of our life’s being say clearly we do know our true author and creator, our true mentor and friend, in truth our very true guiding light and ‘sole’ mate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to break a record today!

k7flipDuring our recent holiday in the Lake District, we saw two exhibitions dedicated to Malcolm and Donald Campbell. The first at the Lakeland Motor Museum had replicas of the Bluebird cars of father and son and the Bluebird K7 boat in which latter lost his life. More poignant, at the Ruskin Museum, were the various fragments of the actual Bluebird boat recovered from Coniston Water after Donald’s crash trying to keep his grasp of his own World Water Speed Record. This display in the village of Coniston also had his helmet and flying suit recorded with his remains in 2001. It is sad to think that when his boat literally became airborne from the glass-like surface of the water he was already travelling faster than any other human being afloat at over 300 mph.

Almost as sad is that this doomed yet heroic attempted seemed to close a era of the daring individual in favour of large teams  of specialists. For I suspect we shall never see such lone endeavours again.

But there is a lesson here for every congregation across Scotland. For the epoch of going it alone has definitely closed for them too. For if we are to face down and conquer the challenges ahead we will team work; team work of a whole congregation contributing their skills and abilities, teamwork of congregations helping across the whole tapestry of the Church’s community and teamwork of all denominations to witnessing the reality of Christ’s kingdom in its communal  word and deed.

 

At the Ruskin Museum I met an Australian who had seen Donald Campbell the day before his successful first attempt at the water record. He said he always regretted not going to see this feat the next day. Let us then not have any regrets of making insufficient efforts now at teamwork since then we will not miss our own record breaking for the gospel’s sake.

 

 

Dealing with mixed feelings

 

Luke 19.28-40a150

Tell me – how many cheers do you give today. And that the answer to that depends on whither you greet this morning with unalloyed joy or with mixed feelings. Certainly Christ greeted the Jerusalem crowd with the latter. As a result, our lesson this morning speak volumes for many of us here – many also who are just out there – many who have mixed feelings about entering. Continue reading

Days that changed the world

A Great ‘Thought for Today’

The BBC Radio 4’s ‘ Thought for the Day’ was both thought provoking and uplifting all people of faith.

This is what   Abdul Hakin Murad said:

Thought for the Day by Abdal Hakim Murad

As railway lovers everywhere will know, this month brings a black anniversary. In March 1963, Dr Beeching published his report on the reshaping of British Railways. The result was the closure of a third of our stations, with the loss of five thousand miles of track. 

Dr Beeching is remembered as a kind of vandal by many in the heritage railway movement. That’s much too harsh: there were plenty of branch lines and village halts which made no social or economic sense. 

Yet fifty years on, Dr Beeching’s conviction that the motor-car was the future, while trains were dinosaur-like survivals of the Victorian age, has run into the buffers. We travellers are using the railways more than we have for decades. Old routes, like the Waverley line into Edinburgh, are being resurrected from the dead, despite the expense. Here in Cambridge, we are about to build a brand new, second railway station, to relieve congestion on the roads. 

The most obvious lesson, made by Beeching’s opponents at the time, was that a purely economic assessment of a major national asset might turn out to be so narrow that it failed even on its own terms. Accountants are not prophets. 
But as we survey the map, it seems that something else, quite unlike the trains, is crying out for major rationalisation. This is Britain’s still vast religious infrastructure. As with the map of the railways, the religious landscape is filled with reminders of an age of competition. In many cities, there are mosques of different denominations built next to each other. Time for rationalisation, certainly; although the Muslim community is not at all ready for that. 

But the Beeching story has another moral. What if our predictions of an increasingly secular, unchurched and unmosqued Britain turn out to be as disastrously wrong as were Dr Beeching’s certainties about the railways? What if that moribund place of worship opposite your house, that might soon be pulled down, or turned into chic offices, is filled with enthusiastic young believers. 

In fact, the revival of religion is more likely than the revival of the rail network ever was. Faith is always unpredictable; but it seems to reach parts of us that nothing else can. We crave meaning, even more than we crave the ability to read emails and look at the scenery as we travel from A to B. 

Don’t then, junk the infrastructure, imagining that the future will be Godless. Whilst the temptation is to rationalise and to update. Nothing in the history of the human spirit is predicable. 

And in particular, let us avoid surrendering to the spirit of the age, blindly conforming to today’s intellectual fashions in the hope of delaying our demise. 

The ancient structures of belief, tried and tested through generations, have a way to go yet.

If you would like to listen to this speaker, please click here