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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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 !

Read if you are in a dark place!

Carlyle Marney was one of the great preachers in the Southern states of America during the time after the Second World War. He was a mentor and role model to many ministers. One of the stories attributed to the rich legacy he left behind took place on a seminary campus where he was invited to be the speaker for a distinguished lectureship. One of the students asked, “Dr. Marney let us hear you say a word or two about the meaning of the resurrection.” It was a fair question and an appropriate one from a future preacher to one who was already a great practitioner of the art of preaching. However the young  students were taken aback by Marney’s response. Dr. Marney replied, “I will not discuss that with people like you.” Continue reading

Poem for times of trouble

I found this on my Facebook page today:

 

We who were once far off,9994-sunrise-at-orvieto-umbria-italy-free-landscape-and-scenic-desktop_531x331
who wandered as if
in a wilderness,
searching for water,
desperate for shade,
now rest in your embrace,
feast on your word,
drink from a well
that will never run dry,
and have found the place
we were searching for,
as Christ has brought us home.

Can you ever forget this story?

This is one of the most memorable stories  I have ever heard! It comes in Katheleen O’Sullivan’s superb book Light out of Darkness in a chapter on A listening experience:

christmas-332When I began to write about ‘listening’ I felt urged in prayer to go out among the people and listen. I went into a fish-and-chip shop. The space was very limited. It was a bitterly cold day. Perhaps the cold made us a pretty soulless group of people. I was trying to listen. There seemed to be little communication between us. I smiled at a little girl who was splashing vinegar on her chips. For a moment, her mother half looked and half smiled at me. We were there seemingly for one purpose only, to get our food, to get home and be comfortable. I felt depressed as I listened.

Suddenly I became aware of a change in the atmosphere. 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

Martin Luther – Here I stand!

Texts:

Romans 1.11-17

Galatians 3.26-4.7

When they are on the goggle box, we all love court room dramas. And our next turning point in the Reformation has one. It happened during a legal sitting of the Holy Roman Emperor who was the overlord of broadly the Low Countries, Germany and Spain. For, you see, Martin Luther had been called before this diet to make his case in 1521. He had been promised safe passage there but this had been breached in the previous case of Jan Hus and he rightly could fear the flames of a heretic’s death. So in his first appearance at the diet of worms – yes the schoolboy howler of the diet of worms, he was naturally very nervous. And so when he was asked to recant his views, he must have been strongly tempted to do so. Yet he managed to ask for a night to think it over. The emperor granted that and next morning he returned with renewed courage. In fact, he stood his ground of basing his theology on the rational discovery of truth through Scripture. Albeit probably he did not use the words later put into his mouth – here I stand, I can do no other. Nevertheless, it was that stance which was the starting gun for the reformation.

But what were these views that a devout man would risk the funeral pyre for and spark a European conflict of such dimensions that were not paralleled until the 20th Century? Moreover, what is the relevance of Luther’s theology today?

Well, without troubling you with a history lesson, Luther was reacting to both the thinking and practice of the church of his day. In general terms, the church considered that while we needed God’s help to get into a right relationship with him, some seeds of goodness lay within us. It’s a bit like serving a long prison sentence and then being given the generous offer of paying a large fine to be released. You dig out the old credit card and pay up from your own financial resources. Luther however, had a life long struggle find his wallet. In other words, year upon year, he fought to come up to the righteous measure of God; to meet God’s unwavering law as he saw it. But he felt a constant failure and feared God’s wrath at not being able to find any goodness within himself. Then he chanced on our Romans reading from today. He came to the conclusion, that nothing we can do can give us the right relationship with God.

But don’t worry – Luther knew a man who could. And that man was Jesus of Nazareth. For it is Christ –  who is external to us – that supplies all that is needed to get right with God – to be saved in the parlance. Returning to our prison analogy, we would be released not by our own payment but because the fine had been paid by someone else on our behalf. All that we would need is faith – faith in the man who had bailed us out – faith in Christ Jesus.

Well, assuming we too want to be in the right relationship with God, what did Luther mean by faith?

Certainly, he meant more than what many people claim is their faith today. Since, we can all hear the facts of Jesus’ life; listen to his words and even marvel at his needs. Yet unless somehow we actually go beyond an intellectual acceptance of Christ’s life and death and resurrection it is not saving faith. Instead, we must integrate the person beyond the parables into our heart of hearts. And we do that best by coming to complete submission; submitting to the truth that Jesus was born for us personally and submitting to he who alone who puts us right with God on an individual level. Put simply no church or minister can do that for you- only you can give in and find the living and saving Christ for yourself.

However, it goes beyond even that. For faith, to Luther, also meant trust. Now I don’t know about you but I am a nervous flyer in commercial aircraft. Pilot a glider or a light aircraft I can do – but when I enter the door of an airliner I feel the same as Luther at his can of worms. In other words, I have faith that the Boeing 737 before me can take me to London but I still have to have the faith to get into the contraption. So too it is with saving faith. We must not just believe that Jesus can get us right with God, we need also to rely that he has done so. That means taking risks in that faith. It means get out of the boat and walk impossibly on the water in that faith. It means truly living each day in that faith.

But Luther didn’t even stop there. Since for him there was a third and final aspect to being saved through faith. Because he saw faith not just putting us right with God and giving us a new dimension to living. Rather he saw faith uniting us with Christ. In his words faith bring union between Christ and the believer.

And that is pretty powerful stuff. This is the idea too of Paul that we heard of in Galatians. For, through faith, we cast aside slavery to rules and regulations, required practices and things we must do to get in with God. Through faith we forget worrying when we do fail. Indeed, through faith we will fail less often. Because through faith we are not just wiped clean and set free, we are adopted into the family of God.  And it is as his heirs alone we inherit a forgiven life eternal.

C S Lewis once wrote – In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty man. I look at some of the things I have done with horror or loathing. Well, deep down I suspect most of us feel something like that from time to time. For that is the very nature of our mixed up humanness. Yet Luther, even if we spoke nearly five hundred years ago, shows us the way out of that pit of despondency. For, he said – have faith and invite Christ into that dark inner place. Countless Christians since have trusted rightly in that presence of Christ to get them through of the mess, over the chasm and out of the boat. And even in these Godless days, Christ still says to you and me; come brother, come sister – I will make you right  with God – I will make you free – Indeed, I will make you forever.

Amen

Called to Believe

Called to believe

Texts

John 20.24-29

2 Corinthians 4.16-5.10

In a vain attempt to come across some modern unbelievable things, I rather stupidly pumped the words – unbelievable things – into the internet. And so I encountered the cat with four ears, the fact that earth worms taste like fried bacon and art made in latte coffee. I also learned that the average pencil can draw a line of 35 miles or write 55,000 words, that a hedgehog’s heart beats 300 to the minute, and that coca-cola would be green if no colouring was added. All these then are unbelievable but apparently true.

So what about a man who was killed by asphyxiation after being skewered through his wrists and hung up before being stabbed in his stomach to make sure he was dead. Finally, he was buried for nearly 48 hours before he appeared alive. Now, is that believable or unbelievable?

Well what we do not need to believe because is it certain is that this single unbelievable event caused a tiny band of frightened people to found a world religion that has shaped world history for nearly 2000 years and has 2 billion followers today. A number of believers which, I hop,e we count ourselves amongst here and now.

Nevertheless, we are still left wondering – How do we believe something that seems essentially unbelievable?

Well, the answer is to ask a different question and that is – why is it we find this event- unbelievable?

And the answer is, of course, because we do not hear of such a happening in our everyday. We ourselves have never seen such an event. Moreover, we are all sceptical of any claim made in the name of religion today. For, we do live in an age that does not really have faith in that which it cannot touch or see or maybe even buy. As a result, most people will say, when it comes what is their spiritually certainities – I only believe in my own senses.

Yet on the other hand in every other walk of life we must take much on trust. If it were not so, we would not be able to use paper money. We would doubt that men had landed on the moon. We would be left asking – did the First World War actually happen? In fact, can we really be certain that wee Johnny went to school last week just because he told us so. In other words, society cannot function for a second without a degree of trust. You cannot even stand up in your pew without a significant amount of trust in many things and people.

In essence then – believing in the resurrection event comes down to who or what we trust. Thomas, for example, was a very modern man. He did not trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. As he said – he would only trust his senses of touch and sight. And as a result, Christ met that need and Thomas believed – Thomas was blessed – Thomas became a believer.

Paul was different. Paul needed less his physical senses satisfied than for his searching soul to find union with the spirit of Christ. That requirement too was satisfied by the encounter on the road to Damascus. Thus Paul believed – Paul was blessed – Paul became a believer.

The risen lord therefore knew on both occasions what was needed to engender trust even certainty and he provided it. He provided it not through compulsion or to a set of evidential rules or a human agenda. He simply provided because it was asked for – it was in his gift – it was within his loving grace.

Therefore, I ask now – what do you require to believe – what is the barrier to your faith – what is stopping you fully meeting your call to be believers? For, if you confess your requirement in your heart – Christ will bless and gift and grace. He will provide the trust necessary. Is it a bible passage? Is it a happening in your life? It is a sense of love or peace or guarantee that has eluded you for years? Whatever it is then just ask and God will provide. For, trust me, he wants you amongst his followers – he wants you now as an apostle. He wants you to be a blessed foundation of the future church.

Yet the secular world out there is asking why is it so important that you believe that a 34 year old man was murdered, buried and was resurrected? Miraculous it may be – they might claim – but on its own, it is miraculous only for him yet irrelevant to us.

And that just isn’t true. For within that miracle is the grace to trust something else. Indeed within the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means to meet our overwhelming requirement. And that is to be certain that our lives not just have meaning but that we will have continuation.

Indeed, it is very belief that Paul writes of in his letter to the Corinthians. Since, maybe as a result of the thorn in his own flesh which he makes reference to elsewhere, he feels his frailty, he creaks in his bones and he fears his mortality. And so rather in a reversal of Thomas, he says I will only believe my immortality when I can put my finger on it. And Christ then answers him and says look and see and know and believe. For, just as you trust that I am alive, so will you live.

During our first session of the Emmaus course, I think we came to a startling conclusion. And it was this – belief is better than certainty. For certainty comes from touch and sight, but leaves no room for the greater things beyond our puny faculties. Certainty also leaves no room for opportunity and wonder and discovery. But above all, certainty leaves no room for grace. For it was pure generosity that Christ came to earth, died and rose again. It was pure generosity he met the needs for Thomas and Paul to believe and so founded the Church in which we can trust. And it is pure unadulterated generosity that he provides us the knowledge, faith and hope of eternal life that our senses can never give. Since, unbelievable as it may seem, that trust alone is ever the believable blessing of God. And for that,we ever give him thanks.

Amen

Called to Speak

Exodus 4.10-17

Matthew 10.24-33

During our holiday we visited Upton house near Banbury in Oxfordshire. We arrive on a warm Saturday afternoon to be asked – did we want to attend a millionaire’s house party? All though we felt that we did not qualify by being about 999,999 pounds short, we agreed. And so we were greeted at the mansion’s door by one of the National Trust Guides in evening gown and feathered head band to be addressed you as your grace, or worship or my lord. She then assured us that the servants would be getting your bags to our rooms, told us when we must dress for dinner at 8 pm and enquired whether our valets had told the butler our preferred wine. She then recommended, although did not serve up, a 1930’s cocktail called the earthquake. The reason for the name was that it contained nearly every form of alcohol possible and so after drinking it there could be an earthquake and you couldn’t care less!

Of course, the whole charade was no more than a house tour built around the theme of a ‘between the wars’ weekend party. But what a great way to communicate – to communicate about something that was a great passion to all the mock flappers and hooray henries who were acting as guides – to communicate about a way of life they thought we should know of? What a great way indeed to get our interest!

Well, If only we had the same enthusiasm, initiative and panache to explain what is important to us. Put directly, if only we had the same will and ability to communicate the meaning of the living presence of Christ Jesus in our lives.

Therefore as we start a new series of sermons on what we are called to be, let us commence with the greatest of all callings – the calling to be communicators. A calling enshrined in out gospel text of today. Since it was there we hear the need to acknowledge Jesus before all humankind and to do so without fear.

Here then is our clear call to stand up and speak up – here is our call to share our enthusiasm and knowledge – here is our commissioning as communicators.

However, recent studies have shown that many people fear public speaking more than chronic illness and even death. And most of us can empathize with that phobia. For after all, few of us can stand on our feet and spout forth un-self-consciously. It is then we need to recall Moses; that Moses who was so full of excuses and that Moses who claimed that he was slow of speech and tongue. But also that self-same Moses who God helped to be his chosen communicator by giving him a method by which to communicate. Because, it is of course much easier to be a communicator of any great truth if have a plan and a technique and a vision of what we want to achieve.

Now when I was in Dartmouth we were taught our leadership skills from a formula developed by one Professor John Adair. Well Adair also wrote a book on effective communications. And in it he laid down a few simple rules; a plan that indeed would take our calling as communicators forward and a technique that will help us effectively bear witness to Christ even if like Moses we have no great gift of eloquence.

For Adair starts by requiring us to be clear and to be well prepared – Great guidance. For how can we hope to make Jesus’ case to an easily distracted world if we do not know what God has done for us, is doing for us and what he will do for us. In all honesty, how can we be powerful Christian advocates if we have not thought through where Jesus is leading us and why we want to go there.

Similarly, Adair reminds us to be simple and vivid. For surely our lord chose not long legalistic diatribes to get his message over. Instead he chose the memorable parable, the sharp story and the even sharper direct command. Therefore, let us cast aside the thees and thous of the Stuart Kings, the vocabulary that is straight out of a theological dictionary and the holy Willie phrasing that some adopt.  Instead all we need do is recognise the great wisdom of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania who once gave advice on being a communicator like this:

Speak in a few, plain words that are your own and speak not showily but to be understood.

Finally, our illustrious Professor tells us to be natural. Jesus never wanted us to purport to be anyone other than ourselves. An that is a person of faith – even if from time to time we fail it; a person of beliefs – even if from time to time we do not understand them and a person of compassion even when from time to time we forget it. Because in the end of the day, it was Moses with all his faults and failings who led a disbelieving people out of meaningless captivity through a doubt-filled dessert and into the promised land. Christ today then asks no less or no more from us!

However, all this sounds difficult and hard work.  And when we start out as God’s Communicators, it probably will be even when we know the prize of our success will be enormous. Yet Christ knew this when he counseled against the easy option. Moses also knew this when he asked for God assistance in his forthcoming witnessing. Professor Adair too was aware of the difficulties for anyone wishing to begin to communicate effectively.  And that is why he concludes his book by remarking:

Like learning a new language, speaking out at first seems awkward. But it is not unnatural because we are only perfecting our natural gifts. Eventually, with persistence, our efforts will drift into our subconscious abilities and then we will have the power and joy to influence others with a message which is greater than ourselves.

Happy communicating!