Science’s naughty assumptions

Pretend that the Universe is the sort of Universe God would have made if he actually existed.

Sometimes it helps to hope something is true even if we can’t prove it.

For example, I often assume the people driving a bus or flying a plane are sober and competent and mean well. It would be too tiresome to have to check every time.

In maths, something called the Riemann Hypothesis is, as yet, unproven. But by assuming the Riemann Hypothesis is true, you can make great mathematical progress. All that progress would be able to be certified as proper maths if someone would only go and prove the Riemann Hypothesis.

The same is true of the whole of science.

The whole of science rests, I suggest, on two unproven assumptions. (I apologize ahead of time to any philosphers reading this. Take it as an indication that your jobs are vital.)

Here they are:

  1. There is such a thing as being. Things ‘are’. Reality is not, at least in the final analysis, a delusion.
  2. This material universe is self-consistent; it obeys physical laws. (If parts of it don’t obey consistent physical laws, such as what a toddler is going to do next, science cannot explore those parts.)

These two are science’s unproven naughty assumptions. Every scientific paper should start with a confession: ‘If the universe is real and obeys laws, which, fair play, we haven’t actually proved, then …’

Which is where theology comes in

The Apostle Paul claims that two facts are obvious about God, but they are widely suppressed. They are:

God’s being means being is. God has a relationship to the Universe similar to the relationship between a playwright and a play. The play’s real existence arises out of the being of the playwright, who is a different order of being. Hamlet (the play) is real because Shakespeare (the playwright) created it out of his own being.

God’s eternal power. The universe is consistent because it is upheld by the continuing command of a consistent, infinitely powerful God.

The world suppresses these obvious facts, Paul insists, because the world does not want to deal with God.

What’s interesting here is that science has to un-suppress these truths in order to progress at all. Science cuts a path through the mystery of the universe because it assumes truths about being and consistency that are coherently rooted God’s Godness. To do good science you have to make assumptions about the Universe which are perfectly in accord with the existence of God. These same assumptions are suppressed when we ask questions like ‘who am I and what am I to do?’ Some people unsuppress truths to do good science while suppressing them when they are asking about their own meaning and purpose. Arguably this approach is at least quixotic and inconsistent, and perhaps lacking coherence and integrity.

Some will disagree. You don’t need to believe in God, they would argue, in order to use science’s naughty assumptions with intellectual integrity. This is true. You could argue, for example, it’s all a mystery that we cannot fathom. Being is. The Universe is orderly. These are brute facts but they cannot be explained.

(Except they can.)

The revolutionary effects of non-violence

It really works

I’m enjoying thinking about non-violence and radical submission.

Following Jesus’ example on non-violence and foot-washing, the principle of radical submission became embedded in Christian ethics.

Slaves were told to be excellent slaves, even if they served less-than-excellent masters. Enemies were to be fed and watered. Women, newly freed from oppression by the gospel, were told to fit voluntarily within the old patriarchal structures. They undermined it totally, throwing men completely off balance, by being unusually sweet and nice. Rulers were smilingly obeyed. Taxes were stumped up. Early on in the piece, a Roman governor (from memory, the younger Pliny) complained that the Christians treated the pagan dead with more kindness than the pagan living were managing to do.

When you treat an oppressor thoughtfully, charitably, kindly and well, you weaponize shame. ‘I’m giving you a chance to disgrace yourself,’ we say. ‘Don’t miss the opportunity.’

And even if that particular enemy is immunized against shame, his mother won’t be, his children won’t be, his support network won’t be. The more he shames himself by being cruel and sneaky to the kind, the more his authority shrivels away.

This has such powerful resonances for today. Hong Kong residents gather in their tens of thousands singing Christian worship songs (for example). This is much harder for the authorities to deal with than (for example) violent lawlessness. They have a playbook for violent lawlessness. They are rather less certain how to crack down on a church picnic.

It’s easy to say

Of course this is easy to say. Much, much harder to live out. Look at Zimbabwe, looted and ransacked by its leaders, peacefully opposed, but generations of suffering has not yet brought the needed change.

Look at the rise of autocracy and populism around the world. Yet, still, we have to insist that peacemaking and radical submission and love are the marker posts on the true path to transformation.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. Psalm 37:10-11


	

The art of fighting for a cause

Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.

Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.

But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.

Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.

But how did he ‘win’?

He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.

Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.

Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.

Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.

The power of non-violence today

I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’

This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.

Interesting.

Why undercooked ideas make you grumpy and cross

I’ve had to swallow two arguments recently with fellow-Christians because having the argument would have been less worthwhile than the friendship or whatever that it would have taken away. One (a surgeon, though admittedly only an orthopedic surgeon if I remember) didn’t believe in evolution. The other, a management consultant, thought we might allow the possibilities of a Young Earth because ‘science is changing all the time.’

Wrong, and wrong, and wrongity wrong wrong. My friends were trying to pay a bill with the wrong coin. Neither had arrived at their wacky ideas through studying science. It was their attempts at Bible study, which were also not very good, that they had hurled like a custard pie into a scientific discussion, that led them astray. This you cannot do. You have to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: critique science with the methods of science. Critique theology or bible-exegesis with better theology or bible-exegesis.

The same problem happens in reverse, of course, when scientists stray from their proper bounds and ask questions, for example about why anything exists. Science is equipped to measure, watch, count, predict. Surely it’s ill-equipped to find a rationale for being itself.

We know in part (in science); we know in part (in theology). Stirring two half-cooked things together and thinking a fully cooked meal will magically pop out is not going to work.

You can only have fruitful dialogue between science and religion when you stop nipping down shortcuts. Mostly this involves, like walking through an airport, by just following one path to the end, albeit with a friendly glance now and then through the glass to see what the other people in the different corridors are doing.

A recipe for incomplete knowledge and messy contradiction? That shows we’re on the right lines.

Healing, yes, again.

It’s a moment, and it’s a walk

Suppose for a moment there is such a thing as divine healing. Suppose it is a mark of the presence of Jesus, a downpayment towards the later, greater transformation of the world. The world is much more complicated if that is true than if it isn’t.

If it weren’t true, you’re sick, you get on with it. If it is true, there’s a kind of lifeline flung down from the skies. But that lifeline is elusive.

I think a lot about this because I am a Christian and I am someone who credibly can be said to have made unanticipated recoveries from fatal events. One morning my heart stopped and had to be electrocuted repeatedly until it returned, as it were, to the beating path. Two years later I spent a month in a coma. As readers of this blog already know. And I think about healing a lot because body parts still malfunction and because now I have started a new part-time job which is all about responding to the ill-health of others. And also because people around me, some Christian, some not, some sort-of, some maybe, fall sick or their loved ones do and what does healing mean in all those situations?

I’m beginning to conclude it’s about peace with God and the wellness of your soul in his presence. There’s a Sunday-School staple of a woman called Hannah, who was childless, who went to the temple to pray for a child. The priest saw her lips moving and said, more or less, go easy on the sauce, lady. She told him she wasn’t drunk, she was praying, and he said ‘Go in peace then’ and she went and the account tells us ‘her face was no longer sad.’

I have to say that’s been important for me almost every day through the last decade. When she left the temple, Hannah wasn’t pregnant, nothing had changed, but ‘her face was no longer sad’. Everything had changed! The heart of the thing had changed. She had found peace with God in the moment.

That’s why I believe healing is instantaneous, or at least a thing that happens in the moment. It is peace with God for now. Healing is also a walk, sometimes a walk for the rest of your life. It is a walk where every day, or maybe every hour, or maybe sometimes every few minutes, you refresh yourself with God’s peace. As you string these moments together, hours, days, you are healed. The shape and orientation of your life is transformed, yes by the illness, but more by the companionship of God.

The Bible is a treasure-chest of this stuff. The Psalms, for example, on my reading, are repeated swings of the pendulum between pain and peace–hymns and anthems on which we can be carried.

What about when you are mentally ill, trapped in your own mind? What about chronic terrible pain? What about uncertainty and waiting? All these are hard places from which to find a settled peace with God. I agree but I don’t have any other remedy unfortunately and would prescribe the same medicine, with the proviso that we don’t do this alone: a community can help bear the load. And (even if we don’t believe in him) God is sovereign, greater than us, for us, and personally attuned to our darkest corners.

‘As frantic as a firefly in a child’s jar’

An unaging soul in a decaying body

I like this description of the way an eternal part of us remaining even while the body shuts down. This description is from the book The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed, a beautifully evoked tale about three women of Somalia at the beginning of the civil war in 1988. And like good fiction will, it tells you more about Somalia (and much else) than any number of surveys or reports.

She presses her palms into her eyelids and replaces the torpor of her life with shooting amber stars and exploding electric galaxies. She learnt to do this as an indolent little girl, whiling away dead time by voyaging through the quiet, almost-black world behind her eyes. She has not aged much as a soul, still thinks too much, loses herself to dreams and nightmares, her body hiding — no, trapping — what is real and eternal about her, that pinprick of invisible light in skin, desperate for release into the world, as frantic as a firefly in a child’s jar.

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls, 2013, p 163-4

Bread of tomorrow

Hungry for the future.

Rowan Williams’ enjoyable little book Being Disciples (SPCK) has a whole chapter on daily bread which is interesting.

He talks about the need for bread in the wider context of our humanity and being those who need to receive as well as give.

He also notes ‘the odd Greek word that is used in the Gospels for “daily bread” whose exact meaning has proved elusive’ but it could have meant in the original Aramaic that Jesus

was telling us to pray for the gifts of the coming kingdom to be received in the present … The need, the hunger, we must learn to express is a need not simply for sustenance but for God’s future. What we need is the new creation, the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (p42)

Rowan Williams Being disciples p 42.

Resume virtues and eulogy virtues

Take your pick

Temporary

Nice snippet from an article I was reading recently, attributable to a New York Times columnist called David Brooke.1

Resume virtues are the things you put on your CV, the promotions you got, the sales you made, the money you earned.

Eulogy virtues are the things people say at your funeral. He always had time for people, he was a good dad, he made people around him feel good.

Since we are absolutely going to die, and all we achieved will be forgotten, decayed, or (at best) archived, maybe good to work on the eulogy virtues.

A field guide to faith in modern literature

I’ve just finished Richard Harries’ enjoyable book Haunted by Christin which the author explores twenty novelists and poets and how they responded to Christ (or to his absence).

I enjoyed the Good Lord (he is Lord Harries of Pentregarth these days) leading me over this varied landscape and helping me eavesdrop. I found some of the connections a little forced, and suspected that Richard Harries had just really enjoyed the author and wanted them in his book, but nevertheless it was eye-opening and horizon-broadening to glimpse how the light of Christ has spread across literary landscapes, even ones with lots of forest cover or dark caves.

So, a welcome, insightful,  if idiosyncratic introduction to twenty modern-ish authors. It’s so rich in quotes it’s practically an anthology. Lovely to find a book that, in his love for the subject, the author has been writing all his life. 

‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.

George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:

Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.

George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019

‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.