I see a clamour all around me; the need to justify our existence. The writer and playwright Alan Bennett captured it perfectly. He talked of one of his relatives who said this as they drove in the car:
‘Do you see that gasworks over there? That’s the second biggest gasworks in Europe. And I know the manager.’
Or I remember interviewing someone once, a salesperson, I forget about what, but I noticed his office wall covered with meaningless plaques about his achievements. Sad that his company felt the need to trade in these things; sadder that he displayed them.
If you are a normal healthy adult it is of course good and necessary to be productive. One of the reasons people fear retirement is because all that valid affirmation of their identity is taken away, replaced with the three simple letters ‘OAP’. This is perhaps why, for example in places like the BBC, old people hang onto their jobs, long after the spark of talent that got them the job in the first place has turned to smoke.
I think it is an art and a skill to learn how to be content with whatever prestige or affirmation the world has dealt you. In my case, none. So worth learning though. After living through days when I needed a mechanical hoist to drop me onto a toilet, I have to confess to frequent moments of upwelling delight in enjoying the simple things of life like family and friends and food and fellowship and worship; and as for using my own spark of talent, writing (in my own eyes at least) beautifully; and doing all this before and for God.
In my former life, before I was sick, I viewed the simple things merely as a platform to higher and greater achievements. Five years after serious illness, I return to this place and see it for the first time as the true location of happiness and worth.
I’ve several times had the experience where there’s been:
A good plan, to do a good thing
Lots of the pieces in place
Some missing piece, or some circumstance, that just slows everything down.
It doesn’t necessarily stop, this great project, but it barely crawls along. Snails overtake it. This isn’t what we bought into. Hope sags. I look at the vision ahead and the progress so far and do some rough calculations and realize I’ll have to move some of our milestones into the next century.
What is happening? So unprofessional. And if this is a Christian-inspired thing we’re trying to do, what is God doing? Doesn’t he care? If appearances are any guide, he is sitting on the hillside beside the lake while we are rowing into a gale. Couldn’t he, you know, lend a hand? Is that too much to ask of one who all-powerful and everywhere-present?
I only have two answers to this.
God may have a different view of how important my contribution is, and may therefore be relaxed about completing his work in the cosmos despite me paddling my canoe with no paddle provided.
There’s a phrase in a dusty corner of the Old Testament concerning offerings to God: ‘handfuls of finely ground incense’ (Leviticus 16:12).
That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’ 1
That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.
So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another. (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.
The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence) by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).
A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.
Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.
Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.
Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.
Now we depart from Pinker. Its interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.
When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so), raising the dead and so on.
There are several interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.
It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe is easy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when they feed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity breaking into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.
A lot of people feel insignificant when they look at images like this.
That’s certainly an understandable response, but actually I think that’s a philosophical choice that we make. I think there’s another option, which is to think of how significant we are, not because we occupy a particularly important space in the universe – but because we are able to look around ourselves and comprehend something about the universe we live in, and to realise that we are actually at a stage in the evolution of the universe where life like us can exist and contemplate our purpose and our meaning. That’s where I think you get beyond what science alone can address – some of these deeper questions of meaning.
Now that the World Cup is upon us (and if you still care about this ethical mudbath, this sleaze-fest) you may well find yourself taking up your job again as ceremonial centre of the Universe.
They scored because you went out to the bathroom.
If you hadn’t reached for the nachos when they were taking the corner, the ball would have gone in.
You, the ceremonial centre of the Universe, have messed up for the whole nation.
Don’t move now for the rest of the match
It’s instinctive. As well as being stupid. I’m told it’s also everywhere. All over the world, people are appeasing gods, making offerings, avoiding taboos, looking at things, not looking at things, all so that the Universe will come out right.
A few problems with this idea
It’s also, of course, a theme of the Bible. People are at the centre of things. The Universe is this way because humanity rebelled.
Much of science’s long story has been about de-throning us from this (surely illusory) sense. No, it obviously wasn’t us that turned a perfect creation into a wounded and crying one. Dinosaurs were getting cancer long before any humans were even around.
That’s a big subject, a fascinating and fruitful one, and one I wrote more about in More than Bananas (see below).
I only note today something I missed in More than Bananas. This: once you bring Christ into the equation, everything changes again. Creator and owner; upholder of everything; the one who pays the cosmic utility bills, Christ is the centre of the Universe. By choosing to clothe himself in our humanity, he has brought humanity back to the heart of things along with him – back from our obscurity among dust and muck on Planet III.
Our funny bodies, mid-sized in terms of the Universe, and still carrying artefacts of our evolutionary past, have a cosmic significance through Christ. He has made us the firstfruits of all that will one day return to him.
A mystery, and not particularly helpful for the footy, but still.
Regular readers will know that I am weary and wary of approaches to the Christian faith that come out of a business-speak textbook:
I wonder instead how much real work for the Kingdom, and better work, is done in coffee shops or over lunches.
It’s an approach with form. Remember Acts 2, ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts‘ (v 46). No sooner was the Holy Spirit poured out than the church lunch became a thing.
Less well known is how good this is for our well-being. Newspaper reports recently cited an Oxford University study that found ‘the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied about their lives’, and that the only two factors that really mattered in long-term survival after a heart attack were (a) giving up smoking and (b) having friends. 1
So let us march to the New Jerusalem, stopping frequently for lunch.
The great missiologist Paul Hiebert thought of this first and taught me it. He even wrote a paper on it. 1 So I’m just reproducing his ideas really.
Theologians do get into a pickle when trying to describe conversion, the way by which a person turns to Christ.
They get even more confused when they try to apply their theories to people who are other than sentient adults – unborn babies, children, those with severe learning difficulties, for example.
As Paul Hiebert pointed out, an understanding of set theory could help.
A ‘set’ is a collection of things: a tea-set, for example, is a collection of things you need to serve tea.
The set of all Christians
What does the ‘set’ of all Christians look like? Your average theologian will probably reach for the ‘bounded’ set, which means:
Everything that is within this walls (that I define) is in the set. And everything outside the walls, isn’t.
How do you define the walls? Here are some ideas:
All the baptized
All who profess faith
All who (as I was once asked on the streets in Cambridge when I claimed to be already a Christian) ‘have been baptized as an adult and baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues as an initial evidence’ (I won’t say whether I passed or not).
The problem is that none of the walls work when faced with the Biblical evidences of God’s grace.
This may be because the ‘set’ of the Christians is not a bounded set.
The centred set
Let’s suggest another type of set: the ‘centred set’. Members of the set are not defined by the boundaries around them, but by their relationship to the centre, which is Christ. If you’re heading toward to the centre, you’re in the set.
If not, you’re not.
People a very long way away, but following a sniff of grace are in the set.
People who look really near (like the religious) but are not oriented to the centre at all, are not in the set.
This (it seems to me) fits much better with the Biblical data. I leave proving this as an ‘exercise for the reader’.
I talked about some of this in my book More than Bananas, which you are invited to download for free from Internet bookshops:
This blog argues the virtues of slowing down, and it tries to frame the argument as part of Christian discipleship.
How to square the two? The Apostle Paul, for example, did not appear to slow down in later life, take it easy, pick up a hobby or two. A busy friend of mine grumbled that his (retired) wife wanted him to ‘go to garden centres in the afternoons’. He would rather be pressing on with work.
Yet there is a Biblical metaphor for slowing down: it’s called ‘pruning’ and makes its appearance as those familiar with the Bible will know, in John chapter 15. It makes sense as slowing down. My apple tree is in full blossom at the moment. If the bees get busy, soon it will sprout loads of fruit, baby apples. Some will fall off of their own accord. But some I ought to take off. I remove some fruit to make the best fruit. I cut down its fruitful options to make it put its strength into just making good fruit.
My tomatoes at the moment are hopeful little seedlings poking out of a flower pot. When they are bigger, I will pinch off the top so they stop growing. I will nip out some of their fruitful options. They won’t reach the sky. But they will make good tomatoes.
I wrote to a friend the other day about the joys of the third age: house paid for, kids flown, perhaps free to choose your fruiful work for now–at least until or unless other circumstances overtake you.
I think God kept pruning the Apostle Paul and slowing him down by throwing him in jail. This is best avoided. Cut down, slow down, fill your best fruit.
Eternal, unchanging, omnipresent? That’s true of maths as well as of God.
Do you need a Universe for maths to exist in? I don’t think so. Do you need a moment for maths to exist in? Er, don’t think so either. Time can flicker away, stop, start, accelerate, slow down, be intermittent, go backwards and maths would continue its brute existence.
All you need for maths to exist is a single idea, ‘logic’. Once you have the idea of logic, all possible maths is both inevitable and necessary. I don’t think, for example, you need beings to think mathematical thoughts, or a Universe to write them down in. Every number, every infinity, every theorem, every possible consequence of every possible set of axioms must eternally exist in its complete perfection quite apart from this universe of time and space.
Nothing exists before Maths, and nothing can exist that is in some sense post-Maths, because Maths is a different order of a thing than Creation or Time. Maths does not create itself, slowly building itself, like Creation might. In its unchanging totality Maths cannot not exist, and it cannot not exist regardless of whether it is being observed, or whether there is or isn’t a universe.
So maths is eternal, unchanging, omnipresent and necessary.
The ontological ‘proof’ of the existence of God is a cousin to this proof in that it also talks about God being necessary. Most days, when I try, I do not understand the Ontological Argument. Occasionally I think I get an understanding glimpse of it, but then the clouds roll over again.
But that fact that I know of something that is infinite, eternal, unchanging, perfect, complete, omnipresent and necessary–Maths–makes me think that ‘proofs’ like the Ontological Argument may (as apparently even Bertrand Russell admitted) ‘have some legs’.
(If you want to wade into the Ontological Argument, try here.)