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.)
Here are some Himalayas: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. Handel’s Messiah. Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Here are some Alps: Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels: Gilead; Home; Lila.
Here are some Lake District peaks: C S Lewis’ Narnia books.
Then there’s a long plain, and finally a crowd of dumpy little things, masses of them. What the dumpy things lack in altitude (and aptitude), they at least share in attitude with the great peaks. They want to do artistic things with Christian truth. It’s the art of the perfumer, done well or badly.
I don’t think there’s enough of this. Evangelicals–I am one–can be a menace with the gospel, painting it on the side of buses, delivering it without thought of context, speaking without listening or thinking. Nothing subtle, gentle, artistic, beautiful or even fun. (At the worst.)
Just finished the third book in what is probably a trilogy of comic fiction novels. It’s called the Sump of Lost Dreams and will be out soon, joining Paradise and The Wheels of the World, comic fiction, dumpy stuff, fun though. Out soon.
I’m also redoing the covers of the first two titles to match – coming soon:
A randomised trial of religion has surprising results
Fascinating experiment in the Philippines. International Care Ministries (a Christian charity) helps the Philippines’ poorest people with a training course that contains anumber of modules. Some just explain the gospel. Others teach things like financial planning or health. The charity can deliver all the modules, or just some.
So they tried just the gospel portions on one large group of villages. They tried just the life-skills module on another group. Still another group got the full course. And for a control, they looked at villages where they did nothing. It was (reports the Economist, ‘a randomised controlled trial of religion’) 1
The group who got the gospel (6000 households, a large sample) became more religious, a bit gloomier about their prospects, and their incomes ‘had increased by 9.2% compared with the others. ‘
As the Economist points out, ‘For now, anyone recalling nudges from grandma urging wakefulness through tedious sermons should consider that she may have been right.’