The end of a claustrophobic life

I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 1

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’ – discuss

There must be more than this

Our beautiful, warless world, where I could be entranced by the purest mathematics for all eternity.

Any human who arrive here, gazing at our violet landscapes, might well have believed they have entered Heaven.

But what happened in Heaven?

‘What did you do there?’

After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to lighten things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?’ Matt Haig, The Humans p174

I like that.

I found Matt Haig’s happy book The Humans (about an alien who takes the body of a maths lecturer to stop human progress)  irresistable. Not least because like some other books I know, namely my

own, it is set in Cambridge and also in some complete other world.

He uses the alien-being-human trope to explore fun, slanted views on human life, well worth a read. Here’s another:

They have no way of coming to terms with what are, biologically, the two most important things that happen to them –procreation and death … They have lived on this planet for over a hundred thousand generations and yet they still have no idea about who they really are or how they should really live. (p248)

The Humans

by Matt Haig [Canongate Books Ltd]
Price: - - - -

Mathematical proof of the looming shortage of church treasurers

You read it here first

Trumpeting angelIt’s simple really. Look at these global figures 1

Annual rate of growth of Christians: 1.8% (roughly the same as population growth)

Annual rate of growth of worship centres: 2.4% (mostly because of the continuing rise of independent churches)

Every year, therefore, the number of worship centres increases faster than the number of Christians does. And–to a first approximation–every worship centre is an accounting unit. Each one needs a treasurer. So the demand for church treasurers is rising at 2.4% p.a. while the supply of church treasurers is only growing at 1.8% p.a.

This is what we journalists like to call a Looming Shortage. Don’t say I didn’t sound the trumpet.

The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
Price: - - - -

I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

by - [-]
Price: - - - -

Further inconvenient truth

The missionary roots of liberal democracy

Panomara of Central Accra
Accra, Ghana

The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.

Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:

​’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’

This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.

Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).

Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.

Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:

“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.

  • These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.

Futility is so last season

Jean-Paul Satre or Radiohead might not have the last word

To the Pond!‘Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.’

 

Andrew Wilson, quoted in Matthew Hosier’s Thinktheology blog Meaning Radiohead. Worryingly, I knew Matthew’s dad.

London: Pubs closing, churches opening

It’s not a fight but it’s interesting

Wine and beerSince 2001, London has lost 1200 of its 5000 pubs and gained perhaps 1500 new churches.

Pubs: The Economist 1 reports a decline from 4,835 pubs in 2001 to 3,615 in 2016.

Churches: as for churches, Peter Brierley’s London Church Census, the last detailed analysis of London church growth I am aware of, measured 1000 churches opening and 300 closing in the period 2005-2012, a net gain of 100 churches per year; two a week.  More than 700,000 Londoners were in church on a typical Sunday in 2012 compared with 600,000 in 2005. Extrapolating roughly, it’s likely that since the turn of the century, the growth of churches in the capital has at least matched the decline of pubs.

Of course, pubs and churches are not particularly in competition with each other or serving exactly the same clients.  Perhaps the real competition is between getting people to meet together compared with staying home in front of ever more high definition screens.

But I’m more interested in how the facts depart from the “facts”, that “everyone knows” – which are that London’s pubs are teeming, while London’s churches become ever more irrelevant.

 

The inventor of the Big Bang Theory on God and science

A priest does cosmology

Big Bang Fireworks
Rare photo of the Big Bang, taken by God  on his iPhone 7 and only recently released

The inventor of the Big Bang theory (sorry to disappoint, but I mean the actual theory, not the TV series) was a Belgian priest called Georges Lemaitre.

The Catholic Church was fond of Lemaitre, and hugged his theories perhaps even a little too warmly, relishing the way Lemaitre’s idea of a moment of creation became mainstream. In a reversal of the Galileo-vs-Urban VIII fixture, Lemaitre had to persuade Pope Pius XII not to be too enthusiastic about what was, after all, just a science theory.

Lemaitre also explained his take on why Christians should embrace science:

Does the Church need Science? Certainly not. The Cross and the Gospel are enough. However nothing that is human can be foreign to the Christian. How could the Church not be interested in the most noble of all strictly human occupations, namely the search for truth?’

For Lemaitre, you could two two sources to learn about God: revelation, and the natural world.

The quotes were taken from Star Struck (2016), a brave attempt by Evangelical astronomer David Bradstreet and writer Steve Rabey to hint to zealous Young Earth Creationists that they might be, er, wrong.

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1