Entropy always gets us in the end. This is the idea that, however well you are holding things together at the moment, it won’t last, it will fall apart, you will fall apart, your carefully tended life will be decomposed down again to the basic atoms. We’re all going to rot and die. This much we all know.
Life is the temporary holding back of the forces of disarray. And we celebrate it. A new baby, a new leaf, they stake out a defensive position against the chaos that must come, and we are encouraged to see this act of entropy-defiance.
This is also why shopping is such fun, and unboxing a new purchase. We’re sampling, however momentarily, the unblemished.
I am still slowly reading my New Testament in Greek, looking up the words I don’t know, greatly helped by the fact there are apps for that. The first letter of Peter (1 Peter 1:4), talks about our ‘inheritance’, which is where we who cast in our lot with God through Christ are actually heading. It uses three words, all beginning with ‘a-‘ (or actually alpha of course), meaning ‘not-‘:
aphtartos: not decaying
amiontos: not stained
amarantos: not fading
You could add ‘not porcelain.’ It’s not static. Just earlier in the same passage this hope is called a ‘living hope’. That’s the future: not decaying, not stained, not fading, not static.
Let’s count ducklings. You have one duckling over here, and another duckling over there and so there are two ducklings in a subregion of total time and space that includes both the ducklings and you, the observer.
But there are serious problems with this.
How do you know the two ducklings are separate entities? One apparent duckling could be simply a reflection of a real duckling. Given the link between ducklings and ponds, this is not unlikely.
Or of course perhaps only one duckling exists in the whole universe, and all the the other ducklings are themselves resonances or echoes of this Single Universal Duckling.
Such a posited Single Universal Duckling would have to encompass all the possible ages of ducklings as observed throughout the Universe in order to match observation. This would be an extraordinary entity: smeared across time but confined in space, an Eternal Single Universal Duckling or ESUD. Hatching from an egg would also be difficult: the ESUD would have to be hatched, hatching and not hatched all at once, all in some realm of reality that is simultanously beyond human grasp but not beyond a duck’s rear end. This is possible but perhaps unlikely.
So to reiterate, for 1 +1 to equal 2, you not only have to actually have two entities, but there has to exist the means to confirm that the two entities are indeed two entities and not reflections or projections of a single entity and you, and the ducklings, have to be in on the secret.
The conclusion? (This, by the way, is the conclusion of all scientific papers everywhere and at all times) More research is needed.
It isn’t hard to find stuff to read or watch that rates the Bible as a fairy story, and assumes this is a bad thing.
We need atheist critics so much. They are a blessing to us Christians, hunting down our sneaky thoughts, loose morals and slippery work. But with a grateful nod to atheist critics, let’s move on. Fairy stories. Proper fairy stories. What do they tell us?
We have to define our terms a bit. Which fairy stories are being referred to here? The Three Little Pigs with its instructions on building with proper materials? The Elves and the Shoemaker, about globalized workforces and profit-led debt-free exponential growth? Cinderella, with its important lessons on the right shoes?
And then what do we mean by the Bible? The Bible is a book-room, not a book, and treating the Bronze Age literature section as if it was the sharpest modern non-fiction, or indeed something with the conventions of the fairy story, is sloppy thinking. There’s a world of assumptions and background we need before we get on board with say, Noah. But even if we knew what a fairy story was, and even if the Bible was one, it’s not so bad:
The world isn’t a buttoned down, uptight, Star Trekky, hygienic, modernist paradise. Given the story of science so far, how can we not think that out there are paradoxes, non-intuitive answers, total surprises, and perspectives that most of today’s scientists will never accept. Einstein disliked quantum mechanics. Florence Nightingale was a germ theory sceptic. At times, science has had to progress a funeral at a time. Only when you bury a senior and respected professor, only when you let the young ones have the tenure, do scientific paradigms really shift. Sadly. Proper fairy stories are an antidote to the atheist delusion of a clean-shaven, 1950s, rational Universe. A story about a goose laying golden eggs properly prepares the youthful mind for a world where the Fed creates billions of dollars out of thin air or quantum physicists add infinity here and there to ‘re-normalize’ their theories. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Fairy stories darken and ruffle the placid lake of the textbook. Good.
Fairy stories inspire intellectual humility. Which is surely a never a bad thing.
Fairy stories convey truth. Beware of the wolf, for example. Don’t look a gift-granny in the mouth. Gingerbread houses are a gateway to abuse.
Fairy stories remind us there is such a thing as evil.
Fairy stories leave room for wonder. Wonder is not the start of teflon slide towards gullability. It is the right human response to the astonishing. And it is as appropriate to someone looking at the Hubble deep-field view of the most distant galaxies as it is to someone reflecting on the resurrection of Christ. Wonder is what happens when you accidentally peek round a door and catch God at work. A capacity for wonder is useful bit of human kit to carry around with us. Fairy stories help.
But I still resent it, a bit, when the Bible is accused of being a fairy story – a vaguely moral Eurocentric fable with fantastic elements. Here’s what ‘fairy stories’ don’t do:
Inspire architecture, art and jurisprudence down through the centuries
Grip people so much that, defending them they will be burnt alive, crucified upside down or sawn in two (though obviously not all at once).
Cause millions of people around the world to rise early to read and then resolve to be decent, kind, to do justice, to bring peace, to serve others, and to make the world beautiful and whole.
Help you die
Comfort the lonely, bring peace to the old, raise tears, dry tears, get people to forgive the unforgiveable, or (in the case of Martin Luther for example) enable them to overthrow a continent-wide instance of religious totalitarianism.
Can you smell bread being baked somewhere? Go find the loaf.
You deserve some sort of medal for sticking with these extracts over the past few weeks.Thank you. Suffering refocuses us (I have argued); ‘belonging’ and ‘making something beautiful’ show where we should refocus. The final part of the book tries to fit these ideas into a wider, and Christian, framework.
My search for what really matters – 9
The missing something
A lot of us know we are missing something. Are you missing something? Even in all the good things about you that your loved ones will mention at your funeral, are you missing something?
My testimony is that there are loose threads in our lives that if we trace them to their source, lead to God. This is unsurprising to the Christian, since we are inheritors of a shared story that humanity’s biggest problem is a ruptured relationship with our Creator. No wonder, then, there are loose threads; no wonder there are missing somethings.
I have met people who find one end of a thread of transcendence in their lives but haven’t found the other end. They seek it in music or in nature, for example. Some just get misty-eyed and sentimental. The writer Terry Pratchett had a transcendent encounter with an orang utan once—I am not joking, they stood, unblinking looking at each other—and when dying of Alzheimer’s, he went all the way back to East Asia in a doomed attempt to find the orang again. Terry Pratchett is a hero of mine, a writer’s writer. But you can do better than locking eyes with an orang utan across a crowded jungle. I hope he did.
Others tug at loose threads in their lives by seeking harmony, or peace, or mathematical elegance, or love. Science, I have often thought, is driven by a love of beauty as much as by curiosity or by a desire to serve the common good. The Cavendish Laboratory in my hometown of Cambridge, whose toiling inmates have earned thirty Nobel Prizes as of 2019, has a text written on the old front door, put there by James Clerk Maxwell: ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.’ Open the doors to the Cavendish, he was saying, and through physics, seek pleasure, and seek God.
In the previous century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a famous atheist, even writing a book entitled Why I am not a Christian. But there are other sides to his story. Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him: ‘Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.’ Russell was now haunted by a ‘ghost-like feeling of not belonging in this world.’
Russell himself wrote in a private letter, ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision, God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life . . . it is the actual spring of life within me.’ Look again at the main theme of the book, how suffering turns to rubble much of what we thought was good and reveals the main themes of life as networking and vocation, belonging and making. I have come to believe that these can only be fully worked out in relationship with God and his purposes. Their appearance in our lives without God is more like us hearing a melody on the wind, rather than getting the full symphony. They are the smell of baking bread, and they should put us on the hunt for the full loaf.
 The orang’s name was Kusasi, and diligent searching on the Internet might reveal more of this story. Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Unseen University’s Librarian is the greatest orang utan in fiction (in my opinion, but it’s a thin field).
 Both these Russell quotes were dug out by Prof. Alister McGrath and referenced in his Gresham College lecture Why God Won’t Go Away. Gresham College lectures can be accessed from their website. ‘Three brains’ McGrath has doctorates in biophysics, divinity, and intellectual history.
If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.
My search for what really matters (8)
Don’t die with your music inside you
Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.
I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.
Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?
I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.
Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.
I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.
My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.
You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.
Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:
Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little.
Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season. But start it now.
Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you. Do you really want to miss this? So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.
Am still enjoying astrophysicist Katie Mack’s book ‘The end of everything.’ She’s a funny and smart guide through the physics of either end of the Universe. Having sketched out various ways of everything ending, her epilogue makes some space for thinking about what it all means. Some of this is delicious to think about.
Whatever legacy-based rationalization we use to make peace with our own personal deaths (perhaps we leave behind children, or great works, or somehow make the world a better place), none of that can survive the ultimate destruction of all things. At some point, in a cosmic sense, it will not have mattered that we ever lived. The universe will … fade into a cold, dark, empty cosmos, and all we’ve done will be utterly forgotten.
Katie Mack, The End of Everything p 206.
She asks fellow astrophysicists what they think about this. ‘Sad’ says UCL cosmologist Hiranay Peiris. ‘I suppose it makes me start thinking about the problems we face as a civilization on a much shorter timescales. If I’m going to worry about anything, it’s gonna be those, not the Heat Death [of the universe]’ says another cosmologist, and former comic, Andrew Pontzen.
Others warm to the idea. ‘I just like the serenity of it’ says Pedro Ferreira. ‘So simple and clean.’ Renēe Hloẑek calls it ‘cold and beautiful’ the way the ‘universe just sorts itself out.’
I found myself sneakily liking these thoughts, despite spending a lot of time being a Christian and believing in eternity. In a universe that just shuts down and switches off, some thorny problems go down with it, not least eternal suffering, which might cheer up Fydor Dostoyevsky or James Joyce a bit. (Or my querulous demon Stub in my Jamie’s Myth trilogy.)
On the other hand, Katie Mack also quotes Iranian-born physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: ‘I don’t know how [to find a purpose to life] that doesn’t transcend our little mortality … I think a lot of people at some level …. will do science or art or something because of the sense that you do get to transcend something. You touch something eternal. That word, eternal: very important. It’s very, very, very important.‘
We only know of one place in the universe where parts of the universe worry about this stuff at all: us, and here. And among us, among the many reachings-out to eternity that happen, we also have the story or rogue data point of the resurrection of Christ. Which could be a breaking in of the eternity that Nima Arkani-Hamed says is so important, and could be something whose consequences overtake cosmology itself. Interesting.
Am very much enjoying ‘The End of Everything’ by astrophysicist Katie Mack, which is, so far, a really fun and informed romp through apocalypsical possibilities. Well done to my enlightened kids for buying me this for my birthday (by strange coincidence, it also was on my Amazon wishlist).
I’m writing this in hospital (in March 2021) having just had one of my six-monthly assessments for the heart transplant list, and I took Katie Mack to cheer me up, and she has. (I passed the assessment, officially sick enough to need a transplant and well enough to tolerate one.)
I wasn’t entirely convinced, however, if I may say so, by what seemed to me a wobbly attempt to put a foot in two boats that seem to be far apart and drifting further.
Acknowledging an ultimate end gives us context, meaning, even hope, and allows us, paradoxically, to step back from our petty day to day concerns and simultaneously live more fully in the moment. Maybe this can be the meaning we seek.
Katie Mack, The End of Everything 2020, p 7.
The two boats are meaning and science. She’s already dismissed finding meaning outside of science:
She’s read widely but no-one agrees with each other so there is no human consensus of opinion.
She’s not sure she would believe anything anyway about the meaning of life if it was ‘written down for me once and for all in a book’ (p4) and couldn’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny. Obviously, that statement doesn’t include stuff she herself writes, like that statement, even though that statement can’t be derived mathematically or worked out through scientific scrutiny.
Nor does that statement allow any possibly of the transcendent. Er … if you only allow yourself to look at the material world, you’ll only ever see the material world. Odd to pre-filter reality like that.
Plus, if you have to reach for cliches like ‘petty day to day concerns’ and ‘living more fully in the moment’, I am on the verge of concluding that you haven’t found meaning at all but are cramming the hole with words that are commonly available and quite funky but sadly a bit empty.
Here’s the thing. We get meaning from love. And actually, if you wanted consensus about that, ask anybody. Meaning and love are the two foci of the ellipse within which we live our lives. Science can describe, beautifully, the journey I am about to go on if I am ever let out of this hospital – first to my parents, 2 hours and 11 minutes from here, and then to my wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, wierdly, 2 hours and 11 minutes from my parents’ home. Science can describe everything about the journey except what it means to me and perhaps to them. Love says what it means. And in one sense, love says everything.
Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.
Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.
The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.
So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.
Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.
“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”
Albert Michelson, Light Waves and Their Uses (1903), 23-4. 1
It was probably a shame that Michelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize, came up with this quote, since it was his careful experiments on the way the speed of light never varied that provided the initial information behind Einstein’s 1904 theory of relativity.2.
It was a further shame that he wrote in 1903, just at the edge of quarter -century of discovery and theory that would turn physics upside down – the most exciting twenty-five years physics has ever known. Physicists since (arguably) have just been adding footnotes
What do we learn from this? Arguably, beware certainty in scientists. Think of this. Over here (I won’t draw it but you can imagine it) is the totality of reality. Over here (I won’t draw it either) is Science, a tool for exploring this reality. This is all very fine, except for the problem that since we do not know what the totality of reality is, we have no way of judging how good our tool is. It might be, for example, like a torch that only lights up the shiny things in a vast cave. Or it might be like an optical telescope, blind to X-ray sources that light up the sky. Or it might be like a child’s understanding, or like a fly’s, relying (in the case of the child) in a badly incomplete model or (in the case of a fly) on a deep cognitive lack.
Scientists generally, in my observation, are not good at looking at the acts of faith that underlie their discipline. What part does prejudice play? Or confirmation bias? How limited is our ability to perceive? How observable is the Universe? Science proceeds on assumptions that the Universe is generally observable, that human failings are ironed out by the need to replicate results, and, more broadly that it ‘works’. By which they/we mean: ‘when we shine a light into the cave, we can see shiny things.’
We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can know what we don’t know. And we don’t know, if we can know what we don’t know, how we will know it.
Not a programme, or a strategy, but a course of life.
We know how this ends.
Everyone dies, the Universe expands and cools, the last lights go out. It isn’t this.
It is — according to Christian theology — this. A resurrected Universe thrives. All things are united together in Christ.
I have written about how you can understand this in terms of the physicist’s idea of entropy. The little localized patches of low entropy that already exist, known to us as ‘life’, are the forerunners or harbingers or early hints of a total low-entropy takeover of time and space.
Another way of saying the same thing is the language of heaven and earth. Heaven is the low-entropy, eternal, invisible dimension or realm where Christ reigns. Perhaps it surrounds in some way our physical Universe. When people turn to Christ and lean into him, heaven enters their souls. They have a presence somehow in these heavens, ‘seated in heavenly places in Christ.’1 They belong to eternity, but they reside on earth. They belong to God’s people, to Jesus, and their future is secure. Yet they live on earth. What is their job? Their lives become about bringing the qualities of heaven into earth. They are routes by which heaven leaks into earth. Which is why prayer is important, as is weakness and perseverance, and the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. Eventually, heaven will burst out and flood over earth and Christ will be ‘all in all’. ‘Death’, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘is swallowed up by victory’. 2
A lot of the New Testament lights up when we realize this. This is why we pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’ 3, why ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ 4, why we ‘groan’5, why Paul tells the Colossians to bear fruit ‘in every good work .. [with] great endurance and patience’ 6, why ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’ 7.
Here is a theology of slow mission. We pray, and do, and bear, and endure on earth. But we are not building the kingdom of heaven on earth like you build a cathedral. We are engaged in an act of life-giving. It is like when a plant puts all its strength into preparing a seed head.
It is also like the ways mothers live by pouring life into their children. The children live on into a future the mother doesn’t see. The mother doesn’t see the future because death stands between her and it, and that future is far removed from her current experience of protesting, messy babies. But she lives and gives life and her loving work will endure beyond death, bearing fruit in ways she will perhaps never guess. The coming of the Kingdom of God in the end will be a bridal day for a squalling creation.
This is why mission is and should be slow. Because it isn’t a programme; it’s a work of love. It’s why every little corner matters, as well as every grand vision. It’s a pursuit of Christ in the large and the small. We pour in all the knowledge of Christ and all the beauty and justice and patience and faith and love that we can, into this world, tugged along in our course by the Holy Spirit. We live, reluctant coals blown on by Jesus. We also groan: weak, sorrowful, disappointed, set back again and again. What we finish won’t look finished, until it all dies and rises again, and then we will see in Christ that it was.