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.
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:
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.)
Thomas L Friedman’s stimulating book ‘Thank you for being late’ reminds us that the Holocene era, an era of unusual stability, has lasted just the last 11,500 years or roughly the same time we’ve had farms and civilisation.
Can we ourselves disturb this happy Holocene stability? It seems we can. Friedman summarizes eight different ways we may be inducing planetary organ failure, based on work by Rockstrom, Steffen and others in Science on Feb 13 2015:
Climate church – already reached Holocene-rocking levels (they claim)
Loss of biodiversity -ditto
Deforestation – ditto
Then he lists four more that his source considers within safe levels, but only just:
Atmospheric aerosol loading (diesel particulates and whatnot)
Introduction of novel entities (plastics, nuclear waste etc)
Finally one example of where we did breach safe levels but are now retreating back to safety: stratospheric ozone.
A useful summary, then, of the big main environmental issues. Human civilisation has only thrived in the Holocene bubble. Will we pop it, a DIY apocalypse? Or will we seek God for our ‘daily bread’ and manage to preserve our species and our planet for further adventures?
How science can be earthed by contact with friendly theologians
In a recent post I speculated about ways that grasping truth through science can enforce a kind of rigour onto theologians to make them better theologians. Now the reverse question. What can theology do for science? I think plenty.
1. Monomaniacal materialism is not the answer to everything. Science observes and measures, then theorizes, then measures again. (At least on its best days.) This is fantastic for scoping out the material universe, for understanding how things work and how to fix them, for inventing things, for curing cancer. These things matter a lot. But not only are they not everything, they are not even nearly everything. What does it all mean? Do I have significance? What is love? What is a good life? Science can only scrape away at the patina of these questions. On its own, scientific perspective leaves a hole bigger than the Universe unfilled in our hearts. We need help from elsewhere, stories from outside, revelation from the Unknowable.
2. Skulduggery. Theology joins with post-modernism in pointing out that science will be flawed as long as it is carried out by humans — humans who are all prejudiced, all likely to shut our ears to opposing arguments, inevitable in our misuse of academic power and prestige because we abuse every power and gift of God. Scientists are sinners, like the rest of us, held back from our worst, like the rest of us, only by cultural strictures and the grace of God.
3. Science doesn’t do transcendent. It sort of can’t; science would have to un-science itself to do so. But that leads to a lopsided perspective. Science cannot (by definition I think) see beyond cause and effect to an Uncaused Cause. Quantum physics sometimes talks about the quantum vacuum, an eternal, uncaused thing from which universes spring. But that is striking a match in the darkness and hoping to create a Universe of suns. It is too much to ask, I think, for a mere quantum vacuum to somehow lead to consciousness and love and purpose. Only an Uncreated God, ‘source of all being and life’ as the creed says, can do justice to the Universe that science sees and sees but does not comprehend, that it measures and measures but does not know.
Science and theology both explore different slices of truth. Putting them together yields a more nutritious sandwich.
We’re still looking out over the ocean of truth, all undiscovered around us. But hand in hand, science and theology help humans see better. Here are some ways science can prod theology out of stagnation and torpor (which can be true when people endlessly recycle old theological models instead of thinking) and make it (or arguably keep it), fit, lean, hungry and relevant.
Origins. Scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe oblige us to re-read and re-think the first 10 chapters or so of Genesis. These Biblical accounts of the origin of language, or of human families, of history and pre-history, contradict the story told by those who’ve dug up the past and thought about it. The best theology does not fear this, but looks to the early chapters of Genesis to do something else, to teach theology through story, to reveal ‘who we are and what we are to do’.
Creation by delegation. Evolutionary theory points to a mustard-seed Creator, who sets up small things brimming with potential and superintends their development through a billion creative steps. This was so of life, of the Universe, of the Kingdom of God and of everything. This is fantastic. For one thing, it gives significance and meaning to every single human action – each of our acts can be preparatory for the Kingdom of God. For another, it makes us ask, what is the connection between human development and New Creation? I have no idea, but it is fun to explore.
The people history never saw. Ancient anthropology tell us most humans died long before Jesus lived or even Abraham was born. They have not known the story we have all heard — told again this Christmas. What does this mean? What does it say about the nearness, or otherwise, of God to those who have not known the Word incarnate? This is a big question, one I puzzle over.
What is the Universe? The Bible is a universal book. But back in the the Bible’s day, the visible Universe was the Earth plus fairy lights. What part of the Christian revelation refers to the world, and which to the entire cosmos? What does ”the end of the world’ mean? Astronomy predicts this (for earth) just as much as the Bible does (but perhaps on a different scale); what happens to the rest of the cosmos?
‘…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.
Here’s how prayer works. The overflow from God’s heart spills over into our hearts. The overflow of our hearts pours into his. We are entangled together, God and us, like two quantum particles. What stirs one, stirs the other.
When many people are moved to pray, some great wave of desire is stirring in God’s heart and flowing into many of us.
Or alternatively, something mighty maybe stirring in many hearts and slopping over to God’s heart.
Back and forth the waves flow.
When two or three agree together in prayer it will be done for them. Why? because the act of tuning your hearts so that they resonate together before God necessarily tunes them together into God’s own frequencies.
This has practical uses.
So much of prayer, surely, is scrambling around trying to find out what to believe in for today. Where in the buffeting of desire or longing or fear is the place we can anchor our souls for the day? Tomorrow is another day. But today’s calm place is what resonates with God today and where he wants to lead us today.
It’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 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).