Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A biblical view of the cosmos (1)

One of the things which the recent death of Neil Armstrong brought to mind is the way in which the 20th century profoundly altered our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The beginning of the film 'Contact' provoked awe when I first watched it, on a trip to Boston in 1997. It is the ultimate in 'pull-back shots' (you can find it on YouTube, search for 'Contact opening scene'), beginning from the surface of the earth and just going back, and back, and back... and back. Out of the solar system, past the heliosphere, through the Milky Way, beyond the point where our galaxy is just a small dot in a haze of other galaxies. I had thought that I had a good sense for the scale of the universe, but when I lost my sense of depth about three-quarters of the way through the sequence, I realised that I had been deluding myself. The sense of scale that we need to try to comprehend when we consider our position in the universe is quite possibly unattainable to the human mind. Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, has some 400 billion stars. There may be 125 billion such galaxies in the universe. There are probably more stars than there are grains of sand on earth. I find these numbers meaninglessly large – but I'm not sure that the existential issue is any different from when the Psalmist wrote "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?"



The Christian understanding of the world was born in an environment radically different to the one that we inhabit today. As well as the difference in size of the universe that we are living in, there is a difference in the scale of time of comparable scale. Whereas when the church was getting established, it was considered that the world was created, in roughly the form it has now, some few thousand years ago - and it's end would be a similar number of years in the future - we now consider that in fact the earth was created some 4.6 billion years ago, the universe perhaps some 15 billion years ago, and we do not have any conception of when it will end, if indeed that question has meaning. I often ponder what some of the implications are for Christian faith. For in traditional terms, Christians look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. This says something very important about our bodily future - that our existence as embodied beings now will somehow be recognised on that last day. Also in traditional terms, that last day will come after the apocalypse, when the last trump shall sound, the anti-christ shall be overthrown and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

This hope or expectation of a last judgement is something which has been of great comfort to many believers over the years, and I believe it says something profoundly true, not least about social justice. What I would say, however, is that it is not something which wholly grips me. My point is to do with the 'background drama' against which we might understand the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The early church placed that story in the setting of their culture, and we must do the same. Our culture has radically changed its conception of time and space, and our understanding of the significance of Jesus must change too. It is rather as if we were watching a Punch and Judy show, and we were caught up in the drama, and that small stage bounded our world – and then suddenly we were pulled back to see that this stage was placed in the centre circle at Wembley Stadium. At this point the story just doesn't have the same imaginative impact any more. Then we are pulled back to a satellite orbiting above London, and really the question of what is going on in the Punch and Judy show on some grass in North West London has to do something really rather remarkable if it is going to attract our attention. Then we pull back… and pull back.

It is sometimes said that we cannot be Christians any longer, for the story of Christianity is a story that is inevitably tied in with an understanding of the world that has been rejected - an understanding which is based in a very small world, this earth, in a cosmos which is unimaginably huge. This is called the geocentric objection, for it is based on the rejection of the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe. How can anything which happens in our world have cosmic significance? (I remember once reading about someone who had calculated what proportion of the known cosmos could conceivably have been affected by the resurrection, ie, if the 'information' of the resurrection travelled out in every direction from Easter morning at the speed of light, what proportion of the cosmos has now been reached? The answer is a remarkably small proportion.)

For me, this criticism begins in the wrong place. It first of all buys into a 'supernatural' conception of how God works, that is, that God intervenes in an already existing process, rather than the orthodox conception which is that God is eternally sustaining that process, so the idea of 'intervention' makes no sense. (Think about the diffference between winding up a clockwork mechanism and letting in run, and playing a piece of music – God's creation is like the latter, not the former). More significantly, it doesn't take seriously the religious claim about Jesus' humanity; in other words, as a criticism of Christianity, it only makes sense as a criticism of pseudo-Christianity, one which sees Jesus' humanity as a mere appearance, so Jesus was not human in the way that we are human.

The Christian claim starts from an opposite place. Jesus was a human being, but a human being of a particular sort. Just as Adam and Eve were made in the image of God, so too are all human beings. Yet through sin, we have obscured this image in us. In Jesus there is no sin, so in Jesus we see a human being in whom the image of God is revealed without distortion - and thus, in Jesus, we can see the nature of God revealed. So Jesus shows us both what it means to be human - and what is the nature of God. This is what is meant by the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, that God is revealed in human form.

The reason why I believe this to be an answer to the geocentric objection is because it roots our understanding of God in our understanding of ourselves, or, put differently, it states that for as long as there are human beings, Jesus will show us the nature of God. The particular clothing in which the story of Jesus is dressed - such as the language of the ascension, Jesus rising bodily into heaven – may not be essential to the story. The essential story is of a human being who was given over completely to love; to the love of God and to the love of neighbour; who as a result came into conflict with the governing authorities and was executed by them; but who was raised and justified by God on the third day, thereby demonstrating his divinity and establishing the Church, to follow the path that he had forged – to be a Christian is to take that story, that dream, and build a life around it. Doing this will remain possible for as long as we remain human, no matter how far we travel, and no matter what dimensions our imaginations are engaged in.

1 comment:

  1. Love it! Thanks, Sam. I particularly like your fourth para ("It is sometimes said..."), because so many objections to faith assume a small and outdated view of creation - they are knocking down a 'straw man.'

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