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faith-and-science

 

 

 

 

 

We have seen that since its origins in the early modern period (in the seventeenth century) a distinctive “scientific” approach to the world has emerged and gone through a series of transformations. The basic scientific worldview makes a number of basic assumptions about the structure and nature of reality that have been well supported by the success the scientific method has enjoyed. Among the most important and most basic of these assumptions are:

  • The behaviour of the world we observe is uniform and predictable – what happens here and now is the same, fundamentally, as what happens in every place and at every time. Without this assumption the experimental method is impossible since new experiments would not be relevant to laws governing past events in different places.
  • The predictability of the world is of a kind expressible in mathematical laws that state that given a set of conditions the next event is calculable with exactitude – the world is mathematical in its basic structures. Again, the experimental method is impossible without this assumption since it would be unclear whether new results did or did not conform to the laws used to explain or describe past results.
  • Causation operates from the past to the future. To know what is going to happen it is necessary only to know about things that have already happened. This, too, is a necessary condition of the experimental method since if some of the causes of events were not captured in the description of a particular event then it would be impossible to know whether past descriptions or explanations had been discredited by a new result.

It is important to grasp that these basic assumptions are not obvious (they would not have been accepted by pre-modern people) and are not in principle provable, although we have good reason to accept them given the successes they have enabled. A reality in which none of them hold is imaginable and would still be compatible with what we know about the reality we actually inhabit. Indeed I would argue that they are all subject to some degree of qualification in light of the contemporary scientific story about the nature and history of our universe. (For more see part 1 of this series)

We have also seen that over the last 150 years there has been a distinct shift in the basic picture of the nature of the universe held by “science”. Before the middle of the nineteenth century a “Newtonian” view held sway. This asserted that the basic framework (space and time) and constituents (matter) of the universe were essentially fixed and unchanging. The events that occur are reducible to movements of matter through absolute (“real”) space over periods of absolute time. Time and space were the same for all matter and matter itself was not subject to change, only to movement. This enabled the thought that everything that was going to happen was in principle predictable given sufficiently detailed and accurate knowledge about the past and the present, an idea particularly associated with the eminent French mathematician, scientist and politician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).

With the development of geology and Darwinian evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century there emerged an awareness of “historical” or developmental processes in the physical structure and the biological population of the natural order. With the linked development of cosmology (the science of the Universe at the largest scale) and particle physics (the science of the smallest scale structures of reality) this awareness has been extended to the fundamental constitution of all reality. The observable universe has a beginning, now fairly accurately dated, and a history. Even the most basic particles did not exist at that beginning and the history shows the emergence of more and more complex structures, each successive level having its own sets of behaviours governed by new laws which must be deployed to describe and explain what happens.

Even space and time themselves are emergent properties of this process of development and it is now a point of debate in cosmology whether events do, in fact, flow straightforwardly in time or whether, now time is regarded as one dimension of the unified “space-time” of General Relativity, we should conceive of time as a dimension along which movement is, in principle, possible in the other direction (a theory called the “block universe”).

 

The tendency to see reality as structured into “layers” with more complex entities emerging over time and having their own law-governed behaviours not straightforwardly reducible to those of simpler levels introduces the possibility of “top-down causation” in which events describable using the categories of the lower levels cannot be fully explained without recourse to those at the higher levels. One example might be the complex chemical reactions that take place within a living organism. These can be described using only the tools of chemistry but this would not explain how they come about, since without the complex structures of the organism they would never occur, since the precursor chemicals have had to be created within the organism and brought together under the correct conditions. The extremely complex chemical structure of the DNA of a plant or animal can be described using chemical formulae but would never come into being without the long and complex chain of events that produces this particular living thing. (For more see part 2 of this series)

So what does theology have to say about all this and what difference does any of it make to theology? This has been an area given great attention by theologians over the last few decades and increasingly so over the last decade. There is a huge amount of material and a wide variety of positions. I would like to single out a few that seem particularly important and fruitful and which are common among many of those writing in the field.

 

Firstly Christian theology must always insist on the importance of purpose, goal and the future in thinking about the base structure of reality. It has been an important insight for and from the scientific approach to reality that much of what happens is explicable and much that is going to happen if predictable from the past. Many events are fully determined by their preconditions. However it is fundamental to the way Christians conceive the relationship between God and the created order that there was a purpose in God’s creation and that God is still working that purpose out. Christians can differ about the precise nature of that purpose (or purposes) and about the ways in which God works to bring it (or them) about but I would argue one cannot be a Christian and deny the meaningfulness of Creation to God or that he is striving to realise the purpose or purposes he has for it. A full explanation of reality will have a purpose-related (teleological) dimension.

 

Secondly theology will be interested in and should be open to the shift away from a fully deterministic picture of the Universe. This has two key elements. In the first place there has been the recognition and acceptance of what I referred to above as “top down causality”, that is to say the emergence of genuinely novel and irreducible causal laws when structures at higher levels of complexity emerge (which we now know to be a historical process in time). Full explanations of events become more complex (have more kinds of cause at work) as we move forward and this is not, as far as we can see, fully reducible to explanations at the lower level.

Secondly there are two forms of radical unpredictability now recognised in the structures of reality. At the level of quantum mechanics (the tiniest particles and smallest units of energy) there appears to be no way of specifying what particular events will take place. There is statistical predictability such that one can say what the probabilities of particular outcomes are over large sets of events and this good statistical predictability gives rise to regularity and predictability at the scale of objects we can interact with in our everyday lives but at the base level there is extreme and irreducible unpredictability. On the other hand at the level of the largest and most complex systems (like the planetary weather system) chaos theory has demonstrated that very small differences in the starting conditions can lead to very large differences in outcomes (the famous “butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil causing a storm in China”). In these highly complex systems radical unpredictability (at the level of detail) is caused by these chaotic effects (although again statistical methods allow a good level of prediction at the level of the system, as in weather forecasting).

 

This openness of the future and amenability of outcomes being affected “top down” by causal mechanisms acting at higher levels of organisation or structure are both welcome to theology and in part at least explain, I think, the increased interest of theologians in scientific matters more recently and the greater willingness of scientists with faith to engage actively with theological questions.

 

So theology wants to assert the importance of teleological (purpose-related) explanations and welcomes the loosening of the grip of reductionist (everything is explicable in terms of physics) and determinist (everything can in principle be predicted) ideas within the scientific world-view.

 

There is a third vital dimension to the interaction between theology and science in the contemporary world. There is, I think, a shift in the way the act of creation is thought about. 150 years ago it would have been quite natural to think of God’s creative act as something that happened in the past and is now finished with any further involvement of God with Creation as something fundamentally discontinuous with and different from it. This idea is very difficult to maintain in face of a picture of the Universe in which fundamental change has been a constant reality. Creation now tends to be thought of as an unfinished and ongoing project in which God’s final purpose requires further changes to the structures of reality (even if these are thought of as only at the highest levels of complexity).

 

All these points of intersection will be further explored as this series goes on to look at two areas of particular interest to Christian theology:first the nature of consciousness and its relation to Christian ideas about the nature of human being; and second the final destination and fate of the universe, the end of all things, how it’s all going to turn out.

cosmic_evolution

If science is defined as a method or project based on the assumption that there are laws of nature that can be defined mathematically and discovered experimentally then what it produces is a steadily richer set of descriptions of aspects of what exists. These descriptions themselves are modified as new theories replace discredited ones but the observations that enable them are preserved and re-thought rather than abandoned. Thus our basic model of the solar system has a lot in common with that of Newton even as its theoretical underpinning has been totally transformed. We still plot orbits of the planets around the Sun even as the nature of gravity has been totally rethought and the idea of the Sun as stationary been replaced with one in which the Sun itself is part of a complex galactic system in motion both around its own centre of gravity and with respect to other galaxies.

This second part of our series on faith and science touches on two domains of contemporary scientific description, cosmology and biological evolution, and attempts to integrate them into a single “story of everything” before reflecting on the implications of this story for Christian faith.

It is now thought that everything we can observe (the Universe) had its origins in a single event 13.8 billion years ago usually called the Big Bang. At that point there was a single undifferentiated point in which all the matter-energy that now exists (remembering that matter and energy are convertible into one another by the formula {\displaystyle E=mc^{2}} where E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light). The space into which this was compressed, which was all the space that then existed, was smaller than the smallest particle. The laws of physics that govern our reality did not yet (could not yet) apply and the forms of matter and energy with which we are familiar could not yet exist.

There was a  rapid expansion and cooling of this initial state and after something like 1 microsecond the energy levels dropped sufficiently so that elementary particles (protons, electrons and neutrons) were able to exist stably and within a few minutes the first nuclei of elements (hydrogen and helium) “condensed” out of the soup of sub-atomic particles so that the expanding universe could be thought of as a gas cloud, although this process was not completed for some hundreds of thousands of years. No more complex structures than that had yet come into being.

There followed a period of structure formation when, over very long periods, slight differences in the density of the gas cloud led to gravitational forces pulling large amounts of hydrogen and helium together into galaxies and stars. The best estimate for how long it took for the first stars to come into existence is 200 million years. Sufficient matter had by then been brought together by gravity for nuclear fusion to begin, releasing energy and creating atoms of a range of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These heavier elements are released both during the life of a star and more especially when it comes to the end of its life and explodes as a super-nova.

The galaxy of which our Sun is part is thought to have formed 13.6 billion years ago and our Sun to have ignited within it about 4.5 billion years ago with the earth and the other planets being created as part of the same process which drew together heavy elements from the remnants of an earlier generation of stars within the galaxy.

The first appearance of life on earth is thought to have occurred between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. There is no consensus on how the transition to self-replicating life came about. The chemical building blocks (organic chemicals) are widely dispersed throughout the universe but the processes whereby the complex processes of life appear have not been determined.

The “last common ancestor” of all current living things is thought to have been about 3.5 billion years ago and was probably a single-celled organism most similar to a modern bacterium. Photosynthesis producing oxygen evolved among the bacteria around 3 billion years ago and began to transform earth’s atmosphere. By 1.2 billion years ago sexual reproduction had emerged among the single celled organisms and by 800 million years ago multi-celled organisms had appeared.

At 500 million years ago the first evidence exists for life that could leave the water and shortly after that for vertebrate fish with true bones and then for land-based plants. Before 350 million years ago the earth began to resemble its current state, with plants and animals including insects on the land. At around 250 million years ago a major extinction event wiped out around 90% of then existing species. A second major extinction event before 200 million years ago allowed the rise of the dinosaurs.

At 66 million years ago another large extinction took place that wiped out most of the dinosaurs and made space for the rise of the mammals, birds (and ants!). At 35 million years ago another big change includes diversification of grasses and of mammals with many modern types appearing.

Somewhere between 65 and 55 million years ago the hominims, which include the chimpanzee, modern humans and the totally extinct Australopithecenes first emerged.  The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (our nearest living relatives) is thought to have been 4 to 8 million years ago. The first emergence of the genus Homo sapiens is dated to about 2 million years ago with biologically modern human beings (people genetically identical to us) appearing in Africa about 250,000 years ago. The migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa is thought to have happened 50,000 years ago and the last other human species (Neanderthal) to have become extinct 30,000 years ago.

A distinction is made between biologically modern humans and behaviourally modern humans. Behavioural modernity is a way of life recognisably continuous with all modern humans. This is a controversial and much debated distinction but behavioural modernity is generally thought to include; abstract thought,  planning, trade, cooperative labor, body decoration, control and use of fire. Along with these traits, humans possess a heavy reliance on social learning. Archeological markers of these traits are accepted as; burial of the dead, fishing, figurative art, use of pigments for self-decoration, use of bones for tools, transport of resources over long distances, blade technology, diversity, standardization, and regionally distinct artifacts, hearths, and complex tools.

Whether behavioural modernity emerged suddenly, about 50,000 years ago, or gradually culminating at that time is a matter of debate. In either case it was not present at the first evolution of biologically modern human beings and was present at around the time of the migration out of Africa. It is also generally agreed that some kind of religion was present no later than 30,000 years ago with some scholars claiming to have identified evidence of religious practices even before the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The next major event in this story is the so-called Neolithic Revolution of around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. At that time human beings began the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life that involved them getting their food from the existing environment to an agricultural way of life where they controlled and tended their sources of food (primarily wheat and domesticated animals). These first agricultural societies began a process of cultural evolution that brings us to the current day.

Over the next four sessions we will explore the implications of this picture for theology.

  • We will consider what it means for our ideas about a creator God and his relationship to Creation when we recognise that Creation is not and has never been stable. Right down to the most basic physical constitution of the Universe we see processes of change and development within time that still continue.
  • We will think about the nature of human beings and the relationship between the modern scientific view of them and the special place they occupy in Christian theology as the “image of God”. This will involve thinking about modern neuroscience and the puzzle of consciousness.
  • We will think about ideas about the ultimate destination and purpose of the Universe/Creation in light both of scientific projections and of our tradition of thinking about the End

einstein

I’ve been doing some thinking about science and religion recently. There are a number of reasons for this. The immediate cause was a request from the weekly Bible study group at one of my churches to run a short series exploring issues of faith and science. These issues have arisen repeatedly during other series of discussions and we felt it was time to approach them more directly and thoroughly.

This was opportune because I’ve reading quite a bit of the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who has some very interesting things to say on this question (my reading of Pannenberg was in turn prompted by writing a review for the journal Theology in Scotland of a work on ecclesiology heavily influenced by him which made him sound indispensable, which I have come to think he is).

Finally, my initial intellectual formation was heavily scientific (I studied scientific disciplines exclusively between the ages of 16 and 20) and followed by immersion in a philosophical tradition (Hegelianism) that aimed at an integration of all knowledge into a seamless unity, rejecting any attempt to rigidly separate domains, for example, of facts and values. For this reason the apparent difficulties of integrating scientific and theological ideas has been a source of embarrassment to me since my conversion, in my 30s, to Christianity.

It has been a delight, therefore, to find what a lot of really interesting work has been going on in this area over recent years. Not all of it is entirely to my taste but I have found a great deal to like. I have been particularly drawn to the work of Nancey Murphy who is both an ordained Christian minister and someone who identifies primarily as a philosopher although she is also a theologian. Murphy’s work can be seen, in some respects, as a reconstruction of some of Pannenberg’s insights about the relationship of science and theology on the basis of more recent philosophy of science than Pannenberg takes as his starting point.

The developing relationship between science and philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other has been enabled by new thinking on both sides of this pairing. The ways in which scientific theory understands its object (let’s call it the Universe) on the one hand and the way in which those who try to make sense of the scientific enterprise itself (philosophers of science) understand what science is and how it works have both been undergoing rapid and radical change in the last decades.

At the same time there has been a profound shift in some parts of the theological world towards a new interest in what one might call “natural theology”. For a long time theologians had a tendency not to want to engage too much with science and in the work of the Reformed thinker Karl Barth (whom almost everyone – including at least one Pope – acknowledges to be the most influential and important theologian of the twentieth century) this was made a point of principle. More recently a wave of post-Barthian thinkers, of whom I rate Pannenberg highest, have rejected this rejection of integrating Christianity and the scientific enterprise.

There is a huge amount to say about all of this, and I will be tying to say some of it in my Bible Study sessions and here, but there are a few key general points I would like to make at the outset.

  1. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is nothing inevitable about the scientific method. It was an innovation of the early modern period but, like all innovations, it required certain things already to be in place. Among these preconditions, many historians would now argue, were a set of theological ideas about the orderliness of creation and in particular the existence of universal laws of nature. This basic foundational idea of the scientific enterprise can (and should) be seen as a theological idea. (One of the main theological interpreters and advocates of this idea is Alister McGrath, who holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – see here for a relevant extract from his book Scientific Theology)
  2. The picture of the Universe that has emerged from the cosmology centred on the idea of the “Big Bang” has led us to a generalisation of the idea of evolution from the field of biology to the whole of science. The Universe is seen as having had an origin and to have undergone very fundamental change since that origin. The possibility that it has a terminus, that our Universe will not always exist is also a genuinely open question in contemporary scientific theory. Elementary particles, chemical elements, planets, stars and everything else we observe are now seen to have emerged from processes within the history of the Universe. This dynamic view of physical reality connects with developments in theology.
  3. For a variety of reasons there is much more interest in theology than there was before the twentieth century in the Biblical view of God’s relationship with Creation being historical and oriented towards bringing about new states of that Creation. The idea that we should think of God as working to redeem Creation, common in both the Old and New Testaments but somewhat foreign to the Christianity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, became more influential in the twentieth and is on the way to being the consensus view of the twenty-first.

There are then three basic intellectual trends towards: 1) recognising that science needs to presuppose ideas we would recognise as within the domain of theological (although not necessarily demanding any particular wider theological framework); 2) understanding the profundity of the shift in our vision of the nature of reality implied by contemporary scientific theory and; 3) seeing how deeply our conception of God’s basic relationship to Creation is being remade.

These three together provide a moment of tremendous opportunity and many theologians are working to grasp it. Besides those I have already mentioned notable other include John Polkinghorne, theologian and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Professor of Divinity and former co-Director of the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” research programme at Harvard, and Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

One preliminary conclusion I have personally come to is that the task for theology is to re-integrate science into itself. The question of the relationship between science and theology should be recast not about their compatibility but about the best way of absorbing science completely into theology. We ought to be setting ourselves the challenge of making theology once again the “queen of sciences”, not by challenging or denying the scientific method but by demonstrating that it is a fundamentally theological enterprise, making the necessary adjustments to our theological frameworks to allow this fully to be true, in ways pioneered by the work of Pannenberg who showed that it is possibly to do this while in no way abandoning the determination to remain “orthodox” in one’s trinitarian Christianity, who indeed showed that it is precisely such a faith that can explore and vindicate the theological bases of scientific thinking.

ccjIt was a great pleasure this Monday to welcome the annual reunion for those who have been on the Council of Christians and Jews study trip to the International Centre for Holocaust Studies. I went last year and was delighted to host the reunion at Potters Bar. It was a chance to catch up with a number of those with whom I went to Jerusalem, to meet others from others years, to reflect again on what the experience meant to me and to meet Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador, who dropped in for an hour in the afternoon and who was very impressive and engaging (and who was virtually a local boy, having attended Haberdashers, a school not far away which runs a bus from Potters Bar).

In the year since I was there I have thought a lot about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and a little about that between both, Zionism and the modern state of Israel. The following conclusions seem fairly secure to me:

  • Jesus himself was and remained a faithful Jew – during his lifetime and the time of his resurrection appearances the Jesus movement was a movement within early Judaism and did not entail any kind of break with it, he did not reject the law nor the unique election of Israel
  • During the period of the Apostolic Church (say to 65 AD) Christianity did not break from Judaism but began to create a separate identity, in particular it became possible to be a full member of the Church without being a Jew and without conforming to the Law (it also remained possible to be a full member while being a Jew and conforming to the Law)
  • the definitive separation of Christianity from Judaism and hence the rejection of (at least some of) the Law was a post-Apostolic development

There has been a fairly widespread scholarly acceptance of this general picture since it emerged as a serious position in the later 1970s and my impression is that among scholars of the New Testament and the early Church it would now be the consensus view. In particular the idea that Jesus himself initiated a radical break with the Law would now be a minority view, I think. The arguments and positions attributed to him in the gospels with regard to legal matters are now generally seen as being within the range of ideas held by Jewish thinkers of the time (although some of them would make him fairly extreme, especially on divorce).

This picture of the development sits rather uncomfortably with a traditional Reformation view of a radical opposition between a legalistic Judaism and a grace-filled Christianity, drawn from a particular reading of Paul’s letters. We have been taught that Jesus was a radical who broke with a dead and sinful Jewish practice and opened a whole new relationship with God. The New Perspective on Paul, identified with thinkers like E.P. Sanders, J.D.G Dunn and N.T. Wright, has undermined this by insisting that the Judaism of the time was not as Christian thinkers have caricatured it. It was very familiar, these thinkers argue, with the idea that salvation was a matter of God’s gracious action and regarded  obedience to the Law as a response to grace not as an attempt to win favour.

They tend to read Paul’s real innovation as his insistence that it was now possible to enter into the covenantal people by another route, by baptism into Christ which does not require, as membership of the people of Israel does, acceptance of the Law. To old Israel is now added a new dimension, those from the nations who are received in Christ. This does not abolish the Law for Israel but, in the new age inaugurated by Jesus, enables an extension of the people to those outside Israel.

This new emphasis on continuity between old Israel and the new Church fits well with a more general reassessment of Judaism in the period since the Holocaust. It might imply that we have been wrong, in the Church, whenever we have thought or said that the covenant with Israel was ended with the coming of Christ. We might rather need to accept that the Jewish people are still elect, still the chosen people alongside the Church. We and they each have our place in God’s mission to save the world.

This is, in fact, my own view. It fits well with my attitude to the question of ecumenism, which is that the Church is in fragments and that none of these can claim to be “The Church” as long as any other exists. The Church resides in them all but cannot come to full being until it is united. In the meantime each of the fragments exists, by God’s grace and providence, to embody some part of the mission of the whole Church, which cannot, in the current transitional age, between that which is passing away and that which it come, be fully itself.

Thus the established churches, for example, express the reality that Christ is sovereign over all the peoples, that he exercises worldly rule. Separation of Church and State is an expression of sin and failure rather than something to be celebrated. In the age to come there will be no such separation. At the same time the Roman Catholic church expresses the reality that Jesus knows no boundaries of nation and people. His rule is universal and integral. In being a fully international worldwide ecclesial body with a single head the Roman Church speaks of this rejection of national division. Dissenting “free churches”, like my own United Reformed Church, speak to the rejection of entanglement with the sinful power structures of this age, of separation from civil authorities the central reality of which is the use of violence.

The above paragraph attempts to exemplify, from one narrow but very important view, the ways in which the full witness to the age to come is difficult for the Church in the current age and demands “specialisation” or fragmentation from the parts of the Church. Our involvement in a sinful world prevents us from fully expressing Christ’s news about the coming of Kingdom. Indeed “sectarian” withdrawal from such involvement, as seen in aspects of Anabaptism, is itself an indispensable witness for the Church catholic.

I would see the relationship between the Church and Israel as being part of this overall problem of how God’s coming rule can be represented in this passing age. The election of a “people” or “nation” expresses something important about the embodiment of God’s image. To be a Jew is a matter of birth. To be a Jew is a “natural” identity as well as one expressing God’s choosing of a particular person. To be a Christian does not have this character (and loses something essential when it tends in this direction).

Finally, it seems to me, that we in the Church would do well to remember Israel’s priority. We have been grafted on to Israel and depend on it for our roots. This is vital and should never be lost sight of.

How any of this relates to the modern state of Israel I do not know. That’s an issue I find very difficult to address. However it seems to me that the recognition of the continuing reality of God’s covenant with the Jewish people is an essential starting point.

Jesus is God.

 

So what’s God like? We can answer that in at least three ways.

 

We can start from thinking about what God would have to be, to be God. We can begin from our ideas of what God has to be, what it means to be “God”. God is what is the most perfect, perhaps, the most powerful, the best. God is the creator. God is the eternal and everlasting. God is the never-changing. These are all ideas about what God is that have a long history and a powerful hold on the imagination. If that’s our idea of God then it’s going to be difficult to make sense of the idea that Jesus is God. Jesus the man lived and died in a particular time and place. During his life he was only ever in single spot at any given moment. He walked when he wanted to get around and he ate and drank. He suffered physical and mental pain and then he died. OK he was raised from the dead and then he seemed to be able to appear and disappear at will. All right during his life he was able to do things nobody else could do, like walk on water or still storms, but he wasn’t omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent, to use those terms. His power was limited, he didn’t know everything and he wasn’t everywhere. He didn’t match up to those preconceived ideas of what God was like.

 

Jesus doesn’t seem to fit our first answer to the question: “What’s God like?” and that causes us problems in believing that Jesus is God. Many people will say that they admire Jesus, that they like his teaching, that they think he’s worth following but they can’t accept that a man, any man, can be God. Well maybe that’s because they’re starting with an idea of what God is and trying to fit Jesus to it.

 

So an alternative might be to say that what it means to say that Jesus is God is that we should take our image of what God is from Jesus, rather than from our ideas about God, that the God we’re called to worship is one that looks like Jesus. That’s our second way of answering the question. “What’s God like?” God’s like Jesus. Later in John’s gospel Jesus speaks the famous words: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

 

If we accept that it might seem that the only way to know God is to know Jesus and so our image of God should be exactly the same as our image of Jesus. Some people are attracted to this way of answering the question “what’s God like?” because it makes God someone we can know and not someTHING distant and hard to believe in. At its extreme this turns into a humanistic post-Christianity like that of John Spong, Richard Holloway or Don Cupitt. God is the ideal of a perfected humanity. It is the best and most complete realisation of the human race, represented by our ideas about Jesus.

 

There are lots of problems about this, but not the least is that it conflicts sharply with what we know about who Jesus was and what he taught. He prayed to a God he called “Father”, he acknowledged and used the Hebrew scriptures as the way to know God, he accepted and revered the Law/Torah of Israel. Furthermore our knowledge of Jesus is confined to what is written in the gospels. While a faithful Christian will see the Bible as authoritative and will have to see it as sufficient as scripture to its (God defined) purpose, they will not be able, I think, to say that on its own it will allow them really to know the man Jesus.

 

In addition the books that are our only source of knowledge about Jesus represent him and represent him as representing himself as something rather more than a perfected human being. They represent him, I believe, as having a unique status that nobody else can aspire to. He is, in the words of the Nicene Creed (in its traditional translation into English), the “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father”.

Some will argue that this “high” Christology, this claiming of full divinity for Jesus is extra-Biblical but I have to say that I think this position is quite simply indefensible. Any reading of the prologue to John’s gospel, or indeed of a text like the Christ-hymn in Philippians chapter 2 makes clear, in my view, that the New Testament does claim divine status for Jesus. However this claim is made in the context of the Old Testament story about God’s covenant with Israel and revelation of himself to Israel. Jesus is God with (and in) the God of Israel, of Yahweh.

 

So what’s the third (and by implication best) way of answering the question “what’s God like?”

 

It is the same as the best way of answering the question “what is your friend like?” It is to say: “come and meet him”. Our, Christian, account of God is triune, not one, not two, but three persons. We say that the Spirit is sent from the Father and the Son and is present with and in us, joining us to the Son and through him with the Father. We say that through the Spirit the Church is the body of Christ. We say that our God, our Saviour, is not absent but present, in Word and Sacrament, in the life of the Church.

 

God has always been present in history, we say, reading the Bible. We say that God reveals himself continuously and consistently. The highest and fullest revelation is in Christ and Christ may be encountered in the Church.

 

Jesus is God, Jesus is here, to meet him is THE way to know God.

fearofgodLike many other preachers I’ve been looking at Matthew’s gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus this week. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. At the top his face starts shining like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and stand talking to him. Finally a voice speaks from a cloud telling the disciples they should listen to Jesus because he is the beloved son of the speaker with whom the speaker is well pleased. At this point the disciples are overcome with terror and fall on the floor. Jesus comes and touches them, he is now alone, he tells them not to be afraid. The four descend from the mountain again.

There are a variety of possible themes and topics in this extraordinary passage but what’s held my attention this week is the disciples’ fear. This is clearly (to me) the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom. Their terror is occasioned by the direct encounter with the Lord, whose voice it is that they hear. They have gone up the mountain with Jesus to meet God and when they do they are overcome by fear.

So what’s so frightening about God? Is it that they think they have done something particular to deserve or provoke God’s anger? This doesn’t seem likely to me. After all these three have abandoned everything to follow Jesus who has announced the coming of God’s kingdom. God’s command to them is to listen to Jesus, which they have dedicated their lives to doing. If God is well pleased with Jesus it seems unlikely that he is going to be especially wrathful with regards to Jesus’ closest followers.

The disciple’s fear must be simply fear of God. God is scary just by virtue of being God. Many of the warnings about meetings with the Lord in the Old Testament imply this. Exodus 33:12-20 is an excellent example. God tells Moses that he is particularly pleased with him in v17 but then in v20 refuses Moses’ request that he (Moses) might see God’s glory because “no one may see me and live”. This is not, I think, along the lines of “if I told you I’d have to kill you” but rather a statement of fact. In the same way no-one could live unprotected in a vacuum no-one can live in the direct and full presence of God. It would simply be fatal to see Him.

It is also clear that this is not necessarily and always the case. One of the peculiar things about the stories about the Garden of Eden is that in them God is so straightforwardly present. There are also stories in the patriarchal narratives about meetings between Abraham and Jacob/Israel and God. When we get to Exodus, though, this is all behind us. Moses has close brushes with the Lord but cannot see him.

Human beings and God have got to a point where they can’t really be in the same place. Hence the Tabernacle and the Temple as places where this can be managed and made safe, where God can come into touch with his people without destroying them. These places become the centre of the Universe as the point at which its meaning and purpose can be fulfilled.

If we accept that our relationship with God is the most important thing about us, which I do, then this is disturbing. To go fully into what we are for, what we are about, being the image of God, implies a vision of someone whom to see is to die. We can’t be ourselves safely, to grow into our vocation might seem to be to risk destruction by an encounter with the one whose presence is fatal.

To get a sense of where to go with that desperate thought it might be worth speculating on why God is so dangerous to us, what it is that we fear. It is more than mere death, I think. In face of God we would be confronted with the fact that we are already, have always been, nothing. If we become something only in so far as we fulfill our purpose of representing God and if we have been failing and refusing that task then we have chosen nothingness always and already, this is “original sin”.

What we most fear, I think, is the recognition of our own emptiness and meaninglessness. To meet God is to be unable to avoid it. It is a deep existential terror because it has within it the truth of our being.

There is good news, though. The disciples survive and Jesus dispels their fear. In him they see the possibility of a humanity restored, the image of God fully present, so fully present as to be God. In the new Adam all is made right. After that hilltop experience they have come through the worst that could befall them and in hearing the story we can be reassured that with Jesus as companion we too can, if not see God’s face, at least hear his voice. We too can move forward in faith towards the realisation of our purpose.

I’ve been thinking about intercessory prayer in preparing for Sunday’s service. I’ve also been reading the section of Oliver O’Donovan’s magnificent Desire of the Nations that introduces the idea of political authority as revealed in the story of Israel, I’ve also been getting myself properly back into my ministerial work and reflecting on how I would know whether I was “doing well” or even “doing enough”.

In all of this I’ve been reminded again of some core convictions of mine:

  • we ARE all sinners absolutely in need of grace
  • God is our sovereign Lord and his ways are mysterious to us
  • our sin is most of all our refusal to recognise how absolute is God’s claim on us and how non-existent our claim even to ourselves
  • the way of freedom for us is the way of total surrender to God especially abandoning our ambition to know or to legislate good and evil

So much of human life is about trying to establish or at least to simulate independence or freedom. We long to be autonomous. This is illusion and foolishness. We are dependent. We have no freedom. We cannot stand alone. Our ridiculous strivings express themselves ultimately in the attempt to impose our power over others, a power that would bend them to a will that if we were honest with ourselves is not our own.

As the apostle Paul puts it our choice is to whom we will be enslaved, to sin and the devil or to God.

A good deal of Christianity, at least since Pelagius’ arguments with Augustine  around the turn of the 5th Century, has tried to water down or deny this dependence by saying that our salvation depends to some degree on something we contribute, faith, works, will, something. I am sure this is not so. Faith is a gift of grace like anything else.

Luther and Calvin were right, in this sense, to insist on reviving the idea of predestination, that any who are saved are saved by God because God wills it so.

I’m not an enthusiast for the scholastic and rigid formulations of this insight that culminated in the Westminster Confession and “Orthodox Calvinism”. I do accept that the Spirit works to sanctify us and that we can and should conform ourselves to God’s ways in representing him. I see no value in seeking to distinguish the elect and the reprobate nor in dwelling on hell and damnation.

There’s no reason I can see not to take God’s promise at face value and glory in his gracious forgiveness and work on our behalf.

What I do think is that the anxious affirmation of OUR (human beings, the church, ministers, whoever) great importance in God’s plan is a barrier to the full realisation of what the gospel is; which is that in Christ God has overcome all that stands between us and him. That the Kingdom has come very near, that we can participate in it and that in the fullness of time it will be fully realised and peace and justice will hold sway in a world made new.

This promise is from the only one who can make it happen.

Any efforts of ours are irrelevant except insofar as they express and reflect God’s will, which is discernible to us only “as in a glass darkly”. We are like toddlers who think they are making their own way but whose every step is watched over and taken care of.

That’s the truth of our existence. We have no power, no freedom, no knowledge and no hope apart from God, whose power, knowledge and intentions are beyond the scale of our perception.