The calling of creation

Science questionPicture the scene. The Pevensey children are with Aslan the lion – but not in Narnia. They are in a strange place, a place between places, a well between the worlds. Because Narnia is not the only world that Aslan has made, and now he is roaring, calling, singing another new world into being. It is a call full of harmony and melody, but of passion and desire as well, because the new world will not only be beautifully and wonderfully made, but also beloved.

It’s a marvellous picture of creation, deeply rooted in theology and philosophy, and the good news is that despite the media-hyped slanging match between scientific and religious fundamentalists, who each refuse to acknowledge the value of the insights of the other, we do not in fact have to ditch our faith or our imagination in order to take science seriously, or switch our heads off to be a Christian. It really is a both-and not an either-or, and was always seen as such until very recently. And I want you and your families and friends to share the adventure with me of seeing the world through both eyes, if you like, one world and one truth, but a truth which like white light is made up of many rich colours.

Read on for the rest of this sermon I’m preaching today at St Oswald’s Durham.

 

Of course, since faith is, as we all know, a free choice, and there is and should be no compulsion in religion, some people will always choose to say there is no God, and so no inherent purpose or goodness to the universe around us, and a bleak place it is too. I respect their choice, but shudder slightly at it, both because of the loss it means for them but also because I see and think nearly all of us see meaningful scales of truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, love and hate, order and chaos as fundamental to the world we live in. And if those scales are real, and not just our imagining, then in some sense God is real too.

So I am making the leap of faith, and I want to show how both faith and science then work together to illuminate some of the biggest questions we face, the ones I have flagged up in the pewsheet for us to talk about over lunch if you can stay: Where have we come from? Who are we? And where are we going?

So where have we come from? The science in the frame here is cosmology, and the well-rehearsed theory of the big bang, meaning that the whole material universe was once a single point, a singularity, which inflated out and launched a cascade of reactions that eventually led to galaxies, stars and planets as we know them. Since the origin of the universe can hardly be re-run in a lab to check the results, this is to some extent speculation, but until and unless new observations challenge the theory there is no reason to not take it as the likely facts of the matter.

And in my two-eyed world I, and I hope we, are very happy to let the eye of science show us the facts of the matter insofar as they can be observed, accepting and challenging them in just the way that a good scientist would.

But then we may well ask ourselves why such a universe, and such an ordered one, exists at all, and here science struggles to find anything to say, unless it takes that bleak fundamentalist view that such questions are meaningless or unnecessary. And as one eye ceases to serve us very well so the other comes into focus.

We’re back to Aslan. As Christians we see the source of that being and order in God. Words obviously fail us here, but when we say that, “In the beginning was the Word” we are saying that existence and rational order are true of God himself, outside time and before anything we call creation (indeed beyond any dimensionality at all: I said words will fail us). And we are saying that this provides an active potential and framework for creation: “through him were all things made”. To use a very homely analogy, God is and provides the patterns from which the knitting of the world is made. The earliest and perhaps greatest philosopher of the Western world, Plato, called the patterns “forms”, and since C S Lewis was a follower of Plato, this is just the sort of idea he had in mind when we wrote about Aslan.

All well and good, you might say, but aren’t we leaving the science massively behind? Well, no. In the world of Newton, the focus of physics was on solid objects and the forces between them: a billiard-table sort of universe. The quantum revolution showed that at fundamental levels that certainty dissolves into probabilities and complex interconnectednesses, and is much more mysterious and unpredictable than we thought. And now, as the information revolution takes hold, we are seeing how not only are matter and energy ultimately interchangeable but both can be expressed in terms of information and seen as expressions of information. And all of a sudden the idea of a realm of pattern and information which underlies our physical reality does not sound so unscientific after all.

I want to go on now if I may to say just a little about our other two big questions, and as we are in the Trinity season you’ll see that they’ll follow on from our look at creation and turn to redemption and inspiration.

The outline I’ve given of creation so far has focussed on the material world. But our interest of course is in ourselves. How and why did life and human life come into existence, and do science and faith work well together there too?

I need to say up front that just as I have no problem at all with scientific theories about the origin of the universe, neither do I have any problem about those to do with the origin of the species. I just want to share in the best that science has to offer. And I will venture to say that when Christian leaders take a stance that sees evolution as anti-Christian they are shooting themselves and us in the foot. God can work his purpose out as well through evolution as not, and long before our fundamentalist slanging-match began, everyone realised very well that the early chapters of Genesis were about how we go to heaven not how the heavens go, as a cardinal put it even in Galileo’s time.

So, taking on board the evolution of life through the processes science can now describe very well, if that is the “how?”, what about the “why?” You may remember that I spoke about Aslan’s roar as being not just a sort of musical scale to which everything could conform but a call of love as well, of desire. “God so loved the world” is our key verse here, and not only do we understand being and order to be of the nature of God, but love and relationship too. So as the cosmos is called into being, so that call is also a call for beings of love to emerge and call back to their creator.

That return of love must be freely chosen or love would hardly be the word for it, so the call to us is to choose God and choose love. Not all of us do and none of us do all the time – the choice would be no choice if we did, I suppose – so sin and evil enter creation. Unsurprisingly God in his love responds to give us all the help he can to find our way back to him, but always calls and never controls.

The thirteenth century bishop-scientist Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln, whom I’ve been working on here in Durham, saw the sciences as given by God to help with the discernment and restoration of his good order – a theme of the latest book by Tom McLeish, Professor of Physics here at Durham, a reader in the Church of England, and a co-collaborator on the Grosseteste project too. You can see why being here in Durham has been more than an intellectual exercise for me, studying science and religion: through the welcome and hospitality that you and many others have offered me, I have been able to live out the very adventure that I am trying to describe.

To turn back to the science for a moment, I have of course been making much of our free will, and some reductionists might want to claim that material processes mean that all our apparent choices are in fact determined for us. The letters page of New Scientist carries regular correspondence to that effect. Knowing how something happens is not the same as knowing why it happens, of course – you make a cup of tea by boiling water, but because you have a friend call round – but the science is more interesting than that. Even at the level of how we now know that in a complex system behaviours emerge that are not just beyond our calculation but in principle incalculable. I see no scientific reason why an organism as complex as the brain will not give rise to the emergent and undetermined phenomena that we call our mind and will, and that these because of their recursive quality will develop the self-reflecting and self-determining quality we call free will.

A final quick word on the last question – where are we going? Classical science has been highly allergic to anything that we would call in the trade teleological, that is, to do with the end and purpose of things, and certainly to the idea that the end might in some way be a cause of what comes before it. But if we are called into being in love, and called back to into relationship with God in love, it is very natural to say that we are also called in love into God’s final future for us. Once more, the latest science is helpful. Biologist Simon Conway-Morris has shown that evolutionary pathways converge as well as diverge, and there can theologically be a pathway into which we are being called too.

God has a purpose for us, which involves us in coming to know ourselves as made and loved and saved by him, and using our precious free will to become co-operators with him in the fulfilling of his desire for creation, for ourselves as humanity, growing in virtue into what the Bible calls the fullness of the stature of Christ, and for the material world too, because that is also out of kilter, and groaning for redemption. So issues of justice and ecology, for instance, are not side-shows of the Christian life but at its core. In theological terms this all the work of the Spirit, God’s Spirit as Paul says joining with our Spirit to discern God as Father and expressing all sorts of gifts put to use for a good purpose. Put to use and put to use together, because none of us have them all, and this remarkable bit of God’s creation called the church is even more remarkably a sort of experiment by God to help redemption be fulfilled. What happens here and now, in our generation, here at St Oswald’sor back for me in Ely, really matters, as we each and together listen for our calling, our vocation, and respond to it.

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