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Stars of wonder, stars of grace

18 December 2015

Amid all the new scientific discoveries, the birth of Jesus is still key, argues David Wilkinson

istock

the Milky Way

the Milky Way

IT IS tempting for someone like me, with an interest in science, to approach the Christmas story and quickly be transfixed by discussions about whether the star of the Magi was a comet, or about the genetic challenges of a virgin birth. But the central Christian belief of the incarnation of Jesus has far more profound things to say about science and current apologetics.

In particular, it might help Christians to think about the latest big scientific questions — such as the origin of the universe, and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence — and the legacy of new atheism, besides what it means to be human.

When carol services end with a reading of the opening of John’s Gospel, its ancient author would surely be surprised by today’s context of candlelight and children dressed as donkeys. Yet this context is not too far away from this overture, which highlights themes in the Gospel such as glory, life, light, witness, truth, and the nature of the world, and how they relate to Jesus.

John subtly picks up many strands of the human thought of his time. Those from a Hebrew background would note the reference to Genesis 1.1: “In the beginning”. The first cause of creation was God’s personal creative activity through his self-expression, his word. Thus, in Genesis 1, God speaks, and things come into existence.

In a creative synthesis, however, those from a Greek background would also recognise the word logos, which represents the rationality behind and inherent in the universe.

Those who put emphasis on life, the symbol of light, or the eventual triumph of light over darkness would find something that resonated with their thought, too. In addition, those who saw the importance of the witness of others, or spiritual experience, would feel affirmed by John.

Through all of this, however, John is beginning to work out his central theme. It is about someone who underlies all of this, and is greater than all of these approaches.

If the listener does not pick up the clues, John offers it boldly and dramatically in verse 14: “The Word became flesh.”

Although rationalism or mysticism may provide pointers to God, you cannot know the true nature of God simply through these means. Even the witness of John the Baptist, or of the Old Testament scriptures, is not enough.

All these things have to be understood in relation to Jesus Christ. So what might this baby of Bethlehem mean for some of the key scientific insights of today?

 

THE extraordinary ability of cosmology to describe the history of the universe through 13.8 billion years, back to a small fraction of a second after its beginning, is astonishing. Exactly a century ago, Einstein produced an understanding of gravity in his general theory of relativity, which allowed predictions of an expanding universe.

A few years later, observations of the redshift of galaxies were the first indication of a rapid expansion of space-time, evidence of what Sir Fred Hoyle nicknamed “the Big Bang”.

Currently, our laws of physics are not capable of describing the very first moments of the universe, but it would be unwise to use this as an argument for a “god of the gaps” who simply sets off the firework of the Big Bang.

Stephen Hawking and others are hard at work to unify general relativity with quantum theory in order to understand that first moment, and I am excited to see the success of this quest. Indeed, the indications are that in this we may see that our universe is one in a multiverse.

Some Christians see this as a threat. For many centuries, theologians laid a great deal of emphasis on logical arguments that would prove the existence of God. The cosmological argument tried to prove that the universe needed a first cause, and that this first cause was God. The design argument pointed to apparent design in the natural world, and argued that such design needed a designer. These arguments became key to theology and evangelism up to the 19th century.

The trouble was that they did not work. Philosophers such as Kant and Hume pointed out the flaws in the logic, and Charles Darwin demolished the design argument by showing that the design in the biological world was the result of natural selection.

Today, quantum gravity and the multiverse caution against a return to these kinds of arguments, used by some of those who advocate Intelligent Design.

 

YET there is an even more important problem with these attempted proofs of God. That is: what kind of God do you end up with at the end of the process? At most, you could claim the existence of some sort of cosmic architect, but nothing more than that.

A God who is personal, and whose nature is one of love and justice, is a long way beyond such proofs. How can a finite mind, functioning within a finite universe, ever know anything about an infinite God?

The Christian approach is to contemplate the possibility that the infinite God decided to reveal truth to our finite minds in a way that would be understandable. This is central to what John is saying about Jesus. God has become a human being in Jesus, and lived among us.

In answer to the question of what God is like, Christians respond that he is like Jesus. This is a surer path to the nature of God.

The vastness of the universe, and the beauty and simplicity of the laws of physics underlying it might point, through a sense of awe, to a good and extravagant God.

But what about Stephen Fry’s much-publicised example of insects that burrow out of the eyes of children; or, on a larger scale, the recent discovery that the universe is destined to futility in heat-death? These things might lead people to another conclusion altogether.

In a fallen universe of mixed messages, Jesus is the baseline by which we calibrate our understanding of God, the evidence on which our theological models are constructed, and the assurance of the personal at the heart of impersonal mathematical theory. Christian faith ultimately rests on the borrowed barn rather than the Big Bang.

This has much to say to mission in a culture that lives with the legacy of new atheism. The popularity of Professor Richard Dawkins may be past its peak, but its legacy has perpetuated the idea of conflict between science and Christian faith.

This is far too simplistic, both in its reading of history and its understanding of the nature of science today. Against a background of such a conflict, however, there is a need to be positive when offering the evidence of the Word made flesh.

 

IF COSMOLOGY dominated much of the science-religion dialogue of the second half of the previous century, the question of what it means to be human is the question of the first part of the 21st century.

Advances in medical technology have reawakened questions about the beginning and end of life, and they are now joined by some new challenges.

As artificial intelligence and situated robotics surpass human processing power, and come ever closer to mimicking human decision-making, might a conscious machine emerge among us?

And, if the majority of my genetic code is shared with a cauliflower, never mind an ape, what distinguishes me from the rest of the created order? It is a question also raised by human evolution, and in the tightening relation of brain and mind in neuroscience, which squeezes out any distinct place for a spiritual soul.

One new and unexpected challenge is the extraordinary rate of discoveries of planets outside our solar system. An app on my smartphone informs me daily of yet another confirmation of one of some 2000 such planets, some of which are not too dissimilar to earth, and located in a “habitable” zone in relation to their central star.

For example, in July this year, NASA announced the discovery of Kepler 452b, a planet 60-per-cent larger than the earth, and located in the habitable zone of a sunlike star. So the argument goes that, as extra-solar planets seem plentiful in a universe of 100 billion stars in each of 100 billion galaxies, then surely there must be other life out there.

Some people fear that this could undercut the Christian belief in the uniqueness of human beings.

The science is, of course, a little more complicated than this argument assumes. A habitable planet does not necessarily imply the existence of life, and it certainly does not imply intelligent life. It is a long way from an amoeba to an accountant. But would alien accountants be a difficulty for the Christian faith?

Some years ago, the historian of chemistry Professor Colin Russell pointed out that Christians had been at the forefront of the search for other worlds. There were two theological convictions that provided the reason for this. First, because God was the free creator of the universe, then God could create whatever God wanted to create.

Second, the special nature of human beings was not to be defined by location at the centre of the universe, or by being completely distinct in physical or mental make-up from the rest of creation. Rather, human beings are special because of the gift of intimate relationship with God, given in creation and seen in Jesus.

So, we see in the manger a God who loves human beings as they are; and also we see what human beings can be, and are meant to be.

With such a view of what it means to be human, the Christian can be more relaxed about many of these scientific questions. Of course, many questions will remain. Not least, perhaps, is the relevance of the cross and resurrection to the whole of the universe. As the hymn-writer Sydney Carter speculated many years ago: “Who can tell what other cradle, High above the Milky Way, Still may rock the King of Heaven On another Christmas Day?”

 

WHILE science dominates the modern world, it is, at the same time, under threat. Blamed by some for the environmental crisis, it is feared by others, who see its power as uncontrollable, and is laughed off or ignored by many who struggle to understand it. Such attitudes exist outside and within the Church, not least by those who have bought into the conflict model of science and faith.

Yet the word made flesh is not just about God’s becoming a human being, but God’s becoming part of his created order of cells, molecules, atoms, protons, and Higgs bosons. It is a God who pitches his tent in the very physicality of this world, both affirming it and showing a commitment to redeeming it.

This Jesus will not only save us from our sins, but will inaugurate a kingdom that will lead to a new heaven and a new earth. The revelation of the Creator God in Jesus is not simply a divine escape-plan from this world. It is God saying that this world of time and space, of quantum theory and the human genome, and of supernovae and structural engineering is important.

So, in the midst of the light of Christmas candles, and surrounded by the desperation of teachers trying to find enough animals in the stable to give a part to every child, the opening of John’s Gospel affirms the interpretation of light from distant galaxies through telescopes and the study of biodiversity of which this Christ-child is a part.

The physical world is not so evil that it has to be avoided in preference for the purity of the spiritual world. The fact that “through him all things were made” affirms the work of scientists and technologists; for at the heart of the physical order is the Jesus whom we worship and follow as disciples.

Perhaps the most effective contribution to mission in a world dominated by science would be if the Church saw science as a gift, and gave confidence in witness to those scientists who see their work and thinking as a Christian vocation.

 

The Revd Dr David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College and Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

His most recent book is When I Pray, What Does God Do? (Monarch, 2015). He will be appearing at the Church Times Bloxham Festival, 19-21 February.

www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.

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