It was great to see St Mary’s Avington so full this evening. The church had been decorated beautifully and it was wonderful to see the candles lit. We were grateful for John Dover playing the organ as we hummed and lip synched the carols.
Alex Pease gave the following sermon:
In the beginning was the Word
One of the reasons that I love living in the Hampshire countryside is to experience the cold and clear winter nights (like tonight) where we can step outside and look up to the stars. Surely no-one can fail to ask themselves big questions when faced by the incredible array of beauty of the cosmos. Where does it all end – how did it all begin and why? The questions of infinity and eternity.
I have a theory that one of the reasons that Christian faith has been in decline in the developed countries is the pervasiveness of street lighting – people living in towns and cities cannot see the stars; and perhaps don’t ask themselves the big questions. We can so easily live as if the universe is only what is around us. That it is limited to the tiny range of our own perspective.
The Christian answer to these questions is given in the reading that we have just had read – that God created all things and that the Word – or in Ancient Greek the original language of the New Testament – the logos – whom we know as Jesus – was with God – and through him all things were made. The Greeks, for whom John was writing his gospel, had for centuries recognised in their philosophy the idea of the logos as the shaping, ordering or directing principle of the universe. John describes the logos as the light which shines in the darkness; as a person who was with God at the beginning of all things and who gives to all who receive him, all those who believed in him, the right to become children of God. Children of the creator God and made in his image.
However, it has to be said that not everyone who gazes into the cosmos now comes to the same conclusion. There is a significant body of opinion which denies the existence of God and has an entirely naturalistic and atheistic view of the universe. Of course, Professor Richard Dawkins is one, but also the very distinguished physicist Stephen Hawking has declared for this perspective. Other scientists have a different view.
In discussing these things, I need to point out that, unlike my predecessor as curate in Itchen Valley Revd. Dr Stefan Collyer, I do not have a PhD in Astro-Physics, just a simple lawyer turned vicar. So in what I say this evening, I am leaning very specifically on the work of others – particularly the Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and lecturer on the philosophy of science, John Lennox, and his book ‘God’s undertaker – Has Science buried God?’.
In a short talk it is difficult to even scratch the surface of this debate. However, I would like to make a couple of observations which may be helpful and I hope get you thinking over the holiday about what are the basic questions of our existence.
Firstly, its important to realise that not everything that scientists say is science.
We should try to recognise when scientists are being speculative and operating out of belief rather than out of the product of the empirically repeatable observation of natural phenomena.
But it has to be said that physicists, in particular, have done theists – believers in God – a great service in the last 50 years. The introduction of Big Bang theory has put the Biblical narrative of creation back on the philosophical agenda. The idea that there was a beginning to the cosmos is something that theologians have known from Genesis chapter 1 (and indeed from John Chapter 1 which mirrors it) – but for much of modern history it was thought by scientists (following on from Aristotle) that the universe had always existed.
Now that we have a very credible scientific hypothesis about the beginning of the universe, there has come with it fascination about the apparent fine-tuning of the universe and the fragility of life itself.
Laurence Krauss’s work has shown that if the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by a little as 1 part in 10 to the power of 60 the universe would have collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for galaxies to form. In either case life would have been impossible. This level of improbability has been compared to firing a bullet at a target just inches across on the other side of the universe and hitting it first time.
Our planet is a remarkable place. If the earth was even slightly nearer to the Sun, the seas would all evaporate; too far and the earth would be too cold for life. A change of only 2% or so and all life would cease. If the earth spun a bit faster our atmosphere would spin off our planet; if it spun more slowly we would be baked to death during the day and frozen to death at night. For life as we know it, this is a very fragile thing.
There are a huge number of other examples of the Goldilocks nature of our planet and its galaxy – its just right for life. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross lists the many, many such parameters that have to be fine tuned for life to be possible and makes a rough calculation that the chance of one such planet existing in the universe with the capacity to support life is 1 in 10 to the power of 282. This is as unlikely as if you filled the entire universe with 5p pieces end to end and with no space between the coins it’s the probability of getting your blindfolded spouse to pick out the only one painted red.
These are big numbers. It is very extraordinary that we are here at all.
But given the unlikelihood of the universe existing, which one might have thought tends to point us toward the hand of a Creator, those who reject such a possibility postulate that instead of all of this being started by God, that the universe sprang into existence from nothing through the operation of the laws of physics. The argument continues – it is called M-Theory – that there are there are trillions upon trillions of universes – a sufficient number in fact to make it more probable that our particular universe has just the characteristics that it needs to be the cradle of our existence.
But theists point out that laws do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions. Lennox points out that it’s a bit like being asked to choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain a jet engine. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up. The jet could not have been created by the laws of physics on their own – the task of development and creation needed the genius of Whittle as its agent. Similarly the laws of physics could never have actually built the universe – some agency must have been involved.
The contrary view says ‘well what about God? Where did he come from?’ The theological view is that he is eternal and outside the system of nature all together – he always has been and always will be. He is the uncaused first cause of everything other than himself. He is the eternal first mover who himself has no beginning and no end but who acted at the beginning to create a universe out of nothing.
So the debate boils down to a debate about nothing. But not a pointless debate at all. A very important debate about how something came out of nothing. Indeed a debate about whether there is anything (such as rules of physics) in the nothingness that preceded the Big Bang.
As Philosopher Richard Swinburne of Oxford University has put it – we have a choice before us provided by discoveries in Physics – whether we believe that one God created the universe or that multiple unknowable and unknown universes sprang into existence from nothing and we happen to be occupying the only one which is precisely tuned to make our life possible. He says: “to postulate a trillion-trillion other universes, rather than one God, in order to explain the orderliness of our universe, seems the height of irrationality”
So as always with the gospel, we are left to make a choice. A choice between belief on the one hand in a cold universe which springs out of nothing to no purpose and accidentally produces everything that we see around us (including all the world’s unnecessary beauty) a cold universe which then moves relentlessly towards its own destruction which will end in pointlessness and make everything that we or our race may achieve totally futile.
And on the other hand a universe created by a person who loves us so much that he was willing to become one of us in poverty and suffering to be born in a stable in an unimportant village on the fringes of the Roman Empire on an unimportant planet in our rather minor solar system 2000 years ago. A being who in what he said and did continues the work of Creation by shedding the light of his salvation into our lives and enabling those of us who have been made in his image to become sons and daughters of God. A person who has set the whole universe on a journey to a destination. A journey on which we are all travelling. A being who makes sense of all we experience of the universe and gives eternal meaning and significance to our lives.
The choice is yours and mine.
For as John Betjeman wrote in his poem ‘Christmas’;
“And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all
Seen in a stained glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies
The sweet and silly Christmas things
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant
No love that in a family dwells
No carolling in frosty air
Nor all the steeple shaking bells
Can with this single truth compare
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 1:1–18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.