Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Tunnel Vision

We were thinking about Jesus the Light of the World in Sunday's talk, and riffed for a bit on the theme of the following quote from C S Lewis:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else...

So we thought about how we perceive our own lives and the world we live in, in the light of that sunrise. How do we explain anything? By fitting what we are trying to account for into the larger context of what we believe we already know. We explain our neighbour's odd actions in the light of what we already believe about their behaviour... Economists seek to understand the crash of 2008 in their economic terms… Evolutionary biologists will try to explain economics and other human activities in evolutionary terms, while psychologists will tell us that actually it's all psychological. For them, their particular disciplines form the larger context which validates their explanations of the world.

This causes a problem for atheistic and secularising understandings of the universe. God by definition will always be the largest possible frame of reference. God is therefore always going to be the ultimate context for any phenomena we are trying to explain. This doesn't necessarily prove that God is real, of course, but it does have some very interesting outcomes…

Above all it enables us to see life whole. Do you ever feel that people who try to force their views of the world on the public, a minority of them with a lot of ranting, are suffering from tunnel vision? All they can see is what falls within the parameters of their own discipline, and everything else that goes to make up the vast and complex world we live in must be cut down to fit.

It's very interesting for example to see the takes of Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox on ethics. Prof RD, an evolutionary biologist, says ethics are just human adaptations for survival, and Prof BC, a physicist, says that we don't need ethics when physics can tell us what we ought to do. In neither case do ethics have any intrinsic validity – they've been cut down to fit.

So instead of a vast sea of knowledge we have ended up with a lot of puddles which don't connect with each other. As a society, we are suffering from tunnel vision! We don't have a connected up vision of the world, or of our own part in it. We are in fact disintegrating in terms of our collective culture, because we can no longer see the world whole.

Now the interesting thing is, there's another bit of scientific explanation currently under construction called "the Theory of Everything." This represents huge efforts by the cleverest minds in the world to give a fuller account of the workings of the universe. Apparently there are four different forces that make the universe work: gravity, electro-magnetic radiation, and the two nuclear forces, strong and weak. "Now," say the cosmologists, "If only we could produce a theory that brings together all four of these forces, we would have the secrets of the universe cracked." Why? Because a theory that explains lots of things is far more powerful than one that explains only a few things.

Hold on to that last thought… "a theory that explains lots of things…"  The Theory of Everything has produced some bafflingly complex maths describing string and membrane structures with up to 16 different dimensions, some of them curled up inside themselves and only fractions of a nanometre long, and mostly completely undetectable. It seems to fall foul of the dictum that a simple and direct explanation is to be preferred over one that demands complex inventions. But it's all worth it for the cosmologists because of the power of a unified explanation – far more powerful than lots of separate theories that each can only explain a few things…

And the trouble is of course that, for a theory of everything, there's an awful lot left out. What about beauty? Where does that fit in? What about justice? What about love? We're doing all this theorising using our reason – but where does that come from? Only the world of physics has been allowed in. The worlds we live in, with our ethical, aesthetic, rational and relational selves, have been cut out. Disintegration again.

But by now we who are Christians are jumping up and down shouting, "We've already got a theory of everything!" And this time it really is everything, not just a selection of the suitable bits. We live in a real universe, explorable by reason and science, because it's the creation of God. We see its beauty because He is a beautiful God. We long for justice to come to it because He is a just and ethical God. So our lives can be lived whole through our relationship with God. Our perspectives become unifying instead of disintegrated. We swim in an ocean rather than splashing about in the puddles.

We can look at a bird singing in a tree on so many levels. We analyse its biology, we rejoice gratefully in its beauty, we respond morally to preserve it and its environment from our era's insane destructiveness, and we perceive ourselves together with it as part of a web of life created in relationship by a God of love. So we're starting to recover from tunnel vision and to see life whole. We no longer have to compartmentalise our rational, aesthetic, ethical and relational selves.

To do this properly we need our relationship with God restored from its current brokenness. That's another story, about Jesus the light of the world, and needs to go in another post. In the meantime let's take a fresh look at our Theory of Everything, where everything really does mean Everything, and remember: a theory that explains lots of things is more powerful than a theory that only explains a few things…

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