Sunday 26 April 2015

Today (Sunday 26 April) is Vocations Sunday, a reminder that God calls all his people to fulfil various roles that glorify him and bless others. These roles might be in your home as a parent or child, brother or sister; in the workplace through the job that you do and the way that you do it; in your neighbourhood through the way you treat others; or in the church in a variety of different ways.

On Saturday I led a reflection at a Vocations Breakfast, an event for people seeking God further for his calling in their lives. Here it is for you to think about - hope you find it helpful.

A letter from Jesus
2 Corinthians 3:1-6 (NIV)
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Today's reading describes us as a living letter, written on human hearts (v.3), known and read by everybody (v.2). How can we be a letter from Jesus more effectively? 3 ways:-

1. be a love letter.
• above all the message of Jesus is a message of love: "God so loved the world..." If people don't see God's love in us then we are not an authentic letter from Jesus because we are not conveying his message.
• My biggest mistakes in ministry have been when I've become too absorbed in tasks and not given enough time to people. If people can't see God's love in us we have lost the plot. But it's so easy when you sit down in front of your to do list.
• So let's see people who come to us not as interruptions but as messengers from God, reminding us to re-prioritise. The rotas and timetables and agendas and meetings and reports and returns are not the most important things. People need to know you love them!
• Not only that, but if we are not a love letter, nobody will want to read us. People are fed up of reading of a church that is judgmental, stuffy, that fudges everything, hypocritical and inward-looking. People are crying out for an authentic spirituality: for Christians, that means love.
• Above all, give people time - a precious gift in an over busy age - as Jesus did.

                Prayer – What kind of letter am I, Lord?

2. be human
• God's ultimate communication was not through the prophets or written laws. It was through a human being - "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus was not afraid to be vulnerable - hungry, thirsty, tired, angry, sad, happy, suffering, tempted - and nor should we.
• Our humanity is therefore not an obstruction to God's work in our lives, but the very vehicle and living channel of it - because that's how it was for Jesus. Our humanity is God's gift!
• Christian testimony is not "look at me, I'm perfect!" - that's the testimony of the Pharisees. Christian testimony says, "I mess up, I'm fallen - but I have somebody with me who keeps on picking me up"
• So don't keep up a front! People aren't helped by that. They feel, "I can't live up to that" and they go away discouraged. That's the letter that kills, v.6.

                Prayer – Am I prepared to let my humanity show, Lord?

3. hand written
• No word processors for Paul! everything was written by hand. In the same way, we, God's letter to the world, need to have His fingerprints all over us.
• The Holy Spirit's role is absolutely essential - v.3: vital to keep the channel of communication with God wide open! Even the apostle Paul couldn't do it on his own, v.5: how much less can we. We simply must have the Spirit for this ministry, v.6.
• The Spirit should be writing the story of our lives, shaping our attitudes, outlook, values, vision, relationships... Footballers have ghost writers to help them tell their story and we need a Holy Ghost writer to work with us on the story of our lives.

Prayer – Do I have your fingerprints all over me, Lord?

Monday 20 April 2015

Reasons for believing (2)

So we've already looked at two of the classic arguments for the existence of God in the last post. We found the argument from degree weak, and along the way we demolished the ontological argument as a mere word game: but we also found a much stronger case for the argument from intelligibility. Now we turn to Thomas Aquinas' other three arguments, the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover, and the argument from contingency.

I take the view that these are pretty much the same argument, which can be summed up in one of them, the First Cause argument. Everything that happens in the universe is caused by something else which happened before it. That something else was in turn caused by earlier events, and so on. But can the sequence go on ad infinitum? Only if things that have already happened can be caused by things that have not yet happened can there be a never ending circle of cause and effect. As this is not possible there must be a First Cause, which set everything else in motion. This we call God. Or so Thomas Aquinas asserts.

I think the argument from motion to a First Mover is basically identical, it's just that the cause and its results are both movements. The same is true with the contingency argument, that every being owes its existence to other beings and is therefore contingent upon them, until we get back to an original being who starts everything off, who is therefore not contingent but has absolute being. "Contingent" here basically means caused by something else, so again we are dealing with very much the same argument. So I'm going to stick with the First Cause argument and leave you to do more thinking about the others if you reckon I'm selling you short.

The First Cause has received massive support from the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Let's not forget that this theory means not merely that all the matter and energy in the universe started with one unbelievably huge explosion, but that absolutely everything about our universe also started in the same event. In other words there was nowhere for the universe to exist before the Big Bang, because there were no dimensions until it happened – there was nowhere for there to be anything and there was nowhere for there to be nothing either. Nor was there any time for anything to happen in, because time was also created by that same Big Bang. There were no laws of nature, because it was the Big Bang that brought those laws of nature into existence and forms their starting point. In fact the Big Bang itself contradicts those laws of nature – those of the conservation of energy and matter to begin with. 

This brings us very directly to Aquinas' point, that a literally supernatural explanation is required by such an event – supernatural in the very direct sense of being outside all the laws of nature that apply to our universe. Naturally this is a source of deep embarrassment to the contemporary scientific community (though not to their pioneering predecessors, as we saw last time). Anyway the hunt is on to find some kind of extranatural cause that is not Supernatural in older senses of the word. Here's what I make of the journey so far. I hope I am right in believing there have been three main contenders.

1. We can locate our supernature in an anomaly, or what Stephen Hawking termed "a singularity" in A Brief History of Time. Unfortunately I am not a genius mathematician so I can't claim to follow all the amazing maths involved. But I will admit to being suspicious of the term. Isn't "singularity" just another way of saying "one-off?" When we say something is caused by "a singularity," aren't we in fact saying we don't know how it's caused? In other words we don't really know (and don't really have to explain?) what might go on in there. We do know that singularities exist though because they occur in black holes. What if there was a previous universe that was all sucked down into a supermassive black hole, so huge and dense that everything except gravity was destroyed? What if it all the energy thus compressed into an infinitesimally small point then exploded as the Big Bang?
·         This view doesn't seem to be as fashionable as it was in 1988 and I am not completely sure of the reasons for this. Here's what I suspect. The Big Bang on this model presupposes a Big Crunch from a previous universe – that all the matter and energy in the system is sucked into various black holes which are then sucked into each other by the sheer power of their gravity to form the supermassive one that has to explode. However our own universe is not going to end this way. According to more recent maths there is not enough mass in the universe to counteract the velocity at which it is expanding. Matter and energy will become ever more thinly spread and the universe will die of attenuation - with a whimper, not a bang. That means there would have to be a radical discontinuity between our universe and the one that went before because the laws of nature governing the two are different. That means that we need a further supernature in addition the previous universe which is capable of spontaneously generating new laws of nature. The Big Crunch therefore fails to give a complete account of the origins of the universe. Some other entity needs to be factored in.

2. As an alternative we are offered a massive fluctuation in the quantum field. Apparently quantum mechanics allows us to consider a vacuum not as truly empty but as a space where electrons and positrons may spontaneously emerge and immediately cancel each other out. All we need then is for an awful lot of these to appear simultaneously in the same time and space – whatever that is supposed to mean in a quantum context – and to do so without cancelling each other out, and we have our big bang.
·         Again I don't have the physics to deal with this properly and would love to have someone who knows their stuff running through it with me. If only my old mate Roger from uni was here! However it seems to me as a non-specialist that there are lots of big questions here. I do get that there is a degree to which very small particles are not "there" in the Newtonian / Einsteinian universe which is so essential to our own existence - at some level they act more like fields of energy than bits of matter, so we can't predict exactly where they are and where they will be next. This isn't the same, is it, as saying there is this unbelievably energetic quantum field extending beyond our own universe? We haven't of course observed quantum fields from outside our own universe because we can't do so. All the observations that have been made of quantum particles and forces have been carried out inside the universe. So it's difficult to say what hat we are pulling this particular rabbit out of. Nor do I think we can have much of a meaningful idea of the behaviour of such a field. Let's just hope and pray though that it is not often given to massive random fluctuations of the sort described, or the life of our universe would be totally chaotic.

3. Thirdly we can go back to the multiverse to provide our First Cause. In some way new universes keep bubbling out of a primeval cosmic soup which is the multiverse, or sum total of all universes. Nearly every bubble is ephemeral and pops because its natural laws are unsustainable, but once in a while, by a trillion trillionth of a chance, a viable universe is formed and ours happens to be the holder of this golden ticket.
·         However in Reasons for Believing(1) I took the view that this scheme, with its multiplication of millions of invisible and unverifiable entities, has a fabricated look about it. It fails the test known as Occam's Razor.

Let's put these three cosmologies together and ask what they do have in common. All of them try to bypass the First Cause argument by asserting that there was something there before the Big Bang. It doesn't really matter too much whether it's a previous universe that went down the plughole of a Big Crunch, or a highly energetic and turbulent quantum field, or a multiverse which has the interesting property of spontaneously generating new universes. The point is that we have something pre-existent which dispenses with the need for any kind of Creator. I am reminded of the work of Fred Hoyle, who came up with the Steady State theory of the universe before the Big Bang was conclusively demonstrated. As an atheist, Prof Hoyle hated the implication that Big Bang might be held to amount to an act of creation. He therefore asserted that the universe (as we know) is expanding and that new matter and energy emerge spontaneously into existence to fill the gaps. Thus the universe could be eternal and self-sufficient and do without a creator. That this is completely contrary to what we know of the laws of nature so far did not deter him.

All the above look like ways to bring back the Steady State, but on a new level. Since we can't avoid the Big Bang, let's put something else in "before" it, so the universe can keep going without a beginning – a quantum field or a Big Crunch or a multiverse or whatever. But even then, can we succeed in finally exorcising the Creator from His own? No we can't. Because, at the risk of repeating the child's embarrassing question, "Who made God then?" the issue of origins still follows us into these new hypothetical spaces. Where did that vast quantum field, or that multiverse, or the universe that crunched, arise from? Did they have a beginning? These ingenious cosmologies fail to answer Aquinas' question: since everything we see is the product of cause and effect, was there a First Cause?

And even if they could answer the question, would we have then have got round God? Or would we find we were merely describing His immense handiwork, as Newton and Copernicus and Kepler and all the others famously thought? That the multiverse or the quantum field or extinct previous universes were also the products of a vast Imagination?

Only one more hurdle to clear, I promise, as this edition of Reasons for Believing nears its exhausted end. This is the assertion by Richard Dawkins that a Creator Being cannot be the explanation for the origins of the universe because it is not a proper explanation. A proper explanation, says Prof Dawkins, must simplify the thing being explained. Now it seems that God as Creator must be, not simpler, but greater and more complex than the universe He is alleged to have created. God cannot therefore be a proper explanation.

I hope you agree with me that this argument is deeply flawed. In fact we constantly accept explanations that are more complex than the thing being explained. The explanation for a joint stool is that a carpenter, a far more complex entity, made it to sit on. In case that metaphor seems unfairly to sneak in creation by a personal being, there are others. The aurora borealis was presumed by early scientists (once we got past the magic stage) to be the result of emanations from the poles of the earth. In time a far larger and grander account was accepted, that in fact it is storms in an object 333,000 times more massive than the earth, hurling matter 93,000,000 miles through space, that interact with our magnetic field and cause the aurora. The more complex explanation turns out to be the true one.

If we follow Dawkins' logic through, that every cause must be simpler than its effect, we end up with a strange inversion of Aquinas. Eventually as we trace the increasing simplifications further and further back through the chain of cause and effect, phenomenon and explanation, we can only end up at zero. The ultimate explanation turns out to be… that there can be no explanations, no causes, and no reasons. And so we'll have to start thinking about how something came out of nothing all over again. Then we'll have to accept that Dawkins has led us down a wrong turning that doesn't lead anywhere. All he has succeeded in demonstrating is the incorrigible reductionism of his own mind.

 Prof Dawkins - incorrigibly reductionist?

Well, what have we got out of all this notion-crunching? Surveys repeatedly show that people rarely come to believe because they've been argued into it. This often breaks down into a macho contest of wills anyway. Instead it's life events that led people to ask all the big, "Is anybody there?" questions. So - have the two cosmological bits of this series been worth it? I wanted to do it for three reasons:
1.      To remind believers that they don't have to accept the much flashed about opinion that faith is irrational. I hope readers will agree with my stance that repeated secularising attempts to destroy the Christian world view have not succeeded. There is still a satisfactory case to be made for faith - in fact some of the alternatives don't really stack up that well by comparison.
2.      To hope that those who don't believe will continue to explore and ask those big questions.
3.      I'm going to assert later that faith provides a better means for "seeing life whole" and "life" needs to include our rational life and scientific explorations.

Next time I'll be getting on to the stuff that really excites me, that is, I believe in God because I believe Jesus is His Son. This is the stuff that takes us from a First Mover who is only needed to kick the whole game off to a Lord who wants to engage with us… However I'm just back from holiday and there's a lot waiting to be done so it may be a few weeks before I can get on to it.

I hope you're sticking with me. Your thoughts are welcome!

Sunday 12 April 2015

Reasons for believing (1)

The enemies of faith seem to think it's OK to trash Christianity as a fantasy for gullible morons. So I think it's time to redress the balance. I wish my fellow Christians would be a bit more forthcoming in making our case, but we all seem to have swallowed the view that it is somehow offensive to assert that Christianity might actually be true. Consequently we censor ourselves. However intelligent people have some very reasonable grounds for believing. There isn't time to cover them all in one little blog post so I'm doing a few at a time.

So let's start with the classical proofs for the existence of God, basically as codified by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. There is a good if complex discussion of these on Wikipedia at They have been under a lot of fire from angry secularists for some time, and there is justification for some of the faults they allege.

The word "proofs" is the first problem. They are clearly not proofs in the current sense that they demonstrate the existence of God as a mathematical certainty. They are more like proofs in the publishers' sense: though they may invite correction, they define a field for debate. Thomas Aquinas himself used the word "ways." I'll stick with arguments.

I start by weeding out the weakest one. The argument from degree I find unconvincing. Most of what we experience comes in relative degrees, say from hotter to cooler or wetter to drier or nicer to nastier. There must be some sort of absolute standard to which these are comparable and that absolute to which all other things are relative, says Aquinas, is God. However this doesn't seem so obvious to me.
·         First most absolutes seem quite hard to establish. It has been established that there is a temperature of absolute zero, for example, where there is no energy whatsoever left in a system. Unfortunately absolute negatives are easier to fix than absolute positives: how much heat would there have to be in a system for it to count as absolute? I am pretty sure it would be possible to create absolute dryness, for example, if only in a test tube from which all molecules of H2O have been excluded. But what would absolute wetness be? I suppose the moment of the big bang might have contained infinite heat as all the energy in the universe was concentrated in an infinitesimal point. But what that was actually like is inconceivable to us. In what sense (other than inconceivability) would absolute heat imply God? It may help us get round some very difficult physics, but in the sense that absolute is supposed to equal divine?
·         Secondly I think it is faulty to argue from conceptuality to actuality in this way. Believers can conceive with hindsight that God may be the absolute perfection from which all relative things came and to which they all aspire. But we can't ask others to make the same jump. Just being able to conceive of the perfect banoffee pie unfortunately doesn't make it exist. In essence this is the same fault that Aquinas himself found with Anselm's ontological argument. That we can form an idea of something doesn't imply its existence.

Next on the hit list is Aquinas' fifth way – the teleological argument. This is the argument that the universe exhibits purpose or design, and is probably the most controversial today. Obviously for an atheist to accept that the universe is designed is to have already conceded his position. He can appeal to several areas to help him. In some areas, the design appears to be perverse, for example parasitism. In others, the purpose appears to be incomprehensible – why billions of unreachable galaxies? Why a million species of beetle? In still others, there seems to be a huge amount of randomness, for example in quantum physics or possibly, at least for the present, the dark matter that is thought to comprise 85% of the universe. And finally the universe often exhibits processes where Aquinas saw purposes – natural selection say, or the gradual cooling of the universe after the big bang.

I think these problems have a lesson for believers as well as unbelievers. We need to show greater humility in the face of the great mysteries of the universe. It would be arrogant to suppose that the purpose of the vast tracts of space is entirely focussed on our doings on our little planet, or that we should be able to work out God's unfathomably deep purposes as if they were a Sudoku puzzle. And yes we do live in a different universe to Aquinas' Aristotelian and geocentric one. Perhaps the galaxies are there as a display of God's infinitely fertile creativity, of his majesty, or his infinity transposed into exceedingly large numbers – we don't know, we are just filled with awe.

So the teleological argument needs restatement. The statement I would choose is that the universe is intelligible. Somehow it is amenable to the numbers and words we humans supposedly evolved at random to make sense of our experiences when we moved from forest to savannah. Amazingly, it seems that the little pathways of electrons moving round in our brains actually do correspond to real things. There are logical laws to the way things happen, and without them the universe would collapse into chaos. At some level both we and the universe we are part of are rational.

This could be the most incredible fluke ever, the result of an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters describing an infinite number of possible universes – and we are the lucky ones who happen to be on board the only one that will work. But it doesn't look like that – it looks rational. Of course, if there are an infinite number of monkeys etc, it would still look that way, to us who have won the golden ticket for the only ship that can navigate the chaotic waters of all possible universes.

However a little piece of logic called Ockham's razor comes to our aid here. William of Ockham held that in formulating explanations we should avoid the multiplication of entities: that is, if we have to fabricate a long chain of eventualities to explain something when a simple and direct explanation is available, we should prefer the straightforward solution.

To me the multiverse – the infinite number of dysfunctional universes – looks like the multiplication of entities. By their very nature as universes completely outside our own, we can never observe them or experiment on them or test their reality. These speculations have therefore ceased to be science, which is about the observable, the verifiable and the repeatable. In fact they are magic – everything's really caused by all these invisible powers…

In place of this factitious complexity we should prefer the direct and elegant explanation. The universe looks rational because it is rational. Whence then the rationality? In short, the teleological argument when suitably restated still provides strong grounds for the reasonableness of supposing that there is a rational mind at work in the way the universe is.

I have to admit though that I felt a bit bad rubbishing the multiverse in the paragraphs above. I actually think that if God is the kind of God who creates billions of galaxies and a million species of beetle, it would not be at all unlikely that He might create other universes too. As wise old Professor Kirke says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "nothing is more probable." What I would expect to find though, should any of them ever become amenable to our instruments, is that they too would exhibit rationality, beauty and sufficient order to enable them to keep going: a very different set of universes to the dysfunctional ones trapped in Brian Cox's Infinite Monkey Cage.

The other very intriguing thing to observe about the argument from intelligibility is that it puts a certain boot back on the right foot. Somehow or other we have come to swallow the secularising position that the more we understand about the universe, the less we need God. This view depends on the belief that people invented the gods to give explanations for the unknown, as in "What causes thunderstorms in the sky? It must be the thunder god!" However this is not what any of the great pioneering scientist thought. Like Copernicus, Newton, Mendel, Faraday, they were mostly believers. Instead of thinking they were invading God's space and squeezing Him out, they thought they were finding out about what God had done. "Thinking God's thoughts after Him," was Kepler's phrase. The argument from intelligibility expects that the more we know about the universe, the stronger our grounds for believing in God.

We've still got three more of Aquinas' Ways to explore: the First Mover, the First Cause and the Argument from Contingency. There is substantial common ground between them, so I'll discuss them all together in my next blog, Reasons for Believing (2). I hope you will agree with me that they provide further and indeed stronger support for the reasonableness of believing in a Creator God.

However there is only so far that Aquinas can take us. If we accept his arguments we end up with a Creator of all, a Mind on a supermassive scale, a Supreme Being rather like the one painted by William Blake below: but this is not enough. God so conceived very easily becomes an aridly intellectualised being, remote from us and right out of our league. So when I've finished looking at Aquinas I aim to move on to a key area for connecting with God, not merely hypothesizing about him: blog 3 will be I believe in God because I believe Jesus is His Son. The next blog after that will assert that I believe in God because through Him I can see life whole. This step enables us to move on to the way we live our own lives in relationship with God. In the last post I'm planning to cover as my fifth Reason for Believing the inadequacy of the alternatives. This will also give us space to reflect on where our society is going and what it needs to flourish.

It all looks terribly ambitious. I hope I'm up to it… Comments welcome!

William Blake's Ancient of Days
a remote, over-conceptualised vision of God?

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Easter Joy

Thank you everyone for a truly uplifting celebration! Both churches were ablaze with Easter flowers and enjoyed good attendances with a number of visitors. Horton had a beautiful Easter Garden, St Andrew's had an Easter egg hunt with the children, St Michael's had Kathy enthusing about the Moving On course, Wraysbury had the band with Becky leading the singing. I was once told off for not making my Easter service joyful enough. That has stayed with me and I have always aimed to make joy a keynote every Easter since. And it was your joy, your enthusiastic response to the risen Lord, that made this Easter special for me.

In both churches we reflected on the story of Mary in the garden, caught unawares by a person she took to be the gardener when she had come to mourn the death of her crucified Lord. The story is in John's Gospel chapter 20. We used the picture below, on screen in Wraysbury and on little cards in St Michael's. I thought you might like another look, especially if your card was a bit fuzzy at Horton or you were sat a bit far away at St Andrew's.

So here it is: Rembrandt's The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen, painted in 1638. The original hangs in the Queen's collection at Buckingham Palace. For a closer view, try Rembrandt - the Risen Christ appears to Mary

Rembrandt has packed a lot into his telling of the story:
·         The jar by Mary's knee reminds us that she had come to anoint Jesus' body in the customary way. There hadn't been time on Good Friday because the sunset that heralded Passover, the holiest Sabbath of the Jewish year, was just moments away.
·         Everything about Mary indicates that she has been completely focussed on death. She kneels at the tomb, reaching out her hands to where Jesus is supposed to be lying. She must have been thinking, "Couldn't they even leave his body alone? Haven't they done enough to him?" She hears a stranger come up behind her and demands to be told if he knows where they have taken Jesus. But it's so embarrassing - she's crying her eyes out: so she has kept her face turned away – until now!
·         The facial expressions are genius! Mary is in the act of realising who it is that has come upon her – amazement, shock, bewilderment. Jesus looks down upon her with compassion, understanding and, dare I say it, a twinkle of humour in his eyes, complemented by his relaxed, hand on hip stance. One of the angels sprawling on the tomb does that "eyes up" expression: "She's got it at last!"
·         Rembrandt uses the rock wall of the tomb to divide his composition firmly into two parts. One half is all darkness and gloom, the other is filled with light. One side is death, the other is new life and hope. Jesus is the brightest object, picked out in his white robe by the sunrise. He forms literally the turning point between darkness and light, as Mary turns her face towards him and towards the sunrise. Jesus' whole posture invites her to come and share in the light.

There is something very personal about this story. Jesus hasn't only come back to win a victory over death, to demonstrate the grand theology of redemption, to become a figure of universal salvation, vital as all those things are. According to Rembrandt, and surely according to John's Gospel too, it's much more personal. He's come back for Mary. He says her name, and that is the overpowering moment of realisation – "It's you!"

Isn't this true of all the resurrection stories? For Thomas: "Here are my hands that you wanted to see, here's the wound in my side." For Peter, who denied him three times: "Do you really love me more than these?" For two disciples trudging wearily back home, thinking it was all over… Jesus came back for each one of them individually, knowing their heartache and their issues. He came back because he wanted to be with his friends.

And that's true today. He's still the Risen Lord, he's alive, he still knows the things that wear us down or challenge us, our bafflement and our sorrow. He is still the turning point between a life circumscribed by darkness and death and the light of resurrection life. He wants to come to us as he did to Mary and Peter and Thomas.

He speaks our name. Are we listening?