Breathing fire into the equations of the universe

Elephant-4214115This week a remarkable man died. Actually it was a week with the loss of several celebrities including the comedian Ken Dodd. But by any assessment the life of the physicist Stephen Hawking was truly remarkable. To overcome his disability in the way that he did was incredible on its own, but to add to that his scientific achievements was just outstanding. It shows that the human spirit can overcome incredible obstacles with the will and he has inspired millions for how he managed to do this. Clearly he had the resources to have a team of people around him and that is itself a reminder that the great do not stand alone. The recent Oscar winning make-up artist from Peterborough is testimony to what lies behind the best performances, those who enable the others to shine. Stephen Hawking also noted it would be an empty universe without the people we love. We are all time travellers into the future and it is important to make that future worth visiting. Our brilliance is shared and corporate, not self-made.

Stephen Hawking’s science is mind-warping. A Brief History of Time is often referred to as the most unread bestseller, not everyone makes it to the end. That level of science and physics takes most of us well and truly outside our comfort zone but it also defies simplistic conclusions. It destroys both a ‘God of the gaps’ theology and also the nonsense that science disproves religion. ‘God of the gaps’ is a shrinking faith, where as scientific discoveries increase so the room left for God decreases. This is the view that uses God to fill the holes in knowledge. So the more we come to know, the smaller God gets. Stephen Hawking’s explorations into the Big Bang and a single starting point change rather than destroy faith. God is not a blue-touch paper lighting creator who goes off for a rest once the creation is set in motion, hands free and absentee. Neither is God the unseen puppeteer manipulating parking spaces and directing every action. Rather to hold together science and faith we need a concept of God holding creation as it were in the palm of his hand and it existing because of God and in God, not being the plaything of God. Scientists like Stephen Hawking require us to raise our game in how we make sense of what there is. People of faith have to grow up.

For Stephen Hawking there was still wonder. He wondered profoundly on what it is that “breathes the fire into the equations that makes a universe…?” Why, quite simply, is there something rather than nothing? That there is anything requires something to cause it and that remained for him elusive. For those who hold science and faith it is not so mysterious, though it is a source of incredible wonder. For the theologian Hawking uncovered deep mysteries and wonders of how what there is comes to be and is given its shape, its order and its dynamism.

Last week the announcement was made that Tim Peake’s Soyuz spacecraft will be coming to the Cathedral in August and remain on display until November. This has generated phenomenal interest and it will provide opportunities to reflect on how science and faith sit together. The notion of going up in a spacecraft and expecting to see God is incredibly simplistic, but because we know this so much of our language that talks of God in heaven above and nasty stuff below us is challenged. Bible stories, like that of the Ascension, just don’t wash today at the literal level. They fail fundamentally, not least where precisely the SatNav is set for. A space rocket Jesus, ascending into the sky, to us just brings the question of ‘what next’? Left at Mars, right at Jupiter? Science changes how mythology works and the metaphors we use, though it doesn’t necessarily remove what lies behind that mythology and the metaphors that we use to talk of God as the source and goal of all things.

What we don’t have in the world of faith is knock down proofs. And actually, when science gets to the Hawking’s level, we don’t have that many knock down proofs there either. Both start with what we know and can see, and make leaps of the imagination into what we can believe could be. And when extrapolating mathematical equations about how the universe developed billions of years ago, where we can’t go back in time to revisit what happened (as Stephen Hawking was clear to say), we have some level of uncertainty, we are looking at outworkings and projecting backwards. Theoretical physics is called theoretical precisely because you can’t test some of it, just draw conclusions from what we see and fill in some gaps. The ‘God of the gaps’ has shifted his address. Scientific theories change with each discovery and consequent refinement.

Time was a theme in the inner workings of our readings this morning. For Jeremiah, the covenant displays God’s providence, God’s holding of the universe in the palm of his hand, God’s rule as Lord of time and eternity (Jeremiah 31:31-34). There is only a point to a covenant, in a relationship which shapes and holds identity, when it is held in the purposes and commission of God. Outside of that it is meaningless.  So the covenant assumes that God is the source and goal of existence, the one who gives meaning and purpose, and so having a relationship, being in a special place with God matters and gives authenticity to who we are. It is an assumption that God is the one who breathes the fire into the equation, the one who makes something exist rather than nothing.

Time also cropped up in the gospel reading. Jesus agonised in the garden and cried out to be saved from ‘this hour’ (John 12:20-33). The great scope of the universe and several billion years timeframe is distilled into a moment of passion and personal distress. The grand purpose is the reason for ‘this hour’, it is not random suffering, but part of order and commitment to the covenant that expands to embrace all creation. In this embracing of self-giving love, of the cross, the Lord of Time and Eternity takes all that is fallen and not perfect, that suffers, and brings mortality into the heart of God. It is a moment of profound revelation and cosmic significance.

There is no contradiction between science and faith; it is a bogus conflict. Scientific discoveries require us to look more deeply into the mystery that is created life. The breathing of fire into the equation remains a profound moment of wonder and that wonder is the beginning of faith and hope in a universe of purpose and therefore hope. Christ can commend ‘this hour’ because it is a moment of God’s love concentrated and focused. The bigger the universe gets, the more space occupied by scientific discoveries, the greater we see the love of God to be.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 5 – Sunday 18th March 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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