In the Beginning there was… Gravity?

Stephen Hawking is in the news today, apparently after claiming in a new book that spontaneous creation is possible within the existing laws of physics, and hence there is no need for God. He writes:

“…the coincidences of our planetary conditions — the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass — [are] far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

[Reuters and BBC News]

Now, I need to tread a little carefully here, as I cannot pretend to be a brain anywhere near as great as Dr Hawking. It is a good twelve years since I last studied physics, and I am keenly aware that a few sparse quotes on the newswire do not an argument make. But I have to say that I really don’t see the logic in this statement.

Isn’t Gravity a feature of the universe? It is a force, it is a law. It pervades the system and governs the bounds of how the system functions. But it’s a feature of the system, isn’t it? i.e. no universe, no gravity – just as there is no protons, neutrons, quarks etc.

My understanding of cosmological theories was that it was effectively impossible to know the state of the universe prior to the Big Bang. We can model all the way back to microseconds after – but other than suggesting it was in “a hot dense state” (as the song goes), there’s no real way of knowing what was there. So, is Hawking now suggesting that before the Big Bang there was gravity? That gravity is pre-existent?

I don’t understand how this answers the First Cause argument. Gravity, matter, energy etc are now pre-existent? Self-existent? Even if we could say that we knew enough about the nature of creation (for want of a better word) before the Big Bang brought our universe into existence, to say that gravity existed in creation then, and acted within it enough to bring about the Big Bang… Where’s the First Cause? What existed before the “hot, dense state”? Isn’t the question of where the something of creation came from still relevant?

There is a cyclical theory of cosmology that suggests that gravity will act on our expanding universe and (eventually) cause it to contract back to a singular point. From which it will in turn rapidly expand into a new universe in a second Big Bang. That theory argues that our current universe could be one of an infinite series of expansions and contractions, a cycle that runs on forever. Without being able to read the source of the above quotes, it seems like this is what Hawking is advocating, but it still leaves a problem: what is on the outside of that cyclical system? How did the cycle begin initially? And where does the necessary material, the fuel for the Bang(s) come from?

There may be millions of other Earth-like planets in the universe. We may be in no way unique. But I still don’t see why that means, definitively,  there is no need for a First Cause. On this evidence, I don’t think that Hawking has (yet) killed God.

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Doubt

A friend said to me the other day that they were “99.99% sure [God] exists”. They went on to say that “…i have no peace in that knowledge. not because i don’t think it matters… i just don’t want to have anything to do with him right now.” This is a friend with whom I have spent a good deal of time talking about the existence or lack thereof of god, over the last few months. It heartens me to know that they have come to at least some sense of surety on this, but it emphasises to me just quite how much has changed in my own life over the last few years.

I empathise. You see, I don’t want anything to do with god either. I don’t know how to reconcile all my experiences over the last few years with the understanding of god, of faith, that I developed in my young adulthood. I am left hurt and angry by the failure of my marriage, and the part that faith and organised religion played in that. If the god of my prior understanding exists, then I’m pretty pissed off at him…

But, unlike my friend, I can’t claim any surety on the existence of the Divine. Either way in fact.

When I arrived at l’Abri, back in September, I was simply hurt and angry. In many ways, I still am. But over time that hurt and anger has developed into a profound uncertainty. The question of the existence or non-existence of god is one that is ever-present at l’Abri, in lectures and lunch discussions, and late-night conversations. As my weeks there turned into months, I found myself doubting and questioning things I had never questioned before.

I am not at all sure that god exists. All of my prior faith and certainty has boiled away. The structure of my religion was shaken, and the foundations cracked and brought the whole edifice tumbling down. I find it hard to believe in a loving and present God that you can hear and follow, when hearing and following what I believed to be god led me into such a painful mess. It kinda raises some fundamental questions.

But then, I am not at all convinced that god doesn’t exist. The counter arguments, the explanations to our existence that don’t involve some form of Creator, just don’t seem very satisfying. They seem to leave us purposeless, pointless. A statistical aberration, a cosmic accident. They leave real questions when it comes to questions beauty or thankfulness or morality.

So I find myself stuck in the middle. Lost. The compass I used in the past to help me discern the way forward has shattered. I can claim to be neither a purposed created being following an ordained path, nor an animal following nothing but genetic urges. I have to confess that on that most fundamental of philosophic underpinnings I just don’t know

I am sure many people somehow live their lives without ever considering metaphysics, without ever forming an opinion of the basic question of life: why are we here? For many people I am sure it is simply a matter of ‘I exist; the world exists; I have to live in it’. But I don’t find it so easy to know how to live in the world without some sense of the consequences of actions, and the rationality behind decisions. I still think that what we believe about the nature of existence affects, has to affect, the way we chose to live our lives consciously or unconsciously.

I have tried to start series on this blog several times in the past, and to limited success. So, to long-term readers this may seem like another foolish exercise. But I genuinely want to work through some of the questions and uncertainties I have, and these pages seem to be as good a place as any to do so. Time will tell as to whether I am remotely successful at it.

I was going to use the word Agnosticism to head this post, but the mac dictionary defines an agnostic as: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena” and that definitely does not describe me at the moment. Instead, I have used the word Doubt, which the almighty Wikipedia describes as “a status between belief and disbelief”. I remain truly uncertain as to the nature of reality and the existence of a supreme being. But I don’t think that, at this stage, I feel that the truth cannot be known. Or at least, not known in part.

I am going to journey in uncertainty a while, and explore the way-markers of my doubt – on both sides of this issue. I hope that you will humour me in this, and maybe journey with me for a while.

Singles Church

Last night, a friend was telling me about their theory that Megachurches develop and thrive because they provide a forum for social mixing. Essentially my friend was saying that churches become large because they provide opportunities for boys to meet girls (and vice versa).

Ok, it’s an incredibly cynical argument, but somewhat compelling (in a twisted fashion).

man woman

As the topic has run round my head, I thought that this was a good opportunity to try and tackle a (related) thorny issue I’ve been putting off blogging for a while: that of Christians and marriage. OK, on reflection, that should be Christians and singleness. Continue reading

Ikon

[At the beginning of the month I posted on us being created in the Image of God, and my friend Kat came back with a few questions in the comment stream. I’ve been battling with the best way to respond to her for a while… I’m going to try a partial response today.]

The Genesis account of creation currently has a lot of controversy attached to it. It has somehow become a point of reference between Christians and non-Christians for all the wrong reasons. Are we to take it literally? If we don’t, then how are we to read it?

One thing we can be sure of: it is a description of the making of creation. Whether it is allegory or recipe, it is seeking to tell us something about the making of the world. That means that if we value the bible at all, then we must pay attention to what is said here.

What we get in Genesis 1 is a step-by-step guide to creation, with each step purposefully instigated by God. It has in intentionality to it: God says, God does, God reflects and sees it is good.

So, if we take this passage as meaningful, then it shows that the world around us is not random. It is planned. It is purposefully and painstakingly crafted. God doesn’t suddenly shout ‘allakhazam!’ and all of a sudden a universe is created: He takes time with each step and detail.

And each step is good. Not ok, not indifferent, but good. In God’s eyes, the light is good; the sun and the starts are good; the birds and plants and the animals are good; and mankind is very good.

Here we get to the image of God. We are made, by God, to be like God. And that is very good.

Now Kat points out how an image is not as good as the real thing. Well, that may be true, but that doesn’t make an image poor. The Mona Lisa is only an image, only a reflection of the lady it portrays, but its still pretty good (beautiful in fact), and the world is a better place for its existence. And what we are talking about here is the image of God; so any reflection we make is of the creator of the universe. Any reflection we make of that will still be pretty special, don’t you think?

In Sex God Rob Bell talks about how the gods of the ancient near east were usually images of created things, tied to a particular location. And where the idea of the image of god is used it is often tied to a particular person, such as a king, who rules as the embodied image (or ikon) of a particular deity. Egyptian king Tutankhamum is “the living image of (the god) Amun”, which I’m sure gives him an added sway with his subjects! (“you can’t argue with me, I’m the living embodiment of your god!”)

Yet the difference with the Genesis account is that here every human is made in the image of God. Every person, man or woman, slave or free, child or adult, all carry some reflection of the God who made the universe. If to be the “living image of (G)od” is an indication of status, then the Genesis account confers that status on all of us. We are all significant, because we all reflect that image.

If we are “a poor copy of God”, then this isn’t a bad thing. This section of Genesis 1 finishes with a modified ending to the now-familiar pattern. God looks at the ‘adam’ (mankind, human) He has made in His image, and say that this work is very good.

Where light is good, trees are good, stars are good and birds and animals are good, we are very good.

We may be ‘poor copies’ of God, but to be poor copies of perfect, is still very good.

Sex God

Rob Bell Sex God

I’ve very kindly been leant an audio copy of Sex God by Rob Bell. I’m two chapters in, and I’m hooked…

I have a copy of Sex God on my wish list, because Jude blogged to say it was brilliant, and a recommendation like that is enough for it to get me interested. But as I’ve said before, what hits the wish list and what actually gets read are two very different things, and I confess that this was a book that didn’t exactly attract me… ‘Sex God’? Too smart-alecky by half… It was destined to be one of those books that would take at least another 4 glowing recommendations before it ever made it from wish list to reading list.

But Andrea’s best friend Eve leant her the CDs, and now they’ve been passed on to me in a “you have to listen to this and do it now!” kind of fashion. So it goes on to my PDA, and the headphones finally come out on my way home from work last night…

…and by the end of chapter one I’m weeping. Weeping!

It’s hard to describe this book especially as, only two chapters in, I have no idea where Rob is going with it. Its basic premise so far is that this is so often really about that; which in this case translates to our obsession with sex and sexuality being really about our connectedness (or lack of) with the world, each other and, ultimately, God.

In chapter two, which was my walk in to work this morning, Rob talks about our sexuality being about connectedness. We are meant to have profound connections with the people around us; with the earth itself; with God. Our sexuality is our sense of disconnection, our profound dis-ease at not being connected; at being alone. Sexy, Rob says, is being comfortable in your own skin; being fully OK with who you are.

And because our sexuality is a longing to connect, it is fulfilled not necessarily out of physical union but through genuine connection with others. Rob talks about how some of the ‘sexiest’ people he knows are actually celibate. They choose not to share that physical intimacy with anyone, but instead live in a deliberate desire to form profound emotional and spiritual connections with those around them. [This reminded me of Shane Claiborne in Irresistible Revolution, another celibate individual, talking about how he often writes his job title as ‘lover’]

***

I’ve recently been going through a period of self-assessment, and a growing self-awareness. One of the things I’ve been realising is that I’m not ‘sexy’ (in the Rob Bell definition of the word); I’m not that comfortable in my own skin. I seem to spend a lot of my life, mostly unconsciously, living in a place of profound dissatisfaction with who I am. My job, my church, my marriage, my friendships, my relationship with God, my character, my nature; in all these areas I have caught myself thinking, wishing, hoping that somehow things would be different. That I would, essentially, change to be someone other that me.

I guess I’m beginning to understand now just how screwed up that is.

[I’m stuck now as to how to finish this section, so I’m going to leave it hanging… This might be one that needs a whole separate post.]

***

So what left me crying at the end of chapter 1?  Rob had been talking about the brokenness of the world; the hurt, the pain; but also about what makes us human. At the end of the chapter he used two examples to talk about how the things of God can reach in and change the mess of the world; and it was those two examples that floored me.

Rob talked about a hero of his: a woman who, along with her husband decided that they wanted to adopt a child; someone to share their love with. As they looked into the issue of adoption this couple found out that there were children in the adoption system in their city who were completely unwanted. Children that, because of disabilities, or behavioural problems or whatever were never found a home. So this couple went to the adoption agency and said “we want to adopt a child who no one else wants; give us the most rejected, most disabled, most ‘issued’ child you have”.

And they adopted, and loved, not one of these children, but over 20 of them. They chose to see not what made these children different, awkward, ‘unlovable’, but what made them the same. Children, abandoned, in need of love and care and connectedness, just the same as us, as our birth children.

The other example Rob used was of prisoners in a concentration camp, dying from malnutrition and mistreatment, being given lipstick, and suddenly feeing human again…

Rob called these examples of Heaven invading Earth. They are explosions of light in a dark place; hope being given to the hopeless. And they are wonderful.

I’m spending a lot of my time wondering what ‘real’ Christianity looks like: what is the faith that Jesus instituted? How does that look in the 21st century? It seems to me that so often I can describe what real faith isn’t, but so rarely describe what it is….

But you know it when you see it. I still can’t find a frame of words, a picture or a parable that I can use to say “this is what my faith, my life, should look like”. But every now and then you see something, hear something, that you know is Godly. It just has those thumbprints all over it… and that one lady and her husband, adopting children who were unwanted, some of whom would be dependent on them for the rest of their lives… it looks like that.

You know it when you see it.
I want to see it more.

Peace

Nephesh

I know I’m in danger of turning this blog into an outpost of the Gordon Atkinson fan club, but I have to link to this:

Gordon’s latest Christian Century article, Another Inconvenient Truth, talks about the value of a human life. He writes, very eloquently, about the human soul, the Breath of God.

“Does anyone want to put a price tag on the nephesh, the human soul? …Here’s another inconvenient truth: if you believe in the nephesh, then one small child killed and registered as collateral damage in a war is worth more than the combined gross national products of both warring nations.”

I’ve long believed that the most significant part of the Gospel is Genesis 1: in a world where everything tells people they are worthless and insignificant, the bible tells us that we are ‘created in [God’s] image’ and ‘very good’. We have a God-given worth that means we are each “worth more than all the riches and all the kingdoms of the world put together.

We need to get our head round this reality. We need to see everyone, no matter how different, how alien to us they are, as loved and valued by God. We need to act towards every stranger, every faceless famine- or war- victim in foreign land as if they have infinite worth. As Gordon says:

“This much we can say with certainty. Christian people ought to be the most insanely radical peacemakers that the world has ever seen. Our view of human life should be so high that the rest of the world would stand in awe of us. Either that or they would point at us and laugh: Look at those crazy Christians. There isn’t anyone those nutcases won’t love. Murderers, terrorists, racists, rich people who steal from the poor—they love everyone!”

This is a hard reality. I’m a strong introvert, and I find it hard to look at anyone I don’t know really well as anything other than a faceless, scary and inconvenient anomaly. But then, this is a very inconvenient truth…