After Christmas we published two articles written by Gordon Sleight – Gordon’s Musings. At the time we thought they would make an excellent basis for a discussion. They were originally published on the reflections page of the old website (no longer available) but following upgrade we are reposting here so everyone can reread before the discussion group on 24th February.
We hope you can join us for discussion & further musings on the evening!
Gordon’s Musings Part 1
Originally posted 16th January 2021
Christmas and Epiphany are over for another year and it has been a very strange time in so many ways! But the core message of the word becoming flesh, God becoming human, embodied, that was still proclaimed as always.
But was that embodiment, that incarnation,
- A one-off event that only applied to Jesus and ended with Good Friday and Easter?
- A revelation of how things could be in the future for the minority of people who allowed God in Christ into their hearts through faith?
- A revelation of the very nature of God who is always incarnate within the universe?
We live at the tail end of a period of about three hundred where God’s relationship with the world has been imagined to be a bit like a watchmaker who makes a watch, sets it going and leaves it to tick away uninterrupted. In this picture God and the world are separate, utterly distinct and different. This philosophical idea goes back thousands of years and its one which has had a deep influence on religious thinking in the western world, but which took on this very mechanical, clockwork form during the enlightenment of the 18th century. It was a view entirely in tune with the new scientific ideas of the day, which saw the universe as a ‘mechanism’, with its own laws. Such a way of seeing things leaves very little room for God’s active presence in the world because, if the world follows its mechanical laws, where is the place at all for those events which earlier era’s called miracles?
These sorts of enlightenment ideas and assumptions and the emergence of evidence-based science caused consternation and debate among Christians who tended to adopt a range of different approaches. Some were happy with the image of God and the universe as distinct and separate but were determined to keep the idea of God’s activity in the world and so became hostile to the science of the day and re-emphasised God as an intervening, miracle working God. Other Christians decided to follow the science and adopt a much more sceptical view of miracles, either completely rejecting them or more frequently, finding ways of ‘re-interpreting’ them, and that was inclined to limit God’s involvement in the world to the inner spiritual lives of believers, reducing faith to a purely personal matter for a minority and pushing God to the edges of most people’s lives.
Through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries enlightenment thinking has spread out into popular culture where the mechanical picture of how the universe works has been largely accepted and the idea of the God ‘out there’ who started things off has become ever more irrelevant for many people and so is either ignored or totally rejected. Those trends were given a big boost at the end of the 20th century by fervent atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, whose book ‘The God Delusion’ has become an international best seller and served to convince many to finally reject any kind of notion of God and to see the natural world, the whole universe and human life as entirely random, pointless and meaningless.
So, at one extreme then we have the New Atheists like Dawkins and those who follow them, rejecting any and all belief in God, proclaiming the random and meaningless nature of reality and rendering all life a relentless battle by ‘selfish’ genes to out-compete all comers.
At the other extreme are those fundamentalist Christians who take much of the Bible literally, use it as an alternative science text book to devise their own alternative science while continuing to proclaim a creator God ‘out there’ who actively intervenes in the world. This approach seems vital to some believers but seems meaningless to many others.
So where does that leave us?
Well it leaves me very uncomfortable with such polarised views, neither of which I agree with, and it has long made me search for ways to hold together both modern scientific understandings and faith in God in a coherent way. But is that really possible?
Trying to do so is ridiculed by fundamentalist Christians as a liberal sell out and by fervent atheists as a failure to face uncomfortable truths about the meaninglessness of life and the universe.
But that may not be full truth!
Gordon’s Musings Part 2
Originally posted 23rd January 2021
Is it possible to hold modern science and Christian faith together in a coherent way?
There are a lot of scientists who entirely reject large parts of Dawkins-like science and atheism as little more than the imposition of free market capitalist ideas onto the universe, and the assertion of their own supposedly ‘rational’ superiority over superstition!
And there are plenty of Christians who think literalistic fundamentalism leads to both fake science and corrupt religion. As one Welsh theologian put it some years back commenting on fundamentalist ideas of God’s interventions, ‘What kind of God finds parking places for his favoured few but does nothing about Auschwitz?’
Science has fundamentally changed in all sorts of ways since the enlightenment, and picturing the universe as a clockwork mechanism has long since been abandoned by large numbers of scientists as far too simplistic. From the later 19th century onward science has had to adapt to ever more complex and confusing discoveries and possibilities – relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang, the Higgs boson, the possibility of multiple invisible dimensions, parallel universes and an increasing willingness to accept the ultimate mysteriousness of everything. For those of us who have not been trained as scientists many of these ideas are very difficult to grasp and some seem entirely incomprehensible. So I have been encouraged to find a good few scientists saying that if we think we have understood something like quantum theory then we most certainly haven’t!
In that same two centuries there have also been changes in religious and philosophical ideas as well. There has been a gradual realisation that other religions might actually have new things to teach us or insights that remind us of forgotten themes within the Christian tradition. Biblical scholars and historians of Christianity have been actively rediscovering strands of thinking very different to enlightenment ideas. In the Old Testament God’s spirit is active in creation and creativity, in prophecy and teaching as well as in people’s hearts. The mystics of the early church and the middle ages emphasised the mysterious nature of God and the impossibility of understanding God other than through glimpses and symbols. ‘I pray God to rid me of God’ wrote the medieval Meister Eckhart to highlight how attempts to define God automatically tie our perception of God down and get in the way of a relationship with the full mystery of God. Another of his enigmatic sayings ‘the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me’ hints at the mysterious and incomprehensible unity of God and humanity, spirit and matter. In the early 20th century, A N Whitehead developed ‘process’ philosophy which suggested that the whole universe and everything in it is in a process of becoming. His ideas partially overlap with those of his contemporary, the French Priest/Biologist Teilhard de Chardin and more recently those of the environmentalist James Lovelock who in different ways encourage us to see the whole universe as alive, a living organism. Such approaches have come as no surprise to many native peoples across the world who have long believed in a universe that is entirely spirit filled and which emerged out of spirit. These various ideas, images and theories take us a long way from the neat and tidy watchmaker and his watch and towards something much bigger.
One strand of thinking within Christianity which chimes in with many of these scientific, religious and philosophical approaches. The technical term for it is Pan-en-theism (all in God) a way of thinking that has the whole universe existing within God and suffused by God. It has a personal implication in seeing the body as within the soul – a more mysterious but also infinitely greater picture than the more common idea that the soul is some sort of essential bit of us within the body! All these approaches have interesting links to the idea of the big bang which can be imagined as a vast explosion of pure energy out of which matter emerged and the universe began to expand and unfold. As such it is that pure energy that creates and gives birth to all matter. The universe, us and everything existing within and suffused by Life, Spirit, Energy, Soul, by God, in the process of becoming!
So perhaps the Christmas message of God incarnate, God embodied is not just a description of a one-off event, the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago, nor yet something which only continues in the inner depths of the faithful few, but a far greater revelation, a manifestation of what has always been and always will be – God, life, spirit, energy, energy, soul always incarnate, embodied eternally!
But beware – its much more complex and mysterious than that!