St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
Sunday, May 4, 2003



Introduction to "God, Humanity and the Cosmos"


Since 1973 the world's biggest individual monetary prize (over A$2 million) has been the Templeton Prize, named after Sir John Templeton.  Templeton, now ninety, is a very successful investor and a very generous benefactor.  He is a Presbyterian layman, born in the US but for many years a British subject.   The Prize is awarded annually to a man or woman judged to have made a singular contribution to progress in religion.


Sir John Templeton's passion is research that will yield spiritual discoveries to match those in other fields of exploration.  The Templeton Foundation backs research in matters religious or spiritual; for example, courses and conferences on spirituality and wellness.  It also gives massive support to the dialogue between science and theology (godtalk).  Several recipients of the Templeton Prize have been working in this area.  One of them is Charles Birch, former professor of biology at Sydney University and a member of the Uniting Church.


Today we begin a series that grows partly from this dialogue between godtalk and science, but also out of a more general phenomenon in Western societies: the decline of old religious traditions.  The series is called "God, Humanity and the Cosmos", sub-titled 'questions of a sceptical generation'.  What we say today is an introduction to the series.  My hope is that it will generate interest, questions and hearty exchange of ideas, but overall that it will "challenge the mind and nurture the soul, within a supportive community that cherishes all people" (our purpose at St David's). I want to say three things, summarised on the order of service.




First is that religion (what I prefer to call the 'faith-ways' of humanity) is kaleidoscopic.  Do you know the story of the kaleidoscope?  David Brewster, born 1781 in a Scots village, was the son of a parson and was expected to follow in his steps.  A brilliant lad, Brewster entered the University of Edinburgh just twelve years old.  At nineteen he was deemed ready for ordination.  However, science had become a passion, and he was soon writing on scientific matters.  Most fascinating was the study of optics mirrors and lenses.  In 1816 he made an arrangement of mirrors in a tube, which would reflect changing patterns from bits of glass as the tube was rotated. It was named kaleidoscope from the Greek kalos, beautiful, eidos, form and skopos, watcher. 

With the pieces of glass able to tumble this way and that, there is virtually no limit to the patterns that evolve.  Yet all contain the same primary colours, all are orderly and all are beautiful in the eye of the beholder.  So it is with the 'faith-ways' of humanity.  However we arrange and express these, there are always certain primary elements.  There is an order about them, and the arrangements are cherished by the faithful.  But they are incredibly variegated.  Even within our own christian tradition.  Consider for a moment

       Quakers seated in reverent silence listening for the holy whispers

       A uniformed Salvo band blasting out military music

       A mix of Orthodox monks living on Mount Athos, and

       Snake-handling in the liturgy of a Shenandoah Valley congregation

And they all consider themselves spiritually descended from Jesus!


Our own faith-ways, which we like to see as going back to Abraham, via the Jewishness of Jesus, are not only variegated, but ever-changing.  The most compelling evidence for that is in scripture itself.  Some have even suggested that God can be seen through scripture as changing not in essence but in responses to the unfolding universe.   That may sound a bit odd to some of you, but don't dismiss it out of hand.  Whether or not God can be said to change, certainly human ways of thinking and talking about God can be seen through the scriptures to be ever-changing.  Some of the most sensational changes are, of course, intimately connected with Jesus.  So that's the first point: religion is kaleidoscopic; the patterns of faith-ways are variegated and ever-changing.




Second, however (a big 'however!) faith-ways are always prone to fixity.    That is to say if we can stick for a moment with our kaleidoscope metaphor, people don't like the tube being jiggled around!  They like the pattern they have. Much has been said and written about the rise in fundamentalism, found in all major faiths.  This is a classic response to turbulence.  We want a fixed point.


Until Copernicus and Galileo, it was thought that planet earth was the fixed point in the universe!  Claudius Ptolemaeus, commonly called 'Ptolemy', was born about 90CE at a Greek settlement in Egypt.  He became a renowned astronomer and geographer.  Ptolemy believed the universe was circular, with earth at the centre.  Sun, stars and planets revolved around it.  Until the 16th century, the church's ways of thinking matched this cosmology; it fitted well with what seemed to be the flat earth view in scripture. 


Then came first Copernicus, a brilliant Polish astronomer.  In fact, Copernicus was what we today call a 'polymath'.  He studied maths and astronomy in Poland, and then went to Italy.  He did Greek and philosophy at Bologna, medicine at Padua and church law at Ferrara.  In 1543 he published a book setting forth evidence that the sun (not the earth) was the centre of the solar system.  It met bitter opposition because it came in conflict with the theological beliefs of the time.  But it prepared the way for Kepler, Galileo and Newton.


Galileo started in maths and physics, and got the sack from his university post for proving that Aristotle was wrong in some things!  At forty-five he built his first telescope, and began making discoveries that would bring him before the Inquisition.  His work confirmed the findings of Copernicus, and extended them.  The implications for religious thought in the 17th century were seen as not only dangerous but potentially devastating!  Galileo was gagged and bundled off into retirement.  About ten years ago the Pope apologised to him!


As you're all aware, there are few 'flat-earthers' today in any literal sense!  After some initial difficulty, we've been able to rearrange our faith-ways in the light of these discoveries but Ptolemy hung about for sixteen centuries.




My third point is that faith-ways are today under new pressures to change.   I said in the latest St David's News that in a general sense we are reaping both benefits and costs of education.  I said, "Western education has for forty years taught children to think for themselves, to understand and respect scientific method, to question what so-called 'authorities' tell them, to reject what seem like unsubstantiated claims."  Some manage to protect their faith-ways from the effects of their education, but many more are made critical if not cynical.  Specifically, there are three major pressures for us to change.  I want simply to note these today, and conclude with what may come as a surprise to some!


The first pressure to change comes from our awareness of 'the new neighbours on the block'.  Without making too much of it this morning, let's just say we're aware as never before of the realities of multi-faith society.  Some of us are old enough to remember when missionaries went out to convert Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and all others who were not Christian.  We believed we had some kind of monopoly on revealed truth about God and the meaning of existence.  Some of us have been re-opening the matter, speculating as to whether God may be more 'versatile' (shall we say?) than we have given God credit for being.


The second pressure to change is what we might loosely call 'Jesus research'.  We have before us the possibility (if we want to take it up) of knowing far, far more about the life and times of Yeshua, about his own faith-ways and agenda, about his significance for the world.  Princeton's James Charlesworth says we now know more about the historic Jesus than we do about any other first century Palestinian up to the year 70 the fall of Jerusalem.  Much of this comes from sources other than scripture, and a veritable mountain of new scholarship.   The addresses from end-June to the start of August will be on rediscovering Jesus.


The third pressure to change comes out of the dialogue between godtalk and science.   Paul Davies may be the best known participant for most Australians. He caused a minor furore with the first edition (1983) of "God and the New Physics".  He wrote, "It may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion."   The conversation today involves such luminaries as priest-scientists John Polkinghorne and Arthur Peacocke, both Templeton Prize winners (as is Paul Davies).  Keith Ward, Professor of Divinity at Oxford and lately in Melbourne, at a recent awarding of the Templeton Prize, said "This is the way the best theology is going."


I find all of these developments enormously exciting; they have been my own major areas of interest for at least the last twenty years.  I am working at a book provisionally titled "Cosmos and Spirit: Toward New Faith-ways", which will try to draw much of this together.  But that will be a while coming!  No more launches while I am with St David's!   


I want to conclude by taking you back to the gospel we heard this morning.  Most scholars question whether those long discourses by Jesus in John's gospel are actual 'Jesus speak'. That doesn't mean Jesus wouldn't or couldn't have agreed with them.  But they are perhaps better seen as a branch of the Jesus Movement setting down what it believes.  In this context, it is sobering indeed to hear the words they attribute to Jesus.  "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth."  (John 16:12-13a)


One of the most renowned biblical scholars says that is 'the definitive rebuttal of all fixity of dogma'!  In other words, the community of faith behind this work we call the gospel of John says we can never close out the possibility that God may surprise us with something we would never have thought of.  What these people call 'the Spirit of truth' (what a beautiful name for God!) is seeking ever so gently but persuasively to guide us into all the truth.  That Spirit is around us and within us. 


But can we prove the existence of God?  You have to come next week for that!



An address given at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb