St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
June 8, 2003 (Pentecost)




This is No. 6 in "God, Humanity and the Cosmos", which ends June 22.  There's an intermission next Sunday, when we celebrate "Music Together".  I plan to speak then on "Magical, Mystical Music and Movement." On June 29 we start a series called "Who is Jesus today?"   What we are doing in these series is not an exercise in demolition but an excursion of discovery.  In Westernised countries Christian thought has been consigned by most people to the junk room of the mind if not sent off in a skip, never to be seen again.  Insofar as you and I fail to address this, we could be judged cowardly and derelict.   But it is daunting!


This time in 1988 I was winter preacher with St David's Presbyterian Church in Auckland then the biggest Protestant church in New Zealand.  While there, I had a letter from Australia, suggesting I apply for a post I had never considered: full-time chaplain with the University of Melbourne.  I was 57, older than most starting in such work.  The university and the council for chaplaincies said they wanted someone who might be taken seriously by faculty and admin' staff, and who could raise the profile of chaplaincy.  I began with some trepidation in February '89.


When I made appointments to visit 'brass', they would express surprise first that there was a chaplaincy and second, that I should be interested in targeting them.  I was often asked, "What exactly are you trying to do?" Generally I would say, "Three things.  First, make friends.  Second, earn credibility.  Third, get godtalk into the arenas of public discourse so that the relationship between the human and the holy might become as interesting as sex and football!




The first thing I was aware of was this yawning chasm between two cultures: traditional religion and university life.   They were very different worlds.  I mentioned to you on another occasion that our daughter Helen, musician and artist, says that among her friends 'God' and 'religion' are best not introduced into conversation.  The very sound of these evidently conjures up memories and images they prefer to shed.  Yet they will talk about 'spirituality'.  It was like this at the university.


I found two-thirds of students with church links had little or no involvement with campus christian groups.  It was embarrassing to be seen as 'religious'.  It was similar with faculty and admin' staff.  Unless they belonged to the same congregation, few knew each other's habits in this regard; the subject was never discussed.  Apart from giving general reinforcement to one's better self, it seemed that religion had little relevance to campus, and was best left at home.


At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one is struck by two bizarre features of the religious centre.  It is a circular structure, not unlike a giant brick water tank.  It has no windows, so that one cannot see in or out and it is surrounded by a moat!  Consider the architectural statement in that. I invited the chaplain at MIT, Scott Paradise, to describe in a sentence his role.  "That's easy," he said.  "I'm the priest of one religion in the temple of another."  There was no venom in that; it was a simple statement of fact as he saw things.  Kevin Sharpe, one time chaplain with the University of Auckland, has said, "Most Christian people hold the christian and the secular-scientific mythologies in two parts of their minds and two segments of their lives."


I have continuing membership of the staff club, and regularly visit the scene of my own chaplaincy.  My conviction is unchanged: that a yawning chasm lies between the mental world of the church and the mental world of the university.  The church seems to be intent on transmitting the inherited wisdom, and that is good.  So is the university, but it has another focus via research, constantly pursuing new knowledge that will enhance our understanding of the world around us.   If this is happening in religion, it's not very obvious.




The second thing I was aware of was that both the ideas and the language no longer speak to thinking people.     It's hard to differentiate between these; all I wish to say is that the problem isn't just one of choosing more trendy ways of saying fundamentally the same thing.  Let me try to illustrate what I mean.


Today is a special day in the church calendar.  It's commonly called 'Pentecost', which originally was the Jewish harvest festival.  It's also called 'Whitsunday' because candidates for baptism on this day were in white.  It celebrates what the church calls 'the gift of the Holy Spirit' or 'the coming of the Holy Spirit' on the early followers of Jesus. 


But Pentecost is often interpreted so literally as to sound silly, like the story of Jesus' Ascension which taken literally makes it sound like a rocket launching.  The Pentecost story taken literally sounds like God has been fifteen billion years storing up some ability or attribute and waiting for a chance to display it; a hitherto hidden and inactive part of God kept until somebody, like the first Jesus people,  deserved it.   The story is told with all that rich middle eastern imagery of wind and fire, noise and commotion, excitement and wonder.  Instant transformation of people as something is injected into them the way jam is injected into the centre of a doughnut!  This is biblical literalism at its worst and most ridiculous.


What we should say is that these folks moved to a new level of God-awareness; something they had always more or less accepted as an idea took hold of them as a profoundly empowering conviction.  One night I sat in a meeting with that great Methodist divine Dr Leslie Weatherhead.  He said, "There's all the difference in the world between knowing that bereavement is sad and realizing that bereavement is sad."   The Pentecost story is about people realizing something they always thought they knew.  You can be fairly sure that few preachers today will release that truth from its ancient trappings while the chasm widens.


I have come to believe that we need more than new 'metaphors' for God; those to be sure, but we need a new meaning for that word.  A new concept of God which fits with the best of discoveries in astronomy, biology, physics and so on.  We need a way of thinking about God, and talking about God, which does not imply that faith is a polite term for self-delusion or even rank dishonesty!




So to what I want to call 'the new bridgebuilders'.   I don't have a science degree, and am the poorer for that.  I have some fellow feeling with a former Archbishop of Canterbury (Donald Coggan).  He said, "My ignorance of science is so abysmal that if anyone mentions copper nitrate, I think he's talking about policemen on overtime!" I have tried to rectify some of my own ignorance.  I spent a study leave nine years ago devouring everything I could find on the interface between religion and science.  This continues as a major interest, because I believe it is the way the best godtalk is going.


Thirteen years ago one of the best known physicists in the English-speaking world left Britain for Australia.  There were two reasons.  One was the Thatcher government's 'butchery' of science, as he put it.  The other was what he saw as a deep hostility in the general populace toward scientists.  He said he was drawn to Australia by our enthusiasm for testing new ideas an attitude missing in Britain. I refer to Professor Paul Davies.  In 1992 he published "The Mind of God", a bold attempt at bridging this chasm I've mentioned.  Paul Davies doesn't argue for a 'godness' that fits well with scripture, but for a 'natural' God.  This God is in everything and everything is in God.  He refers back to an earlier book, called "The Cosmic Blueprint", and says,


"I wrote that the universe looks as if it is unfolding according to some plan or blueprint."   (Then he says about the laws of physics)   "These rules look as if they are the product of intelligent design.  I do not see how that can be denied.  Whether you wish to believe that they really have been so designed, and if so by what sort of being, must remain a matter of personal taste."


Paul Davies doesn't pretend to be a theologian, and he avoids making explicitly theological statements.  But we have to deal with his statement, as a scientist, that the universe looks as if it's unfolding according to some plan, and the laws of physics look as if they are the product of intelligent design.  To take the further step of declaring the existence of something we can call 'G-O-D' is not the business of physics.  Strictly speaking that's the theologian's turf.


But what we're being asked to consider is something like a 'cosmic mind' or 'mind of the cosmos'.  Freeman Dyson, former physics professor at Princeton, said in book that blew my mind, called "Infinite in All Directions", that there was a sort of mental component to the universe.  John Polkinghorne, Cambridge physicist and Anglican priest says, "The physical world seems shot through with signs of mind and to me indeed it is a Mind, spelled with a capital 'M'."


Frankly, I cannot conceive of any kind of  intelligence, whatever name we give to this, which set the whole cosmic process going fifteen thousand million years ago and then either self-destructed or went away. That is quite nonsensical. It seems eminently logical that such an intelligence continues to be at work, at least subtly guiding the process and perhaps exercising some kind of persuasive influence from within it.  John Polkinghorne reminds us that creation is a process; "not just something done fifteen thousand million years ago, but something being done which will continue to be done tomorrow."  Charles Birch, ex professor of biology at Sydney, speaks of a cosmic mind.  He says God is acting as persuasive love at the heart of the universe, sustaining all living things and enticing them into deeper and richer and more fulfilling life.  This is God as active and participating, but not manipulating.  Birch calls God 'the great persuader', which I rather like.  It fits with Jesus, who called but did not compel, who had only the power of love at his disposal. 


I intend to pick this up and go more deeply into it in a fortnight, when we look at the question "What is God doing today?"  That is to say, Just how is God involved with the whole universe and with us?   And we will also look at an approach to mystical spirituality, which I call 'listening for the holy whispers'.



Genesis 1:1-5.  Creator-Spirit brings order out of chaos in the physical world

Acts 2:1-4.  Creator-Spirit brings order out of chaos in confused followers

Romans 1:18-20.  Creator-Spirit speaks through the world around us.



An address given at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury on Sunday, June 8, 2003 (Pentecost)