David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
June 8, 2003 (Pentecost)
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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."
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.
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'."
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.
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
Creator-Spirit brings order out of chaos in the physical world
Creator-Spirit brings order out of chaos in confused followers
Romans 1:18-20. Creator-Spirit speaks through the world around us.
address given at St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury on Sunday, June 8, 2003
by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb. MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT.