The mystery of everything

The Mystery of Everything & The Magic of Stuff’ – Genesis 1:1-14

Christ Church Highbury, February 18th 2018

[Each year, Christ Church chooses a Lent course that is followed in home groups & in Sunday’s sermons. This year we used The Mystery of Everything, a course by Hilary Brand based upon the film The Theory of Everything. We use the course in our home groups and Sunday sermons – this was the first week of that series.]

The ‘mystery of everything’ is potentially quite an undertaking for just 6 weeks, but it’s broken down into five themes of mystery:

  • Our origins
  • Suffering
  • God’s care for us
  • Wisdom
  • Weakness
  • The cross

It acknowledges that faith requires us to engage in mystery. We never reach a point in our relationship with God where we know all the answers. No human in the history of creation has come close to fully comprehending the mystery of God, although many have tried!

The problem is that this doesn’t sit well with our human instinct of curiosity – we’d rather know the theory behind everything, rather than having to settle for a mystery. We seek answers to questions; we are created with an innate desire for knowledge within us. I’m not sure we ever fully depart from that phase all small children go through where every other question is “But why….???”

And, over centuries, humanity has tried to establish the answers to our questions. This course explores some of these questions, doing so through the story of someone who attempted to find answers in science: Stephen Hawking, and the film based upon his earlier career, The Theory of Everything.

Stephen Hawking is arguably one of the greatest scientists the UK has ever produced. His book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988 as an introduction to his work and ideas for the masses, sold over 10 million copies in 20 years. It’s been published in 35 languages and is one of the bestselling science books ever published. Covering topics such as the Big Bang and Black Holes, for many people it’s been their main introduction to some of the ‘big’ questions around our origin and how our world works.

Modern culture has a tendency of viewing science and faith as an either/or situation. Can you believe in Genesis and the Big Bang? Hasn’t modern science disproved monotheistic views of how the world came into being?

The Mystery of Origin

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” 

The most we are told about HOW God created the world is that his Spirit hovers above all, and that at his command, light, sky, land, and all that grows & lives on earth. The intricacies of exactly how this all came to pass, and a precise time frame is not part of Genesis’ opening chapters.

It’s generally understood that this account was written by Moses, in around 1445 BC. It is certainly not an eye witness account! There are also widely understood to be two creation narratives, this in chapter 1 and then a further narrative in chapter 2. They are complementary rather than contradictory, providing God’s people with an understanding of his centrality in their world.

God’s creation is shrouded in mystery, and the more that we have learnt of the world through scientific exploration, the more questions have been raised. Some would argue that theories such as the Big Bang and Evolution are indicative of Genesis being wrong. That there is no God, or that creation couldn’t have taken place in the way Genesis accounts for.

I don’t know where you stand on these questions. I am categorically not a scientist! It was not my strongest subject at school, and I don’t really have the greatest of interests in it – certainly not to the extent that I would buy A Brief History of Time and read it for fun! But I am a historian and theologian. I am interested in why and how things happened. I’m fascinated by the way in which our world has grown, changed and evolved. And obviously, I believe that God is in the centre of it all.

My father has a scientific background – he was part-way through a science degree when he realised he was being called to ordained ministry. As a result, growing up, religion and science were not regarded as an either/or – they were compatible rather than being mutually exclusive. I learned about evolution at school, but was shocked to discover that there were Christians who didn’t believe in the scientific theory because it was at odds with Genesis. Aged 9, I was rather hasty in my dismissal of these Christians (probably to my parents’ great amusement), but it resulted in a long conversation with my father about how to reconcile the two arguments with each other. As an adult, I still hold a similar view – that I can see God at work in these scientific ideas, and I don’t consider them to undermine my faith and beliefs.

There isn’t time to go deeply into the debate of which creation ‘story’ or theory is correct, or grounded in the most evidence. I’m sure many of you will have your own opinions on this. What we should not do is dismiss scientific discoveries and research as attacks upon God’s autonomy – because although there are atheist scientists, there are many who have a belief in God’s work in creation too.

I love this story about one of Einstein’s classes:

A class of students were saying they had decided there was no God. Einstein asked them how much of all the knowledge in the world they had among themselves collectively, as a class. The students discussed it for a while and decided they had 5% of all human knowledge among themselves. Einstein thought their estimate was a little generous, but he replied: “Is it possible God exists in the 95% you don’t know?”

Even within science, there is still mystery…

When we read the creation narrative set out in Genesis as readers dwelling in the 21st century, we do so in our specific time and culture. We bring to our reading myriad questions that would not have crossed the minds of those hearing Moses’ account centuries ago. But we see God at work at the beginning of time, just as we see God at work in the world in which we live today.

A sense of awe:

In the mystery of creation is a sense of awe. As we ponder these questions of how, when and why, we are struck by the majesty of what God has done and is doing. Where do we find that sense of awe at God’s creation in our lives?

There has been more than one depiction of Stephen Hawking’s life over the years. Just a couple of years before The Theory of Everything came out, the BBC made a film of his life starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I happen to be more of a Cumberbatch fan than an Eddie Redmayne one, and in this drama was a scene between Hawkings and Jane – who he later married – where they lie together in a garden, gazing at the stars. As they do so, Stephen attempts to explain some of his ideas about black holes and the universe – very romantic!

But as I was re-reading Genesis, I was struck that I have a similar response to the stars. Not a scientific weighing up of possibilities, but a sense of awe at the vastness of God’s creation. Living in London, it’s not something I get to do every day – but I think of when I’m on holiday in rural France, sitting outside late at night, looking up at a sky that seems so huge and full of infinite possibilities. That the stars I’m looking up at began burning bright centuries ago. That people I care for far away can look up at the same stars. That, these lights in the sky were created at God’s command…

This sermon was preached just a few weeks before Stephen Hawking died. In the days following his death, many tributes appeared that included some of his work on stars. (Credit.)

As I look back on my life I can think of plenty of other moments where I’ve felt a similar sense of awe:

  • Holding a newborn baby & marvelling at this tiny, perfect creature who’ll grow up to be someone.
  • Watching a child do something for the first time.
  • Standing in the waves of the Pacific Ocean, overcome by the vastness of water.
  • Catching sight of a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

I could go on, and I’m sure you would all have plenty of moments to add to that list. I would encourage you to find time to think about those that have come into your mind. Thank God for his creation, and for the way in which it has reminded you of his presence.

Perhaps you have questions? Lent can be a time in which you choose to intentionally engage in the mysteries of our faith and our world – through a lent course, through conversation with others, or through intentionally finding out more about an area you’re curious about.

Despite all our questions and wondering, in the midst of the mystery of everything, there is one certainty: God is at work – yesterday, today, and forever.

Gleefully religious?

For the next few weeks I’m at a course on Monday nights, which makes it impossible for me to watch Glee – that all important Monday night TV fixture – in its regular 9pm slot. On my way home last week I checked Facebook and Twitter and spotted a variety of Glee related messages that made me all the more determined to make it back in time for the 10pm E4+1 showing.
The episode in question was apparently religious in nature and had caught the attention not just of my religious friends/twitter people, but of lapsed churchgoers and atheist radio celebrities. In fact, one twitter theologian went as far as to say that it was “a wonderful example of how to do evangelism today”. I might have simply left it at watching the episode and pondering its meaning with a few friends, but for two reasons:
(i) My sister said, on the night it was shown, that she reckoned I’d blog about it within 24 hours. 
(ii) I disagree with the twitter theologian above.
Many sneer at Glee, thinking it trashy TV with trashy music meant only for teenagers and those with little going on in their lives. However, I’m personally of the opinion that every so often – as was the case last week – it manages to deal with serious issues maturely and with the aid of a good soft-rock cover version. [This obviously was not the case for the couple of episodes early in season one where a male character was led to believe his girlfriend had got pregnant while they were making out in a hot tub…] 
This episode managed to highlight a number of religious issues, from the separation of religion & state that’s held so sacred in America, to the importance of religious heritage, via the church’s attitude to homosexuality – all within a storyline that centred upon a grilled cheese sandwich with the face of Jesus on it. [The grill hadn’t grilled properly ever since Finn used it to dry his sneakers.] Finn chooses to pray to Jesus-of-the-sandwich and declares his new found faith (and desire to sing songs about it) to his fellow classmates – and thus the episode begins.
So what have I got to add to the mix? First off, the regular beginning of episode scene set in the glee club classroom has to contain some of the best one-liners of the series and at the same time illustrate diverse religious attitudes and opinions that you’d find in any classroom. 

Kurt: “Most churches don’t think much of gay people. Or women…or science…”

Mercedes: “I don’t see anything wrong with getting a little church up in here.” 

Quinn: “I’ve had a really hard year and I turned to God a lot for help…I for one wouldn’t mind saying thanks.” 

Brittney: “Whenever I pray I fall asleep.”

[Incidentally, my friends created a game years ago that you can play at church/religious festivals entitled ‘praying or sleeping’, which was followed by ‘religious experience or medical emergency’. Hours of fun, right there.]

Puck: “I got no problem with the guy, I’m a total Jew for Jesus, he’s my number one Heeb.”

You know what this episode is really about? It’s not evangelism, or stuffing faith down the throats of those that don’t want to hear (which is most definitely not the same as evangelism) – it’s about prayer.

Finn becomes inspired to pray and then discovers his prayers being answered. The football team wins and he gets to touch his girlfriend’s cleavage – so he’s keen to share the love. He’s also found an object he can use as a focus for his prayers, albeit a savoury snack. When bad stuff ends up happening, apparently as a result of his prayers, he has a crisis and turns to the Guidance Counsellor (who, incidentally is played by a Christian) and discovers that it’s unlikely God had a direct hand in what he’d seen as miracles. [Cue soft-rock to illustrate point and what better than Losing My Religion?]

Kurt’s father Burt has a heart attack and lies in a coma. [It wasn’t until I looked this episode up on Wikipedia that I realised their names rhymed! Such is the subtle genius of Glee.] He’s an atheist and when his religious friends vow to pray for his father, he refuses their support. Ultimately, he ends up at church with Mercedes and watches as the whole church prays for his father to recover. Getting him into church may look like an act of evangelism, but it’s just an act of love by a friend to show that others care so much for people they’ve never met. We don’t know if it changes his opinion of religion, but hopefully it brought him some comfort.

Sue Sylvester – Glee’s most delightfully awful character – comes to blows with the rather weedy Guidance Counsellor over why she’s an atheist. As a child she prayed that her sister (who was born with Downs Syndrome) would get better, but because she never did, so Sue decided that God couldn’t possibly exist. Ironically, it’s revealed that her sister does believe in God and prays for Sue.

They’re all totally logical responses. Who (amongst the churchgoers reading this) hasn’t been given a pebble, rosary, picture or icon with which to direct or focus their prayer? (I’m sure there was a period in the 90s when you couldn’t get through an ‘alternative’ act of worship without being given a pebble.) Persistence in prayer is one thing – desperately praying for your heart’s desire to be fulfilled and it never happening is quite another and phenomenally painful. How do you argue for the existence of God in the face of that? Personally, one of the hardest things I’ve found is comforting atheist friends when my natural response with other Christians would be to say that I’d pray for them – often it’s not what they want to hear.

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about this, but I’m not entirely sure that I can be this serious about Glee for any longer! I would just like to state for the record that the one thing that did not impress me was the use of One of Us (the mid 90s one-hit-wonder by Joan Osborne) – slightly obvious and a song that has not left my head ever since. Given that the episode also included some classic REM and Bridge Over Troubled Water, you might realise why I’m peeved.

Quizzy Friday

Friday is meant for quizzes – they are the quintessential Friday distraction. Whose office doesn’t have a “who can get 7/7 in the BBC News quizcompetition every Friday? [Oh wait, mine hasn’t had one in about two years, very sad times.] It’s a great distraction, along with the BBC World News Quiz – both good for killing around 10 minutes of a seemingly interminable last day of the week.

Having spent last night indulging in one of my favourite past times – competitive, team-based quizzing – I thought I’d use today as an opportunity to share some of the best (or at least most diverting) quizzes that the internet has shared with the world this week. (Sadly, unlike last night’s fun, I can’t provide wine, amusing Madonna videos or downright dirty behaviour with a cupcake, but I think you’ll still derive some enjoyment…)

If you’ve done the two BBC quizzes and long for something a little more literary and intellectual, try the Guardian’s quiz on banned books in honour of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. I had a sinking feeling that I wasn’t doing too well at it, but I’m glad I persevered because the insult the results threw me had me laughing out loud.

Or, perhaps if you’re of a more religious bent (or even if you’re not) you might be interested in the US Religious Knowledge quiz that did the rounds of Twitter and Facebook earlier in the week. Potentially an interesting piece of research, given as it shows that in America, non-Christians scored highest, this is a quiz on all major religions where your results are then compared to research’s sample. The researcher in me liked this a lot and is already ruminating on what differences a British study along the same lines would have.

Finally, if you prefer your quizzes to be of a more shout-out-loud variety, make sure you watch this week’s University Challenge (still available on the iPlayer) and play along with the teams. [That’s not a nerdy thing to do, surely? I mean, it must be perfectly normal to keep track of your own score?]

This particular episode is a show down between geeky Scientists (Imperial College) and fancy Artists (University of the Arts, London) and is immensely entertaining. I am in no way biased in this opinion given that I’m friends with the captain of the UAL team – honest! Such was its entertainment value that it caused ‘University Challenge’ to trend on Twitter on Monday evening, though most of the comments were directed to the contestants’ fashion sense and my friend’s headband rather than their intellectual prowess. You know something’s not quite right with the world when Gok Wan starts tweeting about the clothes on University Challenge…

Parental Friday Fun

Today’s fun is in honour of my parents – for two reasons.
(i) On this day thirty years ago, on an island far, far away, my Dad was ordained.
(ii) It’s my Mum’s birthday on Tuesday.

I didn’t get that much notice on number 1 – it’s not a date that features in my diary (though this year I’m writing it in, because having had the 25th and 30th catch me by surprise, I’d better be ready for the 40th!). This meant that I didn’t have enough time to get to a religious bookshop and scope out a suitably cheesy ordination card. Trust me, such things exist.

If I was a truly devoted daughter, I might even have headed over to Ship of Fools for some classic religious tat – I’m thinking he’d particularly like God Trump Cards (individuals whose views might trump God’s skills…), or perhaps some fridge magnets depicting the various components of Mass. Oh, so many things to choose from! Lest you be thinking ‘but who would actually want such religious tat?’ I should point out that in my kitchen there is currently: a Jesus on a spring; Jesus pencil topper; and a Virgin Mary toast maker – my atheist friends never fail to reaffirm my faith in their gift-giving!

In honour of my mother, I’d like to share this particularly wonderful story from Passive Aggressive Notes. A girl, still living with her Mom, writes a blog which her Mom reads. Sometimes her Mom wants to comment on its content and rather than use the comment form or even have a conversation about it, she chooses to leave notes for her daughter in random places – like a cereal box. Wow.

“Stop cussing so much on your blog, please.”

My parents read this – sporadically, I think – and occasionally it gets mentioned, usually in a ‘I hope that’s not going to end up on your blog’ way. I think Mum feels mis-represented, and I do apologise for this. So, for the record I’d like to say that any mis-representation has been unintentional. It’s really not my fault that my parents are good at providing comedy blog fodder. After all – they created me and my sense of humour, so it’s all their fault really. Oh, and love you!

Given the last conversation I had with Mum on this subject, I feel I should clarify the following:

  • Her wedding dress looked very little like the one I found in my cupboard.
  • She doesn’t think I’m obsessed with shoes, she’s just not sure that I’ve got over the trauma of being a teenager with size 8 feet at a time when size 8 shoes were difficult to come by, and therefore tend to buy more pairs than I might need.
  • Erm, there was also some issue about my saying that she was exasperated at my lack of single male friends but I can’t remember what she was particularly concerned about – I think it was more of a misinterpretation of what I’d written. I may sometimes paint a picture of Mum being a little bit like Bridget Jones’ Mother – desperate to set me up with someone, but she most definitely isn’t. 

The influence of others

I’m sure that whilst I was at the office this morning I had three different blog inspirations to choose from. However, a 2 hour journey home (which should’ve taken 45mins) seems to have drained them away.

One was going to be a fabulous theological discourse on the amount of influence God is allowed to have on the President of the USA.

A blog that’s well worth keeping an eye on is Thank You Ma’am, which I’ve mentioned before in relation to the author’s grammatical pedantry. Yesterday’s post was on the subject of JFK’s address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and ended with this paragraph:

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

This quote preceded a statement which was intended to placate voters who had issues with JFK’s Catholicism:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President — should he be Catholic — how to act, and no Protestant minster would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him, or the people who might elect him.”

The question that Sharon (the blog author) rightly raises is: ‘Would a Protestant presidential candidate actually say, in a campaign speech, that he believes in an America where a church, church elders (or God) would not tell the President how to act?’

So, what I intended to do was waffle on about the relationship between church & state, especially in a legally secular, yet obsessively religious country like the US.

But instead, I’m going to just ask the question:
Would this even be an issue in the UK? Would people mind if we had a PM who publicly said that they listened for God’s guidance in matters?

Something to ponder…