THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 186
The God of Wonder
When I was a child I went through a stage of doing card tricks and other magical things and giving my own show to any adults that happened to be around. Of course I was not very good at it. I learned some tricks like producing a sixpence form someone’s ear - and I learned how to manipulate the pack of cards so that I could identify the card you had extracted, looked at and then returned to the pack.
I probably enjoyed those magic shows I put on more than those who had to watch and participate - I guess they were very tolerant to a youngster who aimed at producing a sense of wonder in his audience.
Now that I am grown up you might think that I would have outgrown that fascination with magic of one sort or another. Not a bit of it! I am a glutton for any magic shows on the television . When David Blaine goes around cities in America doing card tricks for the people he meets on the pavement I am glued to the set. I watch fascinated as he mystifies and intrigues his audience.
And he does some wonderful tricks - absolutely mind boggling! Did you see the one where he finishes up by spraying a whole pack of cards at the window of a nearby parked car - and the card someone previously had chosen and put back in the pack finishes up stuck to the car window? How does he do that? Incredible!
Or have you watched any of Derren Browns shows on television? He started one show, I remember, by throwing a Teddy out from the stage into the middle of the audience - and asked whoever got it to throw it backwards again over their heads, and then, wherever it landed, the person was asked to throw it forward this time. In other words the person who finally landed up with the teddy bear could not possibly have been a plant - a partner in crime - with Derren Brown. He then asked that person to come up on stage and proceeded to do absolutely mind boggling tricks with them. Totally incredible. The same sense of wonder that I had when, as a child, I first saw magic tricks being performed!
Or have you seen any of those magic shows on television where the magician makes some huge object disappear? There were a couple of illusionists who made an elephant disappear. They went into this hanger and you see the elephant standing there with his mahout - and then, without any television magic, they made the elephant disappear! I remember once they did the same trick with a full size army tank.
Absolutely incredible. You are left with this sense of bafflement and wonder. And once you get into people like Houdini there is no end to what he got up to. And no one could even guess how he did it. Your mind tells you that there is a rational explanation - but you just are baffled - cannot see how the trick was done.
Have you noticed that when David Blaine is on the streets of New York or some other big city and does his tricks in front of a few people he has gathered as he was walking along on the street - at the end, when the trick reaches its climax and the card sticks on the car window, or the card they picked out of the pack turns up in their top pocket or whatever - they always laugh! In fact the whole group of people - all those who have witnessed the incident - collapse in laughter. Why do we laugh when we have been mystified like this? Why does the child laugh out loud when an uncle produces a pound coin from his ear? What is so funny about it? Well, of course, it is our response to mystery. It is like saying: you have baffled me - I don’t understand how - but I share with you in the fun of it.
But, have you noticed, we always try to explain what we do not understand. Well, we say, he did it by sleight of hand. He had an accomplice in the audience who did what he or she was supposed to do. Or, probably he planted the card in my pocket beforehand without my noticing etc.
And with the explanation we sometimes add the word ‘only’ It is ‘only’ a sleight of hand. Or it is ‘only’ an accomplice planted. Or it is ‘only’ a special pack of cards or whatever is used. In other words we want to dismiss the supernatural and the mysterious and explain it all by mundane ordinary explanations.
When we are adults, and such magical tricks are played on us, this sometimes leads us to exhibit a healthy dose of cynicism! We know that we have been deceived and we refuse to believe in any supernatural explanation. It is ‘just’ magic. It is just ‘a trick’. It is very easy to be dismissive - to be cynical about magic because, of course, we know that our eyes are deceiving us.
But sometimes the bafflement we feel can be annoying. We feel cross sometimes that we cannot see how on earth he made the elephant or the army tank disappear. After all, we know it was not taken away by magic - so how did he do it? Was it perhaps some television trickery?
We know that these are mind games - tricks - illusions. Indeed the magician is sometimes called an illusionist. But for all that we would dearly love to have the explanation. And what happens if we are given the explanation? Well, then we dismiss the whole thing by saying ‘it was just a trick’.
I think it is exactly the same with our picture of God for many of us. When we were small - and even as we grew older and became wiser and more knowledgeable - we had this sense of wonder about things we didn’t understand.
I have been fascinated recently because I have discovered iplayer. Have you come aboard the opportunities this gives us to see programmes that we missed on the day they were shown? For seven days you can track back into a great many television programmes. Fascinating. Not only for the last episode of Dr Who that you missed, but also because there are all sorts of programmes that inform - about the natural world or about science or about cosmology. The influence of wind on the earth, the lost civilisations of Africa, the story of Rameses the Great - endless fascinating programmes that can take an hour of your time every day if you are not careful!
Why are these programmes so fascinating? Because they set out to explain the mysterious. They show us yet another aspect of this wonderful world and the fascinating beings called humans.
Evolution is a good example. I must have seen dozens of programmes about evolution over the years - a perfect example of incredible wonders explained by a natural process. Indeed, it has reached the point where some people even talk of evolution as ‘only evolution’.
Scientists have now ‘explained’ how human beings evolved through some little animal like a mud-skipper that climbed out of the sea thirty million years ago and slowly developed into the rich diversity of animals we find in the world today. Now we ‘understand’ how human beings got here there is no need to imagine a God who created us. The trick has been revealed - all is explained!
Previously - for millennia - human beings had ‘explained’ the existence of human beings by saying that God created the world and all living creatures. The word ‘God’ filled the gap in our knowledge. If there was no explanation for something, then it must have been God. This God is sometimes referred to as the God of the Gaps. The idea we use to fill in where we don’t yet understand. The God of the gaps is a very useful concept - it gives an explanation that is really no explanation at all. It simply says - we don’t yet understand.
If we turn to the bible we can see this God of the Gaps in operation. From the beginning people wondered at life and its meaning. For example, they didn’t understand thunder and lightening. They wanted to understand it. And they came up with the idea that it was God being angry. After all that is how human beings are angry - they scowl and shout - and so people thought that is what God was doing up there in the heavens where he lived. The God of the gaps.
Or take cosmology. A few hundred years ago they suddenly realised that the earth went round the sun, not the other way round. ‘Oh, I see!’ they said. ‘Now I understand’ they said. And some of them promptly lost their faith in God because they no longer needed the idea of a God who placed the earth - and us - at the centre of everything. They suddenly realised that their concept of God had been of someone whose existence ‘explained’ what hitherto they had been unable to explain.
Because the religious instinct is hard wired into us, according to the scientists, we may still explain what we don’t understand by using the idea of God as a kind of ‘magic‘ explanation. That clearly happened in the past. But in the New Testament St Paul tells us that ultimately there is mystery - he tells us that we don’t yet fully understand - and he affirms that God is the original first cause and is behind all that happens. That is the Christian belief. No matter what further explanations scientists discover, we Christians believe that the final answer - the first cause of everything - is God, and that Jesus Christ has revealed to us the nature and intention of God who is the Father of us all. We believe in God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who with the Son sent the Spirit to enable us to find new life in Him, and to show us how to live.
However much deeper into reality the scientists take us in the coming centuries, using the tools that God has given us - our brains, our powers of observation, the computer and all future inventions that will help us - at the end of the day we still come back to the First Cause being the Triune God whom we see portrayed in the bible. That is what a Christian believes.
So the Christian does not mind how much extra knowledge is uncovered. Evolution is but the method God used to bring about his purposes. Nor do we mind discovering how many times in the past Christians have used the idea of God to cover their ignorance - the God of the gaps. Behind all our knowledge, or lack of it, there lies a First Cause Power that created this cosmos out of nothing. In the beginning God…
Are there parallel universes? God caused them to exist. Is there life on other planets? God brought them into existence. Is life seeded from one planet to another by meteors spreading the vital spark of life? God sent them on their journey across the heavens. Is all explained by the Big Bang? There still remains the question of ‘why?’ when you have settled all the questions of ‘how?’
The only explanation for the life, teachings, healings, death and resurrection of Jesus is that he came to show us the nature of God and to open the way for us to have a living relationship with God. We have lived in the light of his life for twenty centuries and are still a long way from either understanding or following that teaching. Yet it is really very simple. Love God, whose nature is love, and love your neighbour with all your being - that is the essential empowering good news of Jesus.
Just as life is so much more than amassing money or goods - so following Jesus is more than intellectual achievement. It is catching hold of the simplicity of Jesus. Doing those things that we see to be right in our heart. Listen to Jesus talking all those centuries ago to the simple peasants who congregated around him as he walked the dusty lanes - love God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself..
For each of us that means something different. Don’t look sideways at what it means for others and assume you should do the same. Accept yourself as you are - including your orientation. What is God saying to you? What is he laying on your heart? What area of the world’s need draws you? Whatever it is - assume to start with that your concern is from God and follow it wherever it leads you. It could be the gateway to a new way of living - a life where you don’t depend on understanding all the magic in the world, but humbly seek to follow Jesus Christ and to give him entry into your heart day by day. And then to translate his love for you into your love for others.