THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 103
Expanding our thinking
The Church Times this week (12th August 2005) has a very interesting article that has far reaching ramifications for all Christians. It has to do with the way we view the universe in which we find ourselves, and how we as Christians need to adjust our views according to the latest discoveries. I have touched on this subject in previous articles but I want to go more deeply into the implications for all who call themselves Christian.
The cosmology of the New Testament writers - and the Old Testament prophets before them - was of course vastly different from our views today. Some thought the world was flat. Certainly until comparatively recently people thought that the earth was the centre of the universe and that the sun went round the earth in a daily circuit. The origin of the world, some events in the far distant past (such as the flood) and the end of the world were all subjects coloured by the primitive view of the universe that we find throughout the bible.
The idea that the universe is a vast area, taking billions of years to evolve to its present state - which seems so obvious to us (or most of us) nowadays - was totally unknown two thousand years ago and previously. Pope John Paul II apparently said that this theory of a long cosmic evolution can no longer be considered mere speculation - an idea to be toyed with. But that rather it has to be accepted as a well-establish scientific theory. The Revd Dr Keith Ward, who wrote the article in the Church Times which has sparked this article, does of course accept the theory, and he draws out for us it’s challenging implications.
What then is the view of the universe that cosmologists have come to? As we all know from books and television programmes, it seems that the universe started around fourteen or fifteen billion years ago with what is often referred to as ‘the big bang’. Thereafter matter formed and moved out from the centre with the result that we are now looking at truly vast distances between constellations and stars. So great are the distances that it is no longer practical to talk in miles, but rather in light years - the distance covered by light in the period of one year.
How do these ideas impinge on Christian beliefs? Is there a conflict? One can think immediately of one area where there may appear to be a conflict - the early Christian idea that the end of the world is near. This belief started, for Christians, following the resurrection of Christ. The disciples remembered some sayings of Jesus about the end of the world and they interpreted what he said as meaning that the world would end shortly. Some letters in the New Testament give one the impression that the early Church was expecting the end of all things in the near future. Through the intervening two thousand years there have been Christians who have had similar expectations. I believe that, around the turn of the first millennium, Christians expected the world to end at any moment.
Christ actually taught that we should live as though the end of the world might come at any time. For example, he talked of the need to stay alert - as in the story of the virgins waiting for the bride and bridegroom. Whether he thought his death would herald the end of the age is disputed - but the early Christians appeared to be waiting for the imminent consummation of all things.
But the world did not end. Indeed, have we any reason for thinking that it will end in the next week, year, century, millennium? If your mind goes to the stories in the gospels about the end times, might not they be pointed more to the fact that there will certainly be an end to all things? That just as there was a beginning, so there would be an end. That is, that there will be a time when this material world does come to an end? One remembers the Psalmist who talked of the earth and heavens eventually being rolled up (Psalm 34.4) The cosmologists, too, tell us that the earth will eventually perish as a habitable planet in around x billion years.
So can we not pass beyond the timing of the end as set out in some parts of the New Testament? Clearly what they thought would happen has not happened. But can we not agree that the heart of what they are saying: that time will come to an end when God decides that that moment has come?
This is one area where, perhaps, we need to rethink our Christian concepts in the light of new understanding of the universe.
Are there any other Christian beliefs that conflict with the view of the universe now given to us by the cosmologists?
What about the future of the human race? It now seems clear that evolution did not stop just at the moment we discovered that it was happening! Evolution is an ongoing process. If the world lasts a further million years then we would expect there to be developments through the operation of what we call evolution. Humans will evolve in their living and in their reaction to their environment. Is that against Christian thought? Surely not!
It is obvious that human beings have reached a point in their development where they are now taking a hand in their own evolution. The creation of machines and the use of electricity in all sorts of ways (including computers) will have a profound effect on how human society develops. We are working with (and sometimes against) the ongoing natural forces of evolution. That consideration also needs to be hoisted into our Christian view of things.
Which Christian beliefs remain unshaken by this new view of our universe so persuasively presented to us by the cosmologists? Here we come back to the basics of our faith. One of these is a belief in a Creator God, plus a belief that he is both within all things (immanent) and also independent of our universe (transcendent). A belief that we are made in the image of God (although we don’t fully understand what that means!) Then there is our understanding of the nature of God presented to us by Christ, both in his implicit beliefs (as a Jew) and explicitly (in his teaching, healing and actions and, above all, at the Cross). That is also essential and these are unaffected by a changing view of the universe. The significance of the cross and the empty tomb and the radiant new life of the disciples post-resurrection all tell their own story and are basic to Christian belief for all time.
So what beliefs are affected by this new look at the universe? Well - ideas and concepts formed before and after Christ about the nature of the world and what was going to happen in the future (near or far). The last things - not so much what would happen but how it would happen. The imagery of Revelation. These sorts of ideas can be adjusted by our further knowledge, and are superseded in the new understanding. Are they a significant loss? I don’t see them as a loss theologically, but they may be a severe loss emotionally to some people. Some Christians count these ideas as almost as important as the resurrection.
So what does all this amount to? The lesson is very clear. We have to adjust our ideas at the edges and we have to hold ever more strongly to the central tenets of our faith. Above all we have to change the way we approach these truths - we must to let go of our rigidity. We have to adapt our knowledge to the changing world around us. We have to become Christians who are living in the real world rather than in some projection of a medieval world view from past centuries.
Even more important - and this is a point tellingly brought out by Revd Dr Keith Ward in the Church Times - we have to move forward to grasp the vision God is now presenting to us. We have to see that the Christian view, shorn of past attachments and outdated ideas, is an exciting and entirely relevant message for the people around us in our daily life. It is the perfect message to present to the postmodernist. It is the undying message of a Risen Christ who embodies all we need for salvation and who brings us to oneness with the Father.
And, yes, I agree with the Revd Dr Ward’s last comment too - catching such a vision would help us get out of the endless disputes about sex that are bedevilling the churches at present. Maybe the Churches have to step over the threshold into the world of an inclusive God before they can see the splendour of an evolving universe, held in God’s hands. Maybe that is too great a step for many church-bound, unimaginative men and women - but then again, maybe in God’s good grace it isn’t.