I know that I am totally out of my depth, but I really enjoy learning about the new discoveries and the new theories about cosmology. Books about Relativity and the Quantum Theory. We are privileged to live in the aftermath of Einstein, for he set off an exploration in the last century that has developed our knowledge of the cosmos almost beyond belief.
Last night I watched a television programme about String Theory. This theory has evolved because scientists everywhere could not reconcile the main working hypotheses. There is the theory of General Relativity, and there is the theory of Quantum Mechanics. The former dealt effectively with the laws that governed large objects such as planets and stars. The latter dealt with the laws that operate on the very smallest scale possible – how atoms work and what is going on at a sub-atomic level. And the two theories could not be reconciled.
Now I don’t pretend to understand any of this stuff. It is all rather beyond me. My training is not in those fields. But they make these programmes for such as me – people who need a little learning fed to them in small doses and then repeated until the ideas sink in.
So I can say that I have a smattering of what they are talking about. In my lifetime they have certainly progressed, but it all seems a little inconclusive – and I am not entirely sure how it all fits together. At least I can see what they are aiming at, and how they think that they are onto something very important.
What I want to share with you today is the effect that this programme has had on my thinking. You don’t need to fully understand it all, or be an expert scientist or physicist to see that it all has a powerful effect on contemporary society. That is - on the people who travel on the Tube with you, go into the restaurant with you, work alongside you.
Not that all of these theories will change society overnight. Men are not going to decide to give up going to work tomorrow because String Theory has affected their view of the world. It does not have that sort of effect.
No, the effect on any thinking man is to make him realise that we are as far outside the undiscovered wonders as the cavemen would be outside the wonders of a modern city if they were to return to earth. Nevertheless, it really seems that mankind is on the brink of understanding his world, universe and cosmos as never before, and that such understanding will have a profound effect on how he views himself, his purpose in life, his relationships and his future.
If I am right in this – and it is pretty obvious that I am – then we Christians must take stock of what is happening and ask ourselves some very pertinent questions.
For example, we might start by asking whether this feeling I felt last night while watching this programme – and duplicated, no doubt, in several million others who watched the same programme – whether this feeling has anything at all to do with the decline in church attendance.
In other words – are we, as Christians, adapting in every necessary way to the rapidly changing view of things going on around us, or are we closeted in our tiny religious bubble? We perhaps need to ask the question: ‘What do we need to change in our religion?’ This really boils down to: are we part of the problem or part of the answer? Because, if we are resting content with our own antiquated and out of date concept of the world, how can we expect modern man ever to be bothered to try to get involved in what seems important to us?
Put it another way: if we are seen as irrelevant to the questions that modern man and woman are asking, how can we seriously expect anyone to join us?
Now for some stipulations! I am not saying that these cosmological theories are to be accepted as gospel truth. I am not saying that they should replace religious belief. Nor am I am suggesting that we give up church or church worship.
When I meet an educated man – my neighbour perhaps – and we discuss these things, can I seriously expect him to come to a church service which seems to him to be encased in beliefs and ritual, and rooted in tradition which is centuries old?
He just does not want to be bothered with what the church apparently finds important. He doesn’t want to know about our rituals – and I include in that all our evangelical rituals, as well as those of other types of churchmanship. He finds our thought forms totally irrelevant to today’s world. He sees our world view as out of date and irrelevant.
His mind is elsewhere. It is grappling with String Theory. And, admitting that he has no more clue about it than I have, yet he feels that modern science is moving towards a better understanding of the cosmos which is entirely new and very exciting. Whereas if he comes into church he hears people reading out of an old book about a tribe of nomads roaming the desert three thousand years ago. The point is that the reader in church and the preacher both seem to take it for granted that these stories from the far distant past are ‘real’. In one sense they are real – but it is a totally unreal world to our neighbour. Has he got to live in our unreal world of biblical history?
For example, these Christians talk as if they really believe that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. They talk as though all the miracles, so prolific in the Old Hebrew Bible, actually happened – that the Red Sea actually dried up and that rivers parted to allow prophets to get across. We all agree as Christians that miracles can happen – but is that the best introduction to what Christianity is all about?
It is mumbo jumbo to modern man. They ask – why do you believe such stories? What do you get out of them? Do you really expect me to believe such stories? Is that what becoming a Christian requires? What are you trying to prove? Are you saying that the old Hebrew Bible is literally true? Surely you are living in a different world from the one I live in!
It really doesn’t matter whether or not I understand String Theory – I believe that there are scientists out there who do understand it, and who are able to convince other scientists. And probably they could convince me, if I had a little more learning in their specialism.
Note that – learning, not faith. These scientists don’t ask me to have faith. They say – test my theory. If it does not hold up I want to know. I will then go on searching until I have a theory that does hold up. Then we shall know a littlie more about the real world in which we live.
Note too that these scientists are not selling anything. You can take them or leave them, as you wish. But Christians seem always to be selling a package – a package which, in its wrappings, seems full of stories and myths, and on this basis they want me to change my lifestyle and change my beliefs.
How are we ever going to bridge this gulf? The huge gap between the sort of world we live in day by day and the world that seems to be native to the church?
So Christians ask: do we have to go the whole way and throw the bible away? God forbid! How could we do that? That would be even greater folly than that of which we are already guilty. No. We must learn to treat the bible properly. Not assuming that the miracle stories that have satisfied generations from the last century or the century before that are ‘gospel truth’. But, rather, accepting that the bible is the Word of God and our invaluable – indeed indispensable – foundational document. The New Covenant and the Old Hebrew Bible, together. The first gives us the most important information about the most important person who ever lived, and the latter explains the background, without which so much would be lost to us.
In the past there have been many Christian leaders who have felt that they must accept all the stories in the bible as true, or that they must reject all of it. Now we need to uncover a better way of reading and understanding the bible. We must recognize that it contains everything from gold to dross. We must help people to recognize and sift out the gold and we must help them to understand that the even the dross can help us understand what God is and is not. We must introduce them to the Holy Spirit who will guide and lead every searcher after truth.
I am not advocating cutting out the Hebrew Bible, nor casting doubt on the priceless value of the bible as a whole. I am suggesting that unless Christians get their act together and start to become relevant to their neighbours in the way they express God’s truth, they will continue to reduce in numbers until they are an insignificant proportion of the population, fit only for evangelisation by Christians from other lands.
We must start by freeing our services from archaic interpretations of texts, and dropping the old morality that Christ came to demolish. We have to see that some biblical words and attitudes only serve as a barrier to today’s generation.
Of course we also need to remove the general impression that people have that Christians are homophobic and, generally, cling to outmoded ideas of morality – the laws of the Hebrews – but that is another subject, and I must leave that for another time.