Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Inspiration from 1964

Today we undertook a massive clearout of the garage and attic. The chaotic jumble of papers, books, toys and so forth was thoroughly sorted, some to keep for special memories, but many assigned for recycling.

My past life seemed to flash about me with fond and forgotten memories revived and relived once again in a random patchwork of reminiscence. Here was found my first ever Paddington Bear book, whose stories delighted me as a child.

Among my extensive university lecture notes was an essay I wrote on how to explain the particle-wave duality of Quantum Mechanics to a non-scientist. In it, I had tackled the problem of how we understand that light can be simultaneously a particle and a wave, by making an analogy with Christian Theology - that theologians too have the magnum mysterium of Christ being fully man and fully God at the same time. My crusty physics professor (Sir Brian Pippard, who was Cavendish professor of Physics at Cambridge) was not impressed, and wrote the following comment in the margin of my essay:

An attractive, but I think false, analogy. It is a peculiarly Medieval concept that suggests that the Order below reflects the Order above.

I can still hear Pippard's slightly high pitched, very academic voice as he read the comment out to me as I could not read his writing.

The first books that sparked my life-long interest in science were the How and Why Wonder books series, and this one on Dinosaurs was the first one I owned, bought for me by my parents when I was seven or eight years old for the princely sum of three shillings and six pence (17.5 p in today's money or around 35 cents).

Most of my schoolfriends had this book as well. The amazing facts about these extraordinary creatures that lived all those millions of years ago inspired all our playground fantasies, and role-playing games, which were filled with Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Brontosauruses, Allosauruses and so on. Endless fun was to be had!

However, for me the real treasure was to be found in a quote from another book in the series, the How and Why Wonder Book of Primitive Man.

One of the biggest issues facing the Christian church today is the endless and pointless battle between Science and Religion; with one side peopled by Young Earth Creationists who will tell you that the theory of evolution is a load of rubbish, and on the other side by militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett, who argue that evolution leads inevitably to an atheistic viewpoint.

How refreshing, then, to read the following beautifully simply and inspiringly worded passage in this book, written in 1964 by a certain Donald Barr, who was Assistant Dean, School of Engineering, Columbia University, New York. In a section titled Do all people believe the theory of evolution? he writes:

When Darwin's books on evolution were printed a hundred years ago, many people said Darwin did not believe in God's plan, but in a horrible universe run by lucky accidents and greedy fighting. They said he was making man out to be nothing more than a brainy ape. But these people need not have worried. The theory of evolution says certain things happened. It does not say, and it could not say, why those things happened. If God made the world and runs the world, then evolution is God's plan. And it is a majestic and beautiful plan. With evolution, even accidents are part of the plan of life, and even the lowest creature is part of the family life. The theory of evolution does not say man is only a brainier kind of ape. It says that for two thousand million years living forms were tried and improved and tried and improved in preparation for the arrival of man as we know him upon the scene of life upon the earth.

There really doesn't have to be a war, does there?

Saturday, 26 July 2008

No easy fixes - but we can try

One thing that is deeply ingrained into me, which I can't explain, is the desire to reach out to those who are in pain or distress. It has been there from quite an early age - part of my make up, I suppose.

Last weekend, I heard this song, for the first time, sung by a woman with a beautiful voice, at a lunch party, and fell in love with it straight away. It shows how out of touch with contemporary culture I am that I was unaware it was a big hit for Coldplay in 2005; but came home and immediately found it on YouTube, then also found my daughter had it in her collection.

The words spoke directly to me as part of what I want to do. There aren't any easy fixes for people who are in pain, but that doesn't stop us wanting to try.

The song also made me feel sad, because of someone I know of, who is suffering as the result of a terrible injustice. I guess this post is dedicated to that person.

On the other hand, it's also the case that I've only recently discovered how to put links to YouTube videos on a blog, and I'm looking for an excuse to play with my new toy!

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Funeral Songs

A morbid discussion arose on one of the email lists I am subscribed to concerning suitable songs one would choose to have played at one's funeral.

My choice would be Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, from Mahler's Rückert-Lieder.

The final verse seems to point to a transcendence of the world that is entirely an appropriate way to say goodbye to it.

For me, this is simply one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

(I have lost touch with the world)

Words by Friedrich Rückert
Music by Gustav Mahler,
Sung by Kathleen Ferrier

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb' allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!
________________________________________ ___

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

.. and now for a complete contrast, though no less affecting, is the song my daughter Jess would choose for her funeral

Saturday, 12 July 2008

How faith in Jesus Christ resolves a fundamental paradox

There is an old conundrum often used to argue against the idea of an Omnipotent (capable of anything) God. It goes as follows:

"Can God make a stone so heavy He cannot lift it?"

A simple examination of the logical conundrum would lead to the conclusion that God cannot be omnipotent. If He CAN make such a stone, then He is incapable of lifting it by definition. If, however, he cannot make such a stone then that is also something He is incapable of doing. Therefore, God cannot be omnipotent - whichever way you look at it, there is something that God is incapable of doing. As the atheist writer Douglas Adams would have put it "So God disappears in a puff of logic".

The thought that has come to me recently is that this simple analysis doesn't apply to the Christian religion - and that the mystery of Incarnation (the Word became flesh and dwelt among us - John 1:14), offers a resolution to this paradox. The paradox would indeed be unanswerable for a God that lived forever distant from the Universe that He created. But the Christian message is that God became a part of His own creation; took on the form, and the frailties of a human being, and lived among us. This was a voluntary setting aside of his power and abilities - a human being cannot lift a rock that weighs more than a few hundred pounds. Of course, Jesus also performed miracles, but at the end, voluntarily laid down his life. Perhaps some expected him to bring matters to a head when faced with crucifixion; become an earthly King, and defeat the Romans, in some supernatural coup d'etat. And it would have been within his power to do so. But that was never the plan; it was to set aside his omnipotent power, and voluntarily become helpless in the face of a cruel and painful death.

And in the crucifixion, we also see the resolution of a similar paradox, which goes like this:

Is there anything an Omniscient (all-knowing) God cannot know?

One might pose the answer that a supposedly Omniscient being cannot know what it feels like NOT to know everything.

And again this is resolved in the person of Jesus Christ - God voluntarily laid aside the knowledge of everything, so that when, on the Cross, he cried out "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46), he wasn't faking it - he felt exactly the sense of loss, confusion, abandonment, and brokenness that we all feel.

Only in this sense of feeling exactly what we, as limited, finite human beings feel, can we perceive of a God who truly stands alongside us in our suffering. And it is only because of this real experience of "not knowing" that God can truly be deemed Omniscient.

That is why the Christian God is the one whom I worship.