Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting
Since Jocelyn Bell Burnell delivered her Backhouse Lecture A Quaker astronomer reflects in 2013, I have been trying to frame a reply to it. This I have been reluctant to do, knowing that I do not have half her intellect, and, although being a Quaker is not a competitive sport, sensing that she is a much better Quaker than I am.
The photo on the cover of the Backhouse Lecture seems to express JBB’s view of the universe. It shows the bleak surface of Mars with wheel tracks made by the robotic Rover. The material world is a bleak place, which can tell us nothing about God. The universe came into being by chance, continues on its meaningless course, and will finally die down into some lifeless, cold, scattered fragments. Having detached God from the physical world, JBB offers us a God who is a loving entity, able to relate (so far as we know) only to human beings. What was God doing before people came along? What will God do when people cease to exist? JBB acknowledges that the beauty of nature may help us to feel a sense of the divine, but this is not because God is the Creator.
Seeking to make sense of all this I recalled lectures given at Sydney University many years ago by Professor Charles Birch. He would start by reminding us of Matthew 10: 29 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny. Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” God, he would add, is not a counter of dead sparrows. God experiences the death of the sparrow.
Birch’s lectures were given under the auspices of the Student Christian Movement. These lectures were usually peaceful events, but at Birch’s lectures the audience would throw paper planes and other objects, and generally make it hard for him to be heard. Birch would ignore them, pacing up and down to provide a moving target. In some strange way his opinions unsettled people. But to me he made sense. If God cares about people, why wouldn’t he care about other creatures too?
Birch also made the point that if we want to discover the meaning of life we must start with our own experience. We cannot start at the level of physics and chemistry, and try to build up to an understanding of our human condition. But I think that is what many scientists are asking us to do. Having described the material world in terms of physics and chemistry, they feel they have said all there is to say. It is as though one would look at a great painting and say, “Now that we fully understand the chemistry of paint and canvas there is nothing more we can say about this work of art.”
Quakers often claim that “notions” are of no real importance. But as we struggle with our earthcare testimony, I think that the way we see the material world does matter. Of course, to care for the earth which supports us makes good sense, but it seems that people are not always motivate by good sense. We are motivated by what we value, and I personally value the earth as God’s creation. I know there are religious traditions which claim that the material world is of no value and we should concentrate on developing our inner lives. I find these traditions unhelpful, even dangerous.
JBB raises many problems which others have wrestled with also. If God made the world, why isn’t it perfect? This seems to be why she devotes so much space to the impermanence of the universe – shouldn’t God have made a permanent structure? (Is it possible to have a permanent material universe? Who knows?)
JBB, looking at the perennial problems of pain and evil, concludes that God is not all-powerful. Charles Birch expressed it differently, claiming that the only power of God is persuasive love. God does not coerce. This we know in our own lives, indeed it is hard to imagine how we could cope if God could stop us every time we attempted to do something wrong. Could love thrive under these circumstances?
I think part of the problem is the way we see the act of creation. We think of it as a process of total control like an engineer building a machine from a blue print. But actually, even in this instance, the engineer will be learning from the machine as it grows, and making modifications. This is even more true of creating a work of art – the finished product is unlikely to be exactly what one set out to make. And this is most true if one thinks of having children. Yes, they are totally the creation of their parents in one sense, in another they are totally different and never exactly what you planned. But if you could have total control over them, would there be any room for love?
When you create something, you create something which is Not You.
The other thing about creation is that it is working within limits. The composer works within the limits of sound. The artist is limited by the consistency of paint. The writer works within a specific language. So it seems to me that when God made a physical universe, He/She had to work within the limits of physics. So, as JBB asserts, God is not all-powerful. If God could randomly alter the laws of physics the place would be a mess.
Trying to understand how God can work through, and not against physics and chemistry, I turned again to George Ellis’s Backhouse Lecture: Faith, hope and doubt in times of uncertainty. Ellis identifies eight levels of complexity in the universe, beginning with particle physics and ending with sociology and ecology. Although the less complex systems affect the more complex, the opposite is also true. For example, if there are many big holes in the Hunter Valley, we can describe this is in terms of how large machines go up and down shovelling up earth and separating the coal from other materials. Or we can describe the situation in terms of human need or greed. Both are valid, but the former makes no sense without the latter.
Ellis also makes a comment about pain which resonates with me. He says that maybe this is the only kind of universe in which free will is possible.
The God of Birch or Ellis is not the God of the Gaps. He is the God of the entire process.
When astrophysicists describe the universe they always show a diagram which shows the universe as a kind of expanding sausage. This diagram represents both space and time, and it seems to be a moot point whether this is the only universe, or whether universes are bursting into existence in other times and spaces. I have never been able to get my head around this diagram or the event it represents, but the best I can manage is to imagine the universe spilling out of the mind of God. Coming from the mind of God, one would not expect it to be mindless, nor to be without a relationship to its creator.
One of the issues JBB raises is the size of the universe (although it apparently started smaller than a grain of sand). There is no doubt that as we have learnt more about the size of the universe, our idea of God has had to change. Our God was too small. Of course the best theologians always knew that. They talked about the infinity of God, but alas no-one can imagine infinity. So we have constructed lesser images to fit in with our limited understanding. It is good to be reminded that there is much truth out there yet to be discovered.