Tag Archives: God

Learning from history (III)

11 Mar

BVD_Stories_8-1100x722Let’s take a final look at the Bible’s historical books. There is one more key characteristic that can help us get the most from this set of “theological treatises rooted in an understanding of the God who is at work in and through history”.

Narrative theology. 40% of the Bible, including the historical books almost in their entirety, are written as narratives. We are used to reading narrative – from Harry Potter to the Lord of the Rings – and understand the concept of “historical novel”, that is, fiction based round real events. But surely, we say, that’s not what we have in the Bible? The leap from historical narrative to inspired Word of God is just too great for our concept of biblical inerrancy.

But the biblical narratives must be read as such, and not as New Testament epistles or any other biblical genre. To not do so inevitably means we not only miss their intended message but also read much into the text that is not there and create an unnecessary rod for our own theological backs. The existence of “conflicting” versions or accounts must surely help us to avoid an overly simplistic view or to treat them (as if that were possible) as “history”.

Narrative is not allegory nor indirect teaching but rather contains examples of God’s dealings with his people over a period of time. Despite this, it is not the story of those individuals, but the story of God, through people. The narratives are not history, but story, collectively the story of God’s work in and through his people, or Heilsgeschichte as theologians like to call this concept. To not do so inevitably means we not only miss their intended message but also read much into the text that is not there and create an unnecessary rod for our own theological backs.

Lights, camera, action!

priceofegyotBiblical narratives are action-based – not necessarily action-packed, Bourne Trilogy style, but their main focus is the action involved. There is zero pyschological introspection – that we love these days, and which is perhaps why, if we are honest, we can be prone to find the Bible boring – and any feelings involved are only mentioned inasmuch as they fuel the action. Long descriptive passages that create a backdrop to the action are notable by their absence. Again, details only make an appearance as needed to explain the action and the “set” is built with only what is necessary to situate the central action.

Characters are limited to those involved, usually two with an occasional third. A main character, an antagonist, and the odd sidekick, like Lot with Abraham, is the usual quota, with occasional extras to connect the scenes. Even these few characters are generally “flat” in the sense that we only really see one side of them, that which illustrates the behaviour the narrator wants us to see. So Esau is stupid, Absalom is wicked, Esther is noble. Only a very few such as David or Joseph are worthy of any deeper treatment. Dialogues between protagonists reveal their character and support the main thrust of the action.

So, these few key players act out their roles against a sparse backdrop that provides just enough to know what is going on. In this idealised world, social distance is telescoped, so we find midwives talking to Pharaoh, and language is never a problem. There are no interwoven currents as the action flows in short, often disconnected scenes, from the presentation of a character through their experience to sharp conclusions. Together with the protagonists we experience what their action meant in terms of relationship with God and others. Whether humble peasants or imperial rulers, their stories combine to portray the truth of human existence and how we live our lives before God.

first+finally+next+after+then+lastThe action is often presented as stories of intrigue and suspense, where the repetition of key words and themes lead us to towards the inevitable climax. Pay attention, though, or you might miss it – we are used to a build up of tension that focuses on the characters’ inner world, but with their impoverished interest in feelings and motives, biblical narrative develops through action and can reach its resolution in what for us appears to be merely setting the scene. You will also struggle to find the kind of details that we like to see; the narratives are short and sharp, constantly seeking to bring the reader back to the actions and reactions of the central character. “How” questions are often left unanswered. Flashbacks and “missing years” are common, so be careful also to not always expect everything to be neatly arrayed in chronological order.

All these narratives have a narrator, who may or may not be the author themselves. Usually anonymous, often omnipresent as well as omniscient, and always totally reliable (in their own estimation at least!) they strive to portray to the reader just how God sees the events in question. Whilst they can – and do – emit their own moral judgements, narrative is normally presented “as is”, and the reader is brought into the process of evaluation, having to provide for ourselves the assumed motives and inner workings of the action portrayed. (That’s actually part of the fun of reading these stories – we are not told what to think but are left to draw our own conclusions.)

The narrator is writing for someone – us, the readers. They assume that the reader knows how to interpret their narrative and is capable of drawing out inferences and the implicit elements of the story. The process of communication from the narrator to the reader is a complex one, relying much like any other communication on shared understanding. So, awareness of the cultural background of the Scriptural narratives is vital, second-to-none really, for correct understanding. Anything we can do to better understand that background will be hugely helpful in finding out what is really going on in the text.

So, narrative theology. There is so much in there, if we can only learn how to draw it out. Do read these books as literature, which is what they are, as well as revelation. Identify what the narrator is wanting to communicate. Recognize and enjoy the literary techniques used and understand how they contribute to the picture of God at work in and through his people. You won’t regret it.


Hide and seek

6 Jul

Stephen Hawking has just lost a bet. Nothing to do with Pascal’s wager this time (see Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager for that one). Nor is eternal destiny at stake – it is a mere $100 that has changed hands. The Nobel physicist Stephen Hawking losing a wager might not be so unusual if he had just bet on the result of the 4.30 at Aintree but is a little less expected as it has to do with the fundamental make-up of the universe. “I had a bet with Gordon Kane of Michigan University that the Higgs particle wouldn’t be found,” he said on Wednesday. “It seems I have just lost $100.” (See phys.org story.)

Peter Higgs

The what? The Higgs particle, a.k.a. the Higgs boson. First proposed in the 1960s by Edinburgh-based physicist Peter Higgs, it has taken some finding. And it has cost a good deal more than what Prof. Hawking lost to find the elusive particle: the CERN particle accelerator – the Large Hadron Collider to be precise, a 17 mile-around circular tunnel that gets particles such as the protons used in this experiment up to near the speed of light and then whacks them into one another to see what happens – used to make the recent discovery has cost tax payers in the region of £6 billion. All this for something that has no immediate practical application, other than solving one of the remaining mysteries that keep some scientists awake at night. It seems they were so excited about it they accidentally released a video that leaked the discovery before the “official” announcement on Wednesday, an event attended by Peter Higgs himself. Hawking says Higgs should be awarded a Nobel prize, though the largely unknown physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, who first proposed the existence of the particle itself in 1924 and who the boson is named after, should share some of the glory.

It’s hard to keep up with all this. I was told that Newton’s laws could be relied on until someone let slip that Einstein thought differently. And I’d only just got used to molecules and atoms when someone started talking about quarks (not to mention strangeness and charm); now we have to get our heads round bosons and fermions too. I say “get our heads round” in the most figurative sense possible – the realm of theoretical physics at this level is probably beyond most of us to really understand. Rather, ours is to acknowledge what scientists are portraying as the last missing piece of the jigsaw of the “standard model” of physics, the basic model that explains what the universe is actually composed of, all of its particles, forces and interactions.

For the keenies amongst you, the Higgs boson confirms the existence of the Higgs Field, which itself is what allows all the fundamental particles to have mass. Amazing, and to think that I thought that things had mass just because they did! But no, mass is dependent on this field, and without mass, there would be no gravity – or better put, gravity would have no effect. And without gravitational attraction, the whole of the content of the universe would be distinct particles flying around at near the speed of light unable to bond with anything else. No atoms, no molecules, no gas clouds, no stars, no supernovae, no planets and moons – no us. Not the kind of place that Genesis 1 talks about.

Without the Higgs boson there are no atoms, no stars, no planets, no us. Not the kind of place Genesis 1 talks about. Tweet this.

The Higgs particle is popularly known as the “God Particle”, a nickname drawn from the title of Leon Lederman’s 1993 book The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question?. Lederman explains why: the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our final understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive”. (His alternative explanation is that “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing”.)

Well, they have found the God Particle. Not God. Not anti-God. Just a label for another part of the intricate mechanism that allows you to be sitting reading this today in a universe designed for life, designed for us. The Higgs boson is a little newer to our minds, but fundamentally no stranger than electrons, neutrinos, the weak nuclear force, or any of the other particles and forces which the cosmos is composed of.

We live in an amazing universe. Just like the “Big Bang” (which incidentally was neither big, exploding from a singularity, the smallest point that can exist, nor a bang, as there was no matter or even space for sound to be transmitted through), the God Particle does not explain anything as such. Rather, it describes what is there. It gives us understanding on how the universe holds together but does not, cannot, and never will be able to tell us why; that is quite simply altogether beyond the realm of physics.

In that split second in which our universe exploded into existence, the fundamental values – mass and energy, including that of the Higgs Boson which reportedly weighs in at around 126.5 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) – of all the fundamental particles was fixed, and in such a way that would allow the subsequent formation of gas clouds, stars, planets, and ultimately life and ourselves. Change just one of these couple of dozen values by the tiniest percentage and the universe as we know it would not be possible. And we would not be here to notice. The Australian physicist Paul Davies puts it like this (see his 2007 New Scientist article “The Flexi-laws of Physics”):

For example, if protons were 0.1 per cent heavier than neutrons, rather than the other way about, all the protons coughed out of the big bang would soon have decayed into neutrons. Without protons and their crucial electric charge, atoms could not exist and chemistry would be impossible. Physicists and cosmologists know many such examples of uncanny bio-friendly “coincidences” and fortuitous fine-tuned properties in the laws of physics. Like Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, our universe seems “just right” for life.

This “fine-tuning” of the universe has led to skepticism amongst physicists about purely mechanistic views of the universe that exclude the question of the origin of this order or the apparent design it exhibits, the mark of an external intelligence. Alan Sandage, for example, winner of the Crawford prize in astronomy, finds it “quite improbable that such order came out of chaos. There has to be some organizing principle. God to me is a mystery but is the explanation for the miracle of existence, why there is something instead of nothing.” Still an agnostic, Sir Fred Hoyle famously stated that “a common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” There are many more like this, from scientists who have not embraced the Christian faith but whose understanding of the universe leaves a void that needs filling by something or someone beyond what science can observe.

The God Particle is also beyond the bounds of observation. But like watching a game of football where the ball is invisible to those not playing, a sort of 3-D video version of Spot-the-Ball, eventually enough observation will lead us to presume that there is more to the game than first meets the eye. Rather than deducing a list of apparently arbitrary rules that cause two sets of eleven men to run around a rectangular field, occasionally stopping in response to another man’s blows on a whistle, the very occasional movement in the net might provide evidence that there is actually something else involved. Something else that brings order into the apparent chaos, that cuts through the multitude of conflicting understandings of what is really going on. A ball.

Put the ball in place and the game suddenly makes sense. The attentive observer may be led to posit the existence of such a ball even before it is detected and design experiments to demonstrate the validity of that belief, an invisible ball that just must be there. (See chapter one of Lederman’s book for his version of the football match with alien observers from the distant planet of Twilo.)

So it was with the God Particle. No other explanation made sense. And fifty years later they have finally seen the bulge in the back of the net.

And so it is with God. God minus Particle – just God, or however you prefer to refer to the one who “monkeyed with the physics” in the first place. No other explanation makes sense. Stop trying to draw up a list of rules because you can’t see the ball. Posit his existence and keep your eyes on the back of the net. (And you don’t need a £9 billion piece of equipment for this!) You might be surprised by what you see.

P.S. If all this was too much for you, try this to relieve the tension:

A Higgs boson goes into a Catholic church and the priest says, “Higgs bosons aren’t allowed in here. You call yourself the God particle, and that’s blasphemy! “If you don’t allow Higgs particles in here,” the Higgs boson replies, “how do you have mass?”

Dawkins, Williams and Pascal’s Wager

24 Feb

Prof. Richard Dawkins & Archbishop Rowan Williams“Flight BA7102 with destination Sydney, Australia, is now ready for departure. We wish to advise all passengers that there is a 1.43% chance that this plane will experience fatal engine failure and crash en route. Please do not be alarmed, as this still gives the flight an acceptable 98.57% probability of arriving safely. We would thus invite our business class passengers, passengers with small children, and other passengers requiring assistance to commence boarding immediately via gate 27…”

Would you board that flight? And if you were the pilot, would you pull away from the jetway with 400 passengers on board? Judging by yesterday’s debate at Oxford University that, apparently, is what Prof. Richard Dawkins is asking us to do — not on an earthly journey but with regard to beliefs that relate to eternity and the existence of God.

Chaired by philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, the debate on “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin” was streamed live and managed to generate a flurry of activity on Twitter as proponents of each side tossed arguments backwards and forwards. It is not very often that the #dawkinsarchbishop hashtag will be seen, much less in the top trending topics. Overall it was a respectful and disciplined affair, albeit a little predictable in its content and general direction of argumentation.

For myself, one of the more interesting themes looked at human “self-reflexive consciousness”. The archbishop’s contention that we are unlike other creatures in that we are able to engage in intellectual reflection on ourselves and our role and purpose in the universe is a powerful one, pointing to the image of God in humanity. Even Prof. Dawkins seemed to be stuck for words — or ideas — at that moment, finally acknowledging that it was indeed “deeply mysterious”.

Whilst not as curious as Prof. Dawkins admitting to having found himself singing a hymn in the shower that morning, what has most caught the public eye is the confession from “the world’s most famous atheist” that he prefers to think of himself as an agnostic. Why? Because he cannot be certain that God does not exist. “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low,” he said. And just how low is low? I am not sure how he was able to arrive at a figure for this, but he did; apparently he is “6.9 out of 7” certain of his beliefs. In other words, or numbers, 98.57%.

98.57% certain that we are the product of pure chance, that there is no creator, and that we are thus not morally responsible to anyone outside of this world. 98.57% sure that we do not need to worry ourselves with such issues and should simply get on with the job of making the best that we can in this purely material world in which we live. And just a 1.43% chance that the answer to the question “Is there anyone out there?” is, in fact, affirmative.

Now, 98.57% are pretty good odds for most undertakings. With that chance of winning I think that even I might buy tickets for the UK National Lottery — an institution wonderfully described by Lancashire poet Les Barker as “not a prize I don’t win, but a tax I don’t have to pay”. But are these odds you would be prepared to bet your life on? And your eternal future?

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher, might have had something to say about that. When faced with the question of the existence or not of God, impenetrable to human reasoning alone, he proposed his famous wager or gambit:

“‘God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? […]

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées Nº 233, available at Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm).

Richard Dawkins with an "Atheist-Bus"Evidently, it is not quite as simple as that, as if we could generate faith “just in case”. But he has a point. To reject the notion of God even on a 98.57% probability is not the best way to face a potential eternity. Even if God “probably does not exist”, if I were you, Mr. Dawkins, I’d like a higher probability before betting my all and inducing others to do the same.

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