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At sea, aware of the unfathomable immensity of the universe, I was awestruck by the beauty and wonder of the firmament. It has a greater immediacy in the middle of the ocean than in a city or a suburb. I marvel at this mysterious creation. What’s it about? Where do we fit in?
How all this came about is hotly debated between creationists and evolutionists. Creationists believe that the universe was created by God and evolutionists believe that the universe evolved from the Big Bang and is still expanding. Creationists base their belief on the bible and religious faith and evolutionists base their understanding on scientific knowledge. It isn’t, of course, as simple as that. There are churches and religious people today who, because of the incontrovertibility of science, hold that the scientific theory of the origin of the universe, the Big Bang, does not preclude the belief that it was created by God; that this was God’s way of doing it.
Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge astrophysicist recounts that: At an astronomy conference in the Vatican the Pope told the delegates it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not enquire into the beginning itself because that was the moment of creation and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realise I had presented a paper at the conference on how the universe began. I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition like Galileo.
For the Pope the ultimate authority in these matters is theology, while the ultimate authority for Hawking is science. Throughout history the Church claimed to be the final arbiter in all such matters, but since the 17th century it has slowly had to accommodate to science on many issues. It wasn’t, however, until 1992 that the Church finally absolved Galileo, who had been condemned by the Inquisition in the 16th century for his belief that the earth went round the sun rather than, that which the Church taught, based on the bible, that the sun went round the earth.
Amongst Christians today there are those who hold every conceivable view in the theology/science debate. At one end of the spectrum fundamentalist Christians, and they exist in most Christian traditions, believe that the issue of the origin of the universe is a simple matter. The bible, in the book of Genesis, gives an account of creation by God and since they believe that the bible is infallible, and is to be taken literally, that’s how the whole thing started and that’s the end of the matter. Over forty per cent of Americans believe this. At the other end of the spectrum of believers there are theologians who claim that on this and on many other topics they can marry theology and science and remain true to both.
Many people don’t take an interest in these matters. They simply want to get on with their lives, doing whatever it is that they are doing. Only a small number of people are reflective when it comes to theological issues. People who are interested and do want to think about creation and religion often find themselves swayed one way or another by reading or listening to people they consider well-informed or authoritative on the topics. The pattern often is that they listen to one side of the argument and find it has merit and then listen to the opposite side of the argument and find it has merit. Constantly listening to others, especially those who clearly have more knowledge on the topics than oneself can make it very difficult to come to a conclusion.
Over the years I read a great deal about theological controversies and finally decided that I would make up my own mind rather than look any further for answers from the opinions of others, no matter how authoritative and well-informed they appeared to be. The position I finally came to was that the scientific analysis was credible and that theological analyses, of whatever hue, were not. This led me further than simply deciding on the matter of creation. It led me to the conclusion that there was no God, no revelation, no divinity of Jesus, no miraculous intervention in the world, no life after death and no second coming. For someone who spent the best part of forty years involved in Christian ministry you may think that this must have been traumatic for me. On the contrary it gave me great freedom and peace. It was a long slow process, but when I finally decided that I could no longer believe it came to me as a great relief.
We are all in danger of submitting ourselves to the institutions to which we belong. We are in danger of subverting something of our potential to grow and develop as people to the objectives of the institution. Membership of institutions is often not conducive to our own emotional development; rather institutions require loyalty to their doctrine, philosophy or objectives at the expense of the personal freedom that allows us to grow as people. This is true not only of the institutional Church, but it is true of political parties, trade unions and of all institutions. It is in the nature of an institution that its own wellbeing and survival come before the wellbeing, and often at the expense, of its individual members. We make all the important decisions of our lives with our emotions, and emotions are at the bottom of the list of priorities of institutions if they are there at all.
For some people membership of the Church is the security of belonging to the group. For some it fills the need to have other people to do their thinking for them. For some it provides identity. The liturgy of the Church can be a great comfort in a precarious and fast changing world in which there is a much evil. The Church is based on theological doctrines that were formulated in a pre-scientific world when it was a not uncommon for notable human beings to be thought to be divine, and where the existence of angels, demons and miraculous events were taken for granted. These doctrines and teachings don’t stand up after the best part of two millennia of the evolution of the thinking and experience of humankind.
After I had finally made up my own mind I still thought from time to time about some churchmen and theologians of stature who obviously still believed. They had finer minds than mine and many of them knew much more theology than I did. It didn’t give me serious doubts about my own conclusions, but I wondered. I wondered how they could believe so many things that I found incredible. I reminded myself that I had believed some of these things for most of my life. I adjusted that thought, however, to: I had accepted some of these things for most of my life. I had accepted them on trust from 2,000 years of the teaching and tradition of the Church and in the ministry I had done my work with people which I enjoyed. When I finally realised that nobody could give me answers I made up my own mind. I can imagine somebody saying: ‘Who are you to disagree with the wisdom of ages, the great minds of the Church over two millennia?’
Over the years since I have been reassured to come across quotations from some significant philosophical and literary figures who advocated such independence of thought.
Immanuel Kant in his essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ says:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Have courage to use your own understanding.
William Hazlitt in his essay ‘On the Ignorance of the Learned’ says:
You might as well ask the paralytic to leap from his chair, and throw away his crutch, or, without a miracle, to “take up his bed and walk,” as expect the learned reader to throw down his book and think for himself.
Walt Whitman in his poem ‘Song of Myself’ says:
You shall no longer take thingsat second or third
hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead,
nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take
things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
The librettist W.S.Gilbert makes the same point in a more humorous way. In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta ‘HMS Pinafore’ Sir Joseph Porter sings:
I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
All these quotations are saying the same thing: make up your own mind. Hazlitt and Whitman say explicitly: stop looking for it in books; it is in yourself that you look. Inform yourself and filter things from yourself. However, Gilbert is making the point that not thinking for yourself will help you to get on in the world. This is classically true in the Church.
I don’t feel the need for others, humble or exalted, to believe what I do. I am perfectly comfortable that where I am is right for me and I don’t feel the need to convince anyone else to agree with me. I believe, however, that what I now hold makes some other people uncomfortable. One friend has told another friend that I should not publish my views; I should keep them to myself. Another good friend, a priest, was careful to tell me that Anthony Flew, the philosopher, a long time atheist now believes in God again. The implication that I took from what he said was: ‘if a man as eminent in philosophy as Flew has changed his mind maybe you will too.’ Maybe I will or maybe I won’t. I discovered however that Flew while affirming his belief in God says he does not believe in special revelation. It looks to me that he holds a position akin to the 18th century Deists. He says explicitly:’ I still hope and believe there’s no possibility of an afterlife.’ Yet another friend, a clergyman, told me that Alister McGrath, a former science professor turned theologian had answered the arguments of Richard Dawkins, the atheist geneticist. In these instances I should have said: ‘Don’t mind Flew, don’t mind Mc Grath, what do you think?’ I didn’t, but I will the next time! It is human for us to want other people to agree with us, especially people considered authorities, but it is unwise to abdicate to them, no matter how learned or authoritative, decisions on matters that are within our own competence to decide. People who swallowed Marx and Freud hook, line and sinker nowadays have reason to believe that they should have been a little more discerning themselves!
Part 2 to follow