This is a sermon preached to commemorate the death of Stephen Hawking and based on a reading from the first chapter of Genesis.
As I said in introducing the video we’ve just watched, the death of Stephen Hawking was announced yesterday. He was one of the iconic figures of the late 20th and early 21st century. This was partly because he had an extraordinarily brilliant mind, partly because of his passion to communicate his ideas with the general public and partly because he achieved so much despite the extent of his physical limitations.
In the popular imagination Hawking is linked to the quest for a scientific understanding of the origins of our universe. This probably comes more from his popular writing and his collaborative work than from his most creative individual work which was into our understanding of black holes. There have been remarkable advances in this area over his lifetime of which he was a part. We are now at a situation where the origins of the universe can be explained in terms of the same physical laws that we see operating in both the natural world and the highly artificial extreme environments created within facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. The theory is, of course, now known as the Big Bang. It tells us that about 14 billion years ago the universe, both time and space, came into existence in an unbelievably immense burst of energy and has been expanding ever since.
Many Christians see this as a threat. Putting it bluntly, it allows the origins of the universe to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in the process at all. But it doesn’t have to be a threat, it can also be regarded as a revelation of how the universe is that needs to be worked into our theology, rather than fought against.
In some ways it is similar to the theory of evolution. This allows the origins of human life to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in that process either. Initially theologians saw that as a threat and fought doggedly against it. Some of course still do, but most mainstream theologians now accepted that man is the product of an evolutionary process and have woven that revelation into their theological thinking.
This process hasn’t been without casualties. Belief in Christianity in the affluent world has been falling dramatically over the last 100 years. There are many reasons for this, but I’m convinced that an important one is that the Church is still regarded as opposed to science. This is partly because there is a section of the contemporary church that is, essentially, opposed to that science, and partly because the section that is more willing to embrace science has not communicated that willingness convincingly. This is quite simply unacceptable to the majority of the educated population who see how successful science has been in explaining the natural world and allowing us to interact with it more constructively (and of course destructively on occasions). If we want a faith that is going to flourish in the affluent educated world in the 21st century then it is going to have to be one that embraces the revelations of science rather than fighting against them.
So how can we embrace the theory of the Big Bang and yet remain true to our faith? How can we both honour the reading we’ve heard from the first chapter of Genesis the morning and accept the insights of modern cosmology? Well the Big Bang theory is less than 50 years old and has only really been accepted universally within science for the last 25 (The name was originally coined as derisory term for such an outrageous theory). Mainstream theology is like a super tanker that takes centuries to alter its course, so it is far too early for there to have been definitive response. This is like other issues I’ve talked about from this pulpit; one in which individual Christians need to arrive at their own understanding and where we have to acknowledge that different Christians have different opinions. Unlike those other occasions, however, I’m going to offer my own personal opinion this morning in the hope that it may help in others in that process. In offering my opinion, however, I openly acknowledge that other Christians may have different opinions.
To me, this progress in cosmology over the last fifty years confirms the opinions that many Biblical scholars have voiced for over two hundred years, that the account of the creation in Genesis was never intended as a scientific understanding of particular events. It is not a literal account of what happened. The Biblical account of creation was written in what we refer to in other contexts as the Iron Age. The authors can’t possibly have had a sufficient understanding of cosmology to write a scientific account of what happened at the beginning of time.
So what do I believe that first chapter of Genesis is? I believe it is one of the most powerful and significant poems that have ever been written. I believe it is powerful and significant not because it gives insight into how the world came into being but because it gives insight into how the world is today. At first, sight, and particularly if we view the universe through a purely objective scientific lens, our lives appear formless and desolate. It’s as if there is a raging ocean that is engulfed in darkness. For many of us this is an academic exercise but for some, the anxious and depressed, or those facing major challenges in their lives perhaps, this is a vision that tears at the very substance of who they are. At its extreme it is the scream in Edward Munch’s famous picture.
It is only when we acknowledge a sense of purpose in the Universe that it starts to take form and make sense. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we start to distinguish between night and day, sun and moon, light and dark. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we stand in awe before the wonders of natural world, the profusion of plants and the diversity of animals. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we can value the gifts that each and every individual on this planet can offer to enrich our lives.
To me this poem doesn’t say anything about how that sense of purpose came into being (and I’m happy to leave that as one of the great mysteries of human existence) but it does scream from the rooftops that there is no point living, no point in us ever having been created, if we don’t acknowledge that sense of purpose. Jews and Christians all attribute that that sense of purpose to God and understand that we express that acknowledgement through worship. The first chapter of the first book of our shared scripture is, to me, a great hymn to God, that which gives our life purpose, and an invitation to all people to join in worshipping that God. It is a poetic statement of what it is that makes our lives worth living.
I thus find the cosmology of Steven Hawking and others liberating. By providing me with an alternative, and to my mind much more plausible, explanation of how the Universe was created, I am freed to appreciate this poem for what it really is, for what it tells us about what it is that makes my life worth living. Having read it in this way I am led to welcome the God into the heart of my life and to bow down before my God in worship.
This is my opinion though, and it is one opinion amongst many. Why don’t you discuss your opinions over a cup of tea of coffee after this service.