Black Holes and Revelations
Continuing my theme about the variety of a bishop’s life, it is worth recounting two of my engagements this week: On Sunday, I was in the parish of Washingborough (http://home.clara.net/heureka/lincolnshire/washingborough.htm) blessing a bell. Nothing significant about this, you might be thinking, except that the bell was seven hundred years old; came from the redundant church of Manton (which I was, sadly, involved in closing when I was an archdeacon) and was an ‘angelus’ bell. The Angelus is normally rung at midday and consists of three sets of three strikes and one final set of nine. As the chime is being rung, there are set prayers around the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. (cf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/angelus). The bell was refurbished and remounted in its new home by the generosity of a family who had lost their son in an accident at at very young age. So, in common with other bells, this one now has a name: Stephen, after the lad who died. There is a common misconception that the Angelus is a Roman Catholic practise, so it is good to remind people that our own Cathedral in Lincoln rings the Angelus each day at 12 noon.
Later in the week, I attended my regular meeting at York Minster where I am on the Fabric Advisory Committee: the body that helps care for the structure of the building. Here we discussed the repair and conservation of ancient altar cloths and linens; the restoration of the great east window (costing millions and unparallelled in Europe: the work will go on for ten years); the provision of a fitting memorial plaque for a benefactor and the routine maintenance and replacement of the ancient ashlars and carvings. Whilst there was much else in my week which was entirely contemporary (speaking at the Deepings School 50th anniversary being the most notable) it was a week when I was reminded of the great value of the past, and how what we have inherited from our forebears still informs our present lives and helps us to live meaningfully today.
In the middle of my ‘medieval’ week, then, what a surprise to be confronted with something so trail-blazingly new that we can hardly get our minds around what is happening yet. Yes, in Cern in Switzerland, 5 billion pounds worth of equipment in a circle of tunnels below ground is about to try and re-create the Big Bang-a moment just after the creation of the world. There is, we are re-assured, no chance of us all disappearing down a Black Hole. All sorts of things are hoped to ensue: the discovery of a new dimension; symmetrical particles and proof of the existence of the Higgs Bosun or ‘God Particle’. Now this is where your average Christian may start to get worried: is there anything here that is going to threaten the validity and reasonableness of our Faith? Well, a theology that cannot relate to and encompass new understandings of the world and universe around us is no theology at all and deserves to be laid to rest. We must remember, with deep embarrassment, a Church history of opposing science and deeming it ungodly: an attitude of mind that served us very poorly in the Renaissance and at the time of Darwin. Let’s instead look forward with excitement and wonder at the new revelations of science as it continues to peel back the onion layers of our understanding of the world the universe and everything: God’s world; God’s universe and God’s everything.
With this in mind, I was a little disturbed in my re-reading of the great theologian Paul Tillich this week (http://www.theology.ie/theologians/tillich.htm) when he wrote, in ‘The Shaking of the Foundations’: ‘the greatest triumph of science was the power it gave to man to annihilate himself and his world’. Somewhat backward thinking you may say. However, we must remember he was writing in the backdraft of the Second World War and in the vanguard of the burgeoning of nuclear weapons. His point was that, just like theologians and those of Faith must be careful not to mis-use their knowledge to manipulate and harm human beings ( and there is plenty of evidence of that (cf Jim Jones and the People’s Temple movement in Guyana: http://www.religioustolerance.org/dc_jones.htm), neither should the scientist. Just like any body of people whose work can potentially bring harm to us, the scientist also must recognise parameters and restrictions: scientific advance is not good per se just because it is science.
Anyhow, it is good that as we enjoy the benefits that the ancient world has left us we know there is still lots of exciting stuff to come!