“Remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as sacred in the eye of Almighty God as is your own. Remember that He who has united you together as human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love, that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation, that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its wide scope.”
William Gladstone, 1879
2018 saw the passing of Stephen Hawking, who will surely go down in history as not just one of the world’s greatest cosmic thinkers but also one of the most courageous humans: always looking for the best, in spite of his huge physical handicap.
It is also good to see Philip Pullman receiving a knighthood in the New Year Honours, who has brought to literature the same enquiring mind as Stephen Hawking did for science.
Both were challenged by, and unable to see, the logic of faith in God. Perhaps they should have read more of St John’s writing in his first letter who, at the end of his long life, concluded that the nature of God is love.
So, as the old year closes and the new year opens before us, we will take time out from the daily push and shove of politics, economics and business and focus on matters of cosmic importance.
The process of scientific enquiry frequently starts with a hypothesis from which is developed a theory, which in turn is proved - by gathering evidence. It is a reliable process which has led us to understand much of the material world.
It can equally be applied to spiritual matters, and it starts with that assertion by St John that God is love. He states this simple sentence twice in his first epistle, as if to set out the hypothesis which forms the basis for his Christian faith.
William Gladstone got it, and in the quote above is his realisation that this love, which floods the universe, is not selective: it falls on everything and everyone.
Stephen Hawking clearly thought deeply about faith before ultimately rejecting it, but he may never have tried starting with the hypothesis that God is love. I did send him a link to ‘Love in Creation’, but I imagine he must have received huge volumes of correspondence and it may well have never reached him.
In his final book ‘Brief Answers to the Big Questions’ he does briefly touch on the relationship between the fundamental laws of nature and God in this sentence:
“If you like, you can say that the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.”
If he’d heard ‘Love in Creation’ he would have at least heard the argument that the laws of nature are not the origin in themselves, but a manifestation of divine unconditional love.
Meanwhile Philip Pullman almost reaches the understanding of how unconditional love floods the universe by the end of his trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’, but he struggles to see how the Church, riddled with so much imperfection, can be associated with that realisation.
And yet the teaching is so clear in the Christian gospel. At the heart of this faith is, to put it in religious terms, God’s incarnation in humanity: the Christmas story. What this means is that the same unconditional love which powered creation itself became humanised in Jesus Christ, and therefore able to show us clearly not only the existence of God, but also how life goes better if we follow that path: not least, in helping us to live in in peace and love with each other. Such an embodiment of love, by direct experience, is indeed entirely logical.
As we wrote following Bishop Curry’s excellent sermon at the royal wedding in May, water is a better analogy for love than fire. This because it is most effective when it flows through us as we receive it and onto others, this unconditional love which is God. It is what the Greeks call agape, and is marked by selflessness rather than self-interest.
So the qualities it nurtures include listening to others, respecting and empowering others, even giving way gracefully: in summary, a real generosity of spirit. And these others are not just family and friends but all those who are in need. The story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan shows how we are challenged to let that unconditional love flow to and for those who may be strangers and aliens: that’s why the community action undertaken by Christians, some 23 million hours per month in the United Kingdom, can be described as the living witness for the Christian faith.
And because, as Gladstone said, this love is universal, it explains why so many secular charities are inspired to do like likewise, caring for others in huge abundance.
The dynamic character of unconditional love can also help us in everyday life, by providing us with a set of values much more effective than top-heavy regulation. In a sense business is also at the cutting edge of morality, which fosters a combination of fairness with enterprise and helps to keep arrogance and excess of power in check.
But it also helps confront the frontier between right and wrong, and we know that, if we use our conscience effectively, it will also keep hypocrisy and self-justification in check.
And perhaps this is where we should return to Stephen Hawking who wrote of creation as a separation of positive and negative energy, that for every element of matter there is a counter-balancing antimatter.
It is this separation between construction and de-construction where the love which is God is to be found: as the old hymn says “Thou whose almighty word, chaos and darkness heard”. The universe is in process of continual creation as it evolves, and that’s why there continues to be suffering of the innocents, as in the Indonesian tsunami over Christmas.
Those who see creation as a once-off exercise are missing the point: no perfectly good creator would hand over a finished work full of such flaws. That’s why we need to see love at work in the whole process of evolution. Only the laws of nature, the tools which make it all possible, stay constant - and are ruled by constants.
This is why Bishop Curry was so right to use his few minutes in the world’s media spotlight to talk about the power of love. Archbishop Justin was therefore wholly correct in pinpointing his achievement, in his tweet shortly after Christmas:
“Looking back at highlights from this year Bishop Michael Curry preaching the revolutionary love of Jesus Christ to about one sixth of the world’s population is hard to beat.”
So evidence is indeed gradually building to prove the hypothesis, that there is indeed a conscious creator whose nature is Love.
Best wishes for a very happy new year, and keep listening to Share Radio in 2019!
Gavin Oldham OBE