“Anybody who is not shocked by this subject has failed to understand it.”
Niels Bohr, speaking of Quantum Mechanics, 1990
I’m looking forward to an evening in late January hearing from one of the most eminent Cambridge scientists about dark matter, the mysterious substance which fills the universe and without which theoretical physics can make little sense. After several weeks being entertained by ‘His Dark Materials’ on BBC television, it’s a reminder that there is more to this existence than meets the eye.
At Christmas time, we are invited to lift our sights above the horizon of everyday life, and ask ‘what is the meaning of it all?’ So this week we leave the hurly-burly of politics and economics, and look for the bridge between logic and faith, remembering that whatever is beyond physical experience is still a part of God’s technology, and is surely therefore waiting to be unwrapped by scientific process and evidence.
Philip Pullman, the author of ‘His Dark Materials’ and the new ‘Book of Dust’, has an intriguing background - having grown up within the Church of England tradition, fully aware of the essence of the Christian faith. After reading the Dark Materials trilogy some years ago, I was left with a clear impression that he really did get that message: that the nature of our conscious creator is love, unconditional love. It’s just that he chose to exploit the doctrinal rigidity of the established church in the fairly shameless promotion of his well-written books!
The search for understanding dark matter and the logic behind quantum mechanics shows that there is definitely something there to be explored. That, together with the evidence of black holes at the centre of each galaxy (which appear to confound the laws of nature), leads science onwards in its exploration of the meta-physical, and what lies beyond.
Meanwhile humanity has grappled with spirituality for millennia, and the belief that there is an existence beyond death is as deep and widespread as ever. We are no longer in some Darwinian state of denial: there is a convergence gradually taking shape.
It even touches on our understanding of the working of the body: for example, if such an after-life is to have meaning, we must be able to recognise our identity - who we are/were. The only logical basis for this is that our memory is vested in our soul, and that the brain acts as a ‘modem’, passing information incessantly between our soul and our daily experiences and interactions. This may explain why, as the brain weakens in old age, long-term memory (which only has to come out) appears stronger than short-term memory (which has to go both in and out).
If our identity were not held in our soul, it would be like cloud computing bereft of its online connection.
So, if we accept that there is a spiritual, meta-physical existence which our souls inhabit, it’s not such a big stretch in understanding that the ‘dust’ or dark matter which ties it all together is indeed that unconditional love, the essence of our conscious creator. And St John tells us in his first epistle that the nature of God is indeed love, unconditional love.
Christians believe that the motivation for God to share in our earthly existence results directly from this nature, since unconditional love would surely wish to share in the experience of its own creation. This brings us back to the Christmas story, and the meaning of the word ‘Emmanuel’ - God with us. In the Christian gospels we can see that motivation:
- to enable humanity to experience the nature of unconditional love directly, to witness the existence of God;
- to teach us how to interact with one another, by learning how to share that unconditional love with others;
- to provide a bridge of unconditional love between the human and divine, being guided by our conscience but still being able to rely on Christian redemption when things go wrong.
The core of this teaching is in the second great commandment, to love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus not only provides a direct interpretation of who is our neighbour but also, in advocating support for those in distress, went on to say clearly ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. So - it is by carrying out the second great commandment that we do the first: to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind.
The Anglican understanding of the Christian faith is understood to rest on the ’three legged stool’ of tradition, scripture and reason – logic. At this time of year, the first two are evident in abundance: but, for me, it is logic which I feel most compelling.
Lest we think, however, that the established church struggles to bring out these deeper meanings, it’s worth bearing in mind that the church is not itself the faith: it’s the vehicle whose duty is to carry that faith from generation to generation. It is inspired by God, but operated by humans - sometimes it does the job well, and sometimes spectacularly badly.
I declare an interest as a member of the General Synod of the Church of England, but it is my view that the current state of the Church is becoming consistently more capable of doing the job well - and the news last week, that Stephen Cottrell will become the new Archbishop of York, is further confirmation of that capability.
So - in those few quiet moments over the next few days, and especially when the night sky clears to reveal the starry host around us, let your thoughts soar and your soul rejoice – may God bless you this Christmas!
Gavin Oldham OBE