Sunday, February 19, 2006

Mysterious Goings on in the Pulpit

Today's sermon - a little harsh if I'm honest, but I hope stimulating.

Sermon preached at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Swanscombe on Sunday 19th February 2006 based on St John i:1-14.

Hercule Poirot stands in the drawing room
examining carefully
the various characters sitting before him

- Miss Josephine Johanssen
who stood to gain a fortune
by Dr Freeth’s death,

- Colonel Smedley,
Dr Freeth’s bitter rival,

- Dame Maude Packington-Smythe
who always blamed Dr Freeth
for the accidental death of her

- the Honourable Theobald Carrington
who had his eye on Dr. Freeth’s
fortune to pay off his gambling debts,

- and the Reverend Thomas Grant,
who despised the nature of
Dr. Freeth’s biological research.

So who did it?
Who murdered Dr. Freeth?
Who was it who snuck into his room
in the dead of night
on the 23rd with a kitchen knife?

Hercule coughs slightly,
flicking a minute speck of dust from his lapel,
curling his moustache
and prepares to enlighten us all.

"Mes amis," he says
scanning the group coldly,
looking each one in the eye.

Miss Johanssen looks nervous,
the Reverend Grant is sweating profusely,
Dame Maude takes another swig of sherry,
all agog waiting for Hercule’s famous

"Mes amis," he repeats,
"I am utterly stumped"
and scuttles out in embarrassment.


Not much of a murder mystery is it?

All the ingredients are there:
the victim,
the murder weapon,
the time and the place,
and a motley crew of suspects,
all with good motives
and probably a highly
complicated system of alibis.

So what’s wrong with this mystery?

Well, you can see it a mile off,
can’t you?
There’s no solution to this problem.
With Hercule Poirot gone,
there’s no chance
that we’ll ever find out
who killed Dr. Freeth
unless we send for Miss Marple,
or Sherlock Holmes.

But why do we need to know the answer?


Aside from the fact that
we can’t let a killer get away
we love a mystery
because for the very simple reason
God made us complete
with an enormous curiosity.

We tune in to the next whodunit on telly
because we like to think that
we can guess who the murderer is
before Inspector Morse does.

After all, the clues are all there,
aren’t they?

But mystery isn’t just about whodunits.

There are a thousand
unsolved mysteries out there ranging from

"is there intelligent life out there in space?"
"where on earth did I put my car keys?"

Whilst many of us don’t lose much sleep
about the inhabitants of distant planets,
a mystery closer to home can be difficult,
like the loss of the car keys.

An unsolved mystery makes us uncomfortable,
doesn’t it?

When we are kept in the dark about something,
we struggle to understand it for ourselves.

We long for that final clue
that will switch on a light
and show us the whole picture.

Do you have a mystery
that’s driving you bonkers
at the moment?


Some mysteries are much darker than others.

Sophie is 27,
has a lovely husband,
a new baby boy,
and leukaemia from which
she will probably die.

The first thing she thought
when the doctor told her about this was

It isn’t so much fear,
panic or grief that affects her the most,
it’s the struggle to understand
what she could have possibly done
to prevent this,
or whether there is anything
that could be done
to save her.

Is there something out there
in the world that can stop
the cancer in its tracks?

Is there a discovery that
scientists could make
that will help Sophie to turn the corner?

It’s the mystery that hurts Sophie the most,
the darkness of not knowing.

Sophie feels utterly overwhelmed by this darkness.


One thing that we can be certain of in this life
is that there will always be things
we cannot understand.

There will always be questions that
neither the Government,
the Scientists,
nor the Church will be able to answer.

This can be so disheartening
for anyone who,
like Sophie,
are trapped in an agony
of not knowing.

There is however a light in the darkness.

The Church may not have all the answers,
but it does have a pretty good way
of helping people through
the agony of not knowing.

The Church points to a light,
so strong, so powerful
that the darkness
cannot overwhelm it,
cannot understand it,
cannot grasp it.

This is the Light of Christ.


But it’s not only the darkness
that cannot understand this light,
neither can we.

Yet we,
the Church,
are called to bear witness to this light,
to point it out to those
who aren’t aware of it,
like Sophie.

How can we honestly bear witness
to something we cannot understand,
to a Mystery which has no solution?

The Church should be used to this.
We have a mystery occurring each week.

Just how can Christ
be present here with us and now
at Mass?

In days past,
we used to voice, all as one body,
what little we understood of God
weekly in the form of
the Apostles’,
and Athanasian Creeds.

We don’t do this as regularly now
since the Church of England
revised its liturgy
and gave us Affirmations of Faith,
which seem to take out the bits
we don’t understand.

The Creeds as they are written
are terribly complicated,
and impossible to understand fully.

But so is life and so is God,
and that's the point.

If we make no attempt
to embrace the Light that we believe in,
even though we don’t understand it,
how can we hope to bring that Light
to people like Sophie who have none,
just the darkness
of not understanding.

Is the simple phrase
"Jesus loves you"
going to be enough for Sophie to hear
if it isn’t accompanied by
some appreciation of
the not-knowing
she is going through?

Does a simple
"I believe and trust in Jesus,"
go any way to bring light into the life
of someone in pain
if the person who says
"I believe and trust in Jesus,"
hasn’t taken pains to find out just
how s/he believes and trusts
in Jesus
or what it means
to believe and trust
in Jesus?


As human beings,
we are not called to understand,
we are called
to begin to understand.

The Creeds help us on that path.
They point to the light
that shines in the darkness,
but unless we realise
how little we understand
in the first place
and ask questions of God,
of each other,
and of ourselves,
these Creeds will be meaningless,
and so will our faith.

How is the mystery of God
expressed in your life?

Do you allow it to shine
as a light in the world to the glory of God?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Science and Religion II: Towards Mathematical Spirituality

One thing people do not appreciate about Science is that it relies on statements of faith. However, scientists don't actually call these "statements of faith" but refer to them as assumptions or axioms, and these form the bedrock of any theory, and likewise any religion.

The terms "statement of faith" and "assumption" are effectively equivalent since both refer to a statement that cannot be supported by proof from within the system in which one is working. Religious people call this process (and I have defined it below in part one) Revelation.

At the centre of scientific communication is mathematics, a subject which I love deeply for its beauty, subtlety and, above all for the Presence of God Who moves unseen behind each theorem.

Mathematics has its limitations. Here are a couple of rather important theorems:

Goedel's First Incompleteness Theorem. Any adequate axiomatizable theory is incomplete. In particular the sentence "This sentence is not provable" is true but not provable in the theory.

Goedel's Second Incompleteness Theorem. In any consistent axiomatizable theory (axiomatizable means the axioms can be computably generated) which can encode sequences of numbers (and thus the syntactic notions of "formula", "sentence", "proof") the consistency of the system in not provable in the system.

(Statements from Dale Myers' site on Kurt Goedel

What these essentially say is that no finite collection of axioms can actually make a theory complete within itself, there are always statements which are true but cannot be proved from within the theory one is working.

Now Science has difficulty with these because the very language that it uses to communicate its ideas and generate its conclusions cannot adequately describe the Universe as it really is. Science is limited, rather like a 2D plane in a 3D universe, infinite in extent but unable to make deductions perpendicular to the plane of its existence.

That's not to say that Religion fares any better. Why? Because the difference between Science and Religion is practically non-existent. Both rely on sets of axioms, both require reasonable deductions. However, the major advantage that Religion has over Science is the fact that it can cope with its own limitations, indeed it is aware that it has limitations, and freely speculates on a truth that cannot register on any instrumentation.

For me, the best expression of Religion is Christianity, that the Ultimate Truth lies in the peculiar person of Jesus Christ who possesses two natures, one human and the other Divine. I find His Presence with me not only real, but also entirely reasonable. God does not hate Reason, indeed He uses it to devestating effect through His Incarnation and through St Paul.

Of course, St Paul also says something about the limitations of Reason - "Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up." Love is not Reasonable unless one steps outside the box and sees things from God's point of view. In the tiny, tiny bits of Revelation that I have been given (and these tiny fragments are far too wonderful for me) the Love of God is Reasonable, but using the Reason of God.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Science and Religion: a few thoughts

As far as I can work out, reality is either observable or unobservable. Science uses Reason and applies it to what can be observed; Religion holds to the existence of unobservables, but uses Reason and Revelation to draw conclusions about the world around us. Revelation is the process by which that which is unobservable is communicated to the observable, and thence Reason can be applied to make the appropriate inferences.

The issue of Creation is a contentious issue amongst Christians, and certainly amongst Sola Scriptura Christians and Darwinians. According to both Darwinianism and Creationism, the Universe came into being at a finite time in the past.

Darwinianism goes hand in hand with the Scientific theory that the Universe came into being via a Big Bang several thousand million years ago and subsequently evolved into the complex system of stars and planets with the complex varieties of life that exist.

Creationism (or, more properly, Intelligent Design) states that the Universe is a matter of a few thousand years old and was manufactured by God in six days according to the opening chapters of the First Book of Moses (i.e. Genesis).

So which is right?

I wonder whether the answer lies by answering the question: is the act of Creation observable or unobservable?

Manifestly, the moment Universe began is unobservable, since this would necessarily involve the creation of the instruments of observation. Thus the observable comes into being from some unobservable event. The act of bringing into being the universe is a a vast act of Revelation, but then - as a Christian - I would say that. Scientifically we can only infer back in time from what we know now, but from Revelation we have some understanding whence we came.

That's not to say that events unfolded in the verbatim literal way that Genesis implies. Personally, the Revelation of Creation is bigger than can be written down: it's a story, but a story that illustrates that which cannot be put into words, because words themselves have a tendency to be observed with a finite meaning rather than marked with a Revelatory colour. I suppose that's why sermons are so important in Church, for then the words spoken are given a fuller meaning than when written down.

I firmly believe that God made this Universe. I can't be sure why or how. I am happy with the Big Bang as a description because I think that it fits best the facts which I, in my short career in academia, have personally observed. However, I don't believe for one minute it's the whole story.