We humans construct models that allow us to interpret the world in which we live. Our perceptions of reality are shaped in part by these models, but every model has limits. We know in part, as Paul says, and we see the world through a “glass darkly.” As we pass through time, our knowledge and insight may increase, but there is also the possibility that the models we construct become more distorted over time.
When we talk about God, it is easy to slip into clichés or bits of ecclesiastical jargon that may be profoundly true but which now mask reality instead of illuminating it. If pastors are going to function as theologians, they will have to speak both the language of the church and the language of the world. They will have to understand their own historical and intellectual context in order to speak meaningfully about reality.
To a certain extent, theology is about three things in relationship: God, the world, and the self. Each of these is the topic of intense investigation and debate. There is no general consensus on the precise meaning of these terms, and efforts to give a single definition of each has failed to account for the complexity of the problems each term poses. But the fact that there is no simple answer to the question posed by the terms God, world, and self does not absolve us of the responsibility for coming to some understanding of these terms. As pastors, teachers, counselors or whatever vocation you will pursue with your M.Div. you will be expected to say something meaningful about God, the world, and the self. I suspect that you will find the task exceedingly difficult, and I hope that will lead you to humility rather than hopelessness.
One thing I think we can safely assert is that God, self, and world are interrelated terms. Our views of God are shaped in part by our view of the world and visa versa. We cannot truly understand human beings without understanding them as part of a world. Despite philosophical assertions that humans are autonomous, the truth is that our identities and our very lives are dependent on others and on the world. We are human in relationship to other humans and to nature. I believe that our existence and the world in which we exist are also dependent on God. Our identities are shaped in part in relationship to God. The attempt to understand humans without reference to religion has proven to be flawed. Our conceptions of the divine do affect our perceptions of reality.
Our knowledge of the world increases exponentially each year, but at the same time it is impossible for any individual to have a comprehensive knowledge of the world. The more there is to know, the less complete our knowledge. No one is able to put all of the knowledge we have of the world into a single system. That is part of our dilemma. Having said that, let’s discuss what we think we know about the universe in which we live and move and have our being.
I think that most theologians still work with a small universe, even though they claim to be working in a modern context. For two thousand years Christians have proclaimed their belief in the creator of “heavens and the earth”, but the heavens are much bigger than the ancients imagined. In fact, the universe is far greater than we can really imagine. Douglas Adams offers an important insight: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly big it is.” People get all bent out of shape that we have trouble describing the nature of an infinite God who is the ground of all being, but seem content with our ignorance about the apparently infinite universe in which we live. If world means universe, it is a vast and nearly infinite universe.
Scientists work with cosmological models that allow them to investigate the universe. We use space probes, the Hubble telescope, radio waves, and a variety of technologically sophisticated tools and intellectually sophisticated theories to explore and explain the universe, and it just keeps getting weirder. All of our scientific investigation of the universe, though, is predicated on certain assumptions that cannot be proven. One of the most important is that matter and energy obey certain fundamental laws that we can describe mathematically. In other words, science is based on an assumption that the universe is a cosmos rather than a chaos, and that seemingly random phenomena can be explained through natural laws. We observe on earth that the speed of light is constant and so we construct cosmologies based on the speed of light.
Though many scientists deny it, this conviction that nature works according to universal laws was originally grounded in a theological conviction that the creator orders the cosmos according to rational principles. The notion that the universe was created by a benevolent and rational deity was fundamental to the development of modern science, which is the major reason that experimental science progressed most rapidly in monotheistic cultures. The early confidence that investigation of creation would prove the existence and benevolence of the creator was naïve, but the fact remains that the scientific investigation of the world began with a conviction that the world is constructed according to rational principles that humans can understand.
It appears to be true that the universe is at least 20 billion years old and is expanding over time. Not all Christians today believe this. You can visit a museum in Kentucky that argues that this is not true, but that is the equivalent of believing the world is flat or that the sun orbits the earth. Incidentally, the notion that the universe is only about 6000 years old does not come directly from the Bible, but is a calculation made from the genealogies in Genesis. No where does the Bible say that you must believe the universe is only 6000 years old. You may choose to believe that the universe is only 6000 years old, but you will have a hard time making sense of the modern universe we inhabit. Thankfully, the doctrine of creation never depended on a particular cosmology.
It appears that the universe is 20 billion years old, using the solar year as a way of measuring time. When we look into the heavens and “see” things that emit light that are 20 billion light years away, we are actually looking back 20 billion years into the past. So when we think about what “is” we need to remember that we are actually seeing much that “was” and may no longer be. When we see a star go nova and explode, we are seeing something that happened thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years before humans built the first villages. Those ancient humans looked up at the stars and were awed by their beauty and their predictability. Today we explore the stars in our minds and see that the heavens are in condition of perpetual change. We see a vast, violent cosmic dance in which the death of stars leads to new creation.
It appears that the universe has a beginning, which is commonly called the Big Bang. Somehow all of the energy and matter of the universe was united before it exploded. Since the beginning, everything that exists has been in motion from the tiniest atom to the greatest galaxy. Nothing is stable. All is in a state of change, just as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago without realizing the vastness of the universe. The atoms that make up our planet and all that exists originated in the Big Bang, which means that we are indeed made of stardust. The idea that we are dust and to the dust we will return is true on the cosmic scale.
The world we inhabit is part of a vast network of stars in our galaxy, but we are dependent on the sun. Our planet is moving around the sun, and the motion of our planet is affected by the motion of other planets. Until recently we thought that our planet was the only one with water on it, but now we know that Io, one of the moons of Jupiter, has vast seas flowing under a thick layer of ice.
It appears that there is water on the moon, and we just sent a large chunk of metal to slam into the moon to try to determine whether there is enough water there for us to exploit if we built a moon station. There is much about the moon we do not know, but one thing we do know is that we have already begun to pollute the moon and violate its being the way we violate our own world. In our attempt to understand the moon we have already begun to alter the moon and have left behind scars. Space is mind bogglingly big, but we already have so much junk orbiting the earth that it is causing a problem for scientists. And there are plans to infest other worlds with human habitation. We grow in knowledge of the cosmos without growing in wisdom.
It is ironic that as our knowledge of the stars grows, our personal experience of the stars diminishes. If you live in the northern hemisphere, light pollution is so severe you see fewer than half of the stars that those who live in non-industrial nations see. One of the changes in human consciousness in the 21st century is that we rarely lift our sights to the starry host above us and experience the universe beyond our world. I remember lying on a hillside as a boy staring up into the light bedecked blackness of space and suddenly feeling my perspective change so that it seemed I was looking down into the abyss. I grabbed hold of the grass to keep from falling into the void, but then equilibrium returned. Still, for a moment I felt the reality of how small I am in the cosmos.
A couple of summers ago my family went out West, away from the lights of the cities and the habitations of humans. My daughter found it disturbing to stand under the dome of the sky because she felt so insignificant. It took a while to find comfort in that. One night was pulled off on the side of the road to look at the stars, and I was blessed with the sight of a meteor plummeting through the sky with its brief, glorious trail of fire as it was consumed in the atmosphere. The death of the meteor is part of creation, too.
In our modern context of theology, we cannot assume that people look in awe at the heavens above or ponder the wonders of nature around them, but we can assume that people will pay little attention to a theology of the world that does not take the world seriously or reflect scientific fact. That does not mean that we need to let scientists be the arbiters of all truth. Science cannot give meaning to the universe nor tell us the nature of God, but it can tell us much about the world.