‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out of the womb?’[i] In this beautifully lyrical passage from the Book of Job, God invites Job to look and see the wonders of God’s creation. For if you look, you will surely see, in the words of today’s psalm that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.’[ii]
Or does it? When I was about fifteen, I came across Bertrand Russell’s slim volume, Why I am not a Christian, and I declared to my friends, and teachers, partly to shock, that I no longer believed in God. Well, as you can see, as the years went by, I changed my views and became theist, and eventually Christian. But I have never lost my respect for the scientific method, nor, actually, sensed any fundamental clash between the different purposes of science and religion. As far back as the Renaissance there was a clear demarcation between what was called ‘natural philosophy’ (approximately what we would call ‘science’) which concentrated on empirical evidence from nature, and theology’s concentration on questions of purpose and meaning. They were not seen as contradictory. So, for example, Sir Isaac Newton wrote as much about the Book of Revelation as about the theory of gravity!
In my own experience, especially the experience of coming to faith, science and religion are different languages, employing different modes of perception. I taught for five years in a high school in England. We weren’t far from Cambridge, and one day we invited Professor Stephen Hawkins to come and speak to our students. You may have seen the recent movie about him, ‘The Theory of Everything’, and may have bought his famous book, ‘A Brief History of Time’ – but may not have actually read it! As you know, he suffers from motor neuron disease and speaks with the help of a machine. After his lecture a group of us had lunch with him and his wife Jane. The conversation turned to questions of God and religion. His wife was a Christian, but he would not be drawn on whether he believed in God or not. But one phrase he used has stayed with me. He is a committed scientist, but he said that in life ‘there are other sources of inspiration’. I found that so helpful because it rang true to my own experience. I would say that my own experience of God came from ‘another source of inspiration’, which I would call the mystical. Albert Einstein wrote this: ‘The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is of the mystical: it is the source of all true science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.’
‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork’.
It is not the work of the natural scientist to speculate as to whether God is the author of the heavens and the earth. But there are ‘other sources of inspiration’, and when we stand with Einstein, rapt in awe, gazing into the heaves, we may indeed experience with Job and the psalmist something of the glory of God.
One of my favorite poets is my fellow Welshman, R. S. Thomas. He wrote an extraordinary poem called ‘Francis Bacon’. Bacon was a thirteenth century philosopher who started to study nature, using the empirical method. In a way he was one of the earliest advocates of the modern scientific method. The poem describes Bacon dreaming of seeing God among the strange, exotic experiments, with flasks of chemicals, and test tubes. And then these words:
‘He dreamed on in curves and equations
With the smell of salt petre in his nostrils, and
Saw the hole in God’s side that is the wound
Of knowledge, and thrust his hand in it and believed.’
‘The wound of knowledge.’ I love that phrase. The cross stands at the heart of this chapel, and we are Christians because we believe that in a profound and mysterious way, the crucified Jesus- his very wounds- reveal to us the love of God. The wounds of Jesus can lead us to know God in a way that no amount of reasoning or experimenting can. This is ‘another source of inspiration.’
R. S. Thomas, who was an Anglican priest, was also very interested in science. It was an important source of inspiration for him. But so was poetry. And what he said about poetry is I think helpful in understanding faith and worship. He said, ‘Poetry is that which arrives at the intellect by way of the heart.’ I think we could say the same thing about prayer and worship. Much of what we know about God ‘arrives at the intellect by way of the heart’. Or as Pascal put it, ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’
Falling in love with God is not always something we can explain well rationally or measure empirically. We may need to turn to poetry or religious metaphor and imagery. And these sources of inspiration are hugely important. They are important because, you may not be able to describe rationally why you fell in love with the person you are married to, nor show empirically why it was right to choose to marry them. Yet, you trust these other sources of inspiration, this other kind of knowledge, enough to have based probably the biggest decision of your life on it, by deciding to marry that person! ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’
I believe God is always drawing us to fall more deeply in love with God, planting seeds of longing and desire deep within our souls, beyond the range of scientific examination.
I wonder what brought you to God?
What were the sources of inspiration?
If you were asked why you believe in God, what would you say?
Would you speak theology? Or poetry? From your heart or your head?
What have you seen, or heard, or touched?
What do you know to be true?
Bertrand Russell, whose book had that formative effect on my adolescence, remained an atheist to the end, but towards the end of his life he wrote these poignant words: ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain; a curious, wild pain – a searching for something beyond what the world contains. Something transfigured and infinite – the beautiful vision, God. I do not find it, but the love of it is my life.’
May God the infinite, the great lover, God whose glory the heavens declare, may the great God never stop seeking you, till you are found, and brought home to God forever.
[i] Job 38:4-11.
[ii] Psalm 19:1.
Please support the Brothers work.