I’m afraid that for me theology really is a branch of poetry. When at Christmas we sing “He came down to Earth from Heaven” we know the preposition is objectively meaningless, that the whole expression reflects a long gone cosmology which saw the sky as a vault or “firmament” with God sitting above it. But I can sing it as a human and traditional way of asserting that the indefinable Ground of Being is close to us, in us, sustaining us. That is by no means a scientific proposition, and I have now lost the attention of just about everyone from more literal-minded Christians on the one hand to atheists on the other, who probably wonder why we bother. By “we” I mean those who share in the kind of theology I am alluding to, but which I do not pretend to expertise in. Explore it (and other theologies) on my links page, if you care to, bearing in mind those are just starting points.
A number of things bring all this forward here again. First, Christmas is coming. Second, I happened to catch Australia Talks on Dark Energy – fascinating, and well worth downloading while you can. You have about two weeks.
It’s called dark energy and it makes up about 73 per cent of the universe but the scientific community isn’t really sure what it is: is it matter, is it a vacuum, is it a constant?
The mystery emerged back in 1998, when astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe was accelerating; according to theories of gravity and general relativity, it should actually be slowing down. So what’s happening? Enter the idea of dark energy. Could it be a previously unknown fifth force and what does its existence mean for ideas about the big bang and, what’s more, the theory of everything? If you’re a science buff, a star gazer or just interested in new ideas, this is your chance to join the discussion with three of our leading astronomers. We’ll look at Einstein’s theories, glance back to the work of Edwin Hubble, and look forward to what the unravelling of the dark energy mystery might mean.
It was revealed that what we can actually detect with our senses of the universe is just part of 4%, in fact 90% of that 4% is invisible… That we now exist in such a state of uncertainty is, as one of the guests on the program said, humbling.
Theology and religion need to be humbled too, but the stumbling block, I’m afraid, is the outdated – now so far past its use by date as to be toxic, indeed lethal – view that God has actually spoken or written infallible things which we can now read and follow. This particular teaching is unfortunately at the centre of all the Abrahamic religions, though the way it is manifested or understood varies.
I can believe God “speaks” – but I see that as a metaphor at best. I do not believe God has uttered contracts or documents untouched by human hands. Yet in those various scriptures, and not only on those of the Abrahamic faiths, one may be said to hear the spirit of God, just as long before Abraham was even born, if indeed he was an historic personage, my Aboriginal ancestors heard that spirit by other means, long before the putative era of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, which, it is interesting (as John Dominic Crossan does in God & Empire) to note, is very near the time agriculture and settled town life emerged in the Ancient Middle East. At that time, it could be argued, their world was created.
It is a big issue, this one of sacred scriptures. Even moderate Muslims, for example, are locked in the main into such a belief: “It is a tenet of the Islamic faith that the Qur’an is considered to be the literal, authentic, and unadulterated word of God. It is a tenet of the Islamic faith that the Qur’an is completely authentic; it has not been redacted, altered, revised or corrupted in any way.” – Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Great Threat: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (Harper San Francisco 2005). That book does go on to say that there are other traditions as well within Islam that need to be considered, and that the way in which the Qur’an’s teaching has been understood or mediated has been rich and various, and this is true. He also sets out to show that there is no necessary contradiction between adhering to Muslim belief, including the tenet under discussion at the moment, and living in a pluralistic or democratic society such as his own USA. Needless to say he does not accept the arguments of the terrorists.
Nonetheless, there is a problem, isn’t there, even if it is not necessarily a problem of being able to get on with one another whatever our beliefs. All that takes, naive as it seems, is the will on both sides to do so. However, see also What Is the Koran? from The Atlantic Monthly January 1999 for, I think, a fair assessment of what the shape of the problem might be.
In mainstream Christianity and in Judaism there are a range of views about their Scriptures, but the recognition they are human documents, albeit “inspired” in some way however that may be defined, has been gaining ground for the last 200 years. Some see this as a degeneration, of course. Unfortunately, the Jewish and Christian scriptures just are fallible human documents, and to pretend otherwise is (I believe) both pointless and dishonest. Also once they are seen for what they are and seen increasingly in their real contexts, the more interesting and relevant they often become. Or so I find.
And yes, there are big issues here about just who Jesus in fact was/is, and what he is for us today. Not to mention that we no longer believe that either Jerusalem, Rome, or the Mediterranean is the centre of the world, but rather that God’s “speech” has been rather more scattered and diverse than we suspected. But that’s enough theology for now.
My point of course is that theology is a very uncertain art, and should be seen by all to be such, whatever the religious tradition it inhabits. (And no, in case you are wondering, Popes are not infallible; even Popes only claim that some of the time, but I don’t believe it is so at all… That is not to say that they are never worth listening to.)
Back to the Science.
I was struck by the fact that the scientific view of the universe has made such a leap since just 1998! It is hard on us oldies, eh! Now take something as muddled and unscientific as education. Theory there, some would say, oscillates rather than progresses! I know my 1998 essay on literacy is as up to date now as it was then, especially with some web links to places where other more recent discussions might be found.
Ah me, I am a back number, you know. Let’s face it…