Sunday, 30 May 2010

A day is a long time in Genesis?

Nelson McCausland, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland, has caused a bit of a political storm by criticising a new Ulster Museum exhibition on the origins of the universe. Here it provides only one storyline - 'Evolution Facts'. While the news story will follow predictable lines, his criticism is valid.

The late 20th century has witnessed a reluctant revolution in the scientific world which appears to have left the museum behind. The idea the the universe was infinite and absolute - that neither it nor time itself had a 'beginning' - was a stubborn tenet of scientific faith that has not been dispelled until this generation.

In 1915 Einstein introduced his General Theory of Relativity. He postulated that the universe exists in a space-time dimension that is neither linear nor absolute. Time and the universe had a simultaneous beginning. To talk of the time 'before' the beginning of the universe is like asking what is south of the south pole.

The discovery in the 1920s by Edwin Hubble (by measuring light from distant galaxies) that the universe was expanding in all directions led to the calculation that the entire matter of the universe must have been at a single point some 15 billion years ago - if the speed of expansion had been constant. Was this the 'beginning'?

In the 1940s, a group of scientists (unhappy at the prospect of having to accept a 'beginning') came up with the concept of a 'steady state' universe. This theory was abandoned by most scientists in the 1960s when a study of weak radio waves proved that the universe did not have a constant density in the past, and so a 'steady state' universe did not appear to exist.

Since the 1960s - largely through the work of Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and others as described in Hawking's best-seller A Brief History of Time - there is now almost universal acceptance in the scientific world of a 'singularity': a point of infinite density and spacetime curvature where time has a beginning. With this comes general scientific acceptance of the 'Big Bang' theory. Hawking is only concerned with events following the first microsecond of the 'Big Bang' - not with before or with its cause.
"The universe expanded by a factor of a million trillion trillion in a tiny fraction of a second. ... It produced a very large and uniform universe, just as we observe."
The speed of expansion of the universe as observed today is unlikely to be anything like the speed imagined a micro-second after the 'big bang'. A 'day' of those first 24 hours would have been a spectacular light show.

'Creationists' - by definition anybody that believes in a Creator God - have to contend with the assumption by atheists that they must believe in the 'Aunt Sally' of a literal 7-day (or more accurately, a 6-day) creation, where each day is 24 hours. The paradox is that many Christians are in denial about being 'Creationists' because of the implications that the label brings. So Nelson McCausland may not find much open academic support.

The debate about whether the six 'days' of creation as described in Genesis were intended to be interpreted as literal or figurative is for another 'day', but the greatest discrepancy of scientific versus literal-biblical estimates of duration (amounting to billions of years) mostly relate to the 'first day' when, according to Genesis 1. 1-6:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light 'day', and the darkness he called 'night'. And there was evening and there was morning - the first day.
A couple of things seem obvious to me. First, in the creationist debate about the meaning of 'day' (where a considerable body of Christians do accept this as figurative for 'age'), I find little recognition of the fact that these verses actually define 'day' as the presence of the 'light' just created. The creation of the sun, moon and stars to establish (govern) the seasons and day and night as we now experience them (depending on the relative positions of earth and sun) was not until the 'fourth day'.

The second thing that appears obvious to me is that the biblical account of the first day of creation and the current scientific theories of the singularity event at the beginning of time and the universe are in greater harmony of cause and effect than ever before. It is 'evolution' that has no place in the debate.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The seven ages of man

There are so many things I want to rant about I don't know where to start. So, as Julie Andrews says, lets start at the very beginning - a very good place to start.

When I first got on the train to glory - the redemption express - I must have been about six or seven. All I knew was the tickets were free and if you weren't on board you might as well kiss good-bye to life there and then. The message was pretty unsophisticated: 'Turn or Burn'.

Mark Twain once said that giving up smoking was easy - he had done it hundreds of times. By the time I was 30 I too had given up smoking, well, scores of times - and been 'born again' (or tried to be) almost as often. But that's another story, and although my 'church' identity has wobbled from 'what's a church?' to non-denominational Mission Hall to anti-church to Presbyterian to ... well, lets call it 'post-denominational'.

Much as I've chewed the cud on transubstantiation, predestination and all that jazz, two things have always bothered me: If there is no God, these things are only cultural, tribal, or whatever. They don't matter. If there is a God, these things are probably still only cultural, tribal, or whatever and they still don't matter as much as the big, big picture. The entire edifice of all churches and religion stands or falls on the truth or otherwise of the first four words of the Bible: "In the beginning, God ..."

Creation or evolution? Is one faith and the other science? Who or what caused the big bang on the first 'day' of creation? Well, having struggled though Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, I'm absolutely convinced that linear 'time' - be it 'days' in the literal or in the 'ages' sense - is a very human concept. A 24-hour day as we know it with earth and sun in their present relationships and velocities could not have 'evolved' until after the 3rd 'day' of creation! If, as the Bible says, God is eternal - without beginning and without end - the same yesterday, today and tomorrow - or as Jesus put it "Before Abraham was, I am", then the past the present and the future are all simultaneously 'present' with him. Now I think I understand that it is beyond me!

Evolution is fact as far as explaining the modification and adaptions of life forms within species. It is contentious theory when it comes to 'explaining' the common origin of different species, and it is improbable theory when it comes to 'explaining' the origin of life. To call the processes forming the universe itself 'evolution' is science fiction.

At the other end of the spectrum the beginning of my own life was contained in a microscopic event that already contained all the DNA information to predestine my variables of gender, sexuality, colour, size and inevitable baldness, as well as all the standard body parts! As far as I know I grew into an adult rather than evolved from a few cells. The programme was already there.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

drowning in churchianity

Calling all troubled souls who find their church, or any church, an impediment in their journey of faith.

I have always seen some 'high' church rituals and traditions as little short of idolatry. But that is OK when you are criticising others. What about things closer to home in your own church, your own 'favorite' things? Is it forbidden territory to have pride in my own denomination? Can I make an idol out of psalms, praise bands, the Bible, church leaders?

Is there anybody else out there who is unsettled by the way people in their own church seem to put 'church loyalty' before Jesus? I mean, although no-one would admit it, they get their buzz from the traditions, rituals and ethnic allegiances of their own church, and their lives are driven by church 'business' - even maybe the business of 'worship'. I'm not even sure if I want to go where this train - the 'denominational express' - is going.

But before anybody rushes to join the attack on denominations other than their own, we all do that. It is part of the problem. Of course we can see those bad traits in other churches, especially those most different from our own.

Now this is not an attack on 'Holy-Rollers' (but that may come later!); nor on priests or pastors (although that may come sooner!)

'Post-Denominationalism' is a term I heard somewhere (although my spell-check doesn't like it). That sounds like where I'm coming from. But where am I going? What will my next rant be? I'm spoiled for choice.