Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 9 October
9 October 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
In the beginning, perhaps about 13 billion years ago, the world sprang forth. It began (probably) from what is called the big bang. In the tiniest fraction of a second space boiled out in rapid expansion. Gravity began to balance the outward movement in a more stable order. Within that fine-tuned balance lumps of matter, galaxies, stars began to form, and when they died their dying dust became (probably) the stuff of life on earth. That life then evolved, wonderfully, as jellyfish and worms left the seas, dinosaurs appeared and disappeared. Eventually homo sapiens got to his and her feet and walked the planet. Mind, consciousness, spirit, even prayer dawned in a new way. In humanity the universe had become aware of itself - and of its Maker.
Human civilisations then began to develop, swelling as if in another slow-motion big bang, the seven billion people who now walk this planet a fruit of the myriad varied cultures of our world history: Kalahari bushmen with their natural mysticism; ancient Greek and Roman cultures of towering intellect; Arabic philosophy; Chinese and Buddhist dynasties; the great Semitic religions; Christendom, Islam, Hindu culture; the western history of enlightenment and scientific discovery. And so as all this knowledge developed, we have become even more aware just how vast is our setting, both in human history and in the immensity of the universe. At the same time we have become more aware of our likely end. We know this fine-tuned balance is not likely to hold for ever: the Universe will probably implode or disintegrate. From star dust we were made - to dust we shall return.
So I wonder - as I look up at the night sky in the country or at the multitudes of people crowding past me on a London pavement - I wonder both at the vastness of things and at their transience. And that makes me wonder about our own individual significance. Can God really care what or who we are, or even what our human societies are, when each of us is such a tiny transient player on such a huge stage? Such thoughts can easily prompt a kind of dizziness, a metaphysical vertigo. ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread’, wrote Pascal, perhaps of the vast spaces of the universe or of his own mind. Perhaps both. This, then, is the challenge to faith I am addressing this morning: the second in a series of sermons at Matins about the difficulties of belief. Last week it was the fear that our religious beliefs are all just made-up, human inventions. Today, it is this sense of our insignificance in the vastness of space and time. How can we believe in a God personally interested in us - in the light of all this?
As with all such challenges, we need to face it honestly. But does it really have to undermine faith? We may wonder at the immensity of time and space and our own smallness - but is our relative size really the measure of our significance? Surely not. We do not think so in other things. A piece of music is not normally considered more valuable or more significant just for being longer. It is the same with the human person. A person is not better or more valuable because she has lived longer, or because he is taller. Neither music nor people are measured in that way. Our value lies in some other quality altogether. The loveliness of music or the unique value of a person subsists in something quite other than the amount of time or space we occupy in this universe. So this fact that each of us is but a speck of passing dust in such a huge and crowded universe is perhaps not quite so disturbing. In fact the vastness of the universe might even be a tribute to human significance not an affront. If it took the labour of 13 billion years, the birth and death of countless stars, to fashion us, perhaps that tells us how much we are worth in God’s sight, not how little…
This doesn’t mean that the universe is only a process to produce us, just a stage for us to strut on. The Lord of the Universe delights in it for its own sake as well, as Job had to be reminded: ‘where was he when God laid the foundation of the earth?’ He and we were nowhere. But the stars were there, already, ‘singing together for joy’ in praise to their Maker. Cultures and civilisations, too: these are not just settings for individuals to flourish; they too matter in themselves. That is why God formed a people for Himself, not just individuals: the people of Israel and the new Israel of the Church. In other words, just as the immensity of things does not diminish the worth of the individual, so the unique worth of the individual does not diminish the rest of creation and society. The glory is in both. Yet that does still include the individual.
However - what about that other challenge to our significance? Not just that we’re so small, but that we’re also so flawed, fragile, and transient - as indeed this whole universe is flawed and transient. Can God really be thought responsible and concerned for this sort of universe? I’ll try to say more about the problems of evil and death in the next weeks. For now perhaps we can at least note this. The flaws and transience of things, though all too real, are always the reverse side of something else. Everything always has another potential. Every cruel path that human history takes has also produced courage, compassion, ideals of justice, and great loves. Every apparently blind a-moral path of natural history has also produced natural beauties, the loveliness of stars and sunlight on sea, spring flowers, snows on mountain tops. So although the universe may be a flawed, cumbersome, transient instrument, inextricably bound up in its nature is also this capacity to play such fine music as well. And where does that come from, except the passion of a concerned God at work within it? And what if, once played here, all this fine music can also be kept in eternity, ‘kept in heaven’ in that evocative biblical phrase, God’s deep concern for everything here and now sealed eternally…?
For a faith rooted in Christ, this is not just pious hope. Christ himself is the supreme example of one small point in this vast history, subject to fragility and death, yet raised to eternal significance – a pointer to the destiny of us all.. From dust we were made, to dust we will all return, but by grace this dust is also the very stuff of eternity. We are indeed all extraordinarily significant in God’s sight…