The beginning of the film ‘Contact’ provoked awe when I first watched it, on a trip to Boston in 1997. It is the ultimate in ‘pull-back shots’, beginning from the surface of the earth and just going back, and back, and back, and back. Out of the solar system, past the heliosphere, through the Milky Way, beyond the point where our galaxy is just a small dot in a haze of other galaxies. I had thought that I had a good sense for the scale of the universe, but when I lost my sense of depth about three-quarters of the way through the sequence, I realised that I had been deluding myself. The sense of scale that we need to try to comprehend when we consider our position in the universe is quite possibly unattainable to the human mind. Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, has some 400 billion stars. There may be 125 billion galaxies in the universe. There are probably more stars than there are grains of sand on earth. I find these numbers meaninglessly large.
As well as the difference in size of the universe that we are living in, there is a difference in the scale of time of comparable scale. Whereas when the church was getting established, it was considered that the world was created, in roughly the form it has now, some few thousand years ago – and it’s end would be a similar number of years in the future – we now consider that in fact the earth was created some 4.6 billion years ago, the universe perhaps some 15 billion years ago, and we do not have any conception of when it will end, if indeed that question has meaning.
Perhaps we need Monty Python to help us through:
In the light of the arguments that I make, contemplation of these facts provokes some questions – and perhaps a little smile. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
The Christian understanding of the world was born in an environment radically different to the one that we inhabit today. For in traditional language, Christians look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. This says something very important about our bodily future – that our existence as embodied beings now will somehow be recognised on that last day. Also in traditional terms, that last day will come after the apocalypse, when the last trump shall sound, the anti-christ shall be overthrown and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. The early Christians – such as Paul, who writes about this in his letter to the Thessalonians – believed that this last judgement would happen in their lifetimes. Of course, we are still waiting.
This hope or expectation of a last judgement is something which has been of great comfort to many believers over the years, and I would not wish to argue against it. What I would say, however, is that it is not something which I find moving – it is not something that reaches into my heart, it is not something that makes a difference to how I shape my life. It is no part of my dreams. My point is to do with the ‘background drama’ against which we might understand the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The early church placed that story in the setting of their culture, and we must do the same. Our culture has radically changed its conception of time and space, and our understanding of the significance of Jesus must change too.
It is rather as if we were watching a Punch and Judy show, and we were caught up in the drama, and that small stage bounded our world. And suddenly we were pulled back to see that this stage was placed in the centre circle at Wembley Stadium – the story just doesn’t have the same imaginative impact any more. And then we are pulled back to a satellite orbiting above London, and the question of what is going on in the Punch and Judy show on some grass in North West London has to do something really rather remarkable if it is going to attract our attention. And then we pull back… and pull back.
Our imaginations, in terms of time and space, are set to a different scale. And my imagination – my capacity to dream – is engaged more by an episode of Star Trek than by a consideration of the Book of Revelation. The psychological dramas of our society are no longer played out through cosmic apocalyptic imagery, but through projection onto the white screen of the future. Perhaps the apocalypse will come, the last trumpet will sound, and the four horsemen will come riding out. Or perhaps not. I am quite confident that it will not happen in my life time (although if, at the end of all things my Lord raises me up, I shall indeed be delighted) but in any case, I think that it is a mistake to live expecting the apocalypse at some point in our own lifetime. Jesus said that no one knows when it will happen – not even him – but that we should always be ready, for it can happen at any time.
I take that to mean that we should live in the present moment, that we should be transparent to eternity in our every moment. To simultaneously expect the apocalypse today – and never; for the arrival of the apocalypse not to make a difference to how we live; to not be conditioned by fear of it it.
It is sometimes said that we cannot be Christians any longer, for the story of Christianity is a story that is inevitably tied in with an understanding of the world that has been rejected – an understanding which is based in a very small world, this earth, in a cosmos which is unimaginably huge. This is called the geocentric objection, for it is based on the rejection of the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe. How can anything which happens in our world have cosmic significance? (I remember once reading about someone who had calculated what proportion of the known cosmos could conceivably have been affected by the resurrection, ie, if the ‘information’ of the resurrection travelled out in every direction from Easter morning at the speed of light, what proportion of the cosmos has now been reached? The answer is a remarkably small proportion.)
For me, this criticism begins in the wrong place. It first of all buys into a ‘supernatural’ conception of how God works, that is, that God intervenes in an already existing process, rather than the orthodox conception which is that God is eternally sustaining that process, so the idea of ‘intervention’ makes no sense. More significantly, it doesn’t take seriously the religious claim about Jesus’ humanity; in other words, as a criticism of Christianity, it only makes sense as a criticism of pseudo-Christianity, one which sees Jesus’ humanity as a mere appearance, so Jesus was not human in the way that we are human. This is an ancient heresy called docetism, from the Greek dokei, to seem – Jesus only seemed human.
For the Christian claim starts from an opposite place. Jesus was a human being, but a human being of a particular sort. Just as Adam and Eve were made in the image of God, so too are all human beings. Yet through sin, we have obscured this image in us. In Jesus there is no sin, so in Jesus we see a human being in whom the image of God is revealed without distortion – and thus, in Jesus, we can see the nature of God revealed. So Jesus shows us both what it means to be human – and what is the nature of God. This is what is meant by the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, that God is revealed in human form.
The reason why I believe this to be an answer to the geocentric objection is because it roots our understanding of God in our understanding of ourselves, or, put differently, it states that for as long as there are human beings, Jesus will show us the nature of God. The particular clothing in which the story of Jesus is dressed – such as the language of the ascension, Jesus rising bodily into heaven – is not essential to the story. The essential story is of a human being who was given over completely to love; to the love of God and to the love of neighbour; who as a result came into conflict with the governing authorities and was executed by them; but who was justified by God on the third day, thereby demonstrating his divinity and establishing the Church, to follow the path that he had forged.
To be a Christian is to take that story, that dream, and build a life around it. Doing this will remain possible for as long as we remain human, no matter how far we travel.
What might it look like, this building of human life around the dream of Jesus? An answer to that question can only be the merest sketch, for the reality of it will depend upon a million individual decisions, and certainly there can be no prescription for the Kingdom of God. Yet it seems clear to me that it represents a different utopia, of fraternity and friendship, of camaraderie and common purpose, a perpetual challenge to the values and virtues on which we have constructed our present existence.
Our journey is just beginning.