Transcript of the Bishop of Southwark’s speech 


The joy of being asked to respond to our two speakers is that like you, I have had a very interesting evening listening to what they had to say. The difficulty of course is that one could not predict what they were going to say and so I hope that my response will be in some way coherent.

I should start by saying that I won’t be using a power point presentation. I remember my old physics master used to say: “I am the visual aids in this laboratory” and it’s a bit like that in my response this evening. Mind you he also used to say “ Butler, some people would blame your genes for your behaviour, some people would blame your parents, but I blame you” so my journey into physics came from this rather rigorous character.

I was a University chaplain for about twelve years and I learnt, having sat at the feet of many eminent people without being able to understand a great deal of what they said from various subjects and disciplines, that a very useful response in any situation is to say ‘Well I don’t think it’s as simple as that’. And then that would encourage the speaker to explain again in greater detail. I think the difficulty this evening for our subject is that it is inherently not as simple as anything which any of us could describe because we are trying to handle the ultimate when we are talking about cosmology and when we are talking about God. It may be the first time that God explicitly has been mentioned and I am rather pleased to say that because I have been doing Thought for the Day on radio four for about twenty years and I have survived many culls; and at the last cull, the Bishop of Lambeth said to me ‘ well you know the reason why you have survived don’t you’. And I said ‘no’. He said ‘it is because you never mention God.’ Well to be able to mention God tonight is something I would want to do.

I think that what we are actually wrestling with is something quite traditional. Namely, we are trying to get our mind around the transcendence of God and the immanence of God, or if you like the involvement of God. And that has been something that theologians and scientists throughout history have tried to wrestle with. How can a God that is all powerful, a God who is behind all this in one way or another; the ultimate God that is behind the laws of nature that seeks the universe, that holds the universe in his power; how can that transcendent God on the one hand be known to us at all on the other hand and to be involved in it all?

And Newton wrestled with this. He in effect saw God as all powerful, the author of the laws of Nature in a sense who set this wonderful machine going and in Newton’s universe there were kind of two places for God. One was he kind of tinkered a little bit where the laws didn’t quite work through (because even the great genius Newton had not been able to get his mind round exactly how the universe works mathematically) and therefore he needed in a sense to tinker a little bit to make sure that it ran all right. But he spent just as much time in mysticism, I think we might say, and in some rather weird religious writing; and that increasingly was where his path was because he was trying to handle both the transcendence of God and the involvement of God. Now I think in some ways we have probably got a touch of this come up tonight with both our speakers. It’s rather, perhaps easier in our time than before. We’re at a cusp in history, in human understanding and one sees it in a little bit through people like Richard Dawkins who in a sense is very much at the end of the old science way of looking at religion and the things of God. In a word, there is no place for God at all – science has displaced God. But we are also beginning to understand that the universe is really a very strange place and it’s not just that we don’t know enough about it; it is inherently strange. One scientist has said ‘The universe is stranger than we conceive or we can conceive’ Again we can describe the way the universe works at its smallest levels of quantum mechanics. We can describe it exactly and predict it mathematically but we have to use six or seven different dimensions and we can’t get our mind around what that looks like. I mean it is impossible to get ones mind around what it looks like. One can’t say that it’s a bit like that or it’s a bit like that; one can only understand or describe it mathematically[1]. It is a mighty, mighty strange universe. And as we have heard from Chris Clarke tonight, people talk of the cosmic froth. It’s not as Newton thought that God could kind of tinker a little bit here and there, just to make sure that this machine would continue to work as it should; it’s inherent that there is this cosmic uncertainty at the smallest levels, and if you are wanting a place for a God of the gaps, there are innumerable places for a God of the gaps because this cosmic froth is very unpredictable and there is plenty of room for God in all of that. Now I actually don’t go with the God of the gaps theory. I think we are dealing with a different sort of God but if we want it, we certainly have not got our understanding of the universe in any way wrapped up. And that then begins, I think, in terms of language, and Miriam was talking about language, in a strange kind of way, when I am reading as I have tried to do at times, you know, articles in the New Scientist or whatever, and on the other hand when I dip into some religious poetry and mysticism and the rest, the language of cosmic physicists is a lot closer to the language of the theological mystics than it is to anything else. It is very strange how in a sense these two basic languages resonate with one another. And there are all sorts of ways in which I kind of feed off some of the new sciences: what we have been hearing from Chris. Again he spoke about ‘dark matter’ and the universe is full of dark matter and we don’t know what it is, but there’s an awful lot of it. So in a sense we talk about God being Light and that the reality of God is light shining through darkness. But we also talk traditionally of the dark night of the soul. I used to have a very early word processor, one of those Amstrad PCWs, and it had on it a chess programme and I made my move, I typed it in, and then the computer thought for a bit and then it made its move. And then I made my move, backwards and forwards and when the computer was thinking, the screen was dark. And at the lowest level, it only took the computer a second to think and it came up with its move. But as I increased in skill, it automatically put the level of difficulty up until one was at the stage where the screen was blank for perhaps thirty seconds whilst the computer was thinking out its move. Now if anyone had come in at that stage and looked me and my machine with a blank screen, they would have thought something had gone wrong, because all was darkness. But in fact there was nothing wrong, there was something very right. That dark screen was an indication that I was gaining in understanding and skill. And there’s something about our wrestling with the new cosmology at this dangerous time in history: there’s something about our trying to understand what we can’t understand (and its almost inherently we can’t understand it) there’s something about us trying to delve into this darkness which is very close to the traditional Christian journey of the spiritual life, and I find that is quite exciting. Again, tonight we are on the eve of All Saints and all these pictures have come from the wonderful Hubble telescope which as we know is out there on a satellite outside the earth’s atmosphere; and it’s out there because not only is it powerful, but there is no distortion due to the earth’s atmosphere whereas any telescope on earth is distorted. Except, there is a new-ish telescope that is made up not of one great mirror, but is made up of myriad mirrors, each one of which can move and can be controlled by very sophisticated electronic machinery, and with those tiny mirrors moving, they can compensate for the distortion of the atmosphere. But it takes an awful lot of them to make that one big mirror. And for me that’s a kind of parable for All Saints day. We are not talking about the great stars in a sense, you know the great mirrors of saints, we are talking about the innumerable little people like you and I; but together if we are sensitive to the feel of God, together, we can form a body of immense flexibility and of great power. So, I think, just as it may be that science has a little to learn from theology, certainly we have got all kinds of ways in which we can feed on science.

I will finish my little response. I have not heard before the saying “It takes a village to make a child, it takes a planet to make a village, it takes a cosmos to make a planet”. And that’s lovely. But it reminded me of that poem of Philip Larkin which says something like that the delicate beautiful butterfly only lasts one day but it takes the whole of a summer for a butterfly to be there at all and it is awesome that it takes all of that, all of that and all of those thirteen point seven billion years for us to be here at all trying to get our brains around what is going on in our world and what is going on with our God: and I don’t think we should ask one without the other.[2]

Well I figure that it is sticking time from my keeping you occupied, and now we will get the authoritative response from Jules.[3]

[1] 6:25

[2] 13:15

[3] 13:32