Describing the indescribable

First preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, 12.2.12 by Rev. Dr Jonathan Arnold

Garsington and Horspath Churches, 8th February 2015

On 30 June in 1860, Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, known as ‘soapy Sam’ because of Benjamin Disraeli’s description of his slippery or evasive words, spoke at a famous meeting of the British Association in Oxford about the nature of human ancestry. Legend has it that he attempted to pour scorn on Darwin’s Origin of Species, but that his scepticism about evolutionary theory was roundly defeated by a certain scientist, and inventor of the word ‘agnostic’ T. H. Huxley. In this memorable encounter Huxley’s simple scientific sincerity apparently humbled the clerical superiority and religious certainty of Soapy Sam; the idea that the Church could dictate to scientists the conclusions they were allowed to reach was decisively defeated. The relationship between science and religion, we are told, has never been the same.

There is no accurate account of the event, but according to some sources, Wilberforce turned to Huxley and asked: `Is it on your grandfather’s or grandmother’s side that you claim descent from the apes?’ whereupon Huxley retorted: ‘If the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence (meaning Wilberforce himself of course) and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion – I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.` In other versions it is more simply quoted as ‘I would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a bishop’

Either way, the statement was so shocking that, apparently, a certain Lady Brewster fainted on the spot and had to be carried out. If only such emotional sensitivity towards the public sensibilities of bishops were evident these days.

But how times have changed. On the internet, on ‘You Tube’, you can watch a staged re-run of the debate in the Oxford history museum, between Richard Dawkins, the famous scientist, atheist and campaigner against religion, and John Lennox, a mathematician and philosopher of science, but also a Christian. At one point, when they discuss the possibility that the universe has an intelligent design, John Lennox says this:

‘The fact that we have the language of DNA points … to the existence of a logos, a divine logos who started it, rather than the notion that it’s going to be exhaustively explained in purely naturalistic terms … I’m not just terribly tempted to believe it’s all been designed. I believe it’s all been designed.’

Dawkin’s reply reflects Huxley’s sentiments, 150 years before, in accusing the Christian of abandoning reason in favour of myth and magic: ‘when you feel like it’, he said ‘you smuggle in magic, you smuggle in magic for miracles, in the bible, and you smuggle in magic to explain the origins of life… ‘

Fundamentally, therefore, the accusation is the same in both debates: whenever Christians cannot explain the workings of nature and the universe, we fill in the gaps with a divine explanation: the God of the gaps. In this context I find Lennox’s use of the term logos is very intriguing, as he is tapping into a very strong theological tradition which finds its origins in this morning’s readings. The beginning of John’s gospel, where the meaning of the Greek ‘logos’ is the eternal and uncreated ‘Word’, ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ And in his letter to the Colossians, Paul expounds the idea that Christ is the ‘visible manifestation of an invisible God’, uncreated, eternal, existing before all creation, through it and in it, sustaining it by his presence.

The logos is a way of trying to describe the indescribable. But I am a little uneasy with using this theology as a rebuttal of scientific atheism. The notion of a logos does not work as a decisive argument against a purely naturalistic explanation of the origins of the universe and is easily dismissed in such a context, as Dawkins has demonstrated. However, far from being a meaningless concept, it is, in fact, about something much more important. It is about a deeper truth and reality, primarily concerned with intelligent design, or explanations, but to do with very personal questions of purpose and meaning and the spiritual life.

For St. John and St. Paul, the fact of creation is one thing, with all the questions it raises, but it cannot be separated from another fact. The fact of Jesus Christ, the historical figure who lived, taught, died, and rose again. Once Jesus’ life and death are taken seriously, St. Paul would say, then the question of how the universe came into being, and how it exists, are seen in proportion to a profound question of why life exists, and for John and Paul, their personal experience of Jesus Christ, his life, teaching and resurrection, not as an ancient myth or magic, but as a recent and fresh reality in their lives, gave them a strong conviction of the significance of Christ for their own lives and for the whole of humanity. Clearly their first hand experience of Christ, the logos, made such an impact upon them as to cause them to reconsider their preconceptions about literally everything.

If, as Christians, we are to get anywhere near that kind of passionate belief, without switching off our rational minds, we must also experience something of the reality of God, albeit two thousand years later. I want to suggest that we can do this, for there are more ways of knowing something than simply absorbing facts. One analogy might be that of music; the beautiful singing of the choir, a Bach Cello suite, a Beethoven string quartet, can be explained scientifically in terms of sound waves and frequencies interacting in an organized pattern, but the meaning of  music which is clearly a personal encounter that can move us to tears and transform our lives, goes well beyond such a set of facts. The philosopher Roger Scruton calls it ‘aboutness’. A Mozart Sonata is about something. We may not be able to articulate it, indeed we cannot and may not want to, otherwise why have the music? But it is about something that touches us deeply. It transcends the mathematics and physics of the sound and transports us to another reality, more about spirit than about sound.

One person who understood this clearly was the French Reformer of Geneva, John Calvin. For him knowledge of reality was not simply merely a matter of cognition in the narrow sense of the term, as though such knowledge were merely a matter of patterning the mind. Knowledge involved love, trust, fear, obedience, and worship. It embraced mind and heart, affections and will and work. It rested on God’s free grace towards us, and focussed on the duties of love toward God and toward one’s neighbours. Calvin argued that we come to fully understand this kind of reality when we gather together, just as we are gathered this morning, as the Church, the body of Christ on earth. For the Church provides the means of grace, through scripture, baptism, the Eucharist, preaching and teaching, without which faith is impossible. He called the church both mother and school, in which everyone here has a theological responsibility to keep each other encouraged in the faith, whether lay people or clergy, because together we create a social body through which the Holy Spirit forms a new creation. Calvin would have agreed with John Welsey’s idea that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Even a solitary Christian hermit takes a part as a member of the body of Christ on earth.

I’m not sure that anyone would have left the Dawkins/Lennox debate with any of their fundamental ideas challenged, on wither side. But there have been billions of lives utterly transformed to the depths of their souls by the presence of the indescribable gift of the eternal Christ. Faith in that living presence, may be a gift, but it is a gift which is there waiting for all of us and as we respond to it, especially as a gathered people, and particularly in the Eucharist, the logos draws near to us. So whatever has brought you to this place today, and from wherever you have come, it is here, in this celebration of the Eucharist, that we, as a community of believers, or perhaps those who want to believe, turn again to God, to accept and share his free, and very real, gift of love. Amen.