Tuesday, December 15, 2009

During this season of dark nights, sharp viewing conditions and twinkling Christmas lights, my mind’s eye turns to the stars of deep space. It is appropriate then that during my perusal of the December editions of St Mary’s Baptist church magazine I should find the following article written by St Mary’s minister Rev Gilbert Laws, D.D. The date is December 1939, about 3 months after the declaration of war with Germany. I think the article should speak for itself so here it is in its entirety:
Click to enlarge

My Comments

Given the darkness of those days in more sense than one, perhaps Laws’ mind turned to the heavens in an attempt get a perspective on the affairs of men. Or perhaps whilst pondering the evil of his times he wondered if God was really mindful of man. Laws remarks on the paradox that the modern Christian theist faces given man’s ever increasing understanding of his context; the familiar paradox arising out of a generalized form of Copernicanism: The vastness of the universe revealed by science cuts across any notion that man is the physical center to that universe. There is, as Laws points out, absolutely nothing special about the cosmic situation of man. This sets up a paradox for Biblical theists like Laws because, says Laws “ ...the Bible speaks as if man were the centre of the universe, as if things existed for his sake, and derived their meaning from his existence”. But for Laws what offsets these huge distances and restores the specialness of man is that “there is something in man that over-balances mere magnitude, however vast” and that something according to Laws is the self conscious sentience of man: “Man is able to look up and say ‘I’ which no sun or star or other material created material thing could ever say. Moreover, man in looking up is able to say ‘Thou’ to God…”.

The physical universe as Gilbert Laws conceived it: vast and impersonal.

Leaving aside the deep philosophical questions over whether man’s consciousness really does restore asymmetry to the universe by justifying the assignment of a pre-Copernican specialness to man, what I would like to draw attention to here is that nowhere does Laws attack the science of his day. He assumes the universe is old: “He [Man] dwells on one speck of a world and even so is a late-comer on it, for as the testimony of the rocks declares, it was a world of life for uncounted centuries before man appeared at all”. He also assumes the Earth is a natural product of the solar system: “Our Earth is but a child of the Sun, a speck at one time flung out of that molten mass into space..” Laws raises no anti-evolution sentiments when he has the opportunity to: “….now cooled enough for the appearance of life upon it, and so fitted through uncounted years, for man’s abode.” There may be life on other planets suggests Laws: “Other children also our sun has, though whether they have life upon them we do not know. Moreover our sun is but one of millions of suns… immeasurably greater many of them than the sun round which our little world revolves.”

It seems then that there is no implicit assumption on Laws part that science is fundamentally anti-Christian; he takes the findings of science on board at least tentatively. In the milieu of his day there appears to be no need to even so much as defend science’s findings and status, let alone attack science as an anti-Christ conspiracy. As a respected leader of a civic church Laws belonged to no marginalized sect alienated from the rest of society and thus had no reason to question science; if anything the Baptists he represented were very much part of the establishment. What concerns Laws’ most is not the validity of science’s findings, but just what light they throw on the human predicament should those findings prove to be true. And yet reading the church magazines of Laws’ day there is nothing to suggest that these Baptists where anything other than Biblically orthodox.

Laws attitude, of course, is in sharp contrast to many of today’s Christian ministers who have taken on board the anti-science fideism of fundamentalism. They have attempted to reestablish a physical pre-Copernicanism by shrinking cosmic dimensions in time and they even toy with geocentric models of the universe. My guess is that this stance is bound up with a church that is increasingly becoming marginalized. In fact in some quarters this church is morphing into a sect alienated from civic and academic life, a fertile ground for conspiracy theory. Consequently there is more reason for that church to set up alternative and even rival communities that sharply contrast themselves over against the rest of society, despising the science of that society. In Laws’ day the term “community church” would have been difficult to understand, for as I have said many church goers, even nonconformists, were part of the establishment and pillars of society. They were no separatist Mennonite-like pacifist community alienated from the bulk of society; they had moved into the social main stream and in 1939 St Mary’s Baptist church was mobilising its members to fight in the biggest war of all time, a war that took 50 million plus lives.

Fundamentalist geocentric cosmologies are a kind of cute cosy sentimental Kincadain Kitsch. But something has gone badly wrong in this picture – the cold scientific conspiracy looms in the background.

Laws knew a great deal more about science than the Biblical writer of Psalm 8 (or some of today’s willfully ignorant and shallow fundamentalists) who provided the text for his probing article of Christmas 1939. But Laws took comfort in the fact the Copernican paradox wasn’t just a discovery of the scientific age. For although the Biblical writers were part of an arcadian culture very different from our own industrial culture, they were nothing if frank about their doubts; with candor they brought these doubts out into the open. They too could say “Thou” to God and although they only had at their disposal naked eye astronomy and crude theoretical models when they looked up at the dark sky they nevertheless sensed the same intuitive diffidence engendered by the Copernican paradox*. But along with Gilbert Laws they also took it as an opportunity to glory in God’s grace: “For a single rose a field of thorns was spared”

Note 18/12/09

* When David wrote Psalm 8 he presumably had a geocentric vision of cosmology; it is therefore all the more interesting that the stars of the sky should provoke such a strong feeling of amazement at God's mindfulness of man. Today, with our modern cosmic vision, we perhaps impute far more meaning to David's words than he ever could. It is likely that these words were based more on intuition than they were a full appreciation of man's actual physical insignificance. In fact it is possible that the connection David was making was less to do with man's physical insignificance than it was to do with some deeply felt inspiration of God's majesty and immensity.

In this context it is interesting to note the reaction of some Young Earth Creationists to generalised Copernicanism. One YEC web site I have read entertains a cosmology where "The Earth is near the centre of the Universe". They go on to question the "Copernican Principle": "This principle, it is important to note, is not a conclusion of science, but an assumption thought to be valid. ". YEC theory is moving to a point where it sees the Christian faith bound up with a pre-Copernican cosmology. This is so counter current to the trends of mainstream science that it's no surprise that the YEC movement and conspiracy theorists are eying one another up with interest.

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