Thought For The Day

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks with Archbishop Rowan Williams

From Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks on BBC4 “Thought for the Day”:

Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the Festival that celebrates the anniversary of creation, the moment God said “Let there be,” and there was.

So it was with a wry smile that I read the headline last week about scientist Stephen Hawking who said: we don’t need God to explain creation. The universe created itself.

If this sounds like a new challenge to religion, it isn’t. It is one of the oldest of all. For more than 2000 years until relatively recently, there was a much bigger challenge to the idea that God created the universe.

It came from the philosopher Aristotle, who held that there was no creation, because matter is eternal. There never was a beginning to the universe.

It was only in 1964, that Arno Penzias, who as a Jewish child was rescued by the British from Nazi Germany, identified with Robert Wilson the cosmic microwave background radiation that finally established what we now call Big Bang. The universe did have a beginning after all.

But there’s something surreal about this whole line of thought. Religion isn’t science and science isn’t religion. And the best way of seeing this is through Rosh Hashanah itself.

Try this thought experiment. Suppose scientists could determine exactly the moment the universe sprang into existence. Would that change your life? Would it make any difference at all? Would you celebrate? Would you hold an annual holiday to commemorate that moment? Can you even remember the date the human genome was decoded? And that was only ten years ago.

No. Religion and science are different things and we need them both.

Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning.

There’s a view expressed by Epicurus, Nietzsche and Nobel Prize winning physicist Steve Weinberg, that life is meaningless. I don’t mean individual lives. We each live, and dream, and pursue our dreams. But on their view, the universe is blind to our existence, indifferent to our suffering. We are born, we live, we die, and it is as if we had never been.

On Rosh Hashanah we dare to believe otherwise: that life does have meaning; that there is a Presence, vaster than the universe yet closer to us than we are to ourselves, who lifts us when we fall, and forgives us when we fail.

Can I prove this? No. But this I know, that the mightiest empires have come and gone. The tiny people whose faith I share is still here, still bearing witness to the living God.

The Rich Soil of Anglicanism

After the Eucharist - St. Luke's West Holloway

I’m in London for the Annual General Meeting of the Compass Rose Society which begins on Monday.  Part of what I love about the Anglican Communion is its theological breadth and liturgical diversity.

For me, the Anglican tradition is less about institutional preservation  – though I believe the tested wisdom and organizational strength of that tradition is a charism worth preserving  – and more about being rooted in rich spiritual, liturgical and theological soil.  It’s the same soil that gave us Julian of Norwich, Thomas Cranmer, C.S. Lewis, Rowan Williams, and Katherine Jefferts Schori for goodness sake!  We are living in a time where we need leaders, deeply rooted in the wisdom of Jesus, to till this soil in a rapidly changing world and post-Christian context.

It was Archbishop Rowan Williams who aptly coined the phrase “a mixed economy” to describe the kind of church which might emerge if this post-Christian context is taken to heart. Traditional or “inherited” understandings of what it means to be the Church, and emerging “fresh expressions,” should ideally be seen as complementary aspects of a single coherent ecclesiology.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes in London today.

Fr. Dave Tomlinson

This morning I attended the 11:00 Liturgy at St. Luke’s West Holloway, a parish church currently led by Fr. Dave Tomlinson, whose preaching and writing  I have admired for some time (see his Re-Enchanting Christianity here). On the parish website, Fr. Tomlinson states:

“I think I’ve the best job in the world! I’ve been the vicar of St Luke’s since 2000, and I’m more enthusiastic about the job now than the day I first took it on. St Luke’s is a glorious mishmash of people – young and old, men and women, black and white, gay and straight – who have found in this place somewhere to belong, somewhere to make friends, somewhere to grow personally and spiritually, somewhere to laugh and weep together, somewhere to explore the mystery we call God. We are a church that tries to combine the rich and broad tradition of Christianity with insights and understandings from the present, and this is reflected in our theology and worship. ”

These words are congruent with what I encountered at St. Luke’s this morning.  I was warmly welcomed both before and after the service and felt quickly at home in the open and creative set-up of the worship space.  The liturgy included a judicious use of video, poetry, and music, featuring both an adult and children’s choir accompanied by piano and organ.  The theme, based on the lectionary readings, was the “God of Creation,” and Dave concluded his fine sermon with a video setting of the poem ‘Wild Geese‘ by Mary Oliver.  It takes both spiritual sensitivity and artistic skill to blend traditional and modern elements together in a liturgy like this, and as one who believes liturgy demands our very best, I was pleased to see both elements in good evidence.

Evensong at St. James, Paddington

This evening, I made my way to St. James Paddington for a traditional liturgy of Choral Evensong.  Here I experienced a liturgy more catholic in style, in a gothic space enriched by a brilliantly designed lighting system, professional choir, dignified ceremonial, and the scent of fragrant incense beckoning the faithful to raise their hearts in glad adoration of the living God.

At St. James, Paddington,  the music of Orlando Gibbons, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus, the chanted psalm, the Biblical readings, the choral anthems, the opening and closing organ voluntaries, were faithfully offered–leading us into the Divine Mystery at the heart all things.  Two very different approaches to worship yet one Spirit inspiring and blessing us all.

Very rich soil indeed.