It is ANZAC Day is this week. It’s an opportunity for us all to reflect. To reflect on heroism and sacrifice, on the possibility, or otherwise, of a just war. On our gratitude for the tiny little corner of peace, prosperity, and security which we are lucky enough to inhabit. And, perhaps most deeply, on what our fundamental loyalty is. What the basic building blocks of our lives are. What is, in the final analysis, most important.
It raises the question: what would we lay down our life for? To ask this question another way, to make it a little less highly coloured, we could perhaps ask this: What is the organising principle in our life? What is it that brings our life together in a more or less coherent whole? How do we tell what is trivial from what is important? And how does that relate to the big picture question about the universe as a whole?
It may be that this is a meaningless question. It may be that there is no relationship between our lives and loves and longings on the one hand, and the immeasurably vast sweep of cosmic time and space on the others. It is often claimed that the universe that science reveals to us is far too vast and grandiose in its scope to have any interest in the affairs of a species of naked ape living on an unimportant backwater in a medium sized galaxy, lost in the great sea of time.
In my opinion this is a particularly stupid argument. Ironically, it makes sense solely on an emotional level, because we are inveterate mythmakers. As C S Lewis pointed out, the force of the argument is that we move from mere quantity – small, big, bigger, biggest – into a whole new quality: that of the sublime. We stand before the night sky with awe, a kind of fear, not because it is a threat to us, but because it is awesome. It moves us emotionally. It is the nearest we can come to looking at eternity.
The great story of the big bang, of stars and galaxies gradually forming, only break down and begin again, all to end in a great conflagration, while, to add poignancy to the scene, an efflorescence of intelligence life flourishes for the briefest cosmic moment, before it too is caught up in the great cosmic wreck, is both beautiful and moving, in its tragic key. It is like something out of Wagner, and certainly deserves great, sweeping music to illustrate it.
It is a powerful myth.
But it is, nonetheless, a myth. Like all myths, it purports to tell us about the universe and our place in it, and works by deep resonances within our pre-conscious. We see our own too short lives mirrored in the greater story of the universe, and we feel, ironically, a sort of deep connection. This, we think, in a sort of mood of sombre exaltation, is how the universe Really Is. We are freed of childish daydreams, and ready to face the tragic universe like adults. Like the gods of Wagner, we throw our aspirations in the face of the meaningless cosmos, and see ourselves as heroes.
As I said, it’s a myth. A beautiful, moving, powerful myth. A myth to make the Greeks envious. But a myth nonetheless.
Let us do our best to step aside from emotional response for a moment, and consider. Is a big thing always better than a small thing? Consider an iPhone. It is considerably smaller than the combination of computer, camera, telephone, and diary that it replaces.
Or consider the difference between a child and a tree. Are we really saying that just because something is bigger it is better? Or consider the time issue. It takes a long time to cook a good curry. It doesn’t take long to heat up a bowl of ramen noodles. Which is better? Just because something takes longer, because it occupies a particular place in time, is of absolutely no relevance to its importance.
The universe certainly feels large to us, and the ocean of time feels huge. But, as far as we can tell, this is pretty much the minimum amount of time it takes to create intelligent life. We need a couple of iterations of star birth and death to create the heavier elements that you need to build life of any sort. Instead of seeing the universe as vast and meaningless, it is equally open to us to see it as tiny and homely. It’s not like we have anything else to compare it to – some other, more reasonably sized, quicker universe in which we might take up more physical and temporal space.
If we choose to relish the great myth of our culture, then let us enjoy its beauty. But let us not mistake it for a scientific description.
Let me go further. We are accustomed to hear people of a vaguely scientific bent say things to the effect that humanity is a side effect of the universe, just a fluke, not the main game.
But there is absolutely no logical necessity to believe that. It implicitly hypothesises some other, unspecified, universe which might seem more directly lead to human life. But, given that we have no idea if any such universe exists, we have no idea what a universe designed for human life might actually look like. No-one has ever built a universe, and, as far as we know, this is the most efficient way to start from a few basic natural laws and end up with humanity.
In fact there is a well attested scientific theory known as the “Anthropic Principle” that points out just how closely tuned the universe is to create life. It’s controversial, but it certainly remains open to us to believe that consciousness is an important feature of the universe. It’s almost as though it were designed with the outcome of producing conscious life.
If you’re interested in this, read Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma.
So, there is no particularly compelling rational reason to go along with the great myth of the meaningless cosmos. Given that it is therefore entirely reasonable to believe in a universe of meaning, a universe in which humanity plays an important part, a universe which seems designed to produce consciousness, what next?
So if it is open to us to believe in God, that there is some sort of point to the universe, what might this God be like? If we try to read the nature of God off from the observable universe, we are left with a great artist – because the universe is beautiful – but perhaps no friend to human life – because the universe can also be astonishingly cruel.
And then we look inwards, and we find even more mysteries. We want to do good, we want to somehow reach beyond ourselves, but so often we fail to do so. People talk about the mystery of evil, but, frankly, good is a much bigger mystery. Why on earth would someone want to put themselves out for someone else?
And, arriving back at our starting place, we can ask: why on earth would someone risk their life for another? A lot of moral law is something like “if you behave decently to people, then they will behave decently to you.” For instance, the commandment to honour one’s father and mother comes with the promise “so that your years will be long.” But if you die for someone else, then even if that person is minded to respond in kind, it’s too late, because you are dead.
Have you ever been to the Shrine of Remembrance? It is a fascinating place. I have often heard it claimed that Australia is a secular, irreligious society. Whether you think that’s a good or bad thing depends on your point of view of course. But the really interesting thing is that, while Australia isn’t an obviously Christian society, it is deeply religious. Every year, on the 25th of April, people in their thousands gather in the pre-dawn darkness and cold, and stand in complete silence as a trumpet calls, a poem is read, and people pray. It is profoundly religious, deep and real engagement with the numinous, the mystery of life and death.
And inside the Shrine is a tablet of stone. The building is designed such that a beam of sunlight falls upon it at 11am on the 11th of November every year. And, if you’re too impatient to wait for that, every hour it is done with artificial light. A trumpet sounds, a recorded voice reads out a famous poem, people fall into reverent silence.
And the text on the tablet of stone? “Greater love hath no man.” Which is, of course, a quote from the King James version of John’s Gospel: “No-one has greater love, than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:17)
But why? Why does this self-sacrifice speak to us so deeply? It leads us to step outside of our narrow self-preoccupation. It calls to us, and it’s a bit hard to understand why.
So here we have two deep mythic structures, addressing the mysteries of the external universe, and of humanity. How do they relate to each other?
The theme of this service is supposed to be “Jesus the Cornerstone.” You may well be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about that. My contention is that Jesus reconciles these two stories: the story of the natural world, in its beauty and terror and deep mystery on the one hand, and the story of our internal longings on the other.
In the reading from Acts, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit – that is, speaking with the authority of God – tells the council that Jesus “the stone that the builders rejected” is the “head of the corner.”
As I’m sure you all know, when you’re building an arch you lay the stones on a curved frame until you get to the central stone, the cornerstone, which makes everything else hang together. Jesus is the place in which the big transcendent story of the universe (why does anything exist at all?) meets the immanent questions (what does it mean to be human?) and places them together in one big story.
In Judaism, the temple was a sort of answer to that question. The Lord, the creator the universe, the one whose home you could sort of metaphorically glimpse by looking up at the heavens on a clear night, had a literal, physical home in a literal place, where you could actually go. That’s the meaning of the temple veil, by the way, that the otherness of God, the sheer difference between the human and the divine, needed to be protected – or, rather, that we needed to be protected from it. Anyone who has ever experienced a sort of vertigo while staring up at the stars knows precisely why you might want to be protected from the transcendent.
And this Lord, the one who dwelled both in the heavens, had entered into relationship with humanity. The ancient sense of what was right and wrong was sort of guaranteed by this God. We might take the relationship between the sacred and the good for granted, but in the pagan religions, the gods weren’t especially ethical – to the despair of the philosophers, who desperately wanted to link the two together. Here in Israel the mystery of human longings for the good, and the transcendent were linked together.
However, the temple, good as it was, was problematic. It was a thing limited in time an space, and subject to capture by hostile forces, either for manipulation like Herod, or destruction like the Babylonians and Romans.
Jesus breaks that. That’s why the temple veil is torn in two – no longer does God live in the temple, instead, through Jesus’ reconciling work, God lives in each human heart. The Holy Spirit is God within us, just as God is outside us as totally other.
That is what it means to say that Jesus is the cornerstone. He brings us and God together, and replaces the temple. Through his work, we can come to God, and, far from God being hidden behind the veil, we are called upon to collaborate with God, though the power of the Spirit, in God’s redemptive work in the world.
Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on 22/4/2018.
Edit: I have since done some research (i.e. about 5 seconds on Google) and realised that “the cornerstone” of a building is not in fact the same thing as the “keystone” of an arch. I think the metaphor still works though.