More Light

Until I locked the door of our van with the keys in the ignition and the engine running I had been feeling quite serene. But my serenity dissipated in those milliseconds between my shutting the driver’s side door and my hearing that tell-tale click of the automatic lock.

Sometimes it only takes seconds to go from feeling like things are alright (if not perfect!) with the world to feeling like a complete idiot. So there I was standing beside my locked and running car, snow falling in thick flurries, feeling like an idiot.

To back up, locking the keys in a running vehicle was not my first mistake of the evening. Already I had left on a light in the van by mistake, draining the battery, and forcing me to call someone to come and give me a boost. We had just gotten the van running when I experienced those fateful aforementioned milliseconds.

After nearly an hour of trying with a coat-hanger to open the car-door, we agreed it wasn’t working. And even though I had parked on the street outside our house, I couldn’t go inside for any reason. All of my keys were together, hanging from my van’s ignition.

This particular adventure took place a couple of days after Christmas, during the aftermath of a snowstorm and an ice-storm. As it happens, while leaving my running vehicle to wait for help elsewhere, the neighbourhood lights came to life, illuminating what had seemed like an impenetrable darkness. At least for us, the power was back on. Lights in my house shone once again.

Made me think. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

What does that have to do with feeling like an idiot because I locked my keys in a running vehicle? Not much, I suppose. I just thought it was a funny story.

Anyway. This Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 9 has given my family the opening words to our Advent devotions for years. It’s sort of a variation of that cliché proverb, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” Perhaps a more substantive version of it, one grounded in history, in the centuries-old expectations of a people who had known more than their fair share of darkness. In any event, the “dawn” in this case is the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the one who calls himself, “the light of the world.”

The thing about darkness is that your eyes can adjust. When I put my four year old sons to bed, the room seems completely dark. After a while, though, you can discern shapes. When I was standing outside waiting for help on that snowy night, the power out on my street, all was quiet and black. The absence of light becomes an afterthought. Despite being unable to see properly through the thickness of shadow, we come to prefer darkness. What we’ve never seen, we can’t see our need to see.  

Christian apologist and literary critic C.S. Lewis once said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Without light, we don’t see what we’re missing. Beyond affirming that Jesus is the truth of all reality, the epistemological center of the universe, it is in knowing him that we also begin to understand everything else. Put another way, the reality of who Jesus is illuminates the rest of the world, all of creation, and all of our experiences.

That Jesus is the truth, and that, as Scripture says in Colossians 1:16, “All things have been created through him and for him,” is the anchoring reality for my entire life. Particularly when I was younger, in high school then early university, knowing what true was most important. Truth became my light; Jesus became my truth, the way and the truth and the life. 

This Christmas was one of the strangest in recent memory. Freezing rain. Snowstorms. Two weeks of church cancelled. No Christmas Eve service. No phone service. And of course no power. Which meant no light. Darkness everywhere. Except we lit candles, reminding us that even in the deepest darkness there is still the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. Over this holiday season, the one constant is that Jesus was the light, is the light.

Is the Truth Out There?

“The truth is out there.” Remember that expression? In case you don’t, it was the tagline for the 90s sci-fi TV show The X-Files. This program followed the investigations of FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully into paranormal phenomena, everything from psychics to alien abductions to bizarre genetic anomalies. The tension that made the series work dramatically was that of believer versus skeptic, faith versus reason, religion versus science. Hard evidence—scientific proof—of the cases they investigated was very nearly always elusive, if not impossible to come by. And the question Mulder and Scully asked each week was: do we believe even without such evidence? Is empirical proof the only means of coming to truthful conclusions? As Agent Scully was once told by Albert Hosteen, “There are more worlds than the ones you can hold in your hands.”

Another possibility implicit throughout The X-Files narrative was that the line between science and religion might not be so exact after all. That is, is there not also a component of belief in science? Do not scientists also require as much faith to do their job as much as the theologian? Physicist Paul Davies writes: “Science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.”

While certainly in the modern period it has been common to label people with religious beliefs as unreasonable and even superstitious, such an attribution is surely itself unreasonable. Not only are there many theologians and Christian philosophers who work hard at demonstrating the intellectual tenability of religious belief, but there are also many Christians within the scientific community who hold together their scientific training and their religious convictions like two sides of the same coin. Though not a Christian himself, Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Oddly enough, in our current cultural climate there are an increasing number of people who are as skeptical about science being the only path to truth as there are those skeptical about religion. As it happens, people these days are simply doubtful about truth, about there being an objective truth that is valid for all people at all times. For most, truth is relative, having usually to do with our experience and feelings rather than any reality that lies outside of us. “What’s true for you isn’t true for me” is the common cliché. And while, yes, such an assertion can be a diversionary tactic for some, it is, however, part of the epistemological air we breathe. Many in our culture echo Pilate’s question put to Jesus in John’s Gospel, “What is truth?”

With respect to those who still assert that only science provides access to truth, the question I would ask is this: how do you know? Obviously, science has its tried and true means for verifying its discoveries, including the scientific method, but the scientific method can’t be used to demonstrate its allegedly unique ability to reach true conclusions. It cannot validate itself. And science itself as a rational pursuit actually has its origins partly in the Christian faith. Believing that God created the universe in an orderly fashion and human beings with the intellect to understand it, early German scientist Johannes Kepler said that science was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

Consider the fact that at the beginning of John’s Gospel we’re told that in “the beginning was the Word and . . . the Word was God.” “Word” comes from the Greek “logos,” which philosophers believed was the organizing principle of the cosmos, its rationale, so to speak. The world is as it is because of this “logos.” Of course, Greek philosophers didn’t see the “logos” as a personal reality; this is a later Christian interpretation of “logos.” Still, examining our world is possible because God made it examinable.

Not only has Christianity pointed scientists to the orderly nature of our universe, but science has also in some respects lent plausibility to the Christian faith. Really, you ask? Maybe in a day and age when we expect only conflict between science and religion, usually because of the theory of evolution, it seems impossible that science can actually do anything of the sort. So while there are atheist scientists with a lot of media credibility like Richard Dawkins—author of The God Delusion—who consider belief in God not only lacking in plausibility but patently ridiculous, others point to what some call the fine tuning of the universe to give support to the existence of God.

The fine tuning theory of the universe is as follows: the physical constants of the universe—the temperature of the sun, the position of the moon, the tilt of the earth, and several other constants—happen to fall within the narrow range compatible with the existence of conscious life itself able to observe and recognize these constants. Also called the “Anthropic Principle,” this is the idea that only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing any such fine tuning. Writer (and former pastor) Rob Bell has an entire live presentation based in part on this argument (“Everything is Spiritual”), and he devotes an entire chapter in his most recent book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, to the same ideas.

How might this point to the existence of God? Well, the question, I would think, is obvious: what are the odds that a universe capable of supporting life that is in turn capable of comprehending this same universe would actually exist? Doesn’t it seem like quite a coincidence otherwise? Christians—not to mention adherents of some of the other world religions—believe the universe to be orderly and its workings discernible because God made it so. If such fine tuning exists, does it not seem as probable or more probable an explanation than most that God indeed created the universe and that this fine tuning is a sign of the very orderliness upon which our best science is based?

Indeed, I wonder how else we as human beings might trust our observations at all. If our reasoning—scientific or theological or otherwise—is a result of some sort of biological-chemical random accident of matter and energy, aren’t our thoughts, including our supposedly scientific ones, untrustworthy? And if untrustworthy, then would not our thoughts be untrue? Postulating that human existence and all of creation are the result of pure accident, of random chance, seems to eliminate even the possibility of rational thought at its source.

As I said previously, Christianity also believes the universe to be rational, one that we are able to observe with reasonable accuracy. Moreover, the Christian faith also asserts that, yes, there is a “logos” at the heart of reality. The difference between the Greek understanding of “logos” and the Christian understanding is that for the Greeks the “logos” is an abstract principle while for Christians the “logos” is a person. “In the beginning was the logos . . . and the logos was God . . . and the logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” In Christian faith, we believe the “logos” is indeed the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Or put better, Jesus is the “logos” as flesh and blood. And of this Jesus, this “logos,” the Scripture also says that “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created . . . all things have been created through him and for him.” It is, in other words, Jesus who gives reason, purpose, and even intelligibility to the universe.

Some of you will say that quoting the Bible simply begs the question, “How do we know the Bible is true?” “How can we trust what you are saying about Jesus?” I guess for the moment all I can say is that history and scholarship give us good reason to trust Scripture even if I don’t have room to elaborate on that point here and now. I know that my study persuaded me. What I can say is that the most skeptical of skeptics also ought to learn even to doubt their doubts.

Yes, the relationship between science and religion will continue to experience tension and perhaps even conflict but as we’ve hopefully seen it’s also true that there are areas where they can mutually support one another. And in the end, despite the remaining tension, both science and faith point us to the possibility that truth lies outside of us and is even infinitely bigger than any of us can fathom. In other words, “the truth is out there.”

Or maybe this is only true for me and not for you.