Parallel universes

Apr 11th, 2011 | By | Category: Church of Ireland Comment

From one world to another, from a past to a future.  Spending the afternoon at a church meeting in Rathmines,  the journey to Trinity College at the very centre of Dublin would once have been a seamless transition.  Trinity was at the very heart of the Protestant Establishment in the 19th Century.  At the time of Disestablishment in 1870, still something like one-third of graduates took Holy Orders.  Right up until the beginning of the 1980s, theological education in Trinity was still dominated by the Church of Ireland, despite the Church of Ireland population accounting for just 3% of the population of the state. The respective paths pursued by the Church of Ireland and Trinity College have long since diverged; the church turning in on itself and becoming preoccupied with its own affairs while the university has blossomed and become a world class institution.

The lecture is on the nature of the universe in which we live: on the research of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, the €8 billion project to research conditions one ten thousandth of a millionth of a second after the Big Bang.  The project seeks either to find the Higgs boson, the particle that explains mass in the universe, or to rule out the existence of that particle.  In a few months of activity, the LHC verified the work of eighty years of Nobel physics laureates, the work in pursuit of the Higgs boson continues, perhaps within the next two years it will be discovered or excluded.  A lecture on the origins of the universe might once have been of interest to those who believe they have an explanation for the universe, but our church seems to have long since abandoned any pretence of intellectual credibility.

The “Church of Ireland Gazette” this week carries a letter from a woman who is upset at a television programme that questioned the historical veracity of the Garden of Eden story: that such beliefs are still seriously held would be greeted with incredulity amongst the predominantly young scientific audience in Trinity College.  While one side of our church drifts down the path towards creationism and medieval pictures of hellfire and damnation, and the other side thinks progress is about being liberal in attitudes towards human sexuality, the future of our understanding of the universe is now far beyond the realms of our theological activity.

Cosmology, the understanding of the most basic nature of the reality in which we exist, was once something the church embraced, now we seem no longer to care. When the worldviews offered by the church are at such a divergence with the reality people experience, what point is there in the church’s existence?

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  1. >>While one side of our church drifts down the path towards creationism and medieval pictures of hellfire and damnation, and the other side thinks progress is about being liberal in attitudes towards human sexuality

    I understand your pessimism, Ian, but every church has its “fringes”.

    >>the future of our understanding of the universe is now far beyond the realms of our theological activity.

    Quite…but not for the reasons you imply. While it is fascinating knowing about how the universe works, it has no direct implications for theology. Why there is something instead of nothing isn’t a scientific question at all. To paraphrase Rev Professor John Polkinghorne – God is as much the Creator today as God was 13.7 billion years ago.

    There’s a worldview offered by an Anglican priest that is part of the reality I experience, so I see every point in the church’s existence.

  2. Donal,

    Had you been the emeritus professor of geology who sang in the choir of my former parish, you would have pointed out that universes cannot be at once parallel and divergent, but you are much gentler than he!

    I take your points, but I fear that if theology has no rootedness in physical realities, then it is no more verifiable than the Flying Spaghetti Monster (who has his own set of adherents!).

  3. Ian,

    To repeat (gently): theology explains why things (and we) exist, not how. Surely that’s roootedness aplenty.

    By the way, I’m a science (geology, botany and zoology) graduate.

  4. I think that the ‘why’ must sometimes find touching points with the ‘how’ or we could be in the realms of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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