By now you will all have heard the story about the Higgs boson particle (HBP) that walked into a church one day, only to be told by the priest that HBPs were not permitted in church. “How then,” said the HBP, “ can you have mass?”
The discovery of the HBP in the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland is indeed a major scientific discovery. The Collider is a circular tunnel, 27kms in circumference, at a depth underground from 50-175m. Particles travel around it in opposite directions at the speed of light, colliding with each other and fragmenting into sub-atomic particles, one of which is now believed to be the HBP.
The HBP is named for Professor Peter Higgs, a British physicist, now 83, who theorised 48 years ago in 1964 the existence of a particle to which other particles adhered to form mass objects such as stars, planets and even life itself. Prof. Joe Incandela from the university of California has said: “ We're reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we've never done before”.
Claims such as the latter have led to the Higgs boson being dubbed “the god particle”, without which life as we know it could not exist. While there may be some who would regard the HBP as evidence for the existence of God, I would not put myself in that category, for two reasons:
First, in a recent TV programme Stephen Hawking describes the process of the Big Bang in which the universe began when a single piece of matter spontaneously exploded forming the universe in the amazing manner we are just beginning to understand. A traditional religious view is that God must have pre-existed in order to cause the Big Bang.
But Hawking points out that that theory depends on two premises: (i) that of cause and effect that says everything must have a cause, so something must have caused the Big Bang; and (ii) the concept of linear time, that says there must have been something before the Big Bang.
The fault in both arguments, says Hawking, is that both concepts belong to the universe as we know it after the Big Bang. The concept of a creator deity that pre-existed and caused the Big Bang is not a logical conclusion insofar as it is based on cause/effect and linear time premises that only exist after the Big Bang. “I have no need of that theory”, says Hawking, referring to God. And I agree.
The second reason why I don't believe the Higgs boson can be adduced as evidence of the existence of God is because I have come to an experience of God that does not require a belief that the God I know must have been involved in the physical creation of the universe. I believe that the eternal truths about God belong within the world as we know it, however created, and not outside it.
We need to start with our own experience of God. Ask yourself how do you experience God, and how would you describe it? My own faith and experience of God arises from a sense of being part of something bigger than myself, an otherness that transcends human experience but yet holds all humanity and all creation in an inseparable unity. Here is mystery, something in the face of which we stand in awe, and an antidote to any tendency to self-centred arrogance. Psalm 8 captures it in the words 'O Lord, our governor, how wonderful is your name in all the earth;…. who are we that you are mindful of us?'
Then I have a sense that life and creation is a gift, unmerited goodness and grace, and that all life is to be treasured and sustained. I feel a sense of connectedness to God and all life: all of creation is part of God's one family, and hence even in the darkest of times we are never alone. Nor can we ever abandon our calling to care passionately for every other member of God's family, which includes caring for the earth itself.
But yet we have to find a way of talking about this central mystery of life, and the image of God as a supernatural being is the traditional expression the Church has chosen. In making that choice we resort to anthropomorphic images, in other words we describe God in human form, albeit super-human form.
A good analogy arises from the words of the Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, who wrote around 500BC that “if the horses wanted a god, they would choose a horse.” Of course, a horse-god could not be any old nag that whinnied and wheezed, grew old and died. It would have to be a super-horse endowed with the finest qualities of eternal youth and energy, wisdom and power.
Xenophanes is satirising our human tendency to create God in our own image. Having created an image of a supernatural being we then add all the finest qualities we can think of, and these include 'pre-existent'. Once we have moved to 'pre-existent' we are now bound to find a place for God in the physical startup of the universe, and carve out a theory of how God relates to the Higgs boson and the Big Bang.
It is in my view an unnecessary exercise. I defer to Galileo, Stephen Hawking and Peter Higgs, Ernest Rutherford, Paul Callaghan and Albert Einstein, and the whole array of great scientists who have taught us so much about the world in which we live, and whose inventiveness delivers so much to us of the things that make for health and life and goodness in this world.
Of course, we need to tread carefully where images of God are concerned. No image can be right or wrong. We must each find an image of God that works for us and best expresses our experience of God. For myself, faith is about the experience of love in our lives, of grace and gift, of justice and truth, and of discernment to ensure that the great scientific discoveries that surround us are used to bring life and not death. The universe is an awesome place, but it can also be cold and distant if not warmed by the compassion and the love we experience as part of God - a divine reality who, while mystery, is yet the eternal source of a love that heals and warms and draws us to a lifestyle centred in Jesus Christ.
So let's not fight with science about how the world was made: issues of physics, mass, Higgs boson particles, space and energy, belong in the realm of science. Religion is a complementary truth, one that marvels in the physical universe but seeks to discern the eternal wisdom and trust that is essential to the well-being of the human race, and the preservation of all creation for the good of ourselves and those who come after us.
Bishop Richard Randerson is currently Priest in Charge at St Peter's Church, Willis St, Wellington
This sermon was preached there on 15 July 2012.
We're delighted to have him contributing to Moments.