Read those last two sentences very carefully, they have to challenge each one of us to think very carefully about our own responsibilities.
An illusion… fostered by the abandonment of any attachment to a humanistic vision. This is the right kind of conference to consider such a profound statement. It is similar to something that was said by Sir John Eccles, the Cambridge neuro-biologist who gained his Nobel Prize in the 1980s. He said, “I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neural activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition… we are spiritual beings with souls in a spiritual world, as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world”. For me, one of the most inspirational of modern writers was the former Jesuit (how many have you expelled over the years!) Matthew Fox, who summed it up most perfectly in “The Future of Work” when he quoted St. Thomas Aquinas “To live well is to work well, or display a good activity”. Fox went on to explore the duality of our consciousness in a very simple way. He said, “As I looked out over the stunning beauty of San Francisco Bay I realised that San Francisco Bay was in my soul, but my soul was not contained in San Francisco Bay”.
This meant an enormous amount to me, for the very day I first read that I had met one of the world’s most original, and successful, neuro-biologists (a Nobel Prize-winner) Gerald Edelman. A man of enormous, direct, single-purpose energy, he had assured me that he and his laboratory would, within five years, have solved the riddle of consciousness.
“Once we have done that”, he said, “What is the BIG IDEA around which we will then organise ourselves?”
I must draw this to a close. To help me do so let me quote, at length, from the book “Doubts and Loves” by the recently retired Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway. “To us the sun appears to be the largest and brightest of the stars, but it is actually the smallest and the faintest. There are many billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Our planet Earth is a puny object in a violent, unbelievably vast and expanding universe, yet it has remained hospitable to life at least three and a half billion years. Our very existence is a consequence of stability of the sun, which has been burning long enough to allow life to evolve and flourish on our planet. Recently scientists caught a glimpse of the violence of that great burning star that makes our life possible. They detected a shock wave on the sun. It is that violent and blazing star whose light and heat comes to us from ninety-three million miles away that makes it possible for us to sit comfortably in our homes thinking about it all”.
Do we actually sit comfortably as we ponder such awe-inspiring vision of the universe? Wasn’t the human mind better able to appreciate the human scale of the story of Adam and Eve? If our planet is such a puny object, then where does humanity fit into such an explanation, and what happens to our best hopes and fears for all that we hold dear? Are they too insignificant to matter? Is there any connection with the stories that are being told over hundreds of generations that inspired, and sometimes terrified, our ancestors? Have we, in two hundred years, thought ourselves into thinking that we, and we alone, are the measure of everything? Have we yet found a story that could compel a future William Blake to write –
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Have we yet a new story that parents can tell to their children which in the intimacy of the nursery or by the side of the kitchen table, enables us parents to be utterly true to our own beliefs, and fill our children with awe, wonder and a passion to become involved in life?
While you ponder that, let me take you on to Richard Holloway’s conclusion. “That act of thought is almost as great a miracle as the universe. We are a sub-microscopic dot in a tiny corner of a small galaxy in a universe containing billions of galaxies, but in us the universe has become conscious, has started thinking about itself. The sun is not thinking about itself as it burns; the universe is nothing thinking about, is not conscious of itself as it explodes through space; but we are. Something is going on in us that is as wonderful and extraordinary as the universe itself”.
Pause, and take time to think that through. “The universe is not thinking about, is not conscious of itself as it explodes through space, but we are. Something is going on in us that is as wonderful and extraordinary as the universe itself”.
Let me close with words you know well from the prayer written by Oscar Romero just before he was murdered in San Salvador. “This is what we are about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something, and enables us to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end result, but that is the difference between the master builder, and the worker.
“We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not Messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own”.