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Vol I No. 1
Science & Faith

Advent 2017: To arrive at the beginning

by William J. Martin

The end is where we start from.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Little Gidding

As we come to the opening of Advent, 2017, the liturgical readings remind us of both the “last things,” the Last Judgment and the new heavens and new earth, and our anticipation of “new things” in the coming of the Christ Child.  The end and the beginning somehow belong together.  For the origin and source of all things contains the seed of their end, and their end bears the mark of their source.

Some scientists– or perhaps more correctly, we should call them metaphysicians rather than scientists in their seeking to say what is most fundamental about the cosmos– see the source of all things reduced to some kind of material chaos, a universe of matter and energy devoid of any ultimate purpose or meaning: a lifeless origin leading to a lifeless end, although with a surprising abundance of evolved life in the middle.  Yet without the very matter and energy in our cosmos,  the human scientist with his desire to know would not be possible in the first place, a human being in a human society on an habitable planet orbiting a life-giving star, one of myriads of others living in seemingly countless galaxies spanning a vast universe.  Yet how could anyone be so blind as to fail to see that the fact of our universe–that there is anything at all and we are here to participate in its intelligible order– is an utter astonishment, a wonder of all wonders.

Indeed, we do live in an amazing universe, this strange world where we now arrive at the Church’s celebration of Advent, heralding the coming of a Child through whom the vast abundance of the entire cosmos hangs together.  For as the opening of John’s gospel tells us:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That wonderful Greek word ἀρχῇ (arché) in John’s opening verse means far more than a temporal “beginning.”  It also and more fundamentally has the sense of “source” or “origin.” The origin–then, now and forever–of all things in the cosmos is the Word, a source that is suggestive of intelligibility and order, but also love and freedom.  For a word is not only something coherent and intelligible but is something spoken from one person to another.  For those with eyes to see, we human beings are an intended and integral part of the world’s being and end.  Thus the world–as an ordered creation–and Christ–as the source of the world’s order and the redemption of all its disorder–both are gifts to be received with a grateful response in return.  There is nothing in what science actually has discovered that tells us that we can not allow Christmas to remind us of the greatest gifts of all, the gift of the being of the world and the gift of personal participation within it in the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus.

That science has discovered much about the order and intelligibility of our cosmos is a great source of wonder.   This is something that Albert Einstein emphasized, as I highlighted in my Christmas post last year for The Anglican Way.  Einstein was amazed at the incomprehensible comprehensibility of the world, even as it revealed its secrets to his inquiring scientific mind. The intelligibility of the world was a never ending source of wonder to him [1].   Perhaps we think too little about it, but that most mysterious of acts by which the finite human mind grasps the intelligibility of things seems to me the most remarkable and wondrous of all acts we can do.  Neither wonder nor love nor science would be possible without that act, by which our minds take in the parts and render the whole intelligible.

Wonder is something we should always keep in our science and our thinking about the world.  To philosophize is just to use our minds to think about things.  The 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, like Plato [2] and Aristotle [3] before him, said that wonder is the beginning of all philosophizing about the world: “Philosophy begins in wonder.  And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best the wonder remains.” [4]   Thankfully, the Anglican way from the start has never rejected the philosophical tradition, which can be a most fruitful fount of wisdom and knowledge if approached with humility and wonder.

There is thus much truth in T. S. Eliot’s poetic rendering above from “Little Gidding” that the end is where we start from, that my end is in my beginning, that we arrive at where we start from.   We human beings quite literally start in childlike wonder at the world, and the culmination of all our adult questing after understanding and knowledge of the world ultimately leads only to more wonder, if we remain awake to the world as our knowledge becomes more complete.   Wonder is the springboard and end of all wonder, as it is with love, deepened as it ever arrives anew.  At least it should be so.

Surely, the same can be said of theology.  Our Source and our End are both transcendent, not immanent.  To put it in Scriptural terms, Christ is the Alpha and the Omega of the entire cosmos [Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13}, the origin and end of all things and in whom all things hold together [Col. 1:17].    The world–and each of us–is given the gift of being so that we might participate in it as the kind of beings that we are, made in the image and likeness of God, redeemed in Christ, oriented to our end in his eternal city [Rev. 21:1-2].

As Jesus put it, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  Our origin is from love, and our proper end, if not thwarted by our disordered lives, is the final fulfillment of all love and desire in the eternal wonder of the new heavens and new earth.  Yet right philosophizing or theologizing in the light of Christ can never separate itself from the wonder of being here now in the world’s immanent order.  The knowledge we arrive at can only drive us to fuller and more grateful praise of the wonder of it all.   Advent, as we focus precisely on the particular wonder of the Christ child, thus provides an occasion to awaken perpetual wonder and its joys anew for anyone with the eyes to see and a heart to receive.

Notes:

1. A. Einstein, “Physics and Reality,” Journal of The Franklin. Institute, Vol.  221, p. 315 (1936), in the original German, “Man kann sagen: Das ewig Unbegreifliche an der Welt ist ihre Begreiflichkeit.”  In the next paragraph: “… die Welt unserer Sinnes- erlebnissen begreifbar, und dass sie es ist, ist ein Wunder. ” translated in the English version in the same issue of the Journal (p. 374) as “One may say the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.  … the world of our sense experiences is comprehensible. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”

2. “… this wondering: this is where philosophy begins and nowhere else.” said by Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus, 155d.

3.  “Through wonder men began to philosophize, both now and in the beginning.” Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book 1, 982b

4. A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 1938

5. The Christmas post on Wonder from last year is at https://anglicanway.org/2017/01/02/the-recovery-of-wonder/