Atheism, the Universe, and Really Good Pizza

Last night our church kicked off a ten week series of classes called the Alpha Course.  This course is a chance for people from any background and religious view to check out what Christianity is, and to get a closer look at what the church does.  No question is off limits.  We had a full house last night; about 60 people showed up.  The first part of the class always consists of a dinner, and this time we decided to cater in pizza from one of the local restaurants here in town.  Imagine if you will, two conference room tables full of the most delightful pizza.  Pepperoni, sausage, cheese, Canadian bacon ... you get the idea.  I have often commented that this place makes the best pizza I have ever tasted.  In fact, you would have to argue diligently in order for me to change my mind.  Last night was as if someone sliced off a piece of heaven and brought it down to our church in the form of a multiple topping symphony.  


After the dinner, we listened to a talk that addressed three common objections to the Christian faith: supposedly some think it is boring, untrue, and irrelevant.  You may be able to think of other objections, but these three were taken from recent surveys conducted by various polling organizations who asked carefully phrased questions. When finished with the talk, we broke into several small groups.  There are 9 people in my group, including myself.  That means we have 9 separate insights, 9 different opinions, and 9 distinct ways of interpreting the world around us.  The discussion was lively, and I can expect only good things to come in the future.  

 The week prior to the Alpha course kick off I watched a debate between veteran Christian philosopher William Lane Craig and renowned physicist and atheist Sean Carroll.  The topic of the debate was 'God and Cosmology'.  The two men discussed whether or not current cosmological theory supports the concept of a monotheistic god.  No one here was attempting to assert that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, or trying to argue whether or not creationism should be taught in schools.  There was simply an examination of the evidence around us.

Carroll's main point seemed to be that we can get around the need for positing a belief in god by claiming that the Universe had no real beginning, and that since space and time have always been eternal - there is no reason to think that it was "brought into being" by anything or anyone.  He goes on to state that since the term theism itself is not very well defined (in other words you can ask anyone what it means and you will get a different answer), you cannot use it as an alternative explanation to an eternal Universe.  

This is an interesting claim, and we may in fact come to a place where the 9 of us address these ideas over some of that superb pizza.  But for now, let's speculate about these two positions right here on this blog.  Take the idea that the Universe has always been, and always will be.  Current evidence about the cosmos seems to point to a very different conclusion.  We can observe that matter in the universe is moving away from itself because this force leaves a particular signature that scientists can record and analyze.  This "expanding universe" seems to require an explosion from which everything began, and almost no one today refutes that there was some type of Big Bang or singularity that started everything.  That science cannot take us back far enough to know what exactly happened (or for that matter what may have existed) prior to this amazing event, I will not argue.  Some say it was simply another universe.  Others hold to a view that there must have been many universes, and ours is just one of them (this is called the world ensemble theory).  There is no evidence for either one of these theories by the way, and they work only in so far as to say we cannot scientifically disprove them either.  


Carroll also had a second point, namely that because theism (or the general belief in some type of god) was so ill-defined that you could not use it as any sort of alternative viewpoint.  This was somewhat shocking to me, since I think it is adequate to offer the totality of the Bible itself as a master document from which we may "define" theism.  Depending on the style or translation, most Bibles range anywhere between 900 - 2,000 pages.  It is a collection of 66 books by over 40 authors which spans some 1,500+ years.  The one thing you cannot say is that God (or in this case theism) is poorly defined.  You may say that you think it is untrue, inconsistent, incoherent, etc... but you cannot say there isn't enough information available!

So what are we to do with these two notions?  We have a universe that apparently did begin to exist at a certain point in time, and a God that has been written about and defined for us throughout the ages.  Can these two concepts go hand in hand?  I do think they are contiguous, but I will get to that in a minute.  What really struck me about Carroll's belief system was that it seemed he was ascribing certain eternal and mystical qualities to something that really isn't eternal.  In other words, the Universe and the study of the cosmos had become (I think) his God.  He wanted space to be everlasting, eternal, all encompassing, and larger than life.  These are all terms that have been used to describe God.  We may shift the attributes of the creator onto what has been created, but I don't think we can hide our desire to be awestruck by something that is larger than ourselves.  Carroll still has it, so do I.  That he and I place our awe in two different things is obvious, but I can't help wishing he could see the forest for the trees.  The Universe is enormous and it is often beautiful.  Why?  It certainly didn't have to be.  It also didn't have to be set up in such a way that allows human beings to be able to explore it and witness it's beauty.  Some have postulated that we are in an almost perfect location within the Milky Way galaxy from which to view the cosmos.  The apostle Paul says in the book of Romans that the evidence for God is apparent to all men by simply observing the created world around us.  It would appear this argument holds true for the heavens as well.  

I hope that people come to the Alpha course with these types of questions over the next couple weeks.  I hope that some who would never consider setting foot inside a church will also show up.  I believe it is very possible to reconcile the two solutions regarding Sean Carroll's claims (that we long for something eternal and meaningful, and that we have a God that is well defined).  His first point asks the question in a very basic and relevant way: why is anything here at all?  The second question infers this answer: because God put it there.  At most, I hope that people can walk away from church with more answers than they had when they arrived.  After all, if they don't show up, then what would we do with all of that leftover pizza?


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