Monday, July 18, 2022

Mind before Matter


Colossians 1:15-28

Proper 11 / Year C

Have you seen any of the first pictures from the James Webb Telescope?  Looking back in time as much as 13.5 billion years, they are truly amazing.  60 times more powerful than any previous telescope, the clarity of the images and what they capture are stunning.  The telescope itself is a wonder.  Work began on it in 2004.  Thousands of technicians and engineers from 14 different countries invested more than 40 million hours in its development.  The mirror, which consists of 18 hexagonal, gold-coated sections, extends over 21 feet.  It will be able to collect images and data never before available to humankind and I, for one, can’t wait for what it will reveal.

I mentioned last Sunday I took a couple of philosophy classes in college.  One of the more interesting questions debated down through the ages will be fueled anew by what the Webb discovers:  which came first… mind or matter? 

On one side of the question are the materialists who hold at the beginning there was only matter and energy.  Over billions of years, some of this matter developed a consciousness leading eventually (and, up till now, in its highest form) our brains.  On the other side are the idealists who hold before anything was, at the first there was absolute intelligence, pure consciousness.  From this mind all things have come forth.  Those of us who subscribe to the Christian faith are idealists, but not all idealists are Christians (if that makes sense).

Materialism’s greatest challenge is coming to terms with things which cannot be measured and observed through the scientific method, such as aesthetic qualities and moral values.  Pushed to an extreme, a materialist has to admit all these things are subjective, thus leaving us with little more to guide human behavior than relativism – you do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do.

Idealism, on the other hand, can lead to dogmatism, where deeply held tenents do not conform to what we know of the visible world.  Someone who states, “Well, the bible says it, so that is good enough for me!”, is making a dogmatic confession.

Generally speaking, there is a third option, which is pragmatism, which holds mind and matter developed together, but by this point in the sermon you are probably wishing I never took a philosophy class, so I’ll move on...

...on to my theology classes.  [Insert groan]  As I said, we Christians are idealists.  Before there was anything, we contend God was.  And, at the beginning, there was with God the Word.  Paul puts it so well in today’s New Testament reading:

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

Think about what today’s collect asserts when it refers to as God “the fountain of all wisdom.”  It invites us to affirm mind before matter.  And it invites to view the material world as being infused with a design whose architect is God.

If I were to paraphrase the first verse of the bible it might be this: “In the beginning God had a dream…”  God’s dream was a dream of communion with all of creation, but specifically with us, who are created in God’s own image.  All of creation has been called forth with the intentional purpose of being in relationship with God.   And for being in relationship with one another.  God’s dream is for all relationships to mirror what is at the very heart of God’s being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For us Christians, it is God’s own self-relationship and God’s dream for us to mirror it which sets our moral compass and fuels our sense of beauty.

The materialistic perspective holds there is no intentionality to the universe.  Matter simply comes to be and developes as it does in accordance with the physical laws of the universe and natural selection, which themselves emerge as guiding principles through no discernable method or meaning.  Not all Christians, but most Episcopalians, would say these laws and principles are tools in the hands of God used to translate dream into reality.

We Christians also hold God’s dream has not unfolded as God hopes.  This morning’s Eucharistic prayer puts it succinctly:  

From the primal elements you brought for the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.  You made us the rulers of creation.  But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.

God’s response to this is self-giving.  Paul writes,

For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Paul sees it as a one-time event accomplished by Christ’s death on the Cross.  I add to this it is an ongoing reality.  The Cross is God’s definitive demonstration of a willingness to reach out to us for relationship and to remain in communion with us, no matter how much we fail to live into God’s dream.  God is both a dreamer and a realist.  But above all, God loves us with a love that can never be broken.

This is our faith.  It is the story we hold dear.  It is the good news we proclaim.  But we are not dogmatic about it.  The more we learn about God’s creation, the more we learn about God’s dream.  Which brings me back to the Webb Telescope and why I find it to be so thrilling.  If you hold to the bible and only the bible, you will (for example), be forced to believe the sun resides in a chamber in the nighttime from which it emerges in the morning to transverse our sky. 

We Episcopalians follow a path firmly rooted in God as Creator, but loosely holding what we know about God’s magnificent creation and how it has come to be.  A collect on page 827 of the prayer book articulates this well:

Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

I love the notion of every new discovery being an opportunity for us to discern with great clarity how to fulfill our role in God’s eternal purpose.  Unlike some Christians who feel their faith threatened by discovery and the advancement of knowledge, we find it to be an opportunity to ponder how better to understand God’s dream. 

I know our children and grandchildren struggle to navigate the seemingly completing claims of science and faith.  Perhaps you do as well.  I invite you to lift up to them the perspective I have shared with you this morning.  Creation reveals intention.  Creation is the result of God’s dream to share relationship.