I had a religious experience at the end of last week. It was pretty small, as far as those kinds of experiences go, but I was looking across the city from the top of Norton Summit. It was a beautiful day, early morning. The sun had just come up, there was a light breeze just stirring the leaves of the gum trees which are everywhere up there, down on the plains the city was coming to life, in the distance I could see the ocean, and I had a revelation. “Life is beautiful.” We live in a Goldilocks part of the universe, as historian David Christian from Macquarie University puts it. Of course, you will know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, in which Goldilocks breaks into the house of the three bears, tastes the first bowl of porridge, which is too hot, tastes the second bowl of porridge which is too cold, and finally eats poor little Baby Bear’s porridge, which is just right. We live in a Goldilocks part of the universe. The conditions are just right for complex life to emerge.
But it’s miraculous that the universe is here at all. I was recently watching a Ted Talk by David Christian, as it happens the same day I had my religious experience at the top of Norton Summit. He was talking about threshold moments in the history of the universe; moments when suddenly something magical happens and you get complexity. Complexity and order emerges where before there had been just chaos or even nothing.
The most important threshold moment is the first one we know of: the singular and commonly but incorrectly called the Big Bang. It’s an incorrect description, Mr Hiwa Jaldiani was telling me, because it wasn’t actually an explosion, but simply a rapid expansion, when this incredibly dense and incredibly hot ball of energy suddenly expanded and began to cool down. This is the most important threshold moment that we know about.
What existed before that? Absolutely nothing!
Quick change of focus, but there is a reason for this: I studied Latin in Year 12, the language which the ancient Romans spoke. It was good for my brain and for understanding how language works, it was handy when I was learning basic Italian and helped me understand a very important phrase in Christian history: creatio ex nihilo. ‘Creation out of nothing’ is one of the oldest and one of the most important Christian beliefs. God created out of nothing.
What existed before the singularity? Nothing – no space, no matter, and, critically, no time. Before the Big Bang, time did not exist. Time came into existence with the singularity. Just think about that for a moment. Time, which we think of as having always been there, which we measure with Swiss precision, did not exist before the Big Bang. There was, literally, nothing.
So where does God fit in all of this? Perhaps when the early Christians spoke of God being eternal they were trying to say, beyond time and space. Maybe there exists a spiritual reality, a difference plane of existence if that’s a helpful concept for you, which intersects with ours, but is beyond time and space. Maybe when we die, that’s where our soul goes.
Here’s a variation on that thought: perhaps the spiritual world just has a different relationship to time and space. We know that time is relative. We know that time is affected by gravity. So perhaps the spiritual world, the heaven which Jesus talks about, the eternal life which he mentions, perhaps it’s a place which has a different relationship to time. A former Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, John Polkinghorne, who actually gave up being a professor at Cambridge to become an Anglican priest (he’s now retired), talks about the spiritual world of heaven intersecting ours from a different plane. Maybe death is one of those times when our world intersects with the heavenly one.
Another family story to finish today. When my grandmother died many years ago now, my parents found her notebook. This is her religious experience, her vision as recorded in her notebook towards the end of her life, and I’ll finish with this:
“I am so small and earthbound and covered with dust from the private path I tread, and you God are so far off and so magnificent and glorious and beyond. And you are encircled by your great ones – your splendid ones – those who have done great things, who have loved mightily, and they circle around you with shining faces – and more of them come and they move in great waves about you and I am so small and dusty and far away. Then as they move they catch me up in their great throng and they brush the dust from me and shake the dust from my feet and my face shines too, for they have caught me up in their love – your love that has overflowed through them and gathered me up – it overflows to all the world.”
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall, School Chaplain