Anglican Samizdat

April 10, 2009

Shrivelling in the face of the Infinite

Filed under: Christianity — David Jenkins @ 10:12 pm

Ian Sample discusses John Polkinghorne’s transformation from quantum physicist to Anglican priest here:

Earlier this year, a former Cambridge physicist, John Polkinghorne, published a book called Questions of Truth: God, science and belief. I interviewed John shortly after it came out, and as Easter is now upon us, it seemed as good a time as any to post the whole interview.

There was plenty in Polkinghorne’s book I found offensive. In one passage, he says that God hides from us because if we ever clapped eyes on an infinite being, we’d be unable to carry on as we are. We’d be overwhelmed to the point of hopelessness. As John says in the interview: “We’d sort of shrivel up.”

It’s extraordinary stuff. And surely a bit patronising. My reaction to superbeings in comics has always been excitement and mild envy (great powers, but not sure I could go with the outfits). If I was to see the ultimate superbeing, I’d be very excited for a long time. I might even get a poster and go around praising them. But I think I could carry on a life of human mediocrity.

We have clapped eyes on an infinite being: Jesus. He was incarnate in order that, knowing him, we would know the Father: if we have seen Jesus, we have seen Father.

Jesus emptied himself and became human (Phil 2:7) for the specific purpose of offending Ian Sample; not really, but it does illustrate how foolish and arrogant in a 21st C. idiomatic way it is to be “offended” by the idea that a personal encounter with the undisguised infinite could be anything less than shrivelling.

I wonder how far we have come in our perspective of the universe: Aristotle had the earth at the centre of the universe; Copernicus, the sun; Fred Hoyle had no centre; Stephen Hawking has decentralised multiverses and now – Ian Sample is the centre of the universe and will be offended if told otherwise.

When a child of our new age of reason finally meets his maker, what will be his response to God and reason for not believing in him? It seems as if it will be “don’t patronise me”. At least Bertrand Russell had prepared the marginally more modest – if no more helpful – “there was not enough evidence”.


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