Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Day

I wonder if you have ever heard of the Higgs boson?

It's certainly not surprising if you haven't.  But it might – or might not – be one of the fundamental building blocks of time and space, it just might be the subatomic particle that kind of glues everything together and prevents the universe from falling apart into a kind of cosmic soup.  Because without the Higgs boson – and bear in mind that scientists don't even know for sure whether it exists – but without the Higgs boson scientists have got no explanation for how physical objects have any weight.

The Higgs boson has been likened to a pretty girl at a party.  As soon as she enters the room a crowd of adoring young men start to gather around her, and as she moves through the room she attracts a bigger and bigger following.  She's as light as a feather herself, but surrounded by admirers she's harder to stop – both she and her fans have gained momentum. 

So without the Higgs boson - there wouldn't be anything very much.  It's the explanation for a lot of things we take for granted and rely on – like gravity for example.  Unremarkably enough, scientists have nicknamed it the 'God particle' – the one that makes sense of reality as we know it.  But here's the really remarkable thing – since Higgs started talking about his theoretical particle, the particle that he thought must exist so that reality would make sense – scientists have been looking for it for 60 years.  And spending billions of dollars in the process.  The latest news – just a few weeks ago – is that they are really very excited right now.  Because finally they think they have a pretty good idea where the Higgs boson – isn't.

You might think this is a remarkable exercise in faith.  In staking everything on the hope that what you think has to be there or else you don't understand what the heck is going on – is there.  Or maybe an exercise in wishful thinking.  Scientists of course don't call it either of these things.  They call it hypothesis testing.  You work out a hypothesis that might account for what you can observe, and then you test it.  You see if your theory can predict some things that happen – even more importantly, you see if you can find some evidence that your theory isn't true.  Some things that do happen that shouldn't happen if you were right about your hypothesis.  You test the evidence.

But the point is that like all the most interesting and worthwhile exercises in life, the mystery you are making hypotheses about is subtle and slippery and generally invisible.  Otherwise science wouldn't be hard, and we'd all be doing it.

But you know I'm going somewhere with this.  And where I'm going is to suggest that actually we all are.  Young children do it, when they first start to learn about the world and they look for evidence that they are going to be safe and loved, and that their needs are going to be met.  They work out the theory that the one who matters most is the one with milk and warmth and a soft voice and strong hands.  Adults do it, when they look around them for evidence that who they are matters, and that their life has meaning and purpose.  And they work out the theory that to be happy they need to live generously and with integrity, to practise hospitality.  To be concerned for the needs of others, and to nurture and care for those who are vulnerable.  To practise giving and receiving love.  And elderly people do it, when they review their lives and ask themselves why? and what it all meant? and they look for evidence that the love that they have experienced and the love that they have given might be sufficient for whatever their lives might open into next.  We are all scientists of the mysteries of our own existence and our relationships with one another.  This science, of course, is called human spirituality.  Unlike religion, it is always evidence-based.  You form a hypothesis.  Some people, for example, form the hypothesis that the really important thing is to go shopping.  What's going to make sense of everything else in life is an iPad 2 and the latest fashion and an overseas holiday.  Or you might form the hypothesis that the God-particle of human existence - the invisible glue that holds everything together and gives it meaning and direction - is love.  Not the icky kind, but the strong, compassionate kind that the New Testament writers call agape.  And then you live as though it were true, and you see how far you get.  The basic questions are always the same: who are we? are we going to be OK? do we matter? what does it all mean? And you see how far your hypothesis sustains you in the dark passages of life.

Spirituality isn't the same thing as religion.  You can have spirituality without religion, atheists search along with the rest of us for the Higgs boson of embodied human existence, which is to say the invisible, un-pin-downable something that makes sense of everything else.  The God-particle.  And as generations of churchgoers could attest you can also have religion without spirituality.  It's just not a very good idea.

The people of Israel started their search about 3500 years ago when – at first – they thought what they really needed was a war-God, a fearsome God of the desert who would give them a military advantage, and maybe a fertility-God who would ensure that animals would breed and that crops would be reliable and that children would be born and survive.  And then they started to perceive that the God of all this would be the creator-God, the God through whom the world as they knew it came into existence. And over the centuries they came to know this God – not as a remote, set-and-forget God who wound up the springs of the universe and then sat back for the rest of eternity to see what would happen – but as a God who came into creation alongside of them, who in the words of the Book of Genesis walked in the garden with the first humans in the cool of the evening, who wrestled with them as with Jacob as he faced the dark night of his own selfishness and indecision and cowardice, who spoke with them as with Moses on Mt Sinai when he received the Law – as a God whose main characteristic was compassion and whose main desire for human life was mercy and justice and love.  In short, the religion of Israel came to understand that the love that created the earth and all its creatures – was also actively present in and to and through the fabric of creation itself.  It's what theologians mean by Incarnation – the logic of God's own life that takes on concrete, flesh-and-blood existence, in our own lives and in the life of all creation. 

Christianity, which of course grew up within and is grounded in the religion of Israel, recognises what the Jewish people have always understood about the God who is hidden within God's own creation.  That God's impulse is always to share our humanity - as St John's Gospel puts it, that the Word that is with God in the beginning pitches a tent and lives among us, or as St Luke tells it in his epic tale of angels and animals and shepherds and innkeepers, and a scared young woman with her equally scared husband looking for a place to have their baby – that in this baby at this time God reveals most fully what God always does – which is to inhabit our human lives at their deepest and most everyday level.  Jesus, whom we call God's Son because his life unfolds perfectly out of God's own life, and because in him we see revealed the nature of the God who created us – Jesus becomes for us not a strange or freakish exception to the rule of how human beings are normally conceived and born – but a message or a Word of God that says, 'see? this is what I always do.  Hidden inside your human DNA, the impulse of love that gives birth to galaxies and stars also gives birth to you.'  This strange and wonderful tale which we hear every year, over which theologians and Bible scholars – yes and amusingly enough, atheists – love to argue and say, 'well, but this bit can't be literally true, surely? Yes but was the star really a comet? Seriously - angels?' – or my favourite of all time – 'well, a virgin birth I can believe .... but three wise men?'  this strange and wonderful tale that won't go away because it has the power to tell us who we really are, why we matter and what we mean – this story tells us that the fundamental particle of our everyday lives is love.  And that the love that created us is what we need to discover within ourselves to make us who we most truly are.

Christmas time is the miracle of creation itself.  The miracle of the goodness and beauty of creation and the redemptive capacity of human goodness and love that is made possible by the fact that the one who created us in love – also chooses to dwell within our humanity.  The miracle that – despite our pettiness and selfishness, and despite the failure of our best efforts to live in peace and our struggle to care for the fragile planet God created us to care for and delight in – makes our humanity holy, and capable of bearing the image of Love itself.  That's what the birth of Jesus – the Incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God – actually means, however much poetic licence the Gospel writers used.

The Higgs boson of human existence.  Telling us that despite our nightmares, we'll be OK.  That despite the triviality and wretchedness that pervades our human lives, we matter.  Showing us, despite our inattention and the distractions that clutter our minds, what we mean.