by Patrick Lewin
January 6th 2013

There is in the Radio Times for 5-11 January 2013 a very fine, free, full colour glossy 'The Universe Through Time', a  four page wall chart scientifically bang up to date, from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, past the extinction of all life on earth as the sun expands to become a red giant some 20 billion years after the Big Bang, to the end of the universe  far, far later, cold and dark. The explanations that run along the bottom of the chart are exceptionally clear.

The one thing the chart doesn't say is that many cosmologists, including our Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, OM,  think that our universe is not the only one or the first, and the conditions that produced our universe may exist  within many black holes, so that our universe may be the mother of untold numbers of others. Indeed it is possible  that there is an infinite number of universes, most of them devoid of life.

  1. If there had ever been absolutely nothing there would still be nothing.
  2. Something or someone is eternal since even an infinite series of finite universes  (each with a beginning and an end) would need something eternal to set it going, probably within itself.
  3. As to what this something is, and whether it deserves to be called God, none of us knows for certain,  so philosophically we should all call ourselves agnostics, as even Richard Dawkins recognizes.
  4. We should not say dogmatically, 'Nobody can know', because if we cannot know then we cannot know that we cannot know.
  5. Having philosophically admitted our personal ignorance, we are then free to make informed or ignorant guesses,  from atheism or one of the world religions to starting our own religion, though when one man told Voltaire  he was thinking of doing so Voltaire suggested that getting himself crucified might help.
  6. It is hard to believe that anything on so colossal a scale as the universe or multiverse has no meaning at all  but just is. On the other hand there seems to be no power that is both omnipotent and absolutely loving,  for so many things happen that would break any loving parent's heart. It can and has been argued that free will  is so important that the loving omnipotent power never intervenes, but that's cold comfort when we are in need of help.  So it is up to us all to make this world a better place.
  7. Voltaire was no atheist but he cursed the wicked priests of a worldly Church that had turned its back on God.
  8. Though our backgrounds, careers, and temperaments are very different and his achievements are far more substantial  than mine, I am probably closer in my thinking on such matters to Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh  and Primus (Archbishop) of the Scottish Episcopal Church than anyone else I know, and his latest book,  Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Canongate, 2012) has just come out in paperback, though the hardback can still be picked up at a discount through Amazon. Intending to become a monk, he left home at the age of 14 and entered Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire.  There he remained from 1948 until 1956 when he was sent to be secretary to the new Bishop of Accra in West Africa,  the last white man to be bishop there. Gradually his thinking broadened and when he returned in March 1958  it was to Scotland again and not to Kelham. Those early pages didn't grip me on a first reading as a monk  was about the last thing I'd ever want to be.

It was as a curate in the Gorbals, Glasgow's overcrowded tenements, that Richard 'found another Jesus.  Not Jesus the celibate abandoning himself to the night of God. This Jesus was the rebel taking up arms  against the night of the world, a night in which the poor mourned and cursed the darkness.'

With the comfort and support of a truly remarkable wife, he gave himself to the utmost in every post he held,  all the time fighting his own self-doubt, at one point trying the communism of the Church in Jerusalem as described in Acts.  They extended their dining room table so that it would seat twenty, and their three children were encouraged  to welcome every Jesus who turned up at their door in the person of a hungry beggar who sought a meal and a bed  for the night.

To meet him, so warm and articulate, you'd never sense the self-doubt. But he says that self-confident atheists,  who find no God within this world, and self-confident theists who find one outside this world, often challenged  his uncertainties. His gifts were recognized within the Scottish Episcopal Church and in 1986 he was elected  Bishop of Edinburgh. At least he was certain that Edinburgh was his favourite city.

'In my fourteen years as a bishop I attended two Lambeth Conferences. I didn't particularly enjoy the first one  in 1988, but I actively hated the second in 1998.' The major issue at the first was the ordination of women.  The Archbishop of Canterbury then was Robert Runcie, 'a devout pragmatist' who persuaded the conference to defer a decision  until later. Within a decade more and more Anglican provinces had begun ordaining women. The major issue at the second  was homosexuality and 'What references there were in the Bible to homosexuality were all hostile.' The tone of debate  was altogether uglier and Runcie's successor, George Carey, 'probably more out of naivety than collusion,  allowed the African bishops to force an unconstitutional debate [and] presided over the rout with smiling incomprehension  as the damage was done.' Richard and the Archbishop of Canada 'helped put together a resolution apologising  to the world's lesbian and gay Christians for what the Lambeth Conference had said about them.  Out of the 749 bishops present, 182 signed it, including the Primates of Brazil, Canada, Central Africa, Ireland,  New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.' 'The only sweet memory I brought away with me was throwing my mitre  into the Thames.'

He sent me the epilogue to Leaving Alexandria, and as I said how moved I had been by it he asked his publisher  to send me a proof copy of the whole book. To clear his head and think, he set out alone with his new border terrier Daisy  and walked repeatedly three trails at the northern end of the Pentland hills south of Edinburgh, or he would sometimes  go back to Old St Paul's where he had ministered for twelve years, remembering the dead he had led in their coffins  down the thirty-three steps and under the bridge to the waiting hearse: 'my religion pared away to almost nothing,  I can still remember.' If we really believe in the resurrection of the dead, why mourn them so?

'That is the pain and the puzzle that lies at the heart of religion,  and it is what will keep it going, in some form or other,  as long as humans go on being born and living their lives and going down the stairs and under the bridge  to increase the army of the forgotten dead. Religion names the dead in protest as well as in hope, and God is the object  of the protest as well as the hope. It is because the dead do not speak to us and because we cannot know what has become  of them that we protest and hope at the same time. But God does not speak to us either, so we are left with our names  and our protests and our hopes, and we build places that blend them together, places to which we can speak,  but which never speak back to us.'
'I am left ... listening for the whisper.... I am tugged still by the possibility of the transcendent.  But only whispers and tugs; nothing louder or more violent.... the whisper can sometimes be heard.  And from a great way off the tiny figure of Jesus can be seen on the seashore, kindling a fire.
'I don't any longer believe in religion, but I want it around: weakened, bruised and bemused,  less sure of itself and purged of everything except the miracle of pity....'

Writers and thinkers like John Gray have given the book rave reviews.

'Leaving Alexandria is many things. It is a compelling account of a journey through life,  told with great frankness; it is a subtle reflection on what it means to live in an imperfect and puzzling world;  and it is a highly readable insight into one of the most humane and engaged minds of our time. It is, quite simply,  a wonderful book.'
Alexander McCall Smith
'... His account of how a passionate, intelligent boy grew out of a poor and deprived background,  without ever losing touch with the humane values it gave him, will be a delight and inspiration to believers,  non-believers and ex-believers alike.'
Philip Pullman

Patrick Lewin was convenor and chair of a philosophical society and is a Modern Church council member.