Sunday 25th March - Palm Sunday - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN, PALM SUNDAY, EP. Zechariah 9.9-12; John 12.12-27

Not far from us now, in a quiet corner of the churchyard outside, lie the mortal remains of Peter Guthrie Tait, born 1831, died 1901, a member of this congregation. Tait, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1860 to 1900, has been described as ‘one of the most renowned scientists and mathematicians in Europe’. That glowing description, admittedly, comes from the Edinburgh Academy’s Register of its own former pupils, and Tait is no longer as universally renowned as his old friend and Edinburgh Academy classmate James Clerk Maxwell: but there can be no doubt that Tait’s many contributions to mathematics and to experimental and theoretical physics were of major and in some cases still relevant significance.

Tait was, in other words, the very model of a modern mathematician and physical scientist. His Christian faith, matured in this church under the Evangelical ministry of Dean Ramsay, was untroubled by Darwin’s theory of evolution: God the Creator benevolently ruled the universe through certain fixed laws of nature, and if those of evolution were among them, then so be it. What concerned Tait, rather, was another aspect of those fixed laws of nature. Governed by the laws of thermodynamics, the sun, which supplies life-giving energy to the universe, would gradually lose heat and cool, and eventually the universe would contract into an inert cooling mass. How could that catastrophic conclusion to Creation reflect the will of a benevolent Creator?

Tait’s response to that question was worked out in collaboration with another equally distinguished Scottish scientist, Balfour Stewart, Professor of Physics at Owens College, later to become the University of Manchester. Tait and Stewart worked out their response in the light of a variety of contemporary discoveries and developments in physics and mathematics. Some other scientists believed they might be on to something, others were much more sceptical, but in the rapidly moving scientific world of the 1870s, there was sufficient uncertainty about where physics was going, for the hypotheses of Tait and Stewart to gain a wide, and often favourable, public readership.

The key to their hypotheses was that alongside the visible universe there might exist ‘an invisible order of things’, an ‘unseen universe’. The laws of thermodynamics applied not simply to the visible universe but to the visible and invisible universe together, with exchanges of energy taking place in interaction between them. In this interaction, energy lost from the visible universe would be stored in the invisible, and then restored to renew or recreate the visible. Seen in the light of this ‘theory of everything’, the visible and invisible universes together comprised a ‘Great Whole’, which was ‘infinite in energy, and will last from eternity to eternity’. Thus the laws of nature, through which God ruled these universes, might after all be seen to reflect the will of a benevolent Creator. In addition, miracles, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, and human immortality in a spiritual body, equally could be seen in terms of the lawful ‘action of the invisible upon the visible universe’: there was no need for the unscientific idea that these required a suspension of the laws of nature.

In the end, Tait and Stewart’s overambitious theory of everything failed to gain scientific support. Clerk Maxwell, although a good friend of his former schoolfellow Tait, believed that the hypothesis of an unseen universe was ‘a question far beyond the limits of physical speculation’. Maxwell, an elder of the Church of Scotland, believed that the study of science could only enlarge a Christian’s ‘view of the glory of God’: but given the essentially provisional nature of scientific knowledge, he considered that ‘the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonize his science with his Christianity’ had no ‘significance except to the man himself and to him only for a time’.

Some of the 19th century discoveries and developments that Tait and Stewart used to construct their hypotheses also have not stood the test of time. Others, such as the idea of many dimensions and multiple universes, have re-emerged, but in different forms, forms that fall far short of making anything like Tait and Stewart’s theory of everything, even remotely credible to scientists. To people of faith moreover, such a scientific theory of everything, harmonizing science with Christianity, is now no more than a faintly tantalising possibility, impossible to prove.

A faintly tantalising possibility, impossible to prove. But isn’t that as it should be? To think a little more about that, let’s turn back to our two readings tonight. This is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when Christian faith seeks deeper understanding by reflecting on events leading up to the death of Jesus, events recorded for posterity by the writers of the four Gospels. In our second reading we heard again the story of Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem at the beginning of that week, riding on a donkey. What that all meant to those who accompanied Jesus and those who stood welcoming him, we cannot be sure: but among these first century Jewish people, colonial subjects of the Roman Empire, it seems that hope was in the air, hope that this young teacher and healer from Galilee might be the long-promised Messiah, come to save them and their nation from all their troubles and humiliations. Even some of Jesus’ closest disciples may have thought that he intended to spark off a revolt against the Roman Empire, or at least against the corrupt priestly rulers of the Jerusalem temple. It was only afterwards, our reading tells us, that ‘they remembered that these things had been written of him’; and when the Gospel writers came to record these events, each of them shaped their retelling of the story in the light of ‘these things that had been written’ in the ancient Jewish scriptures, not least the words of the prophet Zechariah we heard in our first reading.

But what did Jesus think he was doing? Because there are, in the four Gospels, different and sometimes inconsistent accounts of what Jesus said and did, and because the ways of thinking of people living in the 1st century are in many ways different from our ways of thinking, it is not easy for us to be clear about what Jesus thought he was doing. In John’s Gospel especially, of course, Jesus himself does seem to be clear, to clearly know what he was doing, and Church doctrines have built on that. But if we do not want to fall into what the Church itself has declared to be the heresy of Docetism, the idea that Jesus only seemed to be human, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Jesus did not know what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Yes, he would continue healing and teaching, teaching especially that the love of power and prestige was illusory, that the power of love and forgiveness was stronger, and that it was possible to live even now in glad awareness that the heart of the universe was just, ever-forgiving and all-loving. Yes, he would continue to teach that, to live, as he had always tried to do, in the light of that teaching, and yes, if necessary, to die: but he would leave the outcome to the Father in whom he trusted; and yes, of course he was afraid. His humanity shines through the final words of our reading tonight: ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say “Father save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’

And we know how it all ended. John, who comes closest to Docetism, the heresy that Jesus only seemed to be human, does not tell us: but the earlier Gospels of Mark and Matthew record the stark words: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ God is silent. The Father in whom Jesus trusted does not rescue or vindicate him. Jesus dies defeated, and with him his teaching that the just and gentle rule of God is to be trusted. Yes, there is more to the story: but if we wish to understand, we need to remain a little longer with the defeat, and see in Jesus what has been called ‘an exemplar of humanity’, the true nature of our mortal condition, raised to its highest human possibility. In this life, that is, we can have no incontrovertible proof, no secure knowledge, of who we really are or of what is our ultimate destiny. There is no ultimate theory of everything to explain what in the end humanly matters most -  what humanly matters most, that the cries of those who, like Jesus, have suffered unjustly in this life, are ‘reconciled among the stars’.  

And that is why, to return to the hypotheses of Tait and Stewart, Clerk Maxwell was probably right. Perhaps there are invisible universes, in accordance with the higher natural laws of a benevolent creator, waiting to rescue the universe we know from the ultimate meaninglessness of a final catastrophe: but if there are, it is ‘a question far beyond the limits of physical speculation’.

Again, of course, if we move on from the cross, there is more to the story: but if we attempt, as some have done, to prove that the resurrection was an event of the kind that, had we the means, could be demonstrated scientifically, we will again be going ‘far beyond the limits of physical speculation’. And not only that: we shall also miss the resurrection’s deep and enduring meaning. The deep and enduring meaning of the resurrection, then and now, is the real presence of the just, loving and forgiving Spirit of God in Christ, alive in countless human hearts, and enlivening countless human communities of faith, hope, love, justice and peace.  It is the reality that Tait knew, not least through the worship and community of this church, just as Clerk Maxwell knew it in his Presbyterian kirk. These distinguished scientists, like many other scientists still, and like innumerable ordinary people, were and are what the prophet Zechariah in our first reading calls ‘prisoners of hope’ – prisoners of hope, and in their faith, tried and tested by life, willing prisoners of hope, glad and grateful to be so.

References

Lewis E F, ‘P G Tait, Balfour Stewart, and The Unseen Universe’ in Lawrence S, McCartney M, Mathematicians and their Gods, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015: 213-247 (Ch.11)

Heiman P M, The Unseen Universe: Physics and the Philosophy of Nature in Victorian Britain, The British Journal for the History of Science Vol 6, No 21 (1972)

Silver D S, The Last Poem of James Clerk Maxwell, Notices of the AMS Vol 55, No 10 (November 2008): 1266-1270

McNatt J L, James Clerk Maxwell’s Refusal to Join the Victoria Institute, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith Vol 56, No 3 (September 2004): 204-215