The Ascension window at the Cathedral

This year the world is marking the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death in 1955. Most Christians have not even begun to think about the revolution in understanding he brought into the modern world.

Because of Einstein, and others, something quite astounding has happened in our lifetime. There has been what the philosophers call a "paradigm shift" in science. The entire basis on which Western science has carried out its business over the last few centuries has gone, and in its place there is a new model.

People are calling this the shift from "old science" to "new science." Old science was the model of the universe assumed by Copernicus and Galileo and Newton. They thought of creation as precisely that - as a created object - and of the universe as a very large mechanism, like a huge clock ticking away under rather fixed mechanical laws.

New science begins with Quantum Theory, and it has changed absolutely everything scientists now believe.

We now know that we are not living in a fixed universe, but in an expanding universe. The stars and planets are moving away from each other at terrific speed. And it's not simply that they are moving farther and farther out into space. Einstein showed that space itself is expanding. The very reality of space is not fixed.

An eminent English physicist, Sir Herbert Wilkinson, who was recently in Vancouver, says we can no longer imagine there is only one universe. It is quite likely there are several universes, including perhaps anti-matter universes. These are also travelling apart, and if we should ever meet up with an anti-matter universe we will all go up in a cloud of smoke. There will be a cosmic annihilation.

These ideas somehow never make it into the church. Perhaps, like me, most clergy are not very good at science. But it seems to me that we need to be very careful here. We can find ourselves as Christians completely out of touch with modern knowledge, and especially with young people who are learning all about this stuff at school.

The new science has serious implications for Christian theology. The late Carl Sagan - still one of the most widely read modern scientists today - pointed out, for example, that if we take the biblical story of the Ascension of Jesus Christ literally we have a problem. If Jesus' body lifted off from the earth two thousand years ago, as the Bible says, and even if it reached the speed of light immediately (which Einstein says is the fastest speed any matter can travel) then it would have taken him a year to pass Pluto and after two thousand years Jesus is still trapped in the solar system. He's not yet ascended to heaven, Sagan said, unless we mean something else by `heaven.' A few brave Christians have taken up the challenge of these new ideas. There was a time when religion and science were intellectual opponents, but now many theologians and scientists are suggesting that religion and science are simply different and complementary ways of understanding the one mystery of life.

Diarmuid O'Murchu in Quantum Theology: the Spiritual Implications of the New Physics says we should stop thinking of God as a supernatural Being located outside the universe. Instead, he says, we should think of the universe itself as a pulsating, vibrant dance of energy alive with benign and creative potential in which God calls to us from within, not without.

He says we should stop thinking of ourselves as created beings, and see ourselves instead as woven into the fabric of a dynamic, evolving and self-renewing universe in which we must play our part or become extinct. The damage we are doing to the planet and to other life forms may leave the universe no choice but to spit us out, as it has done to countless species before us.

Old forms of religion that perpetuate the idea we humans are some sort of crown or pinnacle of creation, the very best that God could do, may actually be dangerous, he says, in that they foster illusions of superiority that divorce us from the rhythms of nature, the pulse of existence, and prevent us from acquiring the humility we need before the vast mystery of life itself.

I am fascinated by all this. The new physics seems like more of a friend than an enemy. It brings a new understanding of the non-predictability of events, starting with Heisenberg's "Principle of Uncertainty," that begins to leave room for the unexplained, like the healing miracles of Jesus and the inexplicable interventions of God in human affairs. It begins to look as though science and religion don't necessarily conflict. It's just bad science and bad religion that conflict, and if we want to outgrow that period in human history then we need to re-think our faith as well as our science.

Easter lillies at Christ Church Cathedral

Easter, for example, is much more than a story about the body of Jesus walking out of a tomb. Easter is a kind of uncertainty principle thrust into the heart of our tidy, ordered universe, undermining all our theories about how things ought to be. It's an event that makes everything unstable.

Easter is the divine uncertainty principle inserted into our world, and it remains an irrational obstacle, a kind of intellectual scandal, until we reach that level of faith when we see it as the only still point at the centre of everything. But because we resist uncertainty, we resist Easter.

People try to make it into something understandable, something neat and coherent. Some dismiss it as a fantasy, the over-wrought projection of grief stricken friends. They can make sense of that. Others use it to turn God into their private sponsor, the patron of their personal interests and advocate of their political worldview. They claim to know what Easter means, and what happened there, and they insist on reducing Easter to a set of doctrines or certainties, which in the end remove its essential mystery.

It is none of these. There are moments in life when Easter breaks in upon us. There are times when the boundaries and limits we know are torn apart, and our universe crumbles to dust. It's in these moments, when everything we understand dissolves around us, that we come close to the heart of the living God. Easter means that absolutely nothing is reliable except God. Nothing can be dependable unless it is open to the divine unpredictability.

Easter is God's laughter, God's hilarity at our systems and theories and even our serious religion. And it means that God alone is our foundation and strength, the One in whose hands our lives are held in a love that defies all rational understanding.

If we have to thank the scientists for helping us see all this again _ why not?

Happy Easter!

Bishop Michael