Keith Ward, Big Questions in Science and Religion 2: How Will the Universe End?

This post continues my review of (perhaps here turning more into a dialogue with) Keith Ward’s most recent book, The Big Questions in Science and Religion.

This chapter’s title, like the previous, could be understood to make an unjustified assumption, in this case that the universe will end. It could well be the case (as in many Eastern traditions as well as streams of Process theology) that there has always been and will always be some universe. Ward once again does more justice to the range of possibilities than the chapter’s title might lead one to expect.

An atheist once asked me to consider the question “What would it take to make you lose your faith?” It is a question that it is important to ask, since it helps us if nothing else to determine whether our faith is unfalsifiable and thus, as philosophers would put it, “not even false”. Asking this question can also help us identify what is central to our faith and what is not. (Of course, an atheist can always ask the reverse question, “What would it take to cause you to have faith?”

The answer I gave then was that, were it to be possible to travel triillions of years into the future and see whether anything still existed, then the failure of anything (even God) to continue to exist would lead me to conclude that we live in a completely naturalistic universe that just happens to exist, and one day will just happen not to. Of course, if such time travel is possible, then time travellers will be able to go into that distant future and cause something to exist then. Be that as it may, I suppose what I’m proposing is a form of John Hick’s idea of “eschatological verification”. There is, however, an important difference. My “faith” is not primarily a conviction that certain propositions about spiritual realities will be true. It is rather a conviction that existence is meaningful. What would ultimately undermine my faith is not a demonstration that God has different attributes than I might have imagined, but a demonstration that existence is meaningless. And for me to be persuaded that existence is meaningful, something must at the very least continue the legacy of that which exists today. There is no need for me to exist forever as a separate personal entity. But something must.

At times it might seem that Ward might be sympathetic to this way of viewing things, since he talks of a cosmic goal of the universe evolving persons (and perhaps eventually becoming personal itself), which does not necessarily depend on the ongoing existence of human beings. Yet elsewhere he suggests that for the universe to have a goal that is realized, then the problem of evil must be dealt with, and nothing other than a resolution of the problem for the specific individuals who suffer will suffice (pp.51-52).

In this context, Ward makes some rather striking affirmations about “millenarianism” and considers that this understanding of the Book of Revelation is harder to reconcile with scientific cosmology than the young-earth creationist understanding of Genesis is. And so he states, on the one hand, that “If millenarianism is part of Christianity, then Christianity and modern cosmology cannot be reconciled” (p.56), while immediately after that he adds, “Millenarianism, however, has never been part of the teaching of any mainstream Christian church” (p.57).

Scientific cosmology cannot answer the question of whether there are spiritual realities, but it can help religions avoid making claims that are patently false about factual matters of literal truth (p.57). And this seems to be where Ward leaves the matter. If one believes in God, then believing the universe has a purpose or goal of some sort seems a natural corollary. And the existence of God or spiritual being “seems to be a matter that takes us beyond science, though not beyond the possibility of reasoned debate” (p.58).

In my own most recent book, The Burial of Jesus, I suggest that the excessive claims to certainty about and excessive focus on the afterlife in Christianity in the United States today, coupled with the egotism of American culture, actually is an unhealthy combination. For ancient Jews and then Christians, the doctrine of the afterlife was a development based on the conviction that God exists and is just, and will thus reward those who suffer and give their lives rather than be unfaithful to God. But we today may ask not only whether the idea of an eternal existence of our individual egos makes sense, but whether unending life in fact manages to right the wrongs of this life.

Whatever you may think about this last topic, there is certainly an irony in the fact that the highly developed Christian doctrine of the afterlife, with its origins in the conviction that God will deal with injustice, leads some Christians in our time to consider it appropriate to ignore injustice in this life as not mattering, because heaven is all that matters. This is so far removed from the various viewpoints one finds expressed in the New Testament on this topic, that it is hard to believe how widespread it is precisely among those who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”.

So what would it take to make you lose your faith, or find faith? And does the notion of an afterlife help keep your faith plausible, or is it one of the implausible things that makes faith problematic to you? Please share your thoughts on these subjects!

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  • Angie Van De Merwe

    Because we a personal beings, we are offended when we are treated impersonably. Impersonability de-humanizes the individual and is what suffering is all about. Suffering does not affirm a person’s uniquenes, meaningfulness, or value. Suffering takes away meaning. And because suffering has such ill results on the human psyche, Christians come up with justification of/for suffering..Theologizing about suffering, such as Job’s comforters, does nothing to alleviate suffering. It intensifies and compounds it for some, because is mimimizes the above mentioned effects of suffering (value, uniqueness, and meaning)…People cannot live without hope and theologizing about suffering was meant to give “hope” for justice in the future (while denying justice in this life?!). Hebrews speaks of Jesus learning obedience through suffering. This is the epitome of Christian theologizing! The book of Hebrews can only bring comfort, if one believes that Jesus example is the example that you desire to emulate. Jesus example may be a good form, but it is not the only moral form. It is a “Christian form”, during a time of persecution. Besides considering Jesus, as the author and finisher of faith, for the JOY set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…This sounds like Kohlberg’d first stage of moral development..”obedience for fear of punishment”, under “law”, not sonship..Obedience under suffering can only bring relief if one believes in an afterlife, where justice rules and that Jesus is the moral standard in the specific unjust situation and the individual has not gotten to a hopeless frame of mind. It seems to me that many of the NT books were written to those who were suffering under unjust situations and were given hope when they had no other way of escape. Hebrews was a tradition’s conditioning or theologizing in adverse circumstances. All religions seek to make meaning out of life. Psychologically, it is unhealthy to deny suffering, as if it doesn’t matter, or to rise above suffering, as in seeking martydom or “Nivarna”. Wisdom literature seems to allude to sin, suffering, birth and death in average everyday terms. Life is looked at realistically and people are commended to “take it in stride”, as part of life. Job understood, in the end, that things were not meant so much to be understood, as appreciated with gratitude to a God that is above and beyond our understanding! Job understood “his place”, as man, and yet, he did not disregard his mannishness in his quetioning and pursuit to understand. The pursuit to understand is commendable and is what wisdom is about.In regards to the afterlife,we just do not know about the beginning or the end. We don’t know about “other worlds” as you have pointed out, and yet, evangelicals know about all of that because of some supernatural revelation in an ancient text! That is really amazing…

  • Beyond Words

    This is THE question. Having the spiritual maturity to limit one’s ego in terms of absolute truth claims is one of the first steps in accepting the paradoxical self-actualizing/self-limiting mutual interdependence we share with each other and the universe. In my opinion, meaning and purpose don’t even require the universe/God to be eternal or for evil to be ultimately punished. Meaning is inherent to being sentient and conscious creatures. And if someday our species can fully appreciate the precious potential of our limited lifespans instead of basing our hope on the rewards and punishments of an eternal afterlife, we might have a better chance at finding new solutions to right injustice and to properly constrain the behaviors of individuals and societies.In Christian terms, that’s the “fruit of the Spirit.”

  • gillt

    Just because our language allows you to line up words into a sentence doesn’t meant the sentence isn’t word salad. This would certainly apply to the sentence “What is the meaning of life?” as it would to “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”Where does it say that life or existence is buoyed to meaning? How does one arrive as such an incomprehensible worldview? Any meaning comes from us, the rest is hallucination.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    “So what would it take to make you lose your faith, or find faith?”Lose WHAT? Find WHAT?At most my faith consists in a general hopefulness. Yet, I have my doubts about humanity’s survival, since we could easily perish in this merciless cosmos with so many dire possibilities endangering our planet, including ourselves and the danger we pose to our own species and planet, or, if those don’t do us in, we might bioengineer ourselves into a wholly different species, or download our minds into computers, or simply be replaced by them. Like you a time machine would be great to have, or just a space-time portal we could peek through, and would greatly help in answering a barrage of questions. But if falsification or truthification of your faith requires a time machine, I guess your present faith is unfalsifiable by known standards.