In April, Susan and I were getting ready for our hols to see family in Texas. We were to be joined at Newark airport by ‘our’ Ed from Dublin. There were plans for a road trip into Colorado, visits here and there, and—by no means unimportant—at least one Texan steak. Rarely had so much hope been pinned on so short a holiday by so many. There was, I have to confess, a certain smugness in me: ‘ha ha, suckers, we’ll be having a good time while you lot are suffering from politician-itis’. Well, girls and boys, the day before we were due to depart a volcano erupted. And kept on erupting. You can guess the rest: no US trip for us. Who’s smug now? It was like a bereavement, and one that had to be grieved for, but we had it easy compared to some who were stranded in less than comfortable surroundings, and others who had to make their way home by all sorts of means—exciting maybe but doubtless expensive. What did I learn from this? I suppose what I should have learnt is not to be smug. No chance. It was good for me to have it thrust in my face that pinning all my hopes on some event in the future is foolish: it may not happen. Many of us spend too long regretting the past and looking forward to the future, so we miss out on the present. To living in the present is to live out of time—no before, no after, just now. That is eternal life: quality of life, not quantity.
Let’s imagine the planet is alive. It needs to let off steam from time to time, its volcanoes being just like pores on our skin that every now and then shove out secretions. Volcanoes as blackheads, or pustules. Now, if God created the cosmos—and Holy Scripture tells us God did—and if God said ‘it was very good’— and Holy Scripture tells us God said just that—volcanoes must be part of God’s plan. Oh, what a surprise! The world does not revolve around humanity, and certainly not around me (a hard lesson, that). Uncertainty rules in your and my lives just as much as it rules in subatomic physics.
If you don’t like my fantasy, maybe you prefer a story from the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In When the world screamed (you can read it on the web), Conan Doyle saw the earth as a living creature that took unkindly to engineers drilling eight miles into its surface. Now in 2010 we have warnings of the potential hazards of drilling into the seabed, with the possibility of the drill releasing pressure under the earth’s crust and causing a cataclysm that wipes out species left, right and centre. We have, too, the reality of oil slicks in the Gulf of Mexico. As Sugar Kane (M Monroe) said in Some like it hot (has there ever been a better film?), ‘it makes a girl think’.
One heartwarming result of the volcanic eruption was the insurance companies suddenly discovering a belief in God. What’s the relationship between the laws of nature, which we haven’t yet fathomed, and God? Are they the same? Read John 1 in the cultural context of the time. Obviously, since God created the cosmos, God also created its laws. Is God more than this? What is the cosmos in? In my humble opinion, we can only deal with these issues in metaphors: scientific metaphors like black holes, spherical universes, big bangs, expanding universes, and theological metaphors like creation, and eternal, and Divine Wisdom, and Divine love. As someone trained as a medical zoologist, I see no conflicts, but rather lots of connexions. Life is all about consequences of action or inaction—‘just stuff that happens’ as that well-known theologian Homer Simpson says—and Christianity is not so much about what happens, but rather about how we cope with it, with ourselves and with each other as it happens.