Sunday Sermon – 17 February 2019

Is There a God?

My father was a compulsive purchaser, borrower, and reader of books. Whether he was travelling by bus or train (he never owned a car) or sitting in his study, there was invariably a book in his hand or by his side. If it was a book he owned rather than one borrowed, and he owned many, he also had a pencil in his hand with which he underlined passages or made annotations in the margin.

In those pre-war days, my father, among his many book purchases, added, from time to time, the most recent copy of a publication which I am not sure still exists. Certainly it is many, many years since I last saw a copy of Bradshaw’s Railway Time-table. That too he marked and annotated.

He was a Unitarian minister, and used the Bradshaw to plan his journeys to meetings, or to churches in other towns to which he had been invited to preach, as well as preparing for the expedition to our annual holiday destination. Or sometimes, I suspect, he simply browsed for pleasure, planning purely imaginary trips.

Mind you, it didn’t guarantee that he would always get on the right train. On one Sunday evening, on his way home from preaching an anniversary service in a church in the Manchester area, he ensconced himself in a carriage on a train standing in Manchester Victoria station under the impression it was the local train travelling the eight or so miles to Stalybridge, where we lived. It turned out to be an express going in the opposite direction, with the first stop at Crewe. He eventually arrived home in the early hours of the following morning.

However, that was an isolated incident in a life of meticulous planning. Journeys were normally uneventful, and I know he gained, as many others have done, much satisfaction from dove-tailing the arrival on one train with departure on the connecting next train. But I digress.

As a child, I took it for granted that a train from say Sheffield to Manchester would connect reasonably conveniently with one from Manchester to Blackpool. The complexity of planning a country-wide network of trains was something I never considered. That trains were timed so, on the more commonly undertaken journeys, the arrival of one fed into the departure of another in an orderly way, I simply took for granted. Yet now, as I think about it, I am filled with admiration for those who were faced with putting such a complex jig-saw together.

There is not much, if anything, to admire about warfare. But supplying, and keeping supplied, large armies of troops is a complicated exercise, and the logistics of it a matter for wonder by most of us. To ensure that food and armaments, medical supplies and equipment, and the rest reach the right people at the right time, calls for detailed and accurate planning.

And so one can go on. Whether it is stocking the shelves of super-markets, collecting and delivering promptly, parcels and letters throughout the land, building a ship or constructing a large office complex, system and order are essential. It does not work purely by chance, by lucky accident. It is a created order.

Where there is no order, life disintegrates into chaos. The more massive and complicated the undertaking, whether it is building a power station, or arranging a time-table for a transportation system, the greater the degree of planning required.

Thoughts on planning came to me after watching one of those beautifully presented nature programmes on television. It was the aspect of inter-dependence which struck so forcibly. More and more examples of the inter-woven pattern of life come virtually daily to our notice. Drilling an oil-well, spraying a crop, draining a swamp, burning a tree, poisoning a pest, fishing a sea, mining or quarrying – all affect life in chains of, often unforeseen, reactions.

For the life in the world, both vegetable and animal, is inter-meshed. Microscopic organisms, unseen by eye, affect us, as we do them. Chains of dependence, cycles of life, life leading to death, and death to allow rebirth, are all palpably part of a huge plan far beyond man’s capability to comprehend in all its detail, let alone to imitate. There it is, all around us, complex, complicated, yet ordered.

Planning a holiday journey, organising meals for the week, or performing any of the other common domestic planning tasks, is very small beer compared with arranging a time-table over the country’s rail network, or tackling any of the large logistic operations like relieving the distress of races hit by disaster.

In a similar comparison of scale, man’s large, complicated plans, however massive and however complex, are simple, measured against the life processes upon our planet, and the way in which one form of life is dependent upon the co-existence of other forms.

And even that in all its immensity, is only a small part of the story. For the planet is but a tiny speck within an infinitely enormous universe. A universe which is not simply built of independent units, but constructed of inter-dependent bodies.

The times and the routes within my father’s Bradshaw were not assembled by chance. If they had been randomly picked, if they had been recorded according to mere caprice, if London departures had been fixed irrespective of departure times of connecting trains from Birmingham or Leeds, then the railways could not have operated effectively, if at all.

The Bradshaw was a printed record of a master plan, with one part dependent upon each of the others. It reflected skill, thought and design. As circumstances changed, so it was refined.

Similarly, if suppliers should decide without regard when, where and even if to send food to retailing shops, then ordered shopping would not be possible, and ultimately, I suppose, many would starve. Much planning proceeds the operation.

If we accept, as virtually every-one does, that our ordered life depends upon prior shaping, can there be doubt that the world in which we live, and the universe of which we are a part, must have decision and design behind it? And if so, that surely argues a planning and creative force.

Mankind for centuries and more, has speculated upon, argued about, the nature of God. I have not the competence to enter into that debate, and do not do so. But the existence of God is a different question.

Though some will state that this is a matter of simple faith, and I would not disagree with that, many of us will be reinforced in that faith by rational argument. For my part, it is the sheer complexity of the universe and the life within it that strengthens faith in God the creator.

As one considers a piece of machinery, noting how the cogs mesh together, that the movement of one part is dependent upon the forces applied in another part, observing that a small malfunction or adjustment of one component alters the behaviour of other parts, one marvels, appreciating the skill of the designer and maker. Not by chance, but by design, does the machine function.

How then can one see the infinitely more complex machinery that is the universe, its evolution and development, its inter-dependence, and deny that there is a creative force, a master planner whose design it is? How can it be seriously suggested that all has happened by a random chance; that uncoordinated, accidental forces have fortuitously produced a world in all its glory, where life is intricately inter-linked in an edifice which makes the greatest of man’s creations puny by comparison.

I can’t begin to understand what God is. Like Job, like Paul, like countless others, I am aware that there are things too great for me to understand. I am as a little child. But not knowing what God is, for me is no obstacle to accepting that God must be.

How to set about designing and building a computer, constructing a railway time-table, organising an international postal service, are tasks totally beyond most of us. But we do not on that account doubt that these things are in place by decision, by deliberate creation. They are not chance constructions.

Nor surely can the world and all therein be an unplanned edifice. Our intelligence may not be able to comprehend the creator, but creator there surely must be. Our world is not chaotic, but orderly and rational. All our experience tells us that order is not established by random chance, but by designing force.

One must be cautious with analogies and comparisons, for they can be two-edged. One might say that the man or woman who paints a picture, designs a tunnel, builds a cathedral, constructs a bridge, or is involved in any other of the myriad creative undertakings, completes the task and then is required no more. Therefore, one might add, even if it is accepted that God, whoever or whatever God might be, created an ordered universe, then that does not argue an enduring existence.

But that would be to deny the continuation of the process. For the process of creation persists. Any astronomer will confirm that new planets and worlds are being created as old worlds die. New life forms appear. There is no evidence that the task is complete; indeed the opposite must be true. God the designer and creator is involved in a task of infinite length. That is why we speak of God the eternal, infinitely engaged upon the task. God who was, but also who is, and is to come. I have said nothing today of the relationship between God and mankind, but dealt only with the existence of God. Emotional connection is a subject for exploration on another occasion. But in an age in which the existence of God is doubted, challenged even, it seems to me important that we who believe should affirm our faith, and, as far as is possible, rationalise our belief.

That is not to deny the importance of the relationship between God and mankind, and all that is implied and follows from that, but relationship is a question to be addressed on a future date. But without first accepting that God exists, it is not feasible to consider how God relates to us, and we to him.

This ancient and beautiful building in which we worship, is dedicated in our Trust Deed to, I quote, “the worship and service of almighty God”. For me the faith implicit in the statement of our fore-bearers is reinforced by reason of observation and experience. Here we worship Almighty God and affirm our faith in His reality.

Our fathers’ faith, we’ll sing of thee
Dear faith, which still we cherish:
Nor may their children’s children see
That faith decay and perish:

Reason and conviction confirm for me that faith rings true.

C.J. Rosling 24 March 1991

Fulwood 24 March 1991; 11 February 1996
Upper 28 April 1991
Chesterfield 7 July 1991
Mexborough 15 March 1992; 28 July 1996
Hucklow 26 February 1995; September 2004
Doncaster 26 March 1995
Stannington 7 November 2004

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