Hello. I am Father Peter Farrington. I’m a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the ancient Church of Egypt which was established by the preaching of St Mark almost 2000 years ago. I’m not an Egyptian. I am British, and was brought up in an evangelical protestant home. For the first 25 years of my life that was the sort of Christianity I knew and lived. I would have felt entirely at home in a Baptist, Methodist or Evangelical church, and I trained for three years to be a pastor, or church leader, in these sorts of congregations.
Throughout my life I have been seeking to know more about the God I was introduced to as a child. I never wanted to be the sort of person who went to Church on a Sunday, and found that it had no effect on the way I lived for the other six days. If there was a God, and I believed there was from a very young age, then I wanted to know him more and more.
While I was training to become a church leader I found myself introduced to the ancient Christian teachings and spiritual life of the Orthodox Church. It seemed that for the first time many of the questions I had about knowing God were now being answered. The Orthodox Church traces its beginnings to the first century, and to the Apostles, or disciples of Jesus Christ himself. The teachings which it has faithfully preserved represent the authentic Christian message which turned the world upside down.
I became a member of the Orthodox Church over 20 years ago, and 6 years ago I was ordained a priest and pastor. I am no longer seeking for a spiritual way that works, I have found it. But it continues to demand commitment from me every day, and I have found that in following this Orthodox Christian way of life, this original and authentic Christian spirituality, my life makes sense and has purpose.
Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, once wrote a song which says…
There must be more to life than living,
There must be more than meets the eye,
What good is life, if in the end we all must die,
There must be more to life than this.
Here is a man who had every possibility of enjoying life to the full. A man who had wealth and fame and access to anything he wanted. Yet when he considered his life he found that it was missing something. It wasn’t missing something he could buy or own. It was missing a sense that there was a purpose to life itself. How can there be any purpose, what good is life, he says, if in the end we all die.
This is a question that most people have to address, if they take any time at all to reflect on the big issues of life. Those who hold to an entirely materialistic view of the universe have no answer for Freddie Mercury. They would insist that the universe came into being by some unknown process, and that all that we see today, from the great galaxies in the night sky, to the smallest organisms visible only with a microscope, are the inexorable outcome of billions of years of purposeless, aimless, chance interactions of energy and energy set in motion by the initial, equally random, status of the universe.
Such a view, which entirely and deliberately excludes any intelligence or purpose in the universe, cannot in turn provide a purpose or meaning for our own lives. What is a human in such an understanding of the universe? We are no more than animals. We are a collection of atoms and molecules and energy, held together for a very short period of time, and then dissolved in death.
If that is all we are then there can be no such thing as beauty, no such thing as good or evil, no such thing as love. We are only experiencing chemical reactions to various stimuli, in the same way that a rat can be trained to press a button to receive a reward. Beauty is more than just ‘thing I like’. It requires some external standard by which to measure, and the materialist worldview insists that there is no external standard. When we stand on a hill side looking out over distant fields as the sun sets, the materialist will not allow us to say that it is beautiful. Rather, it will be said that we are experiencing the physiological effects of chemical reactions in the brain that have nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with our animal nature. It will be suggested that we are responding in exactly the same way as we salivate when we are hungry and smell food. It is out of our control, it is nothing more than atoms, molecules and energy.
In the same way, if there is only matter and energy without meaning, then there can be no good or evil. Of course there can be things we wish that other people would not do, and things we really don’t like them doing. But what is the measure for saying something is good or evil if there is nothing else to the universe but matter and energy. If we say that it is evil to kill someone then it is proper to ask, why is it evil to kill someone? Who says so? The universe does not say so. It does not care whether we live or die. We are, according to the materialistic view, an insignificant species of animal on a tiny speck of dust at the edge of an unimportant galaxy, and we have hardly existed and will, in relation to the age of the universe, cease to exist soon enough. So the universe cannot teach us that anything is good or evil. Why do we help a poor person, or a sick person, or an elderly person? The natural world around us teaches that those who are weak are quickly removed, either consumed by stronger animals, or succumbing to illness. Why do we think it is good to provide support and care for such people? It is not the universe, as matter and energy, which causes most people around us in Britain to think in such a way. We are picking up such moral absolutes from somewhere else, and a materialistic view of the universe, one in which there is no purpose or meaning, cannot provide such attitudes.
Of course it is possible for anyone to adopt a moral code to live by. But if there is only matter and energy then any personal moral code has no authority at all. It is only what you want to do. In a materialistic universe if someone wants to get drunk every night, there is no absolute moral reason why he should not. The universe does not care. If he wants to abuse and assault people, there is also no absolute moral reason why he should not, because the universe doesn’t care about that either.
Other people might care. And might well resist the exercise of his own moral code, which allows him to do these things. But we then come down to the application of a moral code by force, not because it is good or evil. If enough of us want people who are violent to be restrained, then that becomes something which is good and those who are violent are considered evil. But the universe does not teach us this. Materialism does not teach us this. The universe does not care, and in such a view there can never be good or evil. Only things that I myself think should happen, or should not happen. But this is a morality without authority. It is not a representation of an absolute standard, but, as materialists would insist, it is a way of animal communities, which is all that mankind is, to enforce behaviours that suit the herd.
And love. What can love mean in a world without purpose? What is love if we are only atoms and energy? Many scientists, adopting such a view, state clearly that love is only a chemical and neurological response to stimuli. It is the same as feeling hungry. They would tell us that being only animals we want companionship to ensure our safety and well-being. We want to reproduce and ensure that our genetic code is passed on. We want to be part of a group that helps to feed us. So we have feelings we call love. But they will insist that there is no such thing as love, if it means more than a simply physical response in the brain and body. The reason we look after other people, it is proposed, is because of what we think subconsciously we can get out of the arrangement as mere animals.
It is no wonder that Freddie Mercury asked the questions he did. If there is only a material universe of atoms and energy then there is no meaning or purpose in any human life or activity. There is no beauty, no good or evil, or love. These are all chemical reactions, nothing more, and they serve strictly animal goals for food, shelter, protection and reproduction. The universe does not care. Everything that happens just happens.
If we respond with a sense that we will just enjoy life while we have it, then this also is meaningless. The universe does not care, and will recycle the atoms that make us up, along with everything we have ever done. If we respond with a sense of despair, then this also is meaningless. The universe could still not care less. And perhaps we determine that we will spend our lives in helping others. This is commendable, but not from a materialistic viewpoint. Helping others is also meaningless if all we are is counted in atoms held together for a time by an energy that will soon run out, and if every thought we have is merely the working out of chemical reactions and the discharge of energy in the brain. In such a view, if we really hold it, there is no more value or meaning in helping others than in helping a rock or a rabbit. These are also made of atoms and energy, just as it is suggested that we are. We are nothing more, just slightly more complicated collections of the same materials.
It is hard to live with such a view of the world, but it is what is required if we really and honestly believe that the universe has come into existence and remains in existence until its end, without intelligence or purpose.
The majority of people in Britain do not hold such a firm view that there is no intelligence and purpose behind the universe. And many more act as if they did not really believe such a horrifying vision of life. Indeed it seems impossible for most of us to live without purpose in life, and we have to create one if we have not found one. Human beings seem to need some sense that there is meaning in our existence.
In Britain a recent survey found that two thirds of British people either believed in God, or in some creative being, or were open-minded about the question. Only a third reported that they had decided that there was no such intelligent purpose behind the universe. Interestingly, the majority of those holding such views were young, but even among this group most likely to reject any idea of an intelligent creative force, only 46% did so. The majority still believed in something or were open-minded. Those who had more experience of life, and more time to reflect on the big questions and indeed to consider their own mortality, were less likely to be certain that the universe was only materialistic, atoms and energy without purpose or intelligence.
It’s not unusual to believe that there is something, or someone, beyond the universe who brought it into being. Most people in Britain who believe exactly this probably do not have the clearest of ideas what that might mean. But it gives some purpose to life, because it suggests that beauty, good and evil, and love itself, might be rooted in this creative being, and therefore have a reality beyond the merely material.
Around the world and throughout time, the belief in some external creative being or force has always been the majority opinion, and it remains so. Albania declared itself the world’s first atheist state and violently persecuted anyone who disagreed. But as soon as atheistic communism collapsed the underlying popular sense that there must be someone or something who gives meaning to life was resurrected, and various religious movements re-established themselves. Likewise in Russia. Even after seventy years of repressive and oppressive anti-religious violence and propaganda, religious ideas are back in the mainstream and hundreds of millions of Russians have chosen to identify themselves with those who believe that there is more to life than simply the material.
Nor is it only the uneducated who express a belief in some sort of creative being or force. A recent survey conducted in the US found that about half of the scientific population had a belief in an external intelligence or force beyond the material universe. It might seem that only a tiny minority of Western, educated, sophisticated people have any residual belief that there is someone or something outside the world we see, but in fact a significant proportion, a majority indeed, believe just that.
I was watching Only Fools and Horses the other day, and it remains an amusing, family comedy depicting life in the part of London where I was born. What is taken for granted is that as an entirely ordinary, working class man, the hero has a complete faith that his dear mother is somewhere safe and watches over them. His grasp of the details of Christianity, let alone any other religion, is vague indeed. But he is sure of this. There is more to life than this.
The intention of this series of programmes is not to convince someone that there is a God, if they are firmly of the opinion that there is not. There are other materials available which present arguments for the existence of God. In this series I want to address that majority which believes that there is some God or force outside the universe, and who brought it into existence, or are at least open to such ideas. It is reasonable to act in such a way. We cannot know for sure that there is no God of some sort. Those scientists who insist in a bare materialism are stepping outside the bounds of science, since science can say nothing at all about a being, who, if he existed, is not part of the created order which science studies.
It is reasonable to ask ourselves how our lives would be changed if there was such an intelligent and creative being or force. The majority, even in Britain, think that one exists, but most have not thought very hard or seriously about what that might mean. In this series of programmes we will examine what the Orthodox Church, the oldest Christian community in the world, says about these questions. The Orthodox Church finds its origins in the Apostles or Disciples of Jesus Christ himself, and they have left us with explanations of the earliest and original Christianity. The Orthodox Church has continued to the present day, seeking to faithfully preserve these teachings and this ancient explanation of the Christian Faith.
We can call this being or force, God, without saying much more about what that might mean. We do not have to adopt particular views straight away. But if this God has created the universe then it must be with intelligence and purpose. We may believe that this God started the Big Bang billions of years ago, but even in that action there must have been intelligence and purpose. Indeed this makes sense of the universe around us, which also seems to have order and structure.
We can avoid making this God into simply an anthropomorphic projection of ourselves, and Orthodox Christianity insists that in fact we should not allow our imagination to create a picture of what God is like, as if he were an old man sitting on clouds, since he is not a part of this material universe at all, and is not a thing we can examine through the telescope or the microscope. Leaving such images aside. This God has created the universe, we suggest, for a purpose. And if it has been created for a purpose then it seems reasonable to find our own purpose, as part of this created universe, in that same purpose.
It is reasonable to consider that beauty is not simply a chemical and electrical response in the brain, but has some connection to an appreciation of beauty which transcends the physical and is found in the nature of the God who created beauty. It is reasonable to consider that the sense of good and evil, which transcends local cultures, is also a reflection of some aspect of the God who brought about our existence as human beings who do have a sense of good and evil. And what about love, not just the feeling of love, but the self-sacrifice which we understand as the highest expression of love? If there is more to life than this, and it is because there is a God of some sort, then it is reasonable that our ability to love and be loved, especially when it is so much more than an emotion, is also reflective of some aspect of this creative being.
What are we like? We are people who appreciate beauty, know the difference between good and evil, and love and are loved. A materialistic view of the universe must dismiss all of these as having no reality, no absolute worth at all. They are just chemical reactions. But if we think there might be a God who created the universe, however he accomplished this, then it becomes reasonable to believe that human beings, both animals and more than animals, with a deep rooted sense that there is something else to life, are reflecting in beauty, goodness and love something of what this God must be like.
If there is a God then it would seem that he must want to be in communication with us, if he is also beauty, and good, and love. To love requires a relationship. If there is a God then surely we should also want to see if it is possible to be in touch with him? It is surely not reasonable to have some belief that such a being exists, such a God, and then do nothing about it.
The purpose of human life, which Freddie Mercury felt was missing in his own life, must surely include some knowledge of the God who made everything that we see and are, if he exists. And if we are unconvinced? What have we lost? A little time.
What might we gain? A relationship with the source of all beauty, all goodness and all love. It is almost impossible to live with the cold, hard, brutal belief that there is no meaning or purpose in any life or in any human activity. The human heart rebels against such a view. Perhaps this is because it is neither true nor properly human. Most people around us have a sense that there is someone or something there, or hope to discover such a sense for themselves. Most people around us love beauty and goodness and love itself, all things which the materialistic view must reject.
In this series of programmes we will describe how the earliest Christians, Orthodox Christians, made sense of this question, and how they believed that in the man Jesus Christ, God had himself entered into his creation to describe for us, in a lived manner, what God is really like.
We have nothing to lose in considering these questions, and these original and authentically Christian answers. But in spending time over them we have everything to gain. Meaning and purpose for our lives.
At the end of each of these short presentations I’d like to pose a few questions, to encourage those who are watching, listening or reading, to reflect a little on what has been said.
My first question is this. Science cannot tell us that God does not exist, since God is outside the universe and not subject to scientific observation. If God does exist then we need to look for signs in a different way. Just as we cannot prove that love exists by weighing a person, or examining their blood. But we know it exists none the less. My first simple question is to ask whether you are willing to consider the evidence that God might exist, and that we can know him and be known by him, as preserved by the Orthodox Church from the time of Jesus Christ.
My second question is this. In your own life, what is there that makes you have some sense that there is more to life than purposeless matter and energy? What are the feelings and experiences that have seemed to indicate to you that life is worth more, or that there is something beyond the seventy short years we have to live?