Sunday, July 17, 2022

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

 I happened to come across the title heading yesterday:

The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

I have no idea who Muriel Rukeyser is but I like her style! (Actually, she was an American poet.)

Her quoted words are on a New York sidewalk as part of a series of New York Public Library plaques expressing humanity’s commitment to the written word. Or maybe just a commitment to words.

In a week when the universe has yielded yet more amazing information and illustrations about its “atoms” (e.g. here, with bonus about NZ swamps!), it is worth a little reflection on how the universe is just an “is” if there are no words. Even a universe with a planet with animals but no humans is an “is” with no history of or stories about the “is.” No knowing that we know things about the universe. No knowing that there is a universe to know things about. No knowing that there might be choices to be made about how we shall live. The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

The Judeo-Christian response to a universe of stories has always been to tell one story as the story which makes all other stories possible and to tell that story as the only story which all humanity should hear and live out as the story of their individual and communal lives. (And, yes, the Christian story has parted ways with the Judaic story, not least because Christians inherited from the Judaic story the singularity of the most important story to tell).

So, among comments to the previous post here, has been a discussion about the present state of, and possible demise of Protestant Christianity, and whether Anglicanism is likely to survive the 21st century, possibly if not probably because of its catholic features.

From a “story” perspective, Protestant Christianity has flowed out of a Reformation in which the then version of the Christian story was critiqued and corrected (rightly) with the corollary that Protestantism committed itself to telling and safeguarding the corrected story through much story retelling (sermons more important than liturgy). Five hundred years later the corrected story remains correct but the emphasis on the way the story is told is under severe pressure.

From a “story” perspective, Roman Catholic Christianity has flowed along with some correction via the Counter-Reformation and a significant correction via Vatican II - when the story’s main form of telling, the Mass, was permitted to be told in the language of the congregation and not the language of a once “universal” community (the evolving Roman Empire). It took Rome 450 years to learn one of the main lessons of the Reformation and some 50 years later some want to unlearn that lesson!

But 500 years after the Reformation, it is time (IMHO) for Protestant Christianity to sit at the footstool of the Mass and learn what it likely should never have forgotten, that the telling of the unique Christian story does not have one and only one form of telling.

Much of Anglicanism has not forgotten that there is more to Christian gatherings than the sermon. Yet what we do and say in sermon and in liturgy needs reflection as we Western Anglicans lose statistical ground (and as other stories permeate Western culture, e.g. here). The significance of the Mass is not purely its liturgical form, as though mere copying of the Mass is the way forward (most Anglican eucharistic services are, more or less, “copies” of the Mass) but its role in the Catholic telling of the Christian story. A role, for instance, which gives people not particularly minded to engage with doctrinal propositions, or depth analysis of biblical texts, a means of refreshing their living out of the Christian story week by week, if not day by day.

The renewal of Christianity in the 21st century must be about engaging people who know the universe is made of stories and are disinclined to elevate one of those stories above others. What do we need to do and say telling our story that one story matters?

Postscript: isn’t it critical to the “success” or “failure” of the Lambeth Conference 2022, that we renew our Anglican telling of the Christian story? What story, instead, will be heard if we either descend into the politics of sexuality, or end with a set of “calls” which are indistinguishable from the story the Green movement tells? Our Bible studies on 1 Peter will include reflection on what it means to give explanation for the hope which lies within us!


Anonymous said...

Methinks the proposition is not so much that there is just one story, but that the myriad stories are sloppily stacked with perhaps one at the ontological bottom of the rest.

Only a few stories are likely to be down there. To the perplexed, they are playing a game of rock, paper, scissors. How can one know which is the truly fundamental one?

One lives. What Bryden was trying to say is that the most basic stories are not equally able to give a shape and meaning to what happens day by day.


Mark Murphy said...

Hooray for the catholic tradition within Anglicanism: stories are deeply embodied through participatory, sacramental rhythm.

Hooray for the protestant tradition too: dodgy stories need to be cleaned up.

Mark Murphy said...

“The renewal of Christianity in the 21st century must be about engaging people who know the universe is made of stories and are disinclined to elevate one of those stories above others. What do we need to do and say telling our story that one story matters?”

That, ultimately, our story is a great underground river which is isn’t a story at all, but, as you say Peter, the possibility of all narratives themselves.

That the saturated self of hyper-modernity has a great need to let go of the thousands of stories that are cramming its bandwidth, and only then can we see and hear with the eyes and ears that Jesus spoke of.

That the water that flows from this underground river is extremely thirst-quenching: ‘come and taste’. ‘Rest’.

Father Ron said...

Dear Bishop Peter, you have said, in a nutshell, what I believe:

" The significance of the Mass is not purely its liturgical form, as though mere copying of the Mass is the way forward (most Anglican eucharistic services are, more or less, “copies” of the Mass) but its role in the Catholic telling of the Christian story. A role, for instance, which gives people not particularly minded to engage with doctrinal propositions, or depth analysis of biblical texts, a means of refreshing their living out of the Christian story week by week, if not day by day."

Archbishop Cranmer, author of the Anglican Church's first Book of Common Prayer, was careful to include the sacramental liturgies of the ancient Catholic Church (perhaps more truly the 'Rock' upon which Christ's Church is founded - rather then the pre-eminence of the Bishop of Rome, who, in the person of Saint Peter, failed Jesus from time to time!).

How interesting is your reference to the literal representation of the Mass; which Pope Francis has just, again, re-iterated; as required to be in 'the language of the people'!
This, surely, is so that in the simplicity of the celebration of the Mass, everyone should be able to omprehend 'the height and the depth, the width and the breadth, of the story of the world's salvation through the mediation of OLJC. (I have long regretted the omission of the once-common recital of the 'Last gospel', which reminds us that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....etc (John:1.1 ff). This helped everyone present to digest another 'anamnesis - a 'non-forgetting' of the history of this world's salvation through Jesus, the Christ.

In both Baptism and the Celebratrion of the Eucharist, ALL present, are invited to make their own statement of belief in the Triune God; to offer penance for our sins: and to renew our commitment to the Life, Death and Resurrection we share, in Christ!

The Chrism (oil of Anointing) and the Waters of Baptism are signs of our be9ng gifted with the Holy spirit, by Whom we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, The Church..

The liturgical formats of the Eucharist give shape to, and inform ALL present of the mission and purpose of Christ in providing the elements of the New Passover Meal, which, being ingested, are meant to - by the Holy Spirit - equip us for the task of proclaiming the healing power of the Gospel - the Good News; for all who look to Chrisdt for salvation.

For me, these sacraments must be at the heart of the mission. The Word of the Bible must become 'enfleshed' for us to experience the truth that comes from God's-Self into our orbit as the Children of a Loving and Merciful God; Who, despite our sins, has redeemed us!

Anonymous said...

"The renewal of Christianity in the 21st century must be about engaging people who know the universe is made of stories and are disinclined to elevate one of those stories above others."

So some have said. But while they were saying that, people in the streets were explaining more and more with the story, and sometimes the tentative science, of evolution. We are telling our story to them, not the anti-post-modernists.


Anonymous said...

ALL? No, each.


Peter Carrell said...

Food for thought in the comments above -thank you.

One question I now have is the extent to which it is accurate to talk of “one story” (e.g. As though the Bible presents a simple narrative) and to what extent we might or should talk about a storybook of stories (albeit featuring one God and one Lord Jesus Christ).

The gospels themselves are fourfold because once Mark wrote the gospel story, Matthew, Luke and John each felt there was more to his story.

Within each gospel are stories which express key elements of the main story or set of stories: The Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Sermon on the Mount, or The Wedding at Cana. Etc. And then, Paul …

Mark Murphy said...

Anonymous said...

Why not ALL too - as a community of faith?

Anonymous said...

Each is personal; ALL is anti-personal.

Each of us has a temperament, a past, a trust, a will, a calling that are known by the Son and alive in him.

ALL of us march about in uniform on a parade ground. hiding myriad true faces behind the same plastic mask.


Each of us is being united to others in the Son; ALL of us conform to a scripted program.

Each is eternally joined to others by what makes her recognisable, distinct.

ALL suppresses those created realities to achieve a simulacrum of that unity.


Each of us celebrates Pentecost; ALL of us long for Babel.

Each anticipates the gentle rain from heaven on particular lives in varied conditions and far-flung places.

ALL is the fanaticism of self-hate striving for false transcendence in a group that is placeless.


Each of us knows each other of us in the Son; ALL of us know not even ourselves except as bad copies of an all too human ideal.

Each is patient with God's other creatures, including the human ones.

ALL seek divine justice with human wrath.


Each of us trusts God together; ALL of us are trying much too hard.

Each has faith, hope, and love in the will of God, a community of faith.

ALL enforces the will of man, an assemblage of despair.


Anonymous said...


"a community of faith"

I use the phrase too, Moya-- we all do-- but I've come to see a troublesome ambiguity in it.

By it, we sometimes mean (#1) an accidental association of persons whose faith in Christ has solved their sin problem with grace apart from works of the Law. Where my laptop sits that would be a subset of the community of water, the similarly accidental association of those whose houses, apartments, etc get water from the same reservoir. Also a subset of the community of mail, the grand juxtaposition of all those whose mailboxes are served by the same post office. And the community of electricity, the buildings whose wires connect them to the generating plant on the river. Here, #1 is still a sizable if thin *corpus christianum* among unbelievers.

But at other times we mean (#2) some interactions among those persons with faith that are not at all imaginable among members of the communities of water or mail or electricity or voters or taxes, etc. The posited interactions are more dense-- there are more of them than neighbours usually have. They are more personal-- they require fuller acquaintance and deeper wisdom. They are more aesthetic-- they are beautiful and often symbolic, even when they seem to have some mundane utility. They realise vocations-- persons are becoming their future selves in Christ by doing them. They also realise the kingdom, more or less, in that they spring from an imagination of what God desires for that patch of earth. And the doers are knowing God godself as they do, not piecing together clues by mental force. They are playing in God's presence, not toiling in his absence.

Anonymous said...

Now I have no desire to disparage #1. The distribution of justification is an even better thing than the distribution of tomatoes and oranges. I often defend it here.

But when most of us here at ADU type "community of faith," we seem to mean #2, but go on talking only about #1. Or we talk about synods hither or yon as though God so loved the world that he came, died, and rose so that we could cast more votes.

Again, synods are usually harmless and at long intervals necessary. Voting is one literally handy way of measuring consensus as we go. But all that is qualitatively similar to the water board, the postal commission, the directors of the electric company, etc.

And although it can happen, people tend not to see God during meetings. People voting about the voting of other people who themselves voted about the voting of still other people is not on most of our minds when the Bible prompts us to think of #2.

We are stuck in a rut.

To my mind, that is because our last golden age was one in which nearly all who drank water, got letters, plugged into sockets, paid taxes, voted in elections, etc still thought of #1 as the highest expression of human community in history on earth. That was never quite true, scripturally thinking, and believers in churches often and delightfully did more. But it did mobilise the countryside on Sundays, and we really, really, really miss that.

So we know that believers should talk excitedly about #2. (And, God bless him, Mark actually does!) We know that we should leave the numbers to God and get on with being a more intentional, less distracted community of real Christians around him. We know that looking back turns us to pillars of salt. But we will not stop turning around.

This is a chicken and egg problem. The institutions of #2 will be small and intense with no more embarrassment about that than the apostles had. Their leaders will still distribute some justification, but they will get on to the good stuff beyond the interest of #1. Meanwhile, fretting about the shrinking of parishes is either slowing that crystalisation or driving it out of denominational structures. We cannot mourn and renew at the same time.

Downtown, some evangelicals in their 20s have patched together funding for a prayer room in a storefront. The walls buzz with colourful art and quotations that inspire prayer and meditation. This is not a congregation; it has no members; an informal network pays the rent. Volunteers, usually layfolk but sometimes clergy, go there to pray alone and with any who stop in.

Paraphrasing Churchill, this is not the future. It is not even the beginning of the future. But it may be the end of the past.


Anonymous said...

Ok I get it! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Reading in 1 Chronicles at present - hundreds of names, some of which seem random - and I thought this morning I am a small part of the big story and so are many other individuals whom I know. And now I have read your comment BW I understand that a bit better!

Anonymous said...

You're very welcome, Moya.

Blessings on your curiosity!


Anonymous said...

The names in 1 Chronicles 1-9, 24-27 were not "random" to those who first read or heard them. Through linear and segmented genealogies they present a portrait of 'all Israel' (qol yisrael, 9.1) from Adam through Abraham down to the post-exilic generation, with the Davidic line nestled within it (3.17-24), indicating that Israel, though only a powerless province of the vast Achaemenid empire at the time of writing, nevertheless remains the focus of Yahweh's purpose for humanity,with the House of David at the heart of this hope.The 4th century BC Judean reads these words with reassurance knowing that (somehow) God's promise to David retains its force within a restored people gathered about a rebuilt temple.
"All Israel" does not carry a bad connotation when the nation is united in God's will (11.1, 4; 15.3; 18.14 etc etc - the phrase is pervasive in the book). The heart of the book's theology is of course found in 2 Chronicles 7.14 - a promise of restoration to a penitent and prayerful people.
A message, perhaps, for New Zealand where the majority don't confess any religion now and a strange cult of Maori neo-mysticism is being actively promoted by the Government as an ersatz religion in its place?
Faith is certainly individual but our life as Christians is ineluctably social - because that is how God has made us. The divine institutions of marriage, family and church bear witness to this truth.
Natural law agrees with the Bible (naturally).

Pax et bonum
William Greenhalgh

Anonymous said...

Interesting light on Chronicles thanks William

Anonymous said...

Moya, central to the message of the book is its insistence that the people of God discover their identity - and their security in a hostile world that threatens to swallow them - when they attend faithfully to the God-ordained worship of the Temple: see 2 Chronicles 20 for the most striking illustration of this teaching. Along with the regular temple sacrifices stands the daily service of sacred song, most powerfully represented in the concatenation of psalms in 1 Chr 16, which recapitulate the promise of divine protection and hold out the hope for full restoration of the community. The message is strikingly charismatic: praising God changes situations!
But there is nothing automatic about this: repentance must be heartfelt (2 Chr 7.14 again) and faith must be genuine. Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible canonically and it ends on a positive note: "let him go up (to Jerusalem)."

Pax et bonum,
William Greenhalgh