the meaning of life – which way is Up?

Which way is up? Well, the answer to that depends on your view of the world! The ancients had a cosmology (universe / world view) that had a flat earth in the middle and heaven (the residence of the gods) as Up, somewhere beyond the stars. And the early Christians pretty much took on that view – they had no reason not to! It was, after all, the common understanding of science at the time.

So the gospel writers, when they record the ascension of Jesus into heaven, speak of him being taken up and a cloud hiding him from their sight.

But since the time when the gospels were written, our whole way of looking at and understanding the world and the universe has changed. We now know that no matter how far Up we go in among the stars and planets, we will never find a place called heaven that is the abode of the gods. That’s just not how it works.

I have always found that science fiction is a great place to start when trying to explain how God and the world work. Somehow the very nature of fiction that pushes every possible boundary is exactly the right medium for ways of expressing and understanding things which are at or beyond the boundaries of our understanding and experience.

I have the privilege of preaching this coming Sunday on Ascension, so I won’t focus on it today – but I will post my sermon online on our website and on my facebook page after Sunday, so if you want to read more, you can do so there.

But there is something connected with this that I will focus in on, and it is very much connected with the concept of a world-view.

In last week’s reading from the book of Acts, St Paul is in the Areopagus in Athens, where all the great philosophers and thinkers would gather to talk and chew over the great ideas of their day. Endless discussion and argument would take place, along with teaching schools of thought. Over the decades, it is where you would have found Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and a host of other names which have influenced our thought to this very day.

The thing which St Paul picks out is the fact that the Greeks are indeed very religious. It mattered enormously to them. But rather than seeing God in everything, they saw gods everywhere. There was a god for every river and stream, a goddess of the harvest, gods that looked after each family (much like we might think of guardian angels), gods for each city, gods who looked after health and sickness – you name it, it had a deity associated with it. And this was in addition to the main twelve gods that they worshipped, such as Zeus, Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite.

But in and amongst all the very many altars that St Paul saw in Athens, there was one to the Unknown God. The Greeks realised that even with all their gods and all their knowledge, there was still something that remained beyond them. And because they were afraid of missing some deity out and thus incurring their wrath, they had this altar.

In this “cover all bases” approach, there seems to me a kind of seeking after perfection at the heart of their belief system. And certainly in their worship, any mistake of any kind in the ceremony meant you had to go back to the very beginning and start again!

The Hebraic faith seems to me to stand in stark contrast to this, because it is not about seeking perfection but rather about existing and finding joy (and God) in the midst of the mess and chaos and beauty of life. The coming of God as Jesus, to live as one of us, bears witness to this utter dedication to the joy and beauty of life and the world as we know and experience it. God does not stand at a distance, but rather chooses to get involved in the everyday dust of life.

And within the Hebrew and Christian faiths, God is not unknown. For this is the core of the Incarnation – the coming of God in Jesus to live as one of us, to live with us. We worship a God who knows and loves us, and who knows what it is to live and die as one of us.  

For the Greeks, this would be utterly incomprehensible in their religious cultural understanding of the world. To them, the gods were utterly removed from daily existence, living in a state of perpetual bliss in heaven. In contrast, for the Hebrews God might reside in heaven with his angels, but he was deeply concerned and interested in the doings of humans on earth; how we live and interact with each other and the plants and creatures. How you saw and understood God and the world and your place in it all was completely dependent on your world view – and on which culture you belonged to. Which brings me back to where we began – which way is Up??

In the end, for me the key to everything in this world lies in the unconditional and limitless love of God for all that exists. We are all climbing the same mountain, though we may use many paths; and the path we choose will depend on our culture, our background, and so many other factors. All that matters is that, whatever path we may be travelling, we help our fellow travellers that we meet along the journey, as we all make our way towards the great Divine Love and Light that embraces and holds us all.