Tag Archives: God

Time

23 Jan

Years ago, as a student zoologist I was friendly with a young physicist – a fundamentalist Christian. I was pretty stuck on Darwin and Wallace’s evolutionary theory and a confirmed agnostic so we had lots of pithy arguments over a pint or three of Boddingtons best bitter in the Barnes Wallace Building – UMIST student union. Our watering hole in the late 70’s.

God, the Nature of the Universe, beer and girls – a great combination.

The evening would always end with us both a bit the worse for wear and with him a little upset.  I was, in his view, going straight to hell and he was going to heaven.

My friend believed in celibacy before marriage, I believed I urgently needed to get laid.

On one subject we did find common ground. We were both fascinated by the Nature of Time and whether it could be perceived.

I argued that because living creatures lack an organ for sensing time, we could, therefore not perceive it directly. Thus a vertebrate or cephalopod eye, in conjunction with the central nervous system converts the electromagnetic energy patterns of light, via chemical reactions and tiny electromagnetic impulses fueled by membrane biochemistry into what we understand to be visual cognition in the cortex. We sense light changes directly.

My friend argued that we could measure time and that it was a fundamental property of the physical Universe. No argument there then.

He agreed that it was changes in the physical world: heat loss, radioactive decay, senescence, rot – governed by the laws of Thermodynamics, that we measure time by. We cannot perceive Time directly, only the changes affected by it.

Of course we are able to deduce that time passes because living things are born, grow old and die, rock formations are generated through chemistry and igneous processes and then are eroded, or transformed under pressure or, again, chemistry. Everything is changing in the universe.

Although we lack a time sensitive organ, we possess a very powerful tool of perception – our imagination.


The thought experiment I used to play with when drinking with my pal was a model I called Flatland.

Consider: we organisms live in a four dimensional universe: 3 cardinal perpendicular axes X, Y and Z of movement and all under the influence of time (the fourth dimension). We can see and feel up, down, left, right, fore and back and around, but we do not ‘see’ or ‘feel’ time – we just know it is there because of constant change to the physical, chemical and biological domains.

In Flatland creatures move and grow in two dimensions – as if restricted to a sheet of paper. Flatpeople would only ever perceive the perimeter of another Flatperson as they bump into each other, and move around them. They would be able to deduce each other’s general shape by moving all around each other. They might even have primitive light sensitive organs that recognise Flatpeople edges.

Consider a three dimensional sphere moving perpendicularly through Flatland. A Flatperson would perceive a point expanding to a circular perimeter and contracting back to a dot before disappearing. They would not be able to perceive that a third dimension exists from this, they know about Time because Flatpeople die eventually. A smart Flatperson might observe that an unusual Flatnomenon had occurred – a body had spontaneously appeared, expanded, shrunk and then disappeared – what could have caused this?

You see the problem? We in our three dimensional physical world are very aware of changes, but we cannot grasp the Nature of Time itself. But although the Flatperson cannot deduce the existence of spheres – they might be able to imagine their theoretical existence and build a 2-D model.

So might we be able to model time as it actually is in 3 dimensions?

As I spend time with my Dad in his 86th year I am aware of great changes. And yet I am also deeply aware that, because I share many of his characteristics, Time itself connects us. I can see the changes I will endure in him.

This awareness is tempered by deep love and affection between us. This I can feel, this I know.

I would be prepared to consider the possibility that Time itself is the best evidence of a God. It is universal, unknowable and connects all living and non-living things.

In the end, Time, like Love heals all.

Faith

28 Jun

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When I was four I was obsessed with the idea of Heaven and very interested in God. “How do you get to heaven?” I would ask my mother. “Is it by train, or by boat, or do you get to heaven by aeroplane?”. I took matters into my own hands one day with my mate, Alan when we drank bath water. In West Africa, where I grew up, this was forbidden, because it could be a sure fire way of contracting typhoid or any number of other deadly tropical diseases. I simply wanted to see how one got to Heaven.

My mother, as she recounted the incident, was at pains to put a stop to these early mystical experiments. When I asked her “Yes, but Mam WHERE is God?” she said to me: “Henkje (in Dutch ‘Little Henk) do you see your shadow on the ground?”

“Yes” I replied

“Pick it up” she said

Apparently, I bent down and tried to reach for my shadow…..”I can’t!”

“Well Henkje, God is like your shadow, He is there all the time, but you cannot pick him up or see him, He is just with you”

My mother in her infinite wisdom would happily engage me in these small philosophical discussions throughout my life sharing her rather impressive knowledge of the Bible (she was truly an Old Testament kind of girl), her understanding of other faiths and the origins of Christianity, Judaism and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings be upon his name).

In this Holy month of Ramadan my Muslim neighbours are fasting. In denying themselves food and drink during the hours of daylight according to their teachings they give space in their daily lives for spiritual contemplation. I perceive that it is in what we decide to eschew, that we become closer to our God as humans. There is a rich tradition of asceticism in many of the great faiths, where pilgrims, scholars and holy people deny the flesh in order to move closer to God.

I was asked recently by a young Muslim boy whether I believed in God. I answered him thus “Well, my young friend, no man is capable of knowing everything – therefore it is impossible to deny the existence of God based upon our limited knowledge. This position is called ‘Agnostic’, it is not a belief, rather it is a set of principles based upon logic. But, every human has to have faith in order to meet the challenges of the day. I respect your faith because it gives you Peace.” He seemed satisfied with my answer, I had shown him my shadow, without asking him to pick it up.

Speaking of large shadows, I am engaged at present in the making of a big sculpture for the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield. My collaborator Mir Jansen and I are planning to exhibit the commission in January 2016. I showed her the central piece of the sculpture ( a giant steam bent oaken bower) on Friday – it was the first time she had seen it for real. She had up until that time shown great faith in my design and my ability to deliver as a craftsman.

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Here then is a sneak preview of our exercise in faith. Both of us are investing all our creative resources into producing a piece of Art that can be seen, touched, entered, contemplated and enjoyed by all, for it is a celebration of John Ruskin’s mind. Made from a single oak tree from Ruskinland, Uncly’s Farm in the Wyre Valley, donated by the Ruskin Trust – the Guild of St. George, felled and worked by myself and painted by Mir Jansen.

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Mir is illuminating many oak panels from the tree in the manner of the Old Dutch Masters – who often painted directly onto wood – creating several narrative themes from the work, ideas and legacy of John Ruskin and the Victorian era he influenced. Her panels will be hung inside the sphere, supported by steam bent oaken beams – which currently hang in my studio like the ribs of some beached up wooden whale.

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Art and Craft are coming together supported by generous donations by the Arts Council and the Millennium Gallery and the Trustees of the Ruskin Foundation – if this is not an act of great faith, I don’t know what is.

It is also a meditation on a tree and a mind.

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Ruskin’s view of God was intimately bound up with his contemplation of Nature:

“there is no climate, no place, and scarcely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit colour which no mortal effort can imitate or approach.” His thought that no mortal can convey properly the effects of nature indicates that one must contemplate the higher workings of God in Nature.

In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ruskin’s contemporary):

God’ Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Fólkvangr

24 Sep

Shrine 4

High above the Goyt Valley in the Peak District lies a shrine. A tiny stone round house built as a memorial to a Spanish School Teacher by the owners of the estate where she taught. It lies on the steep slopes of a hill behind Err Wood, the ancestral seat of the the Grimshawe family a walk away from the ruins of their home, Errwood Hall. My friend, Dave and I chose to walk together around the valley in golden autumn sunshine yesterday in deference to our mutual interest in sandwiches, conversation and rambling (both the talking and the walking kind).

Goyt Valley

Shrine Err Wood

Upon entering the shrine we were met by St. Joseph depicted in ceramic tiles holding the infant Jesus and this Spanish inscription:

Munca se le Invoca evano a San Jose prueba de gratitud’ which translates to – No one asks in vain of St Joseph, a token of gratitude.

Shrine 2

Underneath St. Joseph is pictured holding the infant Jesus, and below them on the tiny votive alter are many tokens of gratitude. Candles, coins, a toffee, postcards memorialising deceased grandparent and a beloved husband. All of them asked for our prayers for the deceased.

Joseph, being the patron saint of the working class, meant that neither Dave nor I had any difficulty leaving our tokens of gratitude to the man who, like those of us who work with our hands, had quite literally carried the King.

I am not a religious man in the conventional sense, but I am no atheist either. Agnosticism is the only defensible position for a skeptic, for in the absence of hard evidence, it is just as ludicrous to me to believe that there is no God as it is to believe in a particular version of God.

This tranquil little sanctuary suspended above the flooded Goyt valley fairly hums with sadness and loss and yet, as Dave and I read the the quiet requests for our prayers which had been faithfully left behind, we were uplifted.

In old Norse the ‘House of the Slain’ or Valhalla is ruled over by Odin, half of those slain in battle are chosen to reside here, the other half go to an eternal meadow called Fólkvangr (field of the host) ruled over by Frey- the Norse god of love . Fólkvangr is poorly understood, but since Frey traditionally has the first pick of fallen warriors – men and women who have died a noble death – I am tempted to suggest that it is this hall and meadow where the most effective dead champions are to be found. We are familiar with the concept of Valhalla – beer, more beer, singing, boasting, fighting, getting very drunk and so on, but not the alternative Norse Heaven. I know which I prefer, and I am glad that I discovered it.

Dolores’ sits in Fólkvangr.

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