The Physics of the Missio Dei: a Leadership Series (P1)
The physical world provides us with endless spiritual lessons. Jesus used the physical world around him to convey deep truths too. “I am the bread of life,” he said, reminding us of our daily need to feed on Him (Jn. 6:35, ESV). “You are the salt of the earth,” he instructed, reminding the disciples about the fertilizing attributes of their life sown into the soil of the world (Matt. 5:13-14; Jn. 15:19). “Let your light shine before men,” symbolized not only the warm rays of good works born of faith and love, but the very nature of good works as attractive and noticeable (5:15-16; 1 Pet. 3:15). One wonders if Jesus may even have intended more with his declaration, “I am the light of the world,” now seen anew with the 20th century discovery that the nature of light is both a wave and a particle (and the nature of Jesus is both human and divine; Jn 8:48-59; Col. 1:15-23). Or perhaps, we might equally wonder if there is any place for working in the other direction – from the physical world to spiritual principles?
Aristotle deduced that the natural state of an object is rest since it only moves when directly acted upon (e.g. like moving furniture across a room - when I stop pushing, the furniture stops moving). It certainly seems to make common sense that an object returns to a state of rest once a force has stopped acting upon it and therefore this must be the natural state of things. How shocked he would be to discover what elementary children are taught today:
The earth spins at about 1,000 mph on its axis.
It revolves around the Sun at near 66,000 mph.
The Sun rotates around the center of the Milky Way at about 500,000 mph.
The Milky Way is moving around a local group of galaxies at 2.2 million mph.
Evidently, everything is on the move! One could go the other direction, to the very small, and note that all matter is made up of atoms and molecules that, at least above the temperature of absolute zero, are also constantly moving. Go deeper into a proton or neutron and you find quarks constantly moving, deeper still and some conjecture the notion of vibrating strings holding all of reality together. There is something intriguing about the notion that the smallest elements of matter that make up all of life are, possibly, vibrating strings, as it would seem to imply theologically that God is then the great maestro conducting the symphony of the universe – and He cannot end without the music of existence ending too. In short, creation testifies to an active God who did not just “set it and forget it,” but who created, sustains, and holds it altogether by the active power of His will (Heb. 1:1-2:8). Newton understood this too. Writing in the General Scholium (fancy word for “introduction”) of his magisterial work Principia, one of the greatest works of physics ever written, he says,
Though these bodies may indeed continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits themselves from those laws. Thus, this most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the council and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being (504).
Likewise, when we turn to the pages of God’s special revelation in the Holy Scriptures, we see a God who is on the move sustaining the storyline from Genesis to Revelation through Church history and into our lives today. A God who initiates, responds, plans, and pushes forward through Adam and Eve’s rebellion, through the corrupting soot of sin covering humanity inside and out after the Fall, to saving Noah and his family from His righteous judgment, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the formation of the 12 tribes of Israel, His action and reaction to their covenant faithfulness via blessing them and their covenant faithlessness via curses, to the Son of God born, buried, belittled on the cross, then raised, ascended, and promised to return. To His Spirit poured out on the nascent and historic Church moving and motivating His people to spread out into the whole world with the proclamation of the Good News of forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. More than seeking and saving the lost however, God’s mission is also about the restoration and renewal of all that is tainted (humanity, creatures, all of creation), and the healing of all that is broken, and the filling of all that is empty with His divine light and glory (1 Cor. 15:28; Rev. 21:23).
Yet, the missio dei can look inconsistent to some. In the Old Testament God’s commission was one of gathering a certain people into a certain place during a certain time (i.e. Israel in the Promised Land). In the NT, it is one of scattering a certain people outward into certain places for the rest of time (esp. to all nations). Some do not see God’s missionary heart from the start, they posit that perhaps because Israel was disobedient in not going to other nations in the first place therefore the Church was sent to replace her. But then the Church was disobedient too in the early chapters of Acts, they say, as they stayed in Jerusalem worshipping and enjoying fellowship but not “going” as they were so commanded (Matt. 28:19), hence why God sent persecution to scatter them and broadcast the message of the Gospel across the ancient world (Acts 6-8). Or, perhaps, this common charge misunderstands the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament seeing God as overly static, much like Aristotle misunderstood motion. Perhaps God is moving according to the physics of motion, but we have not paid attention. In what follows our aim is to use Newton’s three laws of motion to frame the missio dei (3 parts) and from there to deduce principles that may help the church join God’s mission (another 3 parts). Of course, Newton’s laws were never intended to be spiritual laws, but the reader should see that these are a helpful and convenient guide to unpacking God’s movement in mission. Newton himself was an avowed Christian who spent more time studying theology than science (something only realized after the 1936 Sotheby auction of his non-religious papers). In that respect, we would do well to follow suit.
Newton’s First Law of Motion – The Law of Inertia
Law 1: “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it” (Principia, 83).
Law 1 (simplified): A body at rest stays at rest, and, a body in motion stays in motion traveling in a straight line, unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.
Newton’s First Law of Motion Applied to the Missio Dei
Why do we exist? Why is humanity here as opposed to not here? Why do we exist at all in time and space, in matter and molecules? This is not the age-old question about the meaning of life, mind you. The answer to that question typically involves exploring our purpose, i.e. why am I here, or, what am I meant to do? This is not about human teleology, but rather ontology, our being. What holds everything that is me together so that I do not just fly off in so many millions of subatomic particles? The scientist will of course remind us of the simple answer: The laws of physics. But what good is a law if no one is there to enforce it? What power does a law have without someone to monitor it? Who upholds the laws of physics? It is not enough that they be created, they must be sustained, maintained, ordered, and policed. In our world of human experience we mash and mold matter to form a table and when we walk away that table is not dependent upon us for existence. We have created but we do not sustain. Yet God cannot do one without necessarily doing the other and then continuing to do the other, to constantly will the unity of the laws of physics into cohesion and consistency. All things that have been, currently are, and will be must be held simultaneously in the mind of God or they could not exist nor even be grasped by the mind of man. He must continuously will every atom, electron, proton, neutron, quark, gluon, and vibrating string (if you so fancy that theory) for he cannot simply create and then walk away for as the great apostle saith, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
So, Christian philosopher Rene Descartes was wrong when he concluded his now famous axiom cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) as if to suggest that my thinking is the ground of my existence and reality in this world. After all, he reasoned, even if a demon had captured and tricked him and tried to convince him that he did not really exist, as long as he is self-conscious, self-aware, as long as there is an “I” for him to speak of, then “I” must exist and the demon’s attempts are rebuffed. Rather, the implication of the historic doctrine of God is more along the lines of cogitate deum ergo sum, that is, God thinks therefore I am!
But that still does not answer the question of why? Why did the One all sufficient God who moves in perfect harmony within himself coeternally existing in three persons decide to play a different tune and thereby bring forth the heavens and earth and all that is within them? Surely, He needs no audience to validate His genius or applaud His creativity. Even if He did, we humans could never do Him justice! We are just dementia patients hysterically clapping at baby Brahm and Beethoven as they throw rocks at a piano convinced that we have beheld something wondrous to our ears. Clearly, someone more sophisticated than ourselves would have to be created to comprehend His majesty.
We might ask a more simple question: why do we tell a friend to listen to a particular song or pick up the album of cherished band? Are we not telling them to do so because the song or band is in some way worthy? It is worthy to be listened to. It is worthy of our friend’s time and attention. It is worthy of their affection. Some things are worthy because we deem them so and that changes with culture and time (e.g. Van Gogh produced more than 900 paintings in his lifetime but only sold one!), and some are worthy because they are intrinsically worthy regardless of any external commendation or witness (like the rising of the Sun or the snowcapped peaks of the Andes Mountains). God is most certainly in the latter group (so Block).
“Oh, yes!” You say, you have heard the Old English word “worship” derives from “woerthship” as if to say we are giving back to God the worth that He is due. How silly child, to think that you or I could in anyway re-pay or even make the slightest donation to His infinite tender loving care He has poured upon us!
As we said earlier, if God did nothing, nothing would be here except Him alone, but God moved and continues to move to bring us to Himself and to bring Himself to us (Rev. 21-22). He is the First Cause and all glory is due His name.
A.W. Pink captures this eloquently in chapter 2 of The Sovereignty of God, worth reading in its entirety (emphasis added):
In the great expanse of eternity, which stretches behind Genesis 1:1, the universe was unborn and creation existed only in the mind of the great Creator. In His sovereign majesty God dwelt all alone. We refer to that far distant period before the heavens and the earth were created. There were then no angels to hymn God’s praises, no creatures to occupy His notice, no rebels to be brought into subjection. The great God was all alone amid the awful silence of His own vast universe. But even at that time, if time it could be called, God was sovereign. He might create or not create according to His own good pleasure.He might create this way or that way; He might create one world or one million worlds, and who was there to resist His will? He might call into existence a million different creatures and place them on absolute equality, endowing them with the same faculties and placing them in the same environment; or, He might create a million creatures each differing from the others, and possessing nothing in common save their creaturehood, and who was there to challenge His right? If He so pleased, He might call into existence a world so immense that its dimensions were utterly beyond finite computation; and were He so disposed, He might create an organism so small that nothing but the most powerful microscope could reveal its existence to human eyes. It was His sovereign right to create, on the one hand, the exalted seraphim to burn around His throne, and on the other hand, the tiny insect which dies the same hour that it is born. If the mighty God chose to have one vast graduation in His universe, from loftiest seraph to creeping reptile, from revolving worlds to floating atoms, from macrocosm to microcosm, instead of making everything uniform, who was there to question His sovereign pleasure?
“Genesis” means beginning and indeed this book records the beginning of the creation of the universe, of the earth, of humanity, and of a nation called Israel from whom would descend a promised Messiah to resurrect all that was slain by sin.
In chapter one God is exclusively called Elohim, the Creator God. Unlike the many other near eastern creation stories, Elohim does not need to war with other gods, He alone is God and there is no other (1 Sam. 2:2). He needs no pre-existent matter from which to form the world, rather, He merely speaks and His words pregnant with inexhaustible power give birth to reality. The Creator and His creation remain ever distinct from one another, the former alone worthy of worship, the latter a witness to His glory. Elohim in Genesis 1 is the very source for the first 3 of the 10 commandments and the foundation for the rest (Ex. 20).
Starting in Genesis 2:4 and for the rest of the chapter another name is added, Yahweh-Elohim. In doing so the author moves us from the all-powerful, all-knowing, distant God of time and space, to a personal, intimate, covenant keeping God who, in the words of that touching old hymn, “walks with me, and He talks with me, and tells me I am His own”(In The Garden). Those lyrics were written in 1912 “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden,” says the hymn writer’s great-granddaughter. A good reminder that we too do not have to go far to commune with our God.
So, why did God create you? For “His own good pleasure.” Because God is an autonomous divine person with a free will of His own. What can we say to Him?
I can’t pay you back, it’s an insult to even try
I don’t understand you, I don’t understand why
Why did the Unmoved Mover move?
He wanted to
He wanted YOU!
Did God want you because you are so worthy (a la modern Christian propaganda)? Or, does God wanting you make you worthy? The Aztecs of Mexico did not value gold highly, they had so much of it, but turquoise, that was the real treasure in their eyes. Their desire for turquoise increased its value among the tribes. So it is with God. He alone is innately worthy, but we are contingent upon His will, His desire, His good pleasure towards us. Christ alone has descended into the mines of death and returned with treasures of delight. So we can sing with the modern classic hymn,
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This Cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My Comforter, my All in All
Here in the love of Christ I stand
This is the greatest story never told! Why do we say that? Because it involves God’s transcendence, the nature of His own reasoning, the divine complexity of His own good pleasure and why, at the fundamental level, He would ever want to share Himself with us. Why not create perfect beings to glorify His name? Why not at least stop at sinless holy beings (i.e. angels)? Why us? Why this way with sin and serpent biting at our heels? There is a mystery of love that should not be untangled, nor can it be, for it endears us to Him and makes us dependent upon Him all our days for now and forevermore.