Christmas time is both very predictable and inexhaustibly mysterious.
A question might help: What do the biblical characters Adam and Eve and the 17th century mathematician Sir Isaac Newton have in common?
An apple changed their lives! and in the mathematician’s case, for the better!
Newton’s fruitful encounter took place in 1666. His first biographer, William Stukeley, recounted it thus:
‘After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea [sic], under the shade of some apple trees’… [H]e told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself…”
Newton’s imagination and genius laid the foundations for classical physics which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe until the twentieth century.
In essence, classical physics posits a physical world of smooth, orderly, and predictable patterns – i.e. deterministic. This works well at the macroscopic level, but fails miserably at the microscopic: enter quantum physics. Nothing would be the same again.
The quantum world is one of unpredictability, randomness, and uncertainty – i.e. undeterministic: Nothing is static, everything is fluid; waves (e.g. light) and particles (e.g. electrons) are no longer ‘preached’ as mutually exclusive – i.e. a wave can exhibit particle-like properties and vice versa.
The quantum revolution has turned science, and it’s hitherto ‘certainties’, on its head. It continues to stop the great thinkers in their tracks, infusing them with a sense of awe and wonder, all the while exhorting them to leave the comfort of ‘home’, of what is familiar, and venture into the unknown – even into the unknowable.
Just think: 13.78 billion years ago our universe is thought to have begun as an infinitesimally small, infinitely hot, infinitely dense, something. After its initial appearance, it apparently inflated (the “Big Bang”), expanded and cooled, going from very, very small and very, very hot, to the size and temperature of our current universe. It continues to expand and cool to this day and we are inside of it: incredible creatures living on a unique planet, circling a beautiful star clustered together with several hundred billion other stars in a galaxy soaring through the cosmos – and all this out of nowhere, from nothing, for reasons unknown.
Christianity too is ripe for its own ‘quantum revolution’, something the renowned Jesuit thinker Karl Rahner hinted at over three decades ago:
“The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’, one who has ‘experienced’ something, or cease to be anything at all.”
Rahner’s prescience points to a deep and pervasive problem that needs to be addressed: the failure of institutional Christianity to nurture and embrace its mystical roots, to embrace this ‘quantum’ reality: God is Love; and God-Is-Love longs to dwell within, to be in communion with ‘me’ – note: the biblical word for “Love” in this context is the Greek “agape”: to will the good of another. It is the highest form of self-emptying Love and is most powerfully manifest in the person of Jesus. He is what divine Love looks and behaves like. He is the ‘evidence’ of the existence of this transcendent, non-material God-is-Love reality.
Alas, what has emerged is a classical Christianity in which the liberating Truth of this God–is-Love reality has been supplanted by Dogma and Moralism, by Institution and Clericalism, by Power and Pomp: a church pre-occupied with the outside of the cup (the ‘macroscopic’), rather than the inside of the cup (the ‘quantum’). Thus, the sign posts pointing to Christ have become our idols: we have worshipped and bowed down before the Well, instead of drinking its water.
It’s as if Christians have been forced to enter into an arranged marriage: we’ll tell you who to love, how to love, where and when to love; but what about being afforded the freedom and space to fall in love – or not to?
Further, an increasingly well-educated and literate culture is asking questions that classical Christianity can no longer address or answer. This is especially problematic in the area of biblical interpretation – not to mention, sexual ethics – where the pervasive intellectual poverty of fundamentalists, along with the superficial musings of part-timers, is writ large in public discourse.
It is little wonder, then, that three of the high priests of modern militant atheism, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, neuroscientist Sam Harris, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss have had a field day mocking, denouncing and humiliating the whole Christian project as they delight in picking-off the low hanging fruit planted by Biblical literalists: ”So, you Christians really believe that Jonah lived in the belly of a whale for three days; that Jesus walked on water; that the universe was created in ‘six days’; that Noah built that ark; that homosexuals are doomed to hell… really?” As the old adage goes: ‘text without context is pretext’.
What we are left with, then, is a superficial binary: “it’s either science or God: you choose because it can’t be both!”
Indeed, for Dawkins and company, what science cannot discover, humankind cannot know: science is the only way to truth.
This is Scientism, the poster child of The Enlightenment mark II, and it is determined not only to replace religion, but to eliminate it from the face of the earth. Intoxicated by their intellectual acumen and certainty, these secular fundamentalists mischievously refuse to acknowledge Christianity’s capacity to evolve, to nuance, to adapt; to re-consider. Instead, they wheel out on the world stage a caricature of ersatz Christianity, presenting it as the villain in their pantomime, all the while encouraging the audience to ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’ and ‘snigger’.
And what a villain their adherents are invited to mock: an anti-intellectual-anti-science-Evangelical-fundamentalist wielding the Bible like an axe. This fraudulent distortion – and, yes, there’s a lot of it about – is presented as the real deal: as the definitive manifestation of true Christianity.
Yet, any thinking Christian worth his or her salt knows that the Bible, like a library, contains all types of genres including poetry, prose, history, metaphor, biography, parable; that the Bible is a collection of works composed within different historical contexts and across many centuries; that the Bible has aspects that transcend time and culture – e.g. the exhortation to “forgive constantly,” to “will the good of your enemy,” and to “love your neighbour as yourself”; and aspects that are limited to a particular time and culture – e.g. the law of circumcision, the polygamy of the patriarchs, and the musings on wives and slaves in St Paul’s Epistles.
“Theology is poetry plus, not science minus,” says an old Swedish proverb. Extrapolating from this, scripture scholars tell us that ‘metaphor, parable, and myth are the more than literal meaning of language; they are not less than factual.’ Even Albert Einstein when asked what he considered to be the most important aspect to his scientific pursuit, said: ‘Imagination, above all imagination’.
The Bible is not an immutable proof text ‘handwritten’ by God, rather it is an inspired living text that, inter alia, documents the evolution of religious consciousness: a text compiled by fallible human-beings grappling beautifully, sometimes even unsatisfactorily with an ineffable Mystery. ‘The Bible is,’ as scripture scholar Raymond Brown has said, ‘the literary objectification of a faith that is a response to revelation.’
Indeed, central to the case against Jesus was that he himself defied literalist interpretations of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible): He ate with the wrong people, healed on the Sabbath, and challenged religious leaders who elevated mere human thinking to the realm of the divine: “In vain do they worship… teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:7-8)
Jesus could see the ‘more than literal meaning’ behind the inspired text. He opposed not only Holy Book fundamentalism, but the religious certainties codified in Holy Law and Dogma; and at great personal cost.
But whatever about the unseemliness that abounds in this space, it is clear that something has to give. We can no longer resume normal programming: classical Christianity and its three pillars – dogmatism, moralism, and clericalism – has been found wanting, and abjectly so.
The task of quantum Christianity, then, is to take us beyond the surface, beyond what the eye can see; to set us free to leave ‘home’: that place of intellectual and spiritual comfort.
As Thomas Merton has said: “In order to be true to God and to ourselves we must break with the familiar, established and secure norms and go off into the unknown.”
“Christian conversion,” he says, “is turning to a freedom based no longer on social approval… but on direct dependence on an invisible and inscrutable God, in pure faith.”
Thus, like those committed classical physicists who re-oriented their gaze after their intellectual order was turned upside down by exposure to the quantum realm; it is time for those of us committed to classical Christianity to gaze elsewhere: to venture into the dark night and explore the extraordinary, ineffable mystery that pervades the cosmos and humanity:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).
This ‘Word’, this articulated ‘Truth’ became flesh. Spiritual author Richard Rohr puts it well, “The eternal pattern of reality took on physicality – became human.”
Like the seemingly miraculous interchangeability of the wave and the particle, God and man are indistinguishable: spirit and flesh, ‘heaven’ and earth become as one.
What, then, of Rahner’s Christian of the future? A story:
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
A friend spent many years ministering to homeless men in inner-city, Melbourne. One man, in particular, grabbed his attention: “Johnny” was the quintessential hobo. He slept in bus shelters, carried his belongings in a shopping trolley, while his body was graffitied with street grime.
What stood out amidst the misery and emptiness of Johnny’s dog-eat-dog world was his deep sense of respect for others; his warm, peaceful countenance.
This inner-beauty seemed so incongruous, so confounding to my friend. In the end, curiosity got the better of him, and he posed a simple, if clumsy question: “Johnny, your life isn’t exactly a bed of roses, so why are you so content; why are you so kind to others?”
After a quiet, thoughtful pause, Johnny turned and said gently, knowingly: “God is very fond of me.”
This child like knowing – as opposed to simply ‘knowing about’ – is the essence of Christianity: it is at once deeply rational, yet also unprovable. As Oxford Professor of Mathematics, John Lennox says, “My Christian faith consists not as a leap of faith into the unknown; it’s an evidence-based commitment, otherwise I wouldn’t be remotely interested in Christianity.”
“Johnny’s” inner experience of divine affection ennobled him and shaped his interactions with others.
Science has nothing to tell Johnny about this experience; nor does Johnny’s experience have anything to tell science. To try and do so would be to participate in a discussion infused with category errors.
The essence of Christianity is not to prove the existence of God – that is a fool’s errand; nor is it to prove Who or What created the universe. No, the essence of Christianity is to be ennobled by a Love, by a ‘fondness’ whose source is ineffable, unknowable: a Love that sets us free to manifest a self-emptying mercy and compassion.
And while this inscrutable reality cannot be investigated or proved by science, its effects can be readily seen and rationally experienced: just ask “Johnny”; not to mention the young Jewish carpenter.
Peter Day is a Catholic Priest living in Canberra