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A More Modern Synthesis

In Quantum Physics and Theology, An Unexpected Kinship, John Polkinghorne remarks that the relational character of physical reality is deeper than people generally suppose1.

The old-fashioned atomism that pictured isolated particles rattling around in the otherwise empty container of space has long been replaced by General Relativity's integrated account of space, time and matter, understood to be combined in a single package deal. Quantum theory brought to light a remarkable form of entanglement between subatomic particles that have once interacted with each other2, which implies that they remain effectively a single system however far they may be subsequently separate spatially — a counterintuitive togetherness-in-separation that has been abundantly confirmed experimentally as a property of nature. The physical world looks more and more like a universe that would be the fitting creation of the trinitarian God, the One whose deepest reality is relational.

Objects + relationships = systems is a fundamental definition that applies to all system sciences. Another common factor is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the reason is that the relationships give it a new identity and reality. What Polkinghorne is saying is that all of physical reality is a single unified system, and no object within that system has a separate reality, all objects exist in relationship with each other. The very definition and meaning of objects in such a coupled system requires knowing the pertinent relationships. This interconnectedness is seen in a particularly deep, and paradoxical, way in the EPR [Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen] paradox. As a concrete example, an electron that is tied to a positron at the moment of its creation is forever linked to it causally, no matter how far they separate spatially. If you alter the state of one you automatically alter the state of the other.

Physicists continue to search for a Grand, Unified Theory, or Theory of Everything to systematize all of physical reality in a single mathematical/physical theory. A theory that unites Einsteins General Relativity theory of gravity with all of Quantum physics would be such a theory, and a quantum theory of gravity would be a big step toward that goal. We do not yet know for certain what the fundamental objects of such a theory may be, although various concepts of "strings" are currently fashionable3.

We can compare this state of affairs with current theories of the Holy Trinity. The "objects" in this case are the Persons of the Trinity, while the relationships are the immanent and economic relationships, such as the "begets," "proceeds from," and compenetration4 relationships of the immanent Trinity and the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" relationship of the economic Trinity. One could say that the persons and relationships of the immanent Trinity define the Trinity as a "black box" while the relationships of the Trinity with created reality, i.e., the relationships that define the economic Trinity, define the means by which we can come to know the immanent Trinity, God in himself. In this theory, the term "person" remains fundamental and undefined.

It is a fundamental fact of created reality that "things" exist insofar as they are willed by God. We can understand this in a more modern sense if we compare God to the holodeck, a fictional quantum computer/virtual reality simulation described in the TV series, Star Trek, the Next Generation. In one such episode, Arthur Conan Doyle's character, Dr. Moriarty5 is given virtual reality in the Holodeck. At the end of the episode, the series' central characters discuss the notion that Moriarty continues to "live on" within the computer. Although "real people" interact with the simulation through a combination of force fields and sensory stimuli, the "objects" of the simulation have reality only as data and programming in the computer's memory. To complete this analogy, we may say that all of created reality exists purely in the mind of God, the only one who really exists.

God put this very point to Moses in the famous statement, "I AM WHO AM."6

God, of course, is not simply a computer, no matter how sophisticated a concept of computer we may care to posit. There is something fundamentally ineffable in human consciousness that cannot be explained purely in terms of relationships we can understand. In any computer model, the "objects" are nothing more than data. We are, somehow, more than that, as our own conscious awareness tells us. When Rene Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am," he was referring not so much to thought as an action, but to consciousness, itself. He might have said "I am conscious, therefore, I exist." His decision to use the action "think" rather than the state of being, "am conscius," was intended to avoid the complications of dealing with consciousness in favor of appealing to the bare fact that "think" had a "subject," which, since the thinking was real, was also, itself, real.

Although there are things which we can say about consciousness, everything which we can say accurately and precisely is fundamentally relational in nature. The same thing is true about free will. Although free will, like consciousness, is fundamentally mysterious, and must be given its own hypotheses and independence as undefined terms, we can come to know their relevance and importance through relational study.

There is a further deep area in which relationship plays a key roll, that of God's self-communication in sacramental form. In commenting on the relatively recent artificial split (or, perhaps a better term would be "divorce") between people of faith and people of science, Polkinghorne declared7,

What is needed, therefore, for successful science is the union of the mathematical expression of order with the empirical investigation of the actual properties of nature, a methodological synthesis of a kind that was pioneered with great skill and fruitfulness by Galileo. It was precisely this combination of theory and experiment that got modern science going in the seventeenth century, encouraged (it is suggested) by an ideology derived from viewing the universe as a free but orderly divine creation. Moreover, since the world is God's creation, it is a fitting duty for religious people to study it. In support of this thesis of the benign influence of religion on nascent science, one can note that it is indeed a fact that the pioneers of the scientific revolution were mostly persons of definite religious convictions, even if they may have had their problems with the authorities (Galileo) or with the Christian orthodoxy (Newton). Those early scientists liked to say that God had written two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Both needed to be read, and when this was done aright there could be no contradiction between them, since the two had the same Author. It would have seemed very strange indeed to those pioneering figures to have suggested there was any real conflict between science and religion, enforcing a choice of which side to take. On this view, the 'primitive ancestor' of both modern science and modern theology was medieval scientia, understood in the general sense of Christian knowledge and insight.8

We need to appreciate the natural synergy between science and theology in a deeper way. Indeed, Polkinghorne's monograph endeavors to do precisely this in the specialized field of epistemology, how we know what we know. I would argue that there is a further major point of synergy, a point that is hinted at in the term sacramental imagination. 9

I will attempt to demonstrate this synergy further by examining a wide variety of natural phenomena which hint at God's nature and God's purposes in deeply metaphorical ways. One can view this area as a kind of examination of the style and signature of the artist, namely God, in his art, namely the cosmos.

We can compare this field of study (of the "signature of God") to the theory of Natural Law. In Natural Law, we attempt to understand God's moral blueprint for humanity by studying his fundamental blueprint. Indeed, we can broaden this study when we consider that God plans to lift us to his level. When we include this latter inspiration, we come to further major insights, such as the one that theologians have long known, that marriage is an image, or signature if you will, of the Trinity. Thus, Trinitarian theology becomes a hermeneutic for interpreting the meaning of marriage, and vice versa — a kind of bi-directional analogical analysis. In the same way, we can consider scientific phenomena as a hermeneutic for theology, and vice versa. 10

Obviously, such analogical thinking requires the exercise of caution. It requires human judgment. Just as the proper exercise of the scientific method in the development of scientific models and theories requires aesthetic as well as logical judgment, so too this area of study requires a certain focus on the saliency and beauty of the various facets (or, in Aristotle's terminology, the "accidents") of God's design, as well as a coherent sense of its meaning and purposes.

At the same time, the methodology of relational analysis must also consider what might be termed "boundary issues." The advancement of science requires examining increasingly rarefied phenomena, or, at any rate, phenomena that are increasingly arcane in human experience. In so doing, we must investigate extremes. This is abundantly clear when we consider God's superlative attributes, and fields of theology that most people shy away from as being purely academic, but which, in reality, hold the key to a deeper and far more fruitful understanding of our faith, and, ultimately, of God's purposes for us.

Finally (at any rate, in terms of the scope of this work), the methodology of relational analysis must explore the phenomenon of paradox in theology more deeply. Paradoxes arise when disparate phenomena appear to be contradictory when viewed in the framework of an existing theory. In the natural sciences, and in mathematics, paradox is a sign of a need for a deeper analytical understanding, a deeper theory. The famous example of Zeno's paradox in mathematics is resolved in the development of the theory of real numbers. The famous example of wave-particle duality in sub-atomic physics is resolved in the modern theory of quantum physics, in which subatomic states of objects (such as the position or momentum of a particle) are understood to be probability distributions, rather than mere numbers. Accordingly, we must not be satisfied with our understanding of such paradoxical topics as the Trinity (Three Persons in One God), the Incarnation (one Person, fully divine and fully human), the Eucharist 11 the Mass12, the Priesthood13, and radical kenosis14. Clearly, these things can be mysteries that we will never fully understand. Nevertheless, this is not an excuse to abandon the effort to understand.

Much of this methodology of relational analysis is well exemplified in Avery Cardinal Dulles' Models of the Church. Though his effort seems primarily concerned with a critical examination of various models that have been proposed, his method may be viewed as a thoroughgoing relational analysis of the efficacy of each model. Recognizing, as he does, that all of the proposed models are inadequate in one way or another, it strikes me as surprising that he did not attempt to offer a deeper and more fruitful alternative. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that he confined himself to the consideration of natural analogs. In the same way, although marriage does, indeed, image the Trinity, the analogy between the two has very significant limitations. By contrast, physicists have realized that our understanding of nature requires that we largely abandon such analogies when the phenomena under study demand it. Thus, our picture of the atom is very different today, largely thanks to the work of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, etc., than the planetary model first developed by Ernest Rutherford.

As in the scientific method, we must always be concerned with the question, "How do we know what we think we know? A critical reflection on the relationships of our theological epistemology must accompany our investigations every step of the way, particularly when we encounter paradox. We must always consider our methodology to be provisional, consonant on a deeper appreciation of the relationships that drive it and the realization of important relationships that fail to play a part. In order to develop a deeper systemic model for our theology, we may need to develop a deeper systemic model of how we know (or think we know) that the model is valid, and to what extent it is, or is not, valid.

  • 1. See pp. 103-104.
  • 2. ...the so-called EPR effect.
  • 3. See Superstring theory.
  • 4. or perichoresis
  • 5. Sherlock Holmes' famous nemesis.
  • 6. See Ex 3:14.
  • 7. See Quantum Physics and Theology, pp. 107-108.
  • 8. Emphasis added.
  • 9. For an interesting historical, theological, philosophical and literary discussion of this term, I suggest viewing the video of Prof. Richard Kearney's lecture, "The Sacramental Imagination" delivered at Trinity Western University. For another effort to expand on this understanding, see "Stretching the sacramental imagination in sacramental theology, liturgy, and life: A trinitarian proposal for a cosmologically conscious age."
  • 10. I should like to note here that the principal effort is to understand redemptive theology, rather than to use a broader focus on the universe as sacrament as a reason (or excuse) to neglect redemption in favor of which might charitably be called a feminist theological ecology, as in the work of Elizabeth Johnson, Dorothy McDougall, Thomas Berry, and their intellectual progenitor, Teilhard de Chardin. Indeed, if anything, the focus on redemption yields far more satisfying results.
  • 11. ...the reality and totality of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine
  • 12. ...making Calvary presen.
  • 13. "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve." "Call no one on earth your father."
  • 14. "Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it cannot bear fruit."