Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quantum Theology

January 21, 2009

I remember being bemused in undergraduate days by a professor who told me that he found books about science much more fruitful for theology and faith than most books of theology. His name was John Wesley Dixon Jr. and he became extremely important to me. I have two inscribed copies of his book The Physiology of Faith: A Theory of Theological Relativity (Harper, 1979). John was, unusually if not uniquely, a professor in two departments: art and religion. He had made quite a name for himself on the UNC campus as an eloquent protestor of the war in Vietnam, I learned, and he had a daughter who sang in the choir in the first parish I served at Christ Church in Raleigh.

Over the years I have found much wisdom in what John taught especially noting that all too often our theological debates, (especially where there are political implications) often reflect the scientific world view of a previous age. I’ve read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which I found challenging and Barbara Taylor’s The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion, altogether more accessible. The most helpful book however has been Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality. I am one of those people who found mathematics tricky, but could always figure out how many pieces of candy I had if three toffees were added to four chocolates. Greene has a way of helping me visualize concepts without getting stuck in complex logic. The logic is there: it is just that I seem to be able to follow it.) For m, reading physics is a bit like what reading theology must be like for those who are not accustomed to the genre.

I loved how Greene helped me see that Newton took an absolutist position with regard to space. He thought it was an entity. Leibniz in contrast saw that ll aspects of motion are relative,--a relationalist position. Mach followed and built on those insights. Einstein returned to an absolute position by noting that space and time are individually relative but ‘spacetime’ is an absolute entity that can help us grasp other things. (summarized on p.62 of the Vintage Books edition, 2004) I found myself thinking about the back and forth between relativism and relativity, between God of immutable Truth and the insights of process theology.

John Dixon saw the problem of relativism (apart from the incomprehensibility of it at its heart) as being that the individual becomes the referent point for truth and writes “relativism liberated man from the tyranny of dogmatism, but delivered him to the tyranny of the isolated self.” (p.xxix) He wanted theology to be truly communal or relational as a matter of discerning sacred reality in a way that parallels quantum theory’s sense of place and direction in the spacetime continuum. How I translate all this is that so many of our contemporaries claims to absolute truth on any manner of subjects, but especially in regard to knowing the will of God get contrasted with the bugaboo of relativism. They leave me wondering how to speak to someone living in an imaginative world that has more in common with Newton than with Einstein and beyond.

Al of this means among other things that we have a massive and complex task in any generation of translating the faith once delivered to the saints in ways that build on the insights of ages past without asking us to live in the past in order to understand and interpret the world in which we live. We say we believe in God who created all that is, seen and unseen. I have to assume that those categories are not immutable and that things previously unseen can become seen, without being in essential conflict with the profession of our putting our trust in one God.

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