Sunday, June 15, 2014

Science and The Trinity Redux

It is Trinity Sunday – the Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost. I attended Trinity College. I should understand this foundational doctrine of the Church. But, as Ringo Starr once put it, “You know it don’t come easy!” Back in those student days in Hartford, CT, I heard rumblings among some of the students that science was in search of a Unified Field Theory (UFT) - a kind of single explanation, or beautiful mathematical equation, that would "explain" everything within a field. Einstein coined the term while trying to reconcile relativity and electromagnetism. No UFT has yet been derived. Following Einstein, as quantum mechanics began to unfold revealing even deeper and more complex and even paradoxical aspects of the known universe, scientists set off on an even greater quest for a GUT -  a Grand Unified Theory of everything. Every thing. The very fact that we humans can even conceive of such a thing should force us to ponder that the most complex physical structure we have ever encountered is just six inches this side of the eyepiece of the world’s most powerful telescope - the human brain.

Christians have entertained, since about the 4th century, a sort of GUT - The Trinity. The Sunday after Pentecost is always celebrated as Trinity Sunday complete with reflections on the historic creeds and singing of Saint Patrick's Breastplate, perhaps the most elegant proclamation of just what we mean by The Trinity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is Christianity's attempt to describe our understanding of reality and our experience of the Divine. As a doctrine, it must be imperfect since whatever we attempt to say about God is necessarily limited compared to the reality of the Divine. Every year for the past five or six year I have read and re-read Science and The Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality by The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, past President of Queens College, Cambridge, Canon Theologian of Liverpool, and yes, a theoretical physicist! I am just beginning to grasp his argument - which is in all humility, and he is remarkably humble, to explore the possibility that The Doctrine of the Trinity very well may be the GUT science is looking for!

As astonishing as his claim sounds, it shouldn't be. After all, thanks to the Quran, the summary of 23 years of divine revelations to Muhammad, Muslim culture was able to establish the first international House of Knowledge, develop the precursor to germ theory leading to the establishment of hospitals with wards for people with similar symptoms, remove cataracts with a hollow reed, create municipal water purification systems, public water supplies and even indoor plumbing, all while Christian Europe was muddling its way through the dark ages more concerned with knocking one another off and putting serious scientists like Galileo on trial for heresy. By which I mean, the symbiotic relationship linking science and religion is not the problem 20th century western civilization made it out to be;

I cannot adequately recount Polkinghnorne's thoughts on the subject, but to say, the man is onto something - and anyone with a passing interest would do well to get his book and spend a few years reading it and letting it percolate into your brain cells and let the single most complex physical structure we have ever encountered do the rest of the work!

For instance, science has long held the view that the human ability to understand the universe far exceeds "anything that could reasonably be considered simply an evolutionary necessity, or as a  happy spin-off from that necessity. The universe has proved to be astonishingly rationally transparent" p 63 And further, it is believed that mathematically  "beautiful" equations prove most fruitful, while those that are ugly offer no hope for new discovery. We are capable of understanding and describing the mysteries of the universe. Polkinghorne finds that in Trinitarian terms our scientific ability to "explore the rational beauty of the universe is seen to be a part of the Father's gift of the imago Dei (the image of God)  to humankind, and the beautiful rational order of the universe is the imprint of the divine Logos [Word/Wisdom = the Son] without whom was not anything made that was made (John 1:3). Whether acknowledged or not, it is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (John 15: 26) who is at work in the truth-seeking community of scientists. That community's repeated experiences of wonder at the disclosed order of the universe are, in fact, tacit acts of the worship of its Creator." p65

Another fundamental of Polkinghorne's analysis accepts that the Universe is more of a Jazz Improvisation than a carefully written and orchestrated score - that is both the universe and humankind are given freewill to unfold, or create themselves, which is the essence of evolution. That is, the universe and everything therein is not a static whole, but rather a dynamic becoming - a result of God's own kenotic act of self-limitation, such that God allows creatures to be themselves and make themselves. "A creation allowed to make itself can be held to be a great good, but it has a necessary cost not only in the blind alleys and extinctions that are the inescapable dark side of the evolutionary process, but also in the very character of the processes of a world in which evolution can take place." p 72 Translation: bad things can and do happen as a result of a universe that is unreliable, also known theologically as Theodicy. "That there is cancer in creation is not something that a more competent or compassionate Creator could easily have eliminated, but is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself." Polkinghorne then argues that the depth of the problem posed by theodicy is only adequately met in Christian thinking by a Trinitarian understanding of the Cross of Christ, seen as the event in which the incarnate God truly shares to the uttermost in the travail of creation - Jesus is the 'fellow sufferer who understands,' or the One who is creation's partner in its pain.

A final thought about the Holy Spirit: the universe, it turns out, like humankind, is by nature relational. Quantum theory implies that once two quantum entities have interacted with each other, they remain mutually entangled however far apart they may eventually separate. Things, like people, are interconnected whether they want to be or not. That is, the subatomic world cannot be treated atomistically! By analogy this challenges the individualistic atomism that is so characteristic of contemporary thinking about human nature - particularly in western civilization. This turns out to be true of the universe as a whole which exists as a result of two opposing yet interconnected forces: the explosive force of the Big Bang that propels the universe ever outward, and the countervailing forces of gravity pulling matter together by the effects of what has come to be called Dark Energy - perhaps substantiating what my dear friend and colleague Dick Chiroff maintained all along - Dark Energy, the force and source of the interconnectedness of all things, is, after all, the Holy Spirit.

It should of course be stated forthrightly that none of this "proves" The Trinity - but rather, the Trinity in these few instances, and numerous others that Polkinghorne musters, does provide plausible ways of understanding the universe, all that is seen and unseen (since it is a creation that is still and forever becoming!). Perhaps a Trinitarian world view is a reasonable candidate for a GUT after all!

A final thought on this Trinity Sunday: eventually all of this, even in the hands of professionals like Polkinghorne, reaches limits to the completeness of our understanding that can be achieved through the enterprises of theology - and science. Yet, urges Polkinghorne, this should never deter us from attempting the task before us, nor should it encourage us to settle prematurely for some relatively undemanding form of understanding. Accounts that are truly convincing can be expected to have a richness and complexity that demands our best thinking. "It is scarcely surprising that only [demanding and complex accounts will prove] even partially adequate to the exploration of the inexhaustible riches of the Trinitarian God, the Ground of our existence and the Source of our everlasting Hope." p117
In the name of God
Earth maker
Pain bearer
Life Sustainer

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