Saturday, December 29, 2012

Macro God, Micro God

(reflection on EXPLORING REALITY: THE INTERTWINING OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION by John Polkinghorne, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005; and on Krista Tippett's radio interview with Kate Braestrup about her memoir HERE IF YOU NEED ME.  Link to a transcript of the interview @  )

The old days were soaked with God, as we can read in European literature from Milton backwards. My forebears named Him casually in both contracts and curses, credited Him for both natural processes and chance incidents, and invoked His judgement upon every human action. Science wrung God from daily discourse, leaving behind a mere puddle. The Deity became a mere "God of the gaps," default cause for every effect that science hasn't explained - a set that shrinks every year.

Not so fast, says author John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist-turned-Anglican Priest. I heard him on Krista Tippett's radio program On Being (nee Speaking of Faith) and have now read his book EXPLORING REALITY. He argues that science has found more room, not less, for miraculous events, response to prayer, and the ongoing involvement of a concerned and omnipresent Creator.

His view of a cosmic God who works miracles is irrelevant to Kate Braestrup, also a guest of Krista Tippett's program.  She says, "You know, God doesn't have to be out in the next solar system over bashing asteroids together."  She finds God in everyday life, but not in the way our forebears saw God's hand in every event.

The two authors look at God from opposing sides, but their perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
Polkinghorne Widens Gaps for God
In his book EXPLORING REALITY, Polkinghorne pulls together threads from his more substantial works in this slim book to make a sampler for those who won't deny science in order to keep faith. Here's a sampler of what I got from reading it:

First, you don't have to be a Quantum Physicist to ask the question that made a theist of me in my teens: What could possibly be the evolutionary "survival value" of Mozart's music, or the joy we have in perceiving it?   Asking myself that as an agnostic -- though for me it was "A Little Night Music" by Sondheim and not by Mozart -- I could answer only that there's more to us than mere matter, and It's good.  And It has good taste!

Science now supports the religious feeling that our universe is more than the sum of its particles, Polkinghorne tells us. "Reductionism" of everything to merely mechanical processes is so 20th century, he says; "emergentism" has replaced it, awareness that phenomena can "emerge" from interactions of objects, as "Wetness" emerges from interactions of water molecules. The quality that we call "consciousness" is another emergence, Polkinghorne says, concluding that "mind" and "matter" lie on a continuum.  He explains (but I still don't get) how quantum experiments were affected by the act of observing them.  At the quantum level, particles affect each others' behavior far beyond the reach of any communicating force. He speculates about the effects that minds, collectively, have on our universe.

Polkinghorne wants us to know, above all, that Science has outgrown determinism.  R.I.P., Laplace (who imagined that the cosmos has unfolded, and will unfold, on a trajectory determined from its outset), and also Marx and Freud. Chaos theory interferes with the old view.  "Chaos theory" is a misnomer, he says, for the study of chance variations that  make great effects across a wide range of phenomena. This is the "butterfly effect," by which the fanning of a butterfly's wing in a tropical jungle can result in a windstorm on the other side of the planet.

Chapters on physics prepare Polkinghorne's reader for affirmations of the existence of free will. A chapter on "Time" disposes of the old idea that all time is contained as if in an aquarium. That old view is partly supported by Einstein's insight that observers can experience time in different ways, depending on position and speed, allowing the conclusion that our perception of time's passing is only a matter of limited perspective. But Polkinghorne thinks that's overreaching.  For him, time is more like a narrative, and trajectories can be knocked off-course.  He sees room in the universe for a God to interact with us, to make things happen, even resurrection.   

In the rest of the book, Polkinghorne applies "critical realism" to religious doctrine.  Here, I was on more familiar territory.  I recognized vintage C. S. Lewis when Polkinghorne reasons that men of ancient Israel would not have put their lives on the line for Christ without firm belief that Resurrection happened really (83), not as a stunt or a symbol; nor would they have composed Gospels in which they themselves would appear so foolish, nor women would appear so influential.

He makes a big deal of the doctrine of Trinity, something that I've always accepted without much thought as a kind of metaphor for a being beyond our comprehension.  For Polkinghorne, understanding the Creator as a being involved in time, not outside of it, is key to everything else -- free will, prayer, miracles, the Incarnation of Jesus, and the operation of the Spirit.  Jesus' calling to the Father from the Cross was an event within the life of the Trinity, even a crisis, but  not a charade played out for our benefit.  Polkinghorne uses ancient sources to reason that the Spirit is active in all human lives in all times, and other faith traditions are therefore Spirit-led, too, though incomplete without acceptance of Jesus' resurrection.

The life of the world to come?  Polkinghorne tells of "branes," short for "membranes," imagined in "superstring theory" as parallel universes layered together like layers of skin. Resurrection may have poked a hole in the "brane."  How will we all meet Jesus, face to face, if we are all resurrected bodies?  He imagines, half-seriously, the idea of a vast universal reception line where Jesus says a few kind words to each of us.  Instead, he wonders if Jesus is embodied by all of us, taking literally the metaphor of the church as "Christ's body."

More interesting than his speculations about how it all will happen is his wondering why -- or, more accurately, why not immediately?  If there will one day follow some universe free of two kinds of "evil" (natural and moral), then why should we have to endure the viruses and wars of this one? His best answer is that Creation is empowered to create itself - everything from galaxies to viruses, with humankind in between.

Braestrup Narrows God's Field of Operations
Kate Braestrup is both a cop and Unitarian Universalist pastor, working as chaplain for Maine's park rangers. In her work, she has been present at "miraculous" rescues of little children lost in the woods, and "tragic" recoveries of corpses. "Miracles" are what we call it when chance events lead to saving a life; but Braestrup observes that tragedies are equally improbable:  numerous chance events put  a predator in contact with his victim in an opportune time and place. She sees the hand of God, not in the chance incidents, whether "miraculous" or "tragic," but in the fact that teams of law enforcement officers and community volunteers give of themselves to help when bad things happen. She tells Tippett,

...God is love. And I mean that pretty literally, that God is, if nothing else, and that's a big if, but if nothing else, God is that force that drives us to really see each other and to really behold each other and care for each other and respond to each other. And for me, that is actually enough. That cultivating it, that thinking about it, worshipping it, working towards it, taking care of it, nurturing it in myself, nurturing it in other people, that that really is a life's work right there, and it doesn't have to be any bigger than that. You know, God doesn't have to be out in the next solar system over bashing asteroids together. Right? You know, it's plenty just the God that I work with.

Asked what she says in the worst cases, Braestrup replies, "If someone asks, you know, 'Where was God in this?' I'll say, 'God was in all the people that came to try to help, to try to find your child.'" 

She speaks with Tippett about events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy when communities pull together to help those in need, and someone invariably asks, as Dorothy Day did at the San Francisco earthquake, "Why can't we always live like this?" Braestrup tells us that such caring and courageous behavior is more common than these calamities, although she allows that sometimes "it fails," as in the case of Kitty Genovese.

At another spot in the interview, she takes issue with some Christians for whom life and life after death are paramount. She quips that life isn't really so important to us at all: "Half of the time when I'm ... responding to a tragedy, [it's] someone who was willing to risk his life for something really as evanescent as ... excitement. [For example] he was driving a snowmobile 70 miles an hour, and he bashe[d] into a tree. I mean, we risk our lives all the time."

While one author looks to the cosmos for God, and the other looks no further than the next person's eyes, they unite in believing that there's a shared spirit working in us, inspiring us to love, motivating us to risk ourselves for others, strengthening us to accept loss and move on.  For one, that's an aspect of the Trinity; for the other, one third of the trinity is enough, and the rest is just speculation. 

1 comment:

W. Scott Smoot said...

Another post of mine from 2006 ties Polkinghorne to a wonderful line in Ecclesiastes about "eternity in the mind of man."