Friday, March 15, 2013

a pope on wednesday and a particle on thursday

“Thesis 1. Christian theology is faced today with a twofold crisis. Rapid social and cultural change has brought it to a crisis of its meaning for the world. And the more theology tries to be relevant to the social crises of its society, the more deeply it is itself drawn into the crisis of its own Christian identity. This twofold crisis is called the ‘identity-involvement dilemma.’ But it is not a product of the twentieth century, nor is it in fact a dilemma. It is of the essence of Christian theology from its inception that it investigates ever anew its relevance to the world and its identity in Christ.” (Jürgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, p. 1)

In the second century the astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (whom we know today as Ptolemy) construed the solar system in geocentric terms.  Roughly fourteen centuries later Copernicus overturned this view, positing a heliocentric construction: the planets revolve around the sun, not the other way around.

Since the church enjoyed ideological preeminence coupled with political power during the lion-share of those Ptolemaic years, Copernicus’ findings proved threatening to the church of the sixteenth century. Prior to this, epistemology rested in the arms of the church through a combination of Scripture and tradition. If one wanted to know the truth, one simply sought out what the church taught. Since the church inherited a Ptolemaic view of the universe, this was a nice arrangement.

Prior to Copernicus, theology and science had been one piece. In fact, theology was considered queen of the sciences. But then Copernicus smashed that arrangement by overturning what the church supported. This put the church at a crossroads. To fathom following an astronomer that contravened centuries of church teaching seemed absurd; to admit error amounted to an abdication of ideological power.

On the other hand, to refuse to see the truth…well, as thinking Christians that should surely be unthinkable.

Here we have the ‘identity-involvement’ dilemma (as the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it). What is the church to do in instances like these? On the one hand, the truth stares us in the face. On the other hand, following the truth feels like a betrayal of faith. How do we stay engaged in the real world, yet hold onto a sense of distinct Christian identity?


Half a millennium has passed and we still have much to learn about how to live in the midst of this tension. Since the scientific revolution, the church has at times been little more than a rag doll trying to ride a wild stallion. Truth has gotten out of hand for religion. These days it seems that all Mother Faith can do is shout after her would-be children as they run ahead on their search for new horizons.

The fact is: these "children" have found these new frontiers with or without the church. And they will continue to find them.

The day after the College of Cardinals elected a new Pope, scientists in Switzerland confirmed the existence of a particle whose discovery changes everything. Until now, this particle only existed in theoretical constructs. But yesterday they found it. It is the Higgs Boson particle. It is known in popular terms as “The God Particle”.

The particle is so named because it explains how matter is formed. Atomic theory posits that all material things are composed of atoms. These atoms, in turn, are composed of sub-units which we refer to as subatomic particles. Yesterday’s discovery explains how all this comes to be. Scientists now know the answer to the question: “What creates the stuff of stuff of stuff?”

Copernicus opened a Pandora’s Box: “Maybe we can account for things apart from God.”

Such a statement makes people of faith nervous. The “maybe” carries weight: if the church refuses to give credence to what science has proven to be true, then the church is wrong.

And if the church is wrong, then we must be able to account for the world apart from dogma.

Philosophically speaking, Immanuel Kant demonstrated such knowledge-apart-from-dogma is not only possible but necessary. In Critique of Pure Reason he demonstrated our capacity to know truth with certainty in this way. In Foundations of the Metaphysics Morals he moored ethics in the harbor of “pure reason”—that is, reason that is independent from church teaching.  Up to that point, the Church held onto the one domain she thought was exclusively hers: the notions of right and wrong (ethics). But when Kant demonstrated that even morality could be established on purely philosophical grounds, the church was no longer needed. “God,” as Nietzsche stated, “is dead.”

Kant’s was a vision of enlightenment for all humankind, an emergence from the Dark Ages that had been spent under the heavy cloak of the Church.

In a treatise entitled What is Enlightenment? Kant wrote: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’—that is the motto of enlightenment.”   

The Church, of course, did not like the rally cry of the masses. Her authority was being called into question. How dare the world treat her as obsolete!

So, when Darwin gave an account of our beginnings in his book On the Origin of Species the church continued to oppose science. Evolutionary theory proved too threatening to Bible-believing Christians (thus, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 1920’s).  Once again, science and faith were at odds.

What to do? How can the church learn to take the Bible seriously while at the same time learn in humility from the scientific family? How do people of faith live gracefully in the midst of Moltmann’s identity-involvement “dilemma”?

Gradually, the church has learned how to better navigate this tension--but it has been slow. Maybe it’s time, as Moltmann suggests, to learn that there is no dilemma.

We will discover this as we enter into true dialogue.

Can faith and science learn to be different and together? Or will we settle for artificial separations? Dialogue presupposes an affirmative answer to the former question. I, for one, am optimistic.

The way forward is through dialogue. Only in dialogue will faith see she needs science—and only in dialogue will science see she needs faith.

This is so because there are limits to both.

Just as faith must follow the truth of science so too science relies on faith. After all, the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle was precipitated by intuition—a faith, a belief that there was such a thing. The scientists at CERN were looking for something they could not yet prove. Without this intuition, there would have been no looking.

(It is true they were looking because of other scientific facts that had been proven, but we cannot deny: the facts quickened imagination and imagination is the stuff of faith.)

Einstein’s work is also based on faith—a conviction that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Up until now, that conviction has been upheld—but not without its close-calls. Until this notion is disproven, we believe.

Yes, science is limited. At least from this vantage point in history, there is yet a major conflict within science herself to be resolved: the physics of the large and spacious over against the physics of the tiny.

Brian Greene, physicist and author of The Elegant Universe (a work on string theory) states: “As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right. The two theories underlying the tremendous progress of physics during the last hundred years—progress that has explained the expansion of the heavens and the fundamental structure of matter—are mutually incompatible.” (p. 3, emphasis is the Greene’s)

Quantum physics behaves like a three-ring circus compared to Einstein’s vision. How to resolve the differences?

Scientists are looking for that “unified field”—a single, elegant explanation that brings together these disparate realities. This is where string theory comes into play. If the God Particle explains the stuff of stuff of stuff, string theorists have a hunch that strings—tiny strings—smaller than anything else that exists—compose the stuff of stuff of stuff of stuff.

In either case, as far as the present discussion is concerned, it is important for us to notice the search for strings is based on faith. Scientists believe these strings exist, so they search.

And, if they find them? Well, the particle view of the universe would become defunct—for string theory states there are no such things as point particles. 

This puts yesterday's discovery into perspective. What's more: if string theorists are correct there are more than three spatial dimensions and the nature of the dimension we call time is also changed.

So even if string theory provides the answer to the conflict between Big and Small science, there will always be more unknowns to navigate. Science can never be rid of faith.

And, because we believe in a world of strings or particles, faith can never live without science.

We do well to learn to live together—different, yet together.

As Christians we should seek and be unafraid of the truth. This is why I agree with Moltmann: “Christian theology is fundamentally a theology of dialogue. It has and reveals its truth first of all in dialogue with other people and other religions and ideologies.” (Moltmann, 12)


What then? How shall we live?

Christians have but one answer to this question: we live as those who follow the crucified one. In the shadow of the cross all our smug certainties are called into question. In the shadow of the cross a God we thought was a warrior becomes powerless. At the foot of the cross, those who are unrelated become sons and mothers. In the light of the cross, a King pours out the limitless riches of his life for the sake of the poor.

This is a narrative that, by its elegant simplicity, orders both popes and physicists to do what they do on behalf of the downtrodden. This is a narrative that reminds us we don’t really know what we think we know. It calls us to continual humility.

In the shadow of the cross there can be no identity-involvement dilemma. The Crucified One reminds us who we are and he reminds us to be present and engaged, even to the point of death.

Whether we are made of strings or particles, we know love and we can be shown how to love. Such a narrative transcends both Church Tradition and Particle Physics.

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