Quantum Physics and How We Talk About God.
Overliteralism has hurt our ability to read the bible
(Note: This is part one of what I intend to be a two-part series. This post will talk about a way of thinking about God I've found useful, and the next post will (hopefully) explore how this affects real life.)
Contradiction: a pair of statements which logically can't be true at the same time.
God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and good. Evil exists.
God is loving. God sends some people to Hell.
God is merciful. God punishes wrongdoing.
God has a plan for the future. People have free will.
A photon is a particle. A photon is a wave.
I think that these are more or less the same kind of thought.
Quantum physics is undeniably strange. One of the early motivating questions for the field was "is light a stream of particles, or a continuous wave?", which is perhaps not the most exciting question for non-physicists until one learns that both sides had remarkable, almost indisputable evidence.
The "light is a wave" faction could point to hundreds of years of experiments, including the remarkable success of electromagnetic theory and explicit, empirically-confirmed calculations of things like wavelengths of different colors of light and say that science had confirmed that light was indeed a wave. (I read a Bertrand Russell book a few years ago in which he points to this as an example of a scientific truth so well-established it could not possibly be wrong.)
But the "light is a stream of particles" faction (which had all-but-disappeared) suddenly had a raft of experiments on the photoelectric effect and other things which provided incredibly solid evidence (thanks, Einstein) that light could not possibly be a continuous wave, but rather was carrying energy in discrete packets which looked suspiciously like the thoroughly-discredited "light is a stream of particles" theory.
(Ok, I don't think there were particularly organized factions and pretty soon after Einstein's photoelectric paper people started to work out what was actually going on, but you get the idea. There was a confusing moment where both sides of the question had seemingly-indisputable evidence.)
The resolution, of course, is that scientists invented quantum physics, where we realized that not only light, but matter itself is made of stuff which is BOTH A PARTICLE AND A WAVE and this has BROKEN LOGIC ITSELF and is a MYSTERIOUS PUZZLE EVEN SCIENTISTS CAN'T SOLVE.
At least, that seems to be how pop science articles portray the physics involved. The truth turns out to be a bit more mundane. Light, it turns out, is made of photons, which are best represented a completely different kind of thing, called a "wavefunction." Under certain conditions, a wavefunction will behave like a classical particle, while in other situations it will behave like a classical wave. Actual physicists, by some combination of intuition and study, know how to identify these situations and use the appropriate tools.
But in other situations, it doesn't behave like either, which makes sense because it's a completely different thing than a MAGIC WAVE-PARTICLE HYBRID or however it is we describe things these days, and anybody who's taken a first-year quantum course knows how to translate "WOW IT'S A WAVE AND A PARTICLE" into a more reasonable statement.
The problem is that I don't do this when I think about God.
"Contradictions in the Bible" sites are more-or-less a cottage industry these days, and as far as I can tell the contradictions fall into two categories. The first is a simple contradiction in fact:
Did people always call God Yahweh (Genesis 15:7-8) or only after God revealed himself to Moses (Exodus 6:2-3)?
Was Moses’s father in law’s name Reuel (Exodus 2:18) or Jethro (Exodus 3:1)?
Did God ask Noah to bring aboard the ark two animals from each species (Genesis 6:19), or seven from certain species (Genesis 7:2-3)?
I don't want to talk about this kind of contradiction in this post, so I'll just note that these are primarily a literary phenomenon arising from the way people in the ancient world told stories. There's a lot we can learn from them about the biblical authors and the message they were trying to get across, but that's a topic to write more about in the future. My point here is simply that I wouldn't consider any of these details fundamental in any sense.
The more troubling, and more interesting, kind of contradiction is when two serious theological themes seem to contradict one another. Some examples that come to mind are:
Predestination: do we freely choose whether to follow God, or does God choose ("elect") people ahead of time to follow him?
Justice: Is God primarily just (punishing evil) or merciful (forgiving evil)?
Omnipotence: Is God all-powerful, or can people thwart his plans?
Morality: Is sin the result of freely-chosen wrongdoing, or something more like a disease people struggle against?
Sin: Are all sins equally bad, or are some worse than others?
(There are plenty more). Both sides of each of these themes have strong, biblical arguments in their defense, and yet they seem to be opposites. In conversations and bible studies over the years, I've noticed three major lines of response to this sort of problem:
Decide that this represents a contradiction in Christianity and therefore throw out the whole thing.
Pick a specific side of each issue and work hard to explain away why the bible doesn't really support the other side.
Embrace a sort of new-agey position where everything people say about God is true in its own way.
I think, in analogy with the quantum situation above, that there's a fourth model that gets us closer to the truth.
Let's (sorry, this is a stretch) pretend God is a wavefunction, and that for some reason wavefunctions are impossible to grasp. God reveals himself to us through the bible, but it's confusing - there are parts where God seems to be a particle, and parts where God seems to be a wave.
(You can take the metaphor further and say there's some sort of divide where Calvinists all believe God is a particle and Arminians believe God is a wave and there's a big argument because both sides can justify themselves biblically and so each thinks the other is a heretic.)
In this case, it's easy to see why the three responses I outlined above are wrong: the first fails because it really is possible for something to behave as both a wave and a particle, the second fails because both behaviors really are there, and the third fails because "everybody's right it's a particle-wave" is a nice headline for pop science articles but a useless way to make predictions about the real world.
But there's an obvious but difficult fourth approach. If we accept that wavefunctions are simply too complex to comprehend (this isn't true about physics, but is certainly true about an infinite God), we're left with the wave-particle approach. And the thing to do is not to say "both are true", but to figure out in which situation which is true. If you know when and in what ways it's safe to model something as a wave, and when and in what ways it's safe to model it as a particle, you may not understand the whole universe, but you've certainly learned something.
And in many practical cases, this is enough! Sure, there will be some science or engineering problems you can't solve, but you can talk about why light makes interference patterns and predict where electrons will go in electric fields and all sorts of nifty things. And importantly, understanding this "contradiction" is fundamentally important to having a working model of light! The thing to do is not to ignore the contradiction, but devote even more time to studying it and figuring out it's nuances.
I think this is the approach we need to take in our theology. We need to admit that God is simply too big and powerful for us to completely understand (isn't that why we worship him?). When we read the bible, our goal shouldn't be to make a perfect systematic theology that understands everything about God - instead, we have a book that teaches us the useful but incomplete facts that God thought were most important for us to be in relationship with him. So instead of a book that lists data points in an easy-to-digest way, we have a book that challenges us, and scares us, and gives us exciting and uncomfortable and great and very sad ways of looking at God and says "come, follow me!" Instead of saying "here's a complete description of me", God says "here's a little bit more. Come, follow me!"
So I worry that when we pretend God's statements are simple, concrete facts, we lose the whole point.
When we say "we freely choose whether to follow God" or "God predestines people to follow him", we need to recognize that these are both statements about an infinitely complex supernatural world that have been dumbed-down so that we can understand them, and we shouldn't take them to be simple "facts" to be exploited universally in the same way we'd take, say, an equation.
At the same time, however, they're both useful statements. And I think the reason so much of the bible is in a narrative instead of a list of facts is that it's trying to express not only statements about God and the world, but when and how those statements are applicable. The point of the "freely chosen" statement is not that it's a 100% perfect model of how humans and God interact, but that it's a good model of what happens when a person is making a decision about whether to follow God. Similarly, predestination isn't a 100% complete model of the universe (sorry, Calvinists), but it is a good model for recognizing how much God has intervened in our stories and how much we owe to him. (There's more to get out of each statement, but it would require more detailed bible study and I'm tired.)
In the sequel to this post (if I write it, I'm pretty flaky) I want to explore what it looks like to examine a specific question this way, but for now I just want to make the point that these sorts of statements exist, because I think a lot of bad theology comes from taking statements that are true in certain ways (e.g. "light is a wave") and turning them into unqualified, universal statements (e.g. "light is not a particle.")
So, for example, we have John Calvin taking "God chooses people ahead of time" as the whole truth, and inferring a terrifying doctrine of double predestination. We have universalists taking "God loves people" as the whole truth, and inferring that Hell can't possibly exist. (Why Jesus spends so much time talking about it is unclear.) We have various American churches taking "grace is through faith alone" as the whole truth, and inferring that what we do in this life doesn't matter as long as we believe that God exists.
Instead, we need to look at each statement and try to figure out in what way the bible is claiming it's true. This is hard, and requires interpretation, and we'll presumably get a lot wrong along the way. But if we do our best and have some humility, it will hopefully get us in closer relationship with God.
(One last note: there's a limit to this sort of argument. I'm comfortable believing that God is both just and merciful because there's some sort of "too-big-to-grasp" quality God has that sometimes comes across as just and sometimes as merciful.
But this doesn't mean, for example, that we can take an "everything people say about God is true" sort of position. We can't say that "Islam and Christianity are both true", because they make specific truth claims about the material world that disagree. According to Christianity, Jesus claimed to be God. According to Islam, he didn't. This is a question about something completely comprehensible, and therefore not the sort of question with a "there's a wavefunction-like-quality behind it explaining both cases" solution. This is an important enough theological point in both religions that we're forced to conclude that at most one of the two religions can be essentially true.)