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Quantum Theology

Quantum Theology

Nick Spencer explores how the challenges we face when talking about the quantum world can illuminate theological discussions. 17/09/2018

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1.                 

Somewhere in amongst his big rants, Richard Dawkins has a little rant about the way in which the word quantum is used to legitimise any piece of new age quackery and paranormal nonsense that is brazen enough to misappropriate the term. Not always a fellow traveller, I am with the great professor on this one. Quantum consciousness, quantum healing, quantum Buddhism, quantum psychology, quantum economics, quantum spirituality: there is no practice or discipline, however serious or however half–baked, to which ‘quantum’ cannot be tagged to add authority and mystery.

That being so, an essay with the title ‘Quantum theology’ is liable to provoke a deep sigh, a rolling of the eyes, and the uncontrollable urge to move along please because there really is nothing to be seen here. Given that one book published under just that title invites the reader to learn more about the “Spiritual Implications of the New Physics”, ‘quantum theology’ is not calculated to inspire intellectual confidence. Prepare yourself for seven thousands of words of quantum bullshit.

So, let me begin by putting your mind at rest, in two ways. First, this essay draws from Philip Ball’s recent book Beyond Weird: Why everything you thought you knew about quantum physics is different. Ball is Britain’s leading popular science writer, having published on a wide range of topics. He knows his stuff and is anything but a dodgy quantumonger. Beyond Weird is a well–constructed, witty, and learned book worth reading by anyone who wants to (try to) understand quantum physics.

Second, this essay is not really about quantum physics. For all the book’s erudition and clarity, I’m now only a little more confident that I know what quantum physics is than I was before reading Beyond Weird. That, however, is my fault rather than Ball’s, an indication of my intellectual limitations rather than that of Ball’s prose. The spirit is willing but the brain is weak.

I am, thus, in no way competent to explain quantum physics even when equipped with Philip Ball as my sword and my shield. Moreover, lest it need saying, I am not going to attempt some dubious explanation of how quantum physics actually and amazingly confirms what ancient religious wisdom/ scriptures/ beliefs have been saying for millennia. I know enough about the history of religion and science to know that that theologians (or at least religious people) have repeatedly rushed into union with the latest science of the day only to find themselves in a messy and humiliating divorce years later.

I suspect there are implications in quantum physics for the kind of universe in which believers think they live, if only by casting shadows over the allegedly closed and deterministic Newtonian universe in which, for centuries, we were told we lived. As we will see, it is easy to see why so many philosophically–minded believers, whether religious, spiritual, newagey or secular, make this move.

It is not, however, a move I intend to make. Rather, this essay, once it has done some necessary ‘explanation’, looks instead at one particular aspect of quantum theory, on which Ball touches frequently, and which I think is of real interest and relevance to theology: namely the business of using language to describe things that can’t really be described.

2.

There are certain things that ‘everyone knows’ about quantum physics. For example, quantum objects can be both waves and particles: they have what is known as “wave–particle duality”. Quantum objects can be in more than one state at once: they possess something called “superposition”. You can’t simultaneously know exactly the location and velocity of a quantum object: Heisenberg’s famous “uncertainty principle”. Quantum objects can affect one another instantly over huge distances: something that is known as “entanglement”. And you can’t measure anything in the quantum world without disturbing it: there is an “unavoidable subjectivity” in the whole system. Ball recounts these popular beliefs before bursting our balloon: “quantum mechanics says none of these things… all… are nothing but interpretations laid on top of the theory”.

This debunking rather disappointed me as these were at least the quantum straws I thought I had grasped. Ball’s point however – if I have understood him – is not so much that they are flatly wrong, although some are misleading or poorly stated, as simply not inherent in the theory. The quantum world is not “a place where difference physical rules apply, so much as a place where we are forced to rethink our ideas about what we mean by a physical world and what we think we are doing when we attempt to find out about it.” [9] Quantum theory is better understood “not so much [as] a theory that one can test by observation and measurement, but a theory about what it means to observe and measure.” [27]

There is, it should be stressed, no such thing as “quantum orthodoxy”, there being different interpretations of what exactly is going on here. (I wonder if that rings any religious bells.) However, the fact that one of the big differences in interpretation is about whether quantum mechanics is ontic – meaning that it is about the nature of things that exist – or epistemic – meaning that is “refers only to our state of knowledge about a system, and not to its fundamental nature” – shows what realm we are operating in: closer to metaphysics than physics. [54]

Time and again, Ball emphasises this point. “If we’re serious about [understanding quantum mechanics], we’re going to need some philosophy”, he writes early on. We need to “force science to take seriously some questions that philosophers have debated with great depth and subtlety for millennia: What is real? What is knowledge? What is existence?” [19–20]

Given this emphasis, we can see why more philosophically–minded souls, religious and otherwise, might seize on quantum mechanics to open up some deep conversations about the nature of reality. It’s an approach apparently encouraged by many of the serious physicists who have written on quantum theory. “In accepting quantum mechanics,” the American Leonard Susskind said “we are buying into a view of reality that is radically different from the classical view.” [19]

This isn’t a new approach. Indeed, the discipline’s metaphysical inclination was determined, so to speak, at the outset by the fact that quantum mechanics’ founding father, Niels Bohr, had the reputation of something of a guru with “a quasi–mystical understanding” of the field and a preponderance for gnomic utterances over which physicists still pore today. [21] “I have been getting sporadic flashes of feeling that I may actually be starting to understand what Bohr was talking about,” wrote the physicist David Mermin, “Sometimes the sensation persists for a many minutes. It’s a little like a religious experience.” [21]

3.

This reality–shaking, metaphysically–inclined reading for quantum theory is grounded in the way in which it seems to re–introduce subjectivity into scientific debate. The scientific method has been a long slow ascent of Mount Objectivity, removing personal perspective (and bias) from our understanding of reality to get an ever clearer view of that which is the case. Through experimentation, repetition, collaboration, and the like, the ‘I’ is withdrawn to make space for a truth that is, and should be, frankly indifferent to my existence. Gravity, evolution and the second law of thermodynamics are real, irrespective or not of whether I want them to be. My presence, let alone my involvement or approval, do not matter.

And then quantum mechanics comes along. In the words of Werner Heisenberg, another founding father, “the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elemental particles themselves but with our knowledge of them.” [47] This “was the unsettling thing for the pioneers of the theory,” Ball told me in discussion. “Most theories propose to tell us something about the underlying phenomena that are causing what we see – it points down into the world, if you like.” In contrast with this, quantum mechanics is pointing towards us. “It says, ‘this is what you will see’ and it’s even that specific. It is not saying this is what one will generally measure; it is saying ‘you under these circumstances in this experiment will see this.’”

We can be quite specific about this, and even conduct elaborate experiments into the topic. Herein lies Heisenberg’s famous point about never being able to determine (to some arbitrarily precise degree) both the velocity and the position of a sub–atomic particle. And herein also is the oft–cited fact that the mere act of making the measurement seems to turn a wave into a particle. [72] “Different ways of looking can elicit apparently mutually contradictory answers”, Ball writes. [78] “Different measurements produce different realities. Not just different results, but different realities – and what’s more, ones that are not necessarily compatible with one another”. [84]

The result of all this, according to the mainstream Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics (although note, again, that there is no settled orthodoxy here), is that “the act of measurement actively constructs the reality that is measured.” [82] In the words of Bohr’s colleague Pascual Jordan, “we ourselves produce the results of measurement.” [83]

This, it should be emphasised, is only an issue at a very small scale. “Almost all science is utterly untouched by the quantum measurement problem”, Ball emphasises. “Even at the atomic scale we can generally make measurements without fear that we are significantly disturbing” [83] Even so, it’s a disturbing thought. “If what we see depends on what questions we ask, whither then the idea of an objective world, governed by rules that pertain independently of our attempts to figure them out?” As Heisenberg put it, science had ceased to be a way of peeking unnoticed at the world, and instead had become “an actor in [the] interplay between man and nature.” [78]

You can see the religious appeal here. If science has allegedly been the extended story of sidelining humanity as Freud famously thought – first from the centre of the universe (Copernicus), then from the centre of life (Darwin) and then from the centre of ourselves (Freud, of course) – quantum mechanics has done our pride a whole load of good by rediscovering the reality and significance of human subjectivity right at the deepest most intimate level of all creation. “We turned the world inside out”, Bohr tells Heisenberg in Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. “Throughout history we keep finding ourselves displaced. We keep exiling ourselves to the periphery of things”:

“Until we come to beginning of the twentieth century, and we’re suddenly forced to rise from our knees again… here in Copenhagen…we discover that there is no precisely determinable objective universe. That the universe exists only as a series of approximations. Only within the limits determined by our relationship with it. Only through the understanding lodged inside the human head.”

“The nature of the world is such that our intervention matters,” Ball writes. “We affect what transpires.” [122] The American John Wheeler spoke of the reality of the universe as being “participatory”. David Bohm turned the entire universe “into something resembling a conscious organism”: “Thought exists in the cosmos as a holistic entity akin to the quantum potential, which it would, he said, be wrong and misleading to break… up into my thought, your thought.” These are profound philosophical and even theological ingredients, although they can and have been baked into some questionable cakes.

4.

There are, then, obvious potential links between quantum mechanics and those issues that interest the religious imagination. It is far from illegitimate to read philosophical and metaphysical concerns within quantum theory. Indeed, it seems necessary to do so. The nature of reality, the nature of human knowledge, the balance (such as it is a balance) between what it objective and what it subjective: all these are incorporated in discussion, as are questions of whether reality is deterministic or probabilistic; of whether reality, as we know it, is a simply an emergent phenomenon that doesn’t exist at a deep level; and more broadly, about whether reality is mathematical or, to so speak, ‘real’. Quantum mechanics puts metaphysics back into physics.

For my money, however, the really significant thing that quantum mechanics has to say to theology is on the subject of language. Put simply, quantum mechanics faces the fascinating – and familiar – problem of how we talk meaningfully about things that we cannot directly experience in any way and that fundamentally challenge our idea of reality.

Some physicists, Ball remarks towards the end, don’t want to do this. “Some scientists want to make maths itself the ultimate reality, a kind of numinous fabric from which all else emerges.” He is not persuaded. “When physicists…exhort us to not get hung up on all–too–human words, we have a right to resist. Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe. Relationships between numbers are no substitute.” [346]

We are, in effect, facing the same problem that Augustine did when he talked about God, an example that Ball himself brings up in our discussion. The Church Father uses the word ‘unspeakable’ in his City of God to talk about God, and then frets that even if you call God unspeakable you are speaking about him. Quantum mechanics is similarly unspeakable, so some physicists don’t want to speak about it. The physicist John Bell even published a book called Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics. That may be a legitimate conclusion for quantum theory as it is in theology and even philosophy – silence has a venerable and essential role to play within many spiritual traditions, and Wittgenstein famously concluded his Tractatus by suggesting that whereof we cannot speak thereof we must remain silent. However, it seems like an unsatisfactory and unduly resigned place at which to start.

5.

The problem here has (at least) two levels. On one there is simply the question of unfamiliarity. How do you talk about things that are new and strange?

As it happens, this isn’t much of a problem; indeed, science deals with it all the time, the lion’s share of English vocabulary comprising specialist scientific terms. Most are neologisms, compound technical words that people beyond specialist fields would never use. Occasionally some are more creative. Murray Gell–Man, credited with ‘discovering’ quarks, later wrote how he took the term (or more precisely its spelling; mysteriously he said he already had the sound of the word in his mind) from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” His collaborator, George Zweig, had preferred “ace” for the new particle.

David Mermin, a physicist working on superfluids, liquids in which currents can flow without ever succumbing to frictional drag, proposed the word “boojum” for a particular pattern in one of his experiments (formally, “any surface point singularity the motion of which can catalyse the decay of a supercurrent”). The term comes from Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’: “He had softly and suddenly vanished away/ For the Snark was a Boojum, you see”. For reasons of conservatism, and intelligibility, the scientific establishment was not impressed. Mermin later recounted his (ultimately successful) battle to get the word recognised, in a chapter in his book Boojums All the Way through: Communicating Science in a Prosaic Age.

Newness, then, is not in itself a problem, and can invite creative and colourful responses. The real linguistic challenge for quantum mechanics is that it needs to describe things that simply don’t make sense according to our view of reality. We know, for example, that the same object cannot be in two different places at once, or that the properties of an object are located in that object (my car is grey for example) and not elsewhere (my car’s greyness has nothing to do with my coffee mug’s greyness). And yet, that’s the direction in which quantum mechanics pushes us.

It’s worth emphasising that this direction was forced rather than chosen. Quantum theory wasn’t something early twentieth century physicists reasoned themselves into. Rather, it was first and foremost a set of ideas that originated in ideas Max Planck developed around 1900, in response to others’ experiments, about how objects radiate heat. His ideas, and Einstein’s reflections on them five years later, generated the concept of “quantized energy: how it increases in steps, not smoothly”, which began to unpick at the edges of classical physics. The ensuing story is extremely complex but the important thing to note is that the linguistic challenge was the result of reality (so to speak) posing questions to people, rather than people twisting reality into the shape left by their reasoning.

The challenge is severe, not because there are new things we need to name but for the profound philosophical reasons outlined above. Reality as we know it, Ball writes, “is an inherently macroscopic concept… [and] we have absolutely no reason to expect that it is ‘reality all the way down.” [345] Our language evolved, with us, in this macroscopic world, for which it, and we, are reasonably well–suited. It, and we, are not suited to talk about the quantum world. What, then, do we do?

Various options are available. One, already noted, is ‘don’t bother’, or less prosaically perhaps, ‘keep silent’. The maths works and seeing as reality is mathematical, we’ll let the maths to do the talking. We needn’t bother with putting it into words.

A second option, which we might term the Way of the Quark and the Boojum, is to invent or, more precisely, borrow radically new words. This is quite feasible but doesn’t necessarily solve anything. The challenge with quantum theory, after all, is not that there are new things that need to be described – like quarks and boojums – so much as they are not really things, as we understand things, at all. We could simply give these quantum things a new name, Ball suggests, such as “quantons”, which might mean be defined as an object that can show wave–like or particle–like behaviour. However, quite apart from the fact that “there is more than enough jargon in this subject already”, there is little to be gained by “replacing familiar, comfortable words with neologisms that seem designed only to sweep complications under the carpet.” [38]

A third path might be termed the legalese option, familiar to anyone who has ever gone through a legal agreement in any detail, wondering why everything is qualified and six words are always used when one seems enough. Thus, we “we should not, in truth, talk about the electron at all except in terms of the measurements we make on it.” Such “linguistic rigour” has its appeals, but is effectively “impossible to sustain in practice”, unless you charge by the six–minutes. “We are compelled, in the end, to talk about an electron that exists before we look.” [48]

A fourth approach is to eschew eccentric neologisms and simply borrow existing familiar words, which we might call the Way of Charm and Beauty. Quarks, in case you didn’t know, can be up or down quarks, strange or charm quarks, and bottom or top quarks (once known as beauty or truth quarks). You won’t be surprised to hear that there is nothing uppish or downish, or strange or charming (let alone beautiful or true) about quarks, as we understand those terms. They are simply appropriated for different use, “a familiar word repurposed to unfamiliar ends”. [129]

A fifth approach, similar to the fourth, is that of repurposing but this time repurposing with good reason. There is nothing about quarks that is charming or beautiful. The words are familiar but completely alien to the context. By contrast, it is possible to repurpose more relevant words. In a sense that is what is being doing by talk of waves, particles and spin, words for macroscopic phenomena that are close enough to what quantum physicists observe to make them useful. In a similar way, physicists (and Ball) talk about information. Although they don’t quite mean what you and I mean by information, there is enough in the term to make it worthy of appropriation.

This is undoubtedly a good place to start, effectively using the language of classical physics and the macroscopic world for the quantum, microscopic one. As Ball says early on, “we can hardly talk about quantum theory at all unless we find stories to tell about it: metaphors that offer the mind purchase on such slippery ground.” [12] The problem is that “too often these stories and metaphors are then mistaken for the ways things are”. In other words, we can say that quantum objects have spin or that the quantum world is about information and knowledge. And it is. Except that it isn’t. It sounds like sophistry. It isn’t. It’s just talking with precaution.

A final approach, or perhaps a general piece of advice that can be applied to any linguistic strategy, is simply that of self–reflection, being aware in the first instance of the fact we are, in Bohr’s elegant phrase, “suspended in language”. [17] This isn’t so much a way of describing what we need to describe as it is an approach of humility, a theme that Ball catches well. Words in quantum theory, he writes, are “blunt tools.” When they come too easily, “it’s because we haven’t delved deeply enough.” [17] “We give names to things and processes, but those are just labels for concepts that cannot be properly, accurately expressed.” [19]

Each of these approaches to quantum mechanics has something to recommend it. None works, fully. And that, it should by now be obvious, is where the connection to theology lies.

6.

How do you talk meaningfully about things that we cannot directly experience in any way and that fundamentally challenge our idea of reality? Ask a theologian.

There is a story about how a group of physicists go out climbing and ascend a particularly tough peak only to find a coterie of theologians already there talking about the subject that has been preoccupying the physicists on their hike. It’s the kind of tale that drives people like Richard Dawkins wild – in fact, if memory serves, he has a little rant about a similar story somewhere among his shorter rants – and it does, to be fair, have an insufferably smug feeling to it. But, as long as we remind ourselves that the theologians are not talking about the constituent elements of matter, but how we talk about that which is incomprehensible to and even incommunicable to our frail, fallen, evolved brains, the story has some merit.

How do you talk about God? More challengingly, how do you talk about God when something has happened in your midst that compels you to change radically your ideas about God? This was the challenge early Christians felt when confronted by the ministry, death and resurrection of Christ, and the subsequent outpouring of the Spirit. A little like the way in which puzzling experiments and observations forced upon physicists in the early 20th century certain uncomfortable questions about the Newtonian nature of the reality they were dealing with, so early Jewish Christians were compelled to face uncomfortable, bizarre, counter–intuitive questions about what kind of God it was that they worshipped. Longstanding theological questions were joined by Christological and then Trinitarian one, occupying the early church (or at least a minority thereof) not because they were obscurantist or cussed but because they felt the metaphysical ground shift beneath their feet and wanted to know where they stood.

7.

So, how do you talk about God? There is a tension that runs through the Old Testament authors that reflects different responses to this question and echoes some the quantum language strategies mentioned above.

On the one hand, Old Testament writers believed that the God they believed in – or perhaps came to believe in: we’ll park, for now, the journey from polytheism, through henotheism, to monotheism that scholars claim to see traces of in the Old Testament – was transcendent. He was not like the other gods of the Ancient Near East, in their capricious, sexualised gory glory. God’s holiness is in his set–apartness, his difference both from the mess of earth and the soap opera of pagan heaven.

Perhaps the paradigmatic encounter with God in the Old Testament is Moses’ at the burning bush, during which God gnomically tells Moses, when he asks who shall I say sent me, “I am who I am” – or possibly “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be”. (Ex. 3.15) I am not aware of any scholarly consensus on what this actually means.  Does it point to God being being, the source and ground of all that is? Does it point to God being unconstrained will, a God over whom none can exercise control unlike the warring gods of the Ancient Near East? Or is it God simply being evasive, politely telling Moses it’s none of his, or the Israelites’, business? Perhaps asking what the statement means is, in itself, meaningless; after all, asking the meaning of something entails explaining and expressing it in more basic and more comprehensible terms. But perhaps that is the point with God? The buck of meaning stops with him, and you can’t explain and express him in any more fundamental blocks.

However one does choose to read it, what is clear is that the linguistic strategy tends towards the silent, not seeking to compare God with anything in his creation as a means of understanding him, but rather simply saying the God, like quantum reality, is what it is, and not what something else is.

The same strategy is employed elsewhere. “Who is able to build a temple for [God]”, Solomon asks rhetorically in 2 Chronicles 2.6, “since the heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain him?” “My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, “for as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is 55.8–9) So, we have a God who is beyond that we can comfortably say, know or even think, a reality of whom we either say nothing or perhaps, he (it?) is what he (it?) is.

And then we have God who is a farmer, and a family member, and political figure, and even an animal or a rock formation. Or, at least, like one of these things. God is a monarch: “King of all the earth.” (Ps 47.7) He is a judge. (Ps. 7.11) He is a father (Dt 32.6, Is 63.16, Jer 3.19) and although not, to the best of my knowledge, ever called Mother (presumably because that would make him too close to the fertility gods of the region), he is described as a fertile woman (Num. 11.12, Dt 32.18), a woman in childbirth (Is 42.14), a midwife (Ps 22.9–10), and a caring mother (Is 66.13). God is also a husband (Jeremiah 3, Hosea 2, Ezekiel 16), a shepherd (Psalm 23), a gardener (Isaiah 5.5), a bird (“like an eagle that stirs up its nest/ and hovers over its young” Dt 32.11), a rock (Deuteronomy 32:4), and a castle and a shield. (Ps 18.2) And he is often quite a few of these things at once. As Moses says in Deuteronomy, mixing his metaphors with impressive abandonment when warning his people: “You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;/ you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Dt 32.18)

This isn’t quite the Way of the Quark and the Boojum, however weird it may seem to analogise God to workman or an animal, because the terms themselves are familiar. Nor is it the Way of Charm and Beauty, because the point of the analogies in the Old Testament is that there is something about the way God is that is revealed in the way a shepherd or a castle is, whereas there is nothing about Quarks that is charming or beautiful; they are simply familiar words that have been appropriated for a new task.

Rather it is the Way of Waves and Particles. You might almost say that what the Old Testament writers are doing here is describing a Quantum God in classical language. The reality of God, like the reality of the quantum world, is apparently not our reality, which doesn’t go all the way up just as it doesn’t go all the way down.

However, because we choose not simply to rest in mystical or mathematical silence, we describe that reality in terms with which we are familiar that go some way to depicting what we think is final reality. Quantum phenomena are not comprehensively captured by particles and waves, or by the idea of information (as we understand it) but there is enough in what they ‘do’ to mean such descriptions are at least helpful. Similarly, God is not exhausted by being described as a king, father or mother but there is enough in those analogies to merit there use.

The challenges is to maintain that distance and sense of linguistic humility mentioned above. It is challenging, and becomes even more so when Jesus turns up.

8.

For all the linguistic complications that the writers of the Old Testament faced when trying to talk meaningfully about God, they could at least rely on one foundation: “the Lord your God is One.” They were monotheists, and however difficult it may be to talk about God and the human encounter with ‘him’, at least they only had to talk about one ‘entity’. The Jews who encountered Jesus of Nazareth in the first century found themselves compelled to revise this notion, without actually abandoning it.

The received popular wisdom here – that the early Christians straightforwardly invented Christ’s divinity – is pretty thin. They (and we) might have got it all wrong but to imagine that they simply conjured it up stretches credibility. It remains popular, however, in part because Jesus himself clearly deployed a version of the fifth linguistic strategy mentioned above. Jesus talks about God and his kingdom a lot but, in the Synoptic gospels at least, tends to avoid any metaphysical speculation and instead tells stories about farmers and feasts, kings and coins, sheep and Samaritans. Again, his is the language of classical physics.

No surprise then that this is how his contemporaries heard him at first. If it talks like a prophet and walks like a prophet, then “surely this man is a prophet”, and we can use the language of prophecy of him, and leave our language of God untouched.

Yet Jesus also says and does things that mark him out as more than a prophet – refocusing the law (on himself); teaching with unusual and jarring authority; forgiving sins on his own authority rather than through the apparatus of the Temple; healing on his own authority rather than by means of charms, spells and amulets; choosing twelve disciples rather than gathering eleven round himself as the twelfth; calling God ‘Abba’ and speaking of himself in challengingly intimate filial terms, and so forth.

Such words and actions bespoke a man who taught and acted like he was more intimately connected to God than any run–of–the–mill prophet, and that, combined with a handful of disturbing moments, such as his baptism and transfiguration, further provoked his followers into the conviction that he was no ordinary prophet but in fact God’s anointed one, the messiah.

That recognised, the experience of the resurrection and ascension then pushed them further still, and left them with some awkward questions about reality. God is One, we know. But we are also now unable to understand Jesus of Nazareth within the familiar ‘classical’ framework of prophet or messiah. He claimed and lived a unique filial relationship with God, doing what God did on earth, albeit not in the way we had been expecting or hoping.

If Paul is our earliest extant witness, it seems that recognition of Jesus’ divine sonship is one of the first things that happens in Christianity, rather than being tagged on to the movement some time later. The first Christians prayed “Come, Lord Jesus”, Kyrios (Lord) being applied to Jesus repeatedly from the earliest days. Paul uses it 24 times in his first letter to the Thessalonians, for example, Jesus’s divine sonship being firmly in place even during the early years of eschatological fervour. In the indisputable Pauline letters, Paul speaks of Jesus as God’s Son 15 times.

However, as we have seen throughout this essay, believing something and being able to talk meaningfully about it are not the same thing. Paul can write of Jesus’s sonship, but the word simply invites the same questions as the ‘classical’ vocabulary for God did in the Old Testament. In what sense is Jesus God’s son? Surely that doesn’t mean, as Alf Garnett once memorably asked, that there is a Mrs God? Does it mean there are two Gods? If not (and presumably such duotheism is ruled out a priori) what does divine sonship entail? Did Jesus act on behalf of, instead of, or with God? Did he become God’s son? Did he have some divine existence before his earthly birth?

Such questions vexed the earliest Christians but they had linguistic and conceptual resources from the Old Testament on which they could draw. Specifically, the Old Testament writers spoke frequently of God’s Wisdom and God’s Word in a personified way that lent itself to understanding God.

‘Wisdom’ is valued throughout the Old Testament canon, but comes into clearer personification in later books. Wisdom in intimately connected with the work of creation towards the end of the book of Job, albeit in a wholly abstract way.  The role is filled out in the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom pre–existent with God – “the Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old;/ I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be” – and built into the grounds of creation – “by wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations” (Pr. 3.19) The Book of Sirach, probably dating from the 2nd century BC, depicts Wisdom in an explicitly creative, divine, personified register, “coming forth” from God’s mouth, dwelling in the highest heaven, exercising universal dominion, but making her home in Jerusalem, and inviting all to a great banquet: “Come to me you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits.” (Sir. 24.19) The Book of Wisdom sees Wisdom as involved in the renewing and ordering of all things (Wis. 7.27, 8.1), living with God, and even saving and keeping safe the people. (Wis. 9.13–18)

God’s Word is similarly powerfully and almost independently creative. In the beginning, God speaks creation into existence in the archetypal speech–act that is poetically described in Genesis 1.1–2.4 in a deliberate contrast to the various ancient Near Eastern creation myths in which God drew creation forth from the chaos, or in battle with forces of chaos. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,/ their starry host by the breath of his mouth,” the Israelites sang in the Psalms, for “he spoke, and it came to be;/ he commanded, and it stood firm.” (Ps 33.3–9). God’s word was pluripotent and effective. “As the rain and the snow/ come down from heaven,/ and do not return to it/ without watering the earth”, we read in Isaiah 55, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth:/ it will not return to me empty,/ but will accomplish what I desire/ and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Is 55.10–11) Through God’s word, as the Book of Sirach puts it, “everything is held together.” (Sir. 43.16)

These were the ways in which the earliest Christians – and a remarkable cross–section of them – understood who they believed Jesus to be. Paul calls him the power and wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 1.24, the “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”, as Paul puts it later in the same letter. (1 Cor. 8.6) “In him all things were created…and in him all things hold together,” we read in Colossians 1.16–17. “In these last days, God has spoken to us through his son, “whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe,” we read at the opening of the letter to the Hebrews.  And most famously and mellifluously, the opening of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

So it was that confronted with what they felt compelled to believe was the case about Jesus of Nazareth, early Christians adopted and adapted words and concepts that were alive within their existing religious vocabulary. These were familiar terms made new by the circumstances, old ways of talking about new ideas, old wine poured into new wineskins. The first Christians borrowed and repurposed but they did so from within the same framework, finding tools in their existing vocabulary to say roughly what they wanted to say. Divine reality was stranger than they had thought so they borrowed terms and revised them to try and convey something of this strange new world.

9.

That world was even stranger as the generations after the apostles began to wrestle with the fact that the writings they increasingly judged to be authoritative, now that the eyewitnesses had died out, appeared to talk not only of Jesus as divine, but also of God’s Spirit in the same way. There is, of course, significant precedent for this in the Old Testament, the Spirit of God being spoken about rather more frequently than the Wisdom and Word of God. Was the Spirit of God ‘independent’ of God, in the same was that the Word of God was? And if so, how ‘independent’? As Gerard O’Collins writes in The Tripersonal God, “From the outset, Christian thinkers had to walk a fine line between lapsing into tritheism or retreating into rigid monotheism when they sought to explicate their new experience of God, made possible by Jesus and his Spirit.” [86]

How they did so is some way beyond the scope of this essay, and the expertise of its author, but their linguistic strategies for doing so are at least worth highlighting. Some Church Fathers appropriated or retooled concepts – light, hands, fire – while others borrowed the language of Greek philosophy to try to bring some philosophical rigour to belief – and also, thought the terms are anachronistic, to defend “orthodox” beliefs from heterodox ones. Thus, they spoke of the divine physis (nature), of atomom (the individual), morphe (form) and, most influentially, ousia (substance) and hypostasis (person).

These are words that are, for the most part absent from the New Testament, except in obviously difference circumstances, for which reasons some believers have castigated these early theologians for corrupting and confusing Jesus’ clear and concrete message. It’s not an absurd accusation: Christianity would never really have got off the ground if Jesus had talked like Tertullian. But it’s still a short–sighted one, failing to see or rise to the challenge of talking about that which, in essence, can’t be talked about.

We might do so through borrowing eccentric terms (like Boojums), borrowing familiar but irrelevant ones (like charm), or borrowing familiar and loosely relevant ones (like information) in the hope that best fit isn’t mistaken for absolute precision. Talk about God in the scriptures clearly favours the last of these tactics, though early Christian reflective talk about God – theo–logia – also appropriated familiar but ‘irrelevant’ ones (like essence, form and person), and also came to follow a path that had already been laid out in the Old Testament, to the effect that we can’t say anything comprehensively truthful about God, so we should speak apophatically, or simply keep silent. In the words of Richard Hooker, “our safest eloquence is silence”. Ultimately, if you’re going to talk about anything as difficult, perplexing and fundamentally alien as the quantum world or the divine one, you should expect to adopt different and alien linguistic strategies.

10.

To return to where we started. To talk of Quantum Theology is to invite nonsense and then ridicule. Some serious thinkers, like Alvin Plantinga and John Polkinhorne, have suggested that the indeterminacy and subjectivity have serious implications for the theist worldview. I daresay that they might be right. My point in this essay, however, has been to explore not these ideas but how the challenge we face when trying to talk about the quantum world can illuminate some of the challenges we face when trying to talk about God.

In both instances, you have to beg, borrow, and steal terms. You have to re–fit words to do things for which they were never intended. You have to go about the business with appropriate caution, and humility. You have to recognise that all attempts to use words are simply a different kind of failure and that you may only ever get the better of them (and you probably won’t even do that). And you sometimes have to retreat into wordless, or mathematical, silence, not because there is nothing to say but because there is too much.

“Sure, it’s hard to intuit what it means for objects to travel along two paths at once, or to have their properties partly situated some place other than the object itself,” Ball writes towards the end of Beyond Weird. “But these are just attempts to express in everyday words a state of affairs that defeats the capabilities of language. Our language is designed to reflect the logic we’re familiar with, but that logic won’t work for quantum mechanics.” [341] And so it is for God–talk. “What is needed”, St Augustine once said, “is a loving confession of ignorance rather than a rash profession of knowledge. To reach out a little toward God with the mind is a great blessedness; yet to understand is wholly impossible.”

Image by Peshkova under a Shutterstock licence. 

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion

Posted 14 September 2018

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