Fascinating conversations

I had a brief conversation with a particle physicist yesterday. In addition to his university teaching duties, his area of research involves very large collaborative experiments, some of which are taking place at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in the former Homestake Mine in Deadwood. Our conversation, however, was not about his academic career or the objects of his research. We were speaking about the differences between substitutionary atonement and participatory atonement, a topic about which I blogged in the last week.

My friend is amazingly concerned about having “right” thinking about all kinds of topics and he wanted to check my opinion. He has had quite a bit of experience with a more fundamental theology and the assertion, “Christ died for our sins,” is very meaningful for him. He isn’t ready to reject substitutionary atonement, though he understands the concept of participatory atonement. I tried to assure him that the two theological concepts are not mutually exclusive. Although it was a bit bungled, I used an analogy from his field, saying, “It is like particle physics and quantum physics. Both search for the same truth, they just don’t speak the same mathematical language. We are no closer to a unified theology than we are to a unified theory of physics.”

I doubt that my answer was reassuring to him. Time did not permit the longer and deeper conversation that the subject demands.

I am amazed at my friend. He probably finds me equally hard to understand. It seems to me that the scientific mind must thrive on doubt. the process of formulating a theory and then testing it must require the ability to question even the most basic observations. Like scientific inquiry, theological thought thrives on doubt. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. the opposite of faith is certainty. If you are certain, there is no need for faith.

It is possible, though I don’t know this for certain, that my friend is just a little bit fundamentalist in his approach to mathematics. I’m pretty sure that he examines the work of his students to make sure that their calculations are correct and that their mathematical work conforms to the established rules of mathematics. He sees mathematics as a beautiful language, and although he is aware that the mathematics of different areas (such as particle and quantum physics) don’t always agree, he believes that the differences will some day be explained by either an error in the mathematics or an as yet undiscovered mathematical principal. Perhaps that is part of the energy behind the search for dark energy and dark matter - they may hold the key to being better able to observe, measure and understand the as yet hidden nature of the universe.

The past couple of centuries have been a time of rapid scientific discovery. There have been so many advances in science and technology and the pace of discovery and innovation are accelerating so quickly, that we have begun to expect that all advances and answers can be discovered in a short amount of time. The changes in a single lifetime are mind boggling. Even though my friend’s life is just a little bit more than half of my own, he is aware of the rapid advance of science and technology in his own time.

Such rapid advance has taught us to expect discovery and increased understanding to come quickly.

Theology, on the other hand, moves at a different pace. Some of our most cherished theological convictions are the product of multiple generations of thought and prayer and communal conversation. The true nature of God always lies just beyond our grasp. It is one of the things that makes arguing with an atheist such a non event for a theologian. The atheist describes the god in which he does not believe, but has not invested the time to get to know the God of the theologian. “I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either, but the God I do believe in takes a lifetime and more to understand.” Most public atheists haven’t spent enough time with the deep concepts of theology to be able to offer a systematic rejection of faith. As a result their arguments seem to theologians to be things that have already been said and explored. It isn’t that atheism poses a threat to my faith, it is rather, such a simple interpretation of the world that it is boring. There are much more complex theological ideas that capture my attention.

That is one of the things that makes conversation with my friend so fascinating. He isn’t an atheist. He is a highly-educated person whose education was so specialized that he has invested comparatively little time thinking directly about theology. However, God is so infused in this creation that his legitimate scientific explorations continue to inform his faith explorations. Were we to talk of physics, which we often do, he has to slow down his thinking and spend a great deal of time explaining jargon and basic principles that he long ago embraced in order for me to understand. When we talk theology, I can’t assume that he has read all of the books that I have or encountered all of the historic discoveries that I take for granted. Our conversations, of necessity, bring out the teacher in one or both of us. Clearly he has as much to teach me as I have to teach him.

One of the gifts of education is its ability to enable one to see what we do not know. We become educated about our ignorance. We become aware that there are limits to our understanding.A physicist has to live with the reality that each new discovery will reveal more that is not yet understood. It is a life of inquiry and there will never be a time when all is fully understood. In fact, the opposite occurs: the more that is understood the larger the field of inquiry into that which is not understood.

It is very much like theology. The closer we come to an understanding of God, the more we discover that God is greater, more complex, and farther beyond our understanding.

We speak different languages, but my physicist friend and I are engaged in the same enterprise.

The universe participates in the mystery of God. Study either and you’ll encounter that mystery.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!