Something vital was lost on the pilgrimage from the Second Vatican Council. Amid all the attempts—laudable or lamentable—to reform a feudal church, what got lost on the trek was the transcendent God. Catholics miss the mysterium tremendum of the theologian Rudolf Otto, the power thundering at Job from the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Moses described that force as a blazing bush that did not consume itself; Isaiah cringed before it; Daniel and Revelation tried to capture this stupefying act of love as an enthroned personage ablaze with light, around whom a hurricane of voices swirled, shouting, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”
Such immensity tempts one to humble one’s intelligence, like Eastern mystics before the ultimate—before whom all words fail, even is. Western theologians effectively stifled the awe of the theophanies that had been the core of all religions before the Greeks came along.
If bishops wonder why Catholics are not coming to church, this is the reason: They don’t find there a personal connection to that enthralling God, which is what the word “religion” means: to connect.
Learning From Scientists
Oddly, the physical sciences, once believed to be more antithetical to God than Freemasonry, can exorcize our exhausting attempts to box in this awesome energy. Physics can help us return to a hazier, whirling, exhilarating awareness and friendship with God, a childlike Christmas-morning expectancy. Instead of trying to wrestle God into rigid formulas, we can learn to dance with God. Today all but rigidly atheist scientists are humbler than we may think. They speak not of inflexible certitudes, as religions do, but of hypotheses yearning for improvement. Their insights into the way God made the universe may enrich our belief and connection more profoundly than do the stories that intrigued the first readers of Genesis. In the past secular science’s “dangerous” insights into symbols, languages and other cultures revitalized our knowledge of Scripture, albeit at the price of complacent literalism and unquestioning dogmatism.
The quantum view is bewildering, but no more daunting than Trinity, transubstantiation and Trent. Simply substitute “Energy” for “Spirit” in Scripture and feel the difference.
Perhaps scientists and religious believers could invite one another to look at what is a common reality from the other’s privileged perspective. What if, against scientists’ near-certain conviction, there were a Light faster than light? So fast it is everywhere at once. Like God. So hyperenergized that it is always at rest. (At that speed, motion becomes meaningless.) Like God. Now scientists believe that when they crack the ultimate kernel, they will find nonextended energy. Like God. Couple that with God’s response in Ex 3:14, when Moses asked God’s name, or role in reality: Ehyeh asher ehyeh or “I am who am,” the pool of existence out of which everything draws its “is.” God is “the love that binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14).
What if, rather than remaining “outside” his creation like a deistic watchmaker, the Creator embedded himself into that singularity within which the entire expanse of the universe was compacted before the Big Bang? Just as the inescapable laws of gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces are encoded right into “the way things are” from the outset, why not also feeling, intelligence and the longing for life? God not merely as observer but as participant. What if divinity fused itself into creation before the start, just as many of us believe He/She/They later fused into Jesus of Nazareth? If ordinary people are temples of the Spirit, why not the entire universe? Such insight could render moot creationist and intelligent-design explanations of how God had to step in occasionally to inject powers he had mistakenly overlooked, like self-replication (growth), feeling and movement without outside impetus or consciousness.
Unlike the anthropomorphic creator (of all beliefs), this God felt no need for immediacy or efficiency. He dallied serenely for periods inconceivably long to us, perhaps because he took such delight in just being, in watching stories emerge once he had invented time. Mary dared to say, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46). Similarly, Jesus says his whole purpose was not that we survive, but that we “have life more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). St. Irenaeus said the glory of God is humankind, fully alive. Could such privileged souls be wrong in implying that the God so clearly infatuated with evolution is also involved in it? It seems heretical. Would a God who grows necessarily imply prior imperfection (to anyone but a rationalist)? What if it were true that like a child out of time who has never aged, God delights in tantalizing discovery more than static certitude?
In 1932 Werner Heisenberg won the Nobel Prize for “the principle of uncertainty,” maintaining that in the subatomic world the consoling predictability of Newtonian physics only sort of applies. The best goal one can achieve in predicting activity in the subatomic world is to aim for “high probability,” like people do when they settle on a career, choose a mate or have children. Every act of faith is a calculated risk. Even the Thomists of the First Vatican Council, who declared under anathema that we can know God with certainty, accepted three degrees of certainty: absolute, physical and moral (that is, high probability).
For a century, quantum physics has enabled those unafraid of open minds to juggle all sorts of incompatibles. The atom looks nothing like the old consoling image of a tiny, predictable Newtonian solar system. An electron “is” sometimes a pellet and sometimes a wave, depending on your viewpoint. Thus, if you fired an electron at a hypothetical barrier with two holes, it could go through both holes at once or reappear on the other side without penetrating the barrier. Nature is made up not of isolated, discrete building blocks but rather patterns of energy (quanta) interrelating. We are made of stardust. Every paltry pebble is a pulsating multi-universe. Is the “realest real” what we can see or what “is”? Singing “We are one in the Spirit” is not just a bromide metaphor!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). The Greek term for that eternal entity is logos. Its connotations are abstract, cool, depersonalized, clinical, erudite and mechanized—in short, scientific. In contrast, the Aramaic for that same entity is dabhar, which the Irish theologian Diarmuid O’Murchu insists is best translated as “an irresistible creative energy exploding into prodigious creativity.” That understanding is closer to fecund primeval swamps than to the cultivated groves of academe. Such an insight does not deny rational theology, but it suggests that the idea of the Almighty and our religious connections are severely impoverished without the corrective of its (seemingly incompatible) opposite.
The Inexhaustible Energy
Genuine science—physical, psychological, theological—must humbly accept that any of our formulaic traps cripple the mercurial truth they try to encompass. All sciences must submit to the Truth rather than try to dominate Him/Her/Them.
The quantum principle of complementarity tolerates ambiguity, approximation, probability and paradox. Bipolar magnets and brains, the sexes, Trinity, symbiosis, Yin/Yang, transubstantiation—these are not antagonisms but fertile togetherness, not indifferent potentiality but eagerness to be fruitful and multiply. Why pretend that we understand what defies comprehension? Despite our certitudes, matter is not basically solid. E = mc2 means energy (E) is the same as mass (m) times (c) the speed of light, squared. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Ps 139:8).
This is not pantheism, which postulates that God has no identity apart from the universe. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “When one considers the universe, can anyone be so simple-minded as not to believe that the Divine is present in everything, pervading, embracing and penetrating it?” Hildegard of Bingen: “Mine is the mysterious force of all that lives—I, the fiery power.” William Blake: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.” And Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Imagine feeling that at Mass.
Spirituality is, as Viktor Frankl put it, “man’s search for meaning.” We are the only species whose choices are not branded into the fibers of our natures. We must choose to be who we are. But first we must discern what human beings are for. And we have only two backgrounds against which to measure our worth. Our lives are either speckles of light against infinite darkness or smudges of gray within infinite Light. We are here to discover our shining (see Mt 5:14).
Liturgies that make the community as important as its Host miss a crucial truth; so we ought not limit ourselves to a companionable fellowship with the Good Shepherd. Rather, we are connected into an Inexhaustible Energy whose infusion ought to make us recognizably more alive the rest of our week than those who ignore Him/Her/Them.