Quantum Spirituality

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.

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lLetha Chamberlain
8 years 8 months ago

Dear Father, I am so glad you have this article in America.  I was beginning to think I have become a sort of "pantheist" or something, having had these kinds of experiences much since last summer... it is not that everything "Catholic" doesn't seem even more true than ever-it is simply that we have become so insular, we sometimes don't see the Cosmic implications of what we do/believe as Catholics.  Just having returned from a round-trip flight across the country... having this "connection" while in the plane, even more pronounced as we flew over the Cascade mountains ("the bare rock mountaintops, dazzling snow-flocked, where prayed the prophets...")  Research for my latest book shows so many having these experiences beyond even the numinous... of course, many no longer attend organized religion-feeling it no longer meets their needs (calling themselves "spiritual, but not religious").  This makes me so sad; Catholicism is easy for some to "pigeonhole" into rigid constructs... but it isn't that at all! Yet, I am NOT saying that what Catholicism requires of us is NOT absolutely crucial; it is we who pigeonhole ourselves by not abiding by the teachings and requirements; these disciplines actually expand our ability to see "beyond the ordinary," and give us the strength we need to hold the immense LOVE coming our way: a mind-shattering and somewhat disorganizing process at times.  We humans are so weak and frail-discipline is necesary.  It is also important not to further add to the difficulties of others going through these transforming experiences of the transcendent-a common thing, if I am to believe all the clinicians who are documenting it.  Thank you, again, Father...

Jacqueline Lair
8 years 8 months ago
I was enthralled with this article. It was bold to me. I am 80 years old and grew up in a much simpler time and church.
BUT, I was pulled to read and read about all religions and all serious thought about God and religion. I even looked at science and God thanks to Einstein. It has now been 55 years since I began my journey. I felt so much truth for me in this writing and am thrilled to see so much of what I came to find albeit I am a self trained scholar. I had a marriage and quite a few children to raise while I tried and tried to find my own personal way to God.
Thank you Father O'Malley
Chris Brune
8 years 8 months ago

In the debate between faith and reason, the faith people try to talk about a spiritual being in material terms. Won't work.

Norman Costa
8 years 8 months ago

Father William J. O'Malley,

Thank you.

When I first saw the title of your article, I thought, "Oh boy! Another misuse of the vocabulary of quantum physics to legitimize more silliness." It was not that I was expecting something silly, rather, I was afraid I would find it.

I did not find silliness.

Your  words reminded me of one of the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell, back in the 1980s. He talked about seeing a picture of the deep heavens, taken from one of the major astronomical observatories. He talked about contemplating the incomprehensible distances, the innumerable galaxies, and even more innumerable stars within them. The picture left him with both a sense of the insignificance of his personal space in the universe, and great awe for the immensity of the 'energy' that fuels an inconceivable vastness. He said something like, "Talk about feeling humbled about your place in the universe...".

I think you and I have seen the Hubble Ultra Deep Space picture. I am overwhelmed when I look at it.

Physicists get very annoyed when others appropriate their vocabulary to describe personal and spiritual experiences. They just about lunge at people who talk about the 'energy' they feel, or the 'energy' that is exchanged among people. The worst is when 'energy' is used to describe a connection with God (however God is understood by that person.)

The physicists are not really being unkind. It's just that they can only imagine 'energy' as the left side of Einstein's famous equation. I think that they will come to accept that their science is not being adulterated.

Chris Brune, above, said:

"In the debate between faith and reason, the faith people try to talk about a spiritual being in material terms. Won't work."

At one level I agree with him, if the objective is to crystalize the understanding of the spiritual into a final form. We are not all mystics, and we need artificial props to gain an awareness of that 'energy,' however one might experience it. We try and do the best we can using words, and images, and metaphors, and allegory, and aphorisms, and concrete examples. They help, but never satisfy for very long. 

The prospect of a palpable connection to God or to a spirituality is always alluring, but just as dependably illusive. But we try. We even resort to using material terms. What else have we got? We have a satisfying feeling today, but next year we find ourselves with another, and hopefully better, sense of God or a spiritual something.

The saying goes, "The tongue cannot soil," meaning there is no satisfying explanation or description of a force/entity/energy/being that is wholely other, and infinitely beyond us.

Surprisingly, (and you touched on this) a quantum mechanical understanding of the stuff of our universe is becoming more and more difficult, even impossible, to put into words. We don't know, yet, if quantum physics is simply outpacing our vocabulary and conceptualizations. Eventually, we could catch up as we invent new words, concepts and ideas to aid understanding and communicating.

However, it may also be true that our brains are not sufficiently equipped to develop an understanding of the laws of nature at the quantum level. Neils Bohr put it simply. He said we have the equations, they work, and understanding at a deeper level is useless and unnecessary.

If that is the case, then there is a confluence, with great irony I might add, of our inability to fully comprehend the spiritual, and our inability to completely understand our own material world. It's a challenging ride, though, isn't it?

Thanks, again, for your sincere and very thoughtful words.

Jane Giblin
8 years 8 months ago

Rational theology has always been in opposition to my spirituality. From childhood I could not embrace the institutional church.  I grew up with dogma, but I liked to dance, with God.  The two were incompatible, then.  Fifty years later reading Diarmuid O'Murchu has given me a better understanding of why.  And Blake and Hopkins, too.  And now I have stumbled onto O'Malley.  Yaay! 

As humans, we are able to express our thoughts and feelings about ultimate reality/truth in words.  Some better than others. The language of inflexible certitude creates an anthropomorphic god.  The author's insights into the yearning hypotheses of physics has enriched my understanding of unpredictable possibilities.  Does prayer and healing fall into this realm?  The quantum principle of complementarity allows for a God who grows and a God of perfection. 

This is a wonderful article.  I agree with the author's 'what if' that, "Like a child out of time who has never aged, God delights in tantalizing discovery more that static certitude".   

Mona Villarrubia
8 years 8 months ago

Like a cold beer after cutting the grass on a New Orleans summer day, this article was refreshing and renewing. I have another quote to add to Hildegard and Hopkins - this is from Edwina Gateley:

I do not need to seek God.

God is already here

waiting to be found,
soaked in my reality.
My journey is to be one
of recognizing God, always.
already present,
and surfacing that presence
in my daily life.
-From A Mystical Heart

Thank you Fr. O'Malley. If I were still teaching I would be using this article next week. But I will content myself with passing it on to friends and educators.

David Smith
8 years 8 months ago

I suppose only some scientists understand what lies behind the popularized concepts you discuss.  Maybe you're one of them.  I don't.  Way over my head.

No matter.  Knowledge is limitless.  There's always a universe of things none of us understand.  We're just wired that way.  We live in ignorance - and "we" includes the scientists who do understand quantum physics and the rest.

Which is a way of saying, indirectly, that we don't need certified scientific mysteries to confirm the validity of our spiritual lives.  Apples and oranges.

But the notion the author seems to me to start out with - that we've dropped the mysterious in an attempt to appeal to the modern rational human way of thinking - does resonate with me.  Seems a shame.  Much was lost.  The answer seized upon was too easy, oversimplified, an elaborated triviality with theological underpinnings.

lLetha Chamberlain
8 years 8 months ago

i suspect those "scientists" who do are not "believers" will be just as skeptical about an article like this as any-I also know God takes care of them, too... and they are on their own spiritual journeys whether or not they wish to use that term (or even "get it")... we have all too often relied upon words to evangelize, when the model of our lives is what is most meaningful to most-the reason so many have left "organized religion" (even the wonderful peace-maker M. Gandhi said, "Christianity is marvelous; too bad I 've never met any!)  We have to look to dear Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her ilk-she was a witness strong and certain for so many "outsiders"; blowing away the dust that had accumulated by "Eastern religions" on our culture.  She, too, unfortunately got "heat" by the publication of her biography-those outside the faith simply do not and cannot understand what the "dark night" is all about... and I'm not sure if they did, they'd want to have anything to do with it!  Our culture avoids "suffering" like the plague...  Oh, again the "folly of the cross"!

C Walter Mattingly
8 years 8 months ago

As your essay describes, physics has not been as incompatible to classic Catholic theology as might seem the case on first impression.  As the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood noted (among others), theology, science, and philosophy proceed guided to considerable extent by analogy (for example, the clockmaker/clock providing the deist's view of God in relation to his creation, as Fr. O'Malley notes).  For example, Einstein. He was absolutely enamoured of the concept of transubstantiation, and even asked a friend to send him books on the subject (in German, of course).  And so too, perhaps, even his idea of the unified field theory had its conceptual origin in Trinitarian doctrine.  To bind the 4 forces into one unified field is to perceive ultimate unity in what is apparent multiplicity, an essential oneness behind the disparate, plural world we observe.  And this did not go unrecognized. The greatest literary man of letters of our epoch of human history, James Joyce, the "jejuene jesuit," must have noted this in Finnegan's Wake, where the pun became not a literary embellishment but the mode and vehicle of meaning. There Joyce puns Einstein into his transmutation, Winestain: the sacramental wine spilled across the physical universe.  There Christ's trinitarian, incarnational presence covering all creation is troped in a manner even more profound than the Hopkins' image, "Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his."  Rather than the strange new, we encounter the "Seine anew," the nevereverchanging river where the water of Christ's side and the blood of his sacrifice flows eternal.

Dave Pipitone
8 years 8 months ago
I love this article!

As I read it, an anthropromorphic image of God at the moment of the Big Bang popped into my imagination.

Imagine at that precious moment, God stretching, letting out a big yawn, and saying, "It's time to get up!"
8 years 8 months ago

Thank you, Fr. O'Malley. It is wonderful to see my personal thoughts expressed. I cannot articulate them, much less write them. God bless you. 

8 years 8 months ago

Father O'Malley's article puts into words the path of my own faith journey.  I am a chemist educated so long ago that Neils Bohr's STRUCTURE OF AN ATOM was the only text available to us.  I was educated by Sinsinnawa Dominican women who were able to set an example of a truly integrated faith journey.  Each one reflected such deep faith while at the same time being able to teach the very latest scientific findings.  There was no incompatability.  We also learned that our search for faith and knowledge never end.  The more our knowledge of the universe grows, the more we learn about our Creator.  Hopefully, that knowledge will lead to deeper love of our Creator and all of His/Her Creation.


8 years 8 months ago
Once again William J. O'Malley, S.J., has hit the bulls eye, freeing up God to be God, no "Jack-in-the-box" Deity in "Quantam Spirituality." Kind of like Fr. O'Malley's "The Eye And I" (America 12/10/07)showing that "Divine Wizardry is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself" in those "magical" words, "Let there be light" spoken by Him/Her/Them, from which enlightenment at all levels became experiencially possible, avenueing through evolutions transubstantial character, one thing proceeding from the other, Trinity-like.

Fr. O'Malley is a mighty eagle and I'll be the first to admit I'm like a little sparrow that likes to fly with eagles. So, having said that, let me "tweet" further as follows.

When Him/Her/Them lit the wick of "evolutionary intent" on the stick of dynamite called "creation" ignition's fizz melted into an explosive expression, a beginning called the "Big Bang." It was a pulsating burst of love-energy obedient, but not necessarily subservient to micromanaged supervision of Him/Her/Them. Yes, as Chardin said, "God makes things nake themselves" yet evolution must be free to truly evolve. No? But evolution's burst of love-evergy did uncoil with a kind of zig zag predictability in love-rolls, implemented in scatterings of purposeful randomness, in the form of fiery rootings, which dug deep into the developing fecundity of expanding space, meandering about looking for the "realest real."

In this pre-galactic potpourri, truly a celestial love feast, the nuts and bolts, planks and timbers of formative creation swished into shape looking more or less like the bulging inside of everybody's "catch all" closet! But from the beginning God saw that creation even in its unfinished form which continues, was "good." He said so and we have his recorded word for it! And delightedly, he clapped his hands, saying, "Good job!" Otherwise it could not continue to happen. Much later his Son would tell us, "My Father works even now" a revelation scientifically confirmable. Yes, Him/Her/Them are still "playing around" as "even now" new universes are being shaped!

By way of further clarification I venture to add, that the Cosmic Jesus, Second Person of the Cosmic Blessed Trinity also assures us that, "Only God is good!" This leads me to conclude that the fecundity of incalcuable space and all therein is also good, reflecting in innumerable ways something of the image and likeness of the Creator. What energy! If "sciences once believed to be more antithetical to God ... can exorcize ... this awesome energy ..." the energy of the image and likeness of God in all materiality, then an unbreakable cooperative link between physical science and theology can be established. This would create an e3xplosive "creative enegy" of which theologian Diarmuid O'Murchu spoke. Would it not?

As my "tweeting" ends I must say I find "Quantam Spirituality" exhillarating, kind of like being a wide eyed little child looking at the starlit sky for the first time and exclaiming, "Wow! My Daddy did this!" Oh yes, "Divine Wizardry is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself!" Thanks, Fr. O'Malley for making tangible the teaching, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!"
Roger Brown
8 years 8 months ago

I am a survior of Vat II and spent 7 years in the seminary after high school.  I recognize that the changes we have lived through are not all lasting.  I am also aware as a cantor with a music director who is drawn strongly back to the mysterium tremendum that some may have become too comfortable with their comprehensible God.

However, having lived through these changes I cannot help but say something positive about the images of God that Jesus gave us as Father, closer than our next breath and there to be relied on to provide everything for our journey.  In the face and flower in our family and neighborhood.

Jesus came andshowed usa closer personal relationship to The Provider and Creator of the vast universe beyond our comprehension.  I don't believe that accepting that closeness deminishes the greatness of His Power or the mystery of our closeness to the Creator of the universe.

We did not create this familiarity with GOd nor do we believe we can contain Him.  He just sent His Son to tell us about His Father and invite us to a closeness that defies the belief of those who only see the vastness of the universe.  I am not a theologian-obviously, but living through these changes has left many of us floundering for where to anchor ourselves in the shifting sands of people trying to plant their flag in Rock.

C Walter Mattingly
8 years 8 months ago

It may be of interest to note that when Neils Bohrs presented his theories to Albert Einstein regarding Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and allied theories of probability, Einstein is famously supposed to have retorted, "God does not play dice with the universe." So the godless Age of Uncertainly was upon us-except that it is less well-known that near the end of his life, Bohrs visited Stanford and witnessed an early version of the laser beam. There he was confronted with the experimental proof that trillions of light particles had to act in exact conformity for the beam to come about, whereas the theory of probability would hypothesize that this was impossible-some small number would have to stray, making the total concentration of the beam an impossiblity. He was as upset by this experiment as Einstein had been years earlierby the other. Bottom line: we are forced to be uncertain about uncertainty!

Perhaps the medieval wisdom of Aquinas is relevant here: "We cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not." Or then again, "God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.

As the early church fathers, and Joseph Campbell, might say: O Magnum Mysterium!  Mysterium tremendum et fascinans!



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