by PETER TREMBLAY
When confronted with the question and apparent contradiction of “A God of love in a world of suffering and violence,” we need to step back and examine the context by which we hear this question. This question, on the surface, appears to be a theological one. However, as I will show, theology is always based on physics and cosmology. As we wrestle with this question it will be important to recontextualize the issue in the light of a new quantum cosmology.
No one who lives in the twenty-first century can hear that question without calling to mind innumerable horrors that are played out on in the twenty four-hour news cycle, as well as recalling the horrors of the past. So to hear about suffering and violence is a visceral recollection that seems to rage against the image of an all-powerful and all-loving God. We often feel cheated and unjustly treated if a deity with the power to create the cosmos cannot, or will not, keep the cosmos sufficiently well-ordered to preclude suffering and violence.
This grand-view of the cosmos is rather outdated. The proposed conflict between a God of love and the reality of violence and suffering is the byproduct of a Newtonian cosmology; yet physics has not remained moored in a Newtonian world view. For nearly a century, we have been living in a quantum era. Just as Newton’s physics gave rise to a familiar cosmology, so too ought quantum mechanics give rise to a new and unfamiliar cosmology. This new understanding of reality is the product of the metaphors of quantum mechanics. Understandably a quantum-mechanical cosmology is more counter-intuitive, more confusing, and far less well known than Newtonian cosmology, yet if we translate the above question into a contemporary cosmology, the theological issue takes on an entire new possible conclusion.
Physics and Theology
Metaphors have edges. Metaphors affect our world and change the way we live. They contextualize what we understand and how we understand. Metaphors inform our presumptions and assumption of what is real. Everything that we encounter is colored by the metaphors that we take for granted. We hold, almost subconsciously, a metaphor for how reality truly is. In this respect, metaphors lie at the foundation of every person’s cosmology. Every person grasps reality by a metaphor. When asked what is real, most anyone will respond with some type of metaphor.
As an example of a metaphor, science holds that ninety-six percent of the universe is either dark energy or dark matter. This concept is a metaphorical understanding of what lies beyond our potential to experience. The word “dark” is a metaphor for unknown and not fully understood. Every person has, below the surface of their conscious mind, operative metaphors for reality. Just as a fish swims in water, our minds swim in a sea of metaphors.
In our present consideration this metaphorical lens is important because cosmology is a grand metaphor for the way reality really is or thought to be. Since the time of Newton, science has been the main source of the cosmology of modern life. Science has told us about space, time, gravity, matter, and light, to name a few things. In recent times, science has helped us unlock incredible technology that has revolutionized our lives and yet again restructured our understanding of the question, what is real? So to ask any question, but especially a question about a God of love in a world of suffering and violence, is to wade into a metaphorical context, a cosmology, that is the starting point for any theology and theological response.
Theology is never without its own cosmology. Often Biblical images and stories make up a portion of our theological cosmology. However, since the earliest times of Christianity, evangelists, apologists, and theologians have often accepted and adopted the cosmology of the audience with whom they were dialoguing. It was the metaphysic of Greek philosophy, before Newton, which was the cosmology of theology. Since Newton, physics has defined the cosmology in which theology must operate today.
At the conclusion of his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy Newton offers an extensive explanation of his understanding of God and God’s role in the cosmos. In the midst of the discussion about the locations and the movements of the solar system, he posits God as the governor, ruler, and efficient cause of the cosmos.
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the council and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being… This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all… In him are all things contained and moved…1
By identifying fundamental laws of physics, Newton lays down the groundwork for a world that is understood to be controlled and governed completely by law-based causation. Newton’s cosmology places God as the mover of the heavenly bodies, and he proposes a philosophical interpretation of the world where God can be understood as the creator, governor, and mover of all of the cosmos. In other words Newton’s physics proposes a world that can be metaphorically understood as a type of clock that ticks along in predicable and regular processes. The whole world and all activities therein were understood and conceived in light of Newton’s law-based, clock-like world, and God is proposed as the clock maker.
Physics and the metaphors that it creates affect the way that whole cultures view reality. Isaac Newton’s ideas about reality changed everything. The Newtonian, law-based understanding of the natural world gave rise to an entire conception of the world. “Newton’s scientific achievements influence art, literature, philosophy, politics, and religion as profoundly as any artist, writer, philosopher, politician, or theologian of his time.”2
The achievements of Isaac Newton are with us today. This Newtonian cosmology held sway for well over two hundred years, and it is still the basis for the apparent conflict in our present question. In many ways we still live and think in a Newtonian fashion. His physics of forces, inertia, and causation are experienced daily and still lend themselves to view of the world as neatly deterministic. The conflict is then understood by many as, “a God who creates but fails to regulate creation” or “a god of love who allows suffering and violence is either not loving or not a god.” This conflict stems from conceptualizing the cosmos as a type of well-ordered, neatly-causal, and deterministic cosmology. This model of reality is exactly the way that Newton understood the cosmos. In such a cosmos the cause of creation, the creator, is the one who then bears full responsibility for the outcome of what God caused. In the Newtonian and deterministic cosmology, God is responsible for suffering and violence as the obvious outcome of what God started. It is this Newtonian cosmology from which many people today hear the present question.
A Quantum Cosmology
As the twentieth century dawned, there was a wave of new discoveries in the field of physics. First Albert Einstein radically altered the way that science understands reality through his Theory of Relativity. Then Quantum Mechanics completely abolished the foundational ideals of Newton’s cosmology through the radical discovery of a universe that is not neatly determined. “For two centuries, Isaac Newton’s mathematization of physical thinking… had suggested to many people the picture of a clockwork universe of tightly determined processes. However, twentieth-century physics saw the death of this kind of merely mechanical view of the world.”3 Rather Quantum Mechanics demonstrates that the universe is probabilistic and uncertain. “Quantum mechanics completely undermined this mechanistic view of the universe” that Isaac Newton had envisions.4
The clockwork universe is no longer the most accurate way of conceptualizing reality, and proposing God as a deterministic clockmaker no longer makes sense in a quantum cosmology of probability and uncertainty. There is a tremendous difference between a quantum universe and a clockwork universe. A clockwork universe ticks along in a profoundly predictable fashion. A quantum universe is, by definition, unpredictable and uncertain. “Philosophically, the most astonishing thing about quantum mechanics is the extent to which it protects us from the existential despair of the clockwork universe.”5 In a clockwork universe there is little to no potential for free will as it would have been determined by the conditions and causes already at work. “The laws of physics are not deterministic but probabilistic… quantum mechanics, it seems, releases us from robot-hood…It is almost as though the rules of the universe were designed to protect our free will.”6
In a clockwork universe, the metaphors of a God of love and a world of violence and suffering cannot coincide with each other, but in a quantum universe the conflict falls away. Because of the probability, indeterminacy, and apparent reinstatement of human free will, the issue of causation must be reconsidered. The underlying question in the statement, “a God of love in a world of violence and suffering,” is about God’s power and causation. When we reconsider divine causation in light of divine love, there is room for an entirely new way of considering God’s role in our world. The situation can be stated in this way: “The God of love is agape or gift, and the gift of love is always the gift of some kind independent of the object of love.” 7
In a quantum cosmology, the proposition of a God of love is, at one and the same time, a proposition of independence and autonomy of His creation. Love is not granted to automata but rather only to rational and free beings. In a quantum cosmology, humans are active and causal participants of a world of probability and indeterminacy. God cannot be indicted for the evil of suffering and violence, so long as the Newtonian cosmology of clockwork determinacy is replaced with the participatory cosmology of Quantum Mechanics.
When physics shifted from Newton’s mechanics to Quantum Mechanics, the role of the scientist changed. According to Newton’s mechanics the scientist is one who could be objective and set apart from what was being studied. In the Quantum Mechanical world, the scientist is just as much a participant in the science as the parts of nature that she is studying. Quantum mechanics, “Does not simply describe and explain nature; it is an interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning… it makes the sharp separation between the world and the I impossible.”8 With the sharp separation between the world and the “I” collapsing, the person is now a participant in the processes of nature not just an observer. The method of questioning effects the outcome of what is to be discovered. In every way science is no longer a spectator sport, but it is participatory and contingent upon the agent of inquiry.
In the consideration of quantum cosmology, the question of causation is not just the domain of the divine, but rather it is a power that all free and conscious humans possess. The problem of evil, suffering, and violence is not then exclusively God’s responsibility. So long as we rightly see love as antithetical to violence and (possibly) suffering, we cannot hold God responsible for its manifestation in the cosmos. Humans, now for the first time in quantum cosmology, are seen as potent agents and participants in reality in a way similar to what theology envisions. God creates, but we participate in the life of the cosmos. God who is love shares His vocation of cosmic participation and causation with us free humans. It was only when physics shifted from Newton’s mechanics to Quantum Mechanics that we see this deep insight born out in the laboratory as well as in the arena of life.
Quantum Physics and Theology
Some of the most fundamental questions and issues of life, such as the question of evil, are no longer the domain of theology. Just as the study of nature on the quantum level is an act of collaboration and participation, so theology and science must be partners in the study of ultimate questions. There was a time when science ceased seeking answers to the biggest questions of life. With the advent of quantum mechanics many of the questions that science is raising overlap with the traditional domain of the theologian. The problem is that, “Few theologians have an adequate training in physics to keep abreast of the details, and few physicists have a sufficient appreciation of the wider questions to make a fruitful dialogue easy.” 9
It is no longer helpful to hold as separate the work of the theologian and the scientist, as they are both basing their study on the work of the other. The physicist borrows from the theologian the questions. The theologian borrows the scientists’ answers and thus their cosmology. Wisdom requires that we, theologians and physicists, engage in mutual conversation and education, so that the future is one of greater understanding and not ignorance. It is in this collaborative relationship between science and religion where some of the nagging questions of life can be answered. It is only by uniting theology and quantum cosmology that we can put to rest the tension between “a God of love in a world of suffering and violence.”
1. Newton, Isaac. Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Trans. Andrew Motte. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago. 1952. pg 369-71.
2. Crease, Robert P., and Alfred S. Goldhaber. The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. 2014. p. 13.
3. Polkinghorne, John. Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 4
4. Oerter, Robert. The Theory of Almost Everything: The Standard Model, The Unsung Triumph of Modern Physics. New York: Penguin Group. 2006. p. 83.
5. Ibid. 91
6. Ibid. 83, 92
7. Polkinghorne, John. Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p, 70-1.
8. Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. New York: Harper Perennial. 2007. p. 55.
9. Barrow, John D. New Theories of Everything the Quest for Ultimate Explanation. 2nd ed., New ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. p. 1.
Fr. Peter Tremblay was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and attended Franciscan University of Steubenville. After graduating, he joined the Franciscan Friars, and was ordained a priest in 2012 after receiving his Masters of Divinity Degree from Washington Theological Union. His life experiences have included working on a farm, driving trucks, rebuilding houses for the poor, serving as an associate pastor, teaching high school, and currently acting as the Associate Chaplain for Catholic life at Elon University. Aside from ministry, he enjoys woodworking, furniture making, reading, and studying theology, philosophy, and science.
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