All posts by Ed Wills

Is God a Supreme Being or Being Itself?

If you look up the word “God” in the dictionary, you will find the phrase “supreme being” as the primary descriptor. That understanding of God as a “supreme being” has so dominated our cultural understanding of God, that if you ask most Christians, “Do you believe in a supreme being?” They will answer, “Yes.” However, the concept of God as a supreme being, or any kind of being for that matter, is not a Christian concept at all. It is actually a pagan understanding of a god.

In the pagan world, gods were super-beings. They were very human, only at a higher level. They were immortal, but driven by the same thoughts and emotions that drive everyday humans. Many even had bodies of some sort, or could take on bodies if they wanted. They forced their will on humans. Sometimes, they toyed with humans. They fought against each other. They made love to each other. They were beings like us, only super, and there were thousands of them. Every place on earth had a god. Every tribe had a god. Every family had a god. There were far too many gods to worship them all.  

Abraham embraced a different idea: one supreme God. He understood that the entire world was governed by one supreme God who was over all the little petty gods. This concept finds expression in the Bible in phrases like, “King of kings,” “Lord of lords,” and “God of gods.” But even acknowledgement of one supreme God did not completely escape the morass of an unknowable pantheon.

While Abraham and the Hebrews who followed him worshipped only one God, the pervasive cultural concept of multiple gods of different clans and places still lurked in the background. People were confused. So much so that when Moses encountered God in the burning bush he asked, “Which god are you? What is your name?” This is a reasonable question, for someone who had been raised in the courts of Egypt. His upbringing undoubtedly included instructions on how to worship all the myriads of gods and goddesses that inhabited Egypt. Naturally, in the midst of this amazing encounter, Moses wants to know how he should worship the god he has just encountered. And God gives him a profound answer. God tells Moses his true name, so holy among the Jews that to this day they refuse to pronounce it. God replies to Moses’ question, “I Am.”

In that profound revelation, God explains to Moses that he is not one of the myriad gods or super beings that inhabit heaven and earth. He is being itself. He is beyond definition. He is beyond comprehension. He is. He is all being. So everything that is, exists because it is an expression of God’s being. If it is, it only is because God is. 

St. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way,
God is not only his own essence, but also his own existence. For God is the pure act of existence. He wills both himself to be, and other things to be; but himself as the end, and other things as ordained to that end. ~ Summa Theologica

We are in the world because we are first in God. As St. Paul tells us,
In him we live, move, and have our existence.
There is one body and one Spirit. You also were called into the one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all – who is over all, and through all, and in all. ~ St. Paul of Tarsus (Acts 17:28) (Ephesians 4:4-6)

God is the Friend of Silence

There is a moment in everyone’s life when we become aware of a Divine presence. For most of us that experience occurs in the pre-teen to early teen years. Organized religion recognizes that fact and tends to schedule some of their most important spiritual events around that time. Be it the Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition, confirmation in liturgical traditions, or baptism in the evangelical traditions, there is a recognition that something special is happening spiritually around that time. Then we grow up, get drivers’ licenses, become independent, and go to college. Then we relegate the awareness of spiritual reality to a childhood experience somewhat less important than the game in which we made the winning score or our first kiss.

Daily stressors such as jobs and finances, as well as the distractions of always-available entertainment draw us farther and farther away from the quiet presence of God in our lives. But even now, you can close your eyes in this solitary moment, take a deep breath, and wrestle your focus away from the issues that dominate your thoughts. Look deeply inward. You can realize the abiding presence of God in the center of your being, and know the peace he brings into the stillness of your mind.

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls. ~ Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Who are we praying to?

 There are three skills that, once learned, change everything. The first is learning to walk. The second is learning to read. The third is learning to pray.

 Most of us learned to recite prayers as children. We also learned to walk and read as children. As we grow older, we learn to refine our basic childhood skills so they serve us better as adults.

 When I was a child I had a Sunday school understanding of God. I saw God as a kind- and loving Supreme Being who was watching over me and caring for me. That concept worked fine when I was young, but as I grew older and faced increasing complexities in life, there seemed to be a lot of unanswerable questions. Many are able to live faith-filled lives with those questions unanswered. Increasingly, our culture is slipping into agnosticism and atheism as Sunday school answers no longer satisfy our modern understanding of the universe. I am personally of the conviction that if we are going to take the light of Christianity into the next generation, we are going to need to update how we talk about God and how we understand his relationship with his creation.

 Once, as I was visiting an exhibit of photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope, I was fascinated by a frame of a thousand stars of different hues and shapes. As I read the caption, I learned that these were not stars, but galaxies. The photo represented a small, dark portion of the night sky described as “about the size of a postage stamp” that allowed the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into space beyond our own galaxy. It was called the Deep Field. As I looked into the photo and allowed its impact to wash over me, I said to myself, “Ed, your God is too small.”

 I believe in God – not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God, and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the Light and the Creator. This is my Being. ~ Pope Francis

Absolute Truth

Theology is by its very nature a lost cause. It attempts to know the unknowable, classify the incomprehensible, and, in short, put the God who created and empowers the universe into a box definable in human language. Give me a break.

One of the basic principles of quantum physics is uncertainty. In short, there is an unknown and unknowable variable that makes absolute predictions impossible. This unknowable variable is called the delta factor. The delta factor is consistently inconsistent in both the quantum and the macro worlds. However, in any object larger than 15 molecules, the delta factor is so small as to be insignificant. In the sub-atomic world, the delta factor must be carefully taken into account.

So, if there is no absolute truth in the quantum world is there any absolute truth at all? Strangely, it is the inconsistency of the universe which is its greatest absolute truth. Quantum existence sometimes act like particles of matter. Sometimes they behave like waves of pure energy. Whatever they do changes whenever we observe them, and we have no idea what they are doing when we are not observing them. Actually, they sound not unlike the boxer puppy we are dog sitting for our daughter.

This brings to mind an obvious truth. Life is unpredictable.  It is so unpredictable that it would be unsustainable were it not for that mysterious constant (assigned the Greek symbol lambda in Einstein equations) that keeps the universe together. It is the constant (C) that makes relativity (E=mC2) possible.

The universal constant, the absolute truth that makes sense of the universe is God. It is not a mathematical equation that can be repeated with unerring certainty. It is not a physical property that can be measured and analyzed with invariant results.

Human language cannot express who or what God is, but he is there. Every time we delve deeply into the fundamental substance of the universe, we see the evidence of his presence. God is the spiritual reality that makes the physical world possible. Take the spiritual reality away, and the physical universe ceases to exist. It disintegrates into a void of anomalies and irreconcilable dilemmas.

Theology may be a lost cause, but approaching God is not. Human experience takes over where human knowledge, understanding, and language fall short. Jesus summed up God in a single word, “Father.” Our understanding and knowledge of God is so finite and misguided, that it can only be safely said that we know nothing of God – but we can know God and call him Father. When it comes to God, it is not knowledge that we seek, but relationship – and in that relationship, faith.

Of course, from high school we get the idea that the universe follows this neat set of natural laws that are never violated. This framework created the “Clockmaker” concept of God who wound up the universe and then left it to run by itself. But the strange truth is that if the universe followed the classical laws of physics, there would be no universe. A key element that makes the universe work is uncertainty.

I have been told that it is aerodynamically impossible for the bumblebee to fly. Good thing no one has told the bumblebee. Similarly, it is impossible, according to the laws of classical physics, for the Sun to shine. Good thing no one has told the Sun. It is the principle of uncertainty that seems to guarantee that a small percentage of quantum particles will break the rules. With an object as big as the Sun, that percentage is enough to provide light and life to the Earth.

I, and I think a lot of other people, would love for my life to be predictably governed by a neat set of rules. I wish I could always predict the outcome of my thoughts, actions, and encounters with others. But life isn’t like that. It is unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is the unpredictability of life that causes us to search for meaning and purpose – and ultimately to find God.

When Einstein discovered the principle of uncertainty, he rejected it with his famous words, “God does not play dice.” It was others who developed and proved the concept. I don’t know if God plays dice, but I do know he plays by a different set of rules than the ones we would like to impose on him. As C. S. Lewis wrote of Aslan, the Christ figure in his Chronicles of Narnia, “He is not a tame lion.”

Faith and Science

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, have announced the discovery of a Higgs particle, sometimes referred to as the “God Particle”. What does this mean for our understanding of faith? Has the secret of the universe been discovered in this odd particle? Is God now obsolete? Or has science gone too far and God’s judgment just around the corner? Questions like this have plagued people of faith for centuries.

 

First, let me try to describe, to the best of my layperson’s understanding, what a Higgs particle is and why it is called the “God Particle”. As I have mentioned in previous entries, sub-atomic particles have no mass until they are coupled with wave energy. For over 50 years, quantum physicists have theorized that this coupling occurs with an elusive particle named after Peter Higgs in 1964. The Higgs Particle (or more precisely, Higgs Boson) is extremely heavy for its size, exists in a dual material state (both matter and anti-matter) and lives for a very short time. Hence, it has been very hard to identify. Leon Lederman wrote a popular book on the particle, which he wanted to call “The Goddamn Particle” because it was so difficult to prove and billions had been spent on the quest. However, the publisher named the book “The God Particle” and its importance was elevated to theological proportions. The Higgs Boson may be the particle that catalyzes the coupling of wave energy and matter to give a particle mass, but it is not God.

 

People of faith need to be careful not to marry their belief in God to a certain understanding of science. Likewise, people of science need to be careful not to marry their understanding of how the universe works to the negation of the existence of God. String theory may provide a working theory of how gravitons transmit gravity between masses. Evolution may provide an explanation of how species adapt over eons of time. The Higgs Particle may give us an understanding of how sub-atomic particles develop mass. None of those discoveries negate the existence of God. All of those discoveries require us to expand our understanding of God from our little parochial god that we can understand and manipulate into something much more infinite and cosmological.

 

When the Roman Catholic Church censored Galileo, it was not because he was teaching an understanding of the solar system that was contrary to the Bible. Actually, the Bible has no description of how the solar system works. The Catholic hierarchy had married their understanding of God to an Aristotelian scientific worldview. We have long since forgotten about a terra centric universe, the composition of all matter from four primal elements, and other components of Aristotelian science. In doing so, we greatly expanded our understanding of God. Let’s not have to wait 500 years to allow discoveries in quantum mechanics to expand our understanding of God even further.

 

If you attend church (and I realize many of my readers do not) you should be aware that most churches are populated by people who, like myself, are over 50. The exception to that are certain highly emotionalized churches. If we want Christianity to exist in the next generation on anything but an emotional level, we need to embrace our rapidly changing world, its broadening approach to spirituality, and its scientific understanding. This is difficult since most churches are funded by people who, like myself, are over 50. but the challenge is ours to take on or ignore.

Logos

Let me begin this little treatise with a quick word to any atheists who may be reading this article. You are right. The god you do not believe in does not exist.

 
St. John the Evangelist opens his gospel by introducing a new concept, that of God as Logos. I have mentioned logos a couple of times in earlier posts, so I thought I would devote an entire reflection on the idea. I find it especially important for our 21st century culture.

 
Logos is a Greek word usually translated “word”, but, in truth, it is a great deal more than a particle of language. Logos finds its way into our English language in the form of the suffix “-logy” as in biology, geology, psychology, etc. Webster usually defines it as “the study of….” Again, it is so much more. It is best understood as, “the sum of all.” So, geology is the sum of all knowledge pertaining to the “geos” or earth. Biology is the sum of all knowledge pertaining to the “bios” or all living things. When St. John describes God as Logos, he is saying, “God is the sum of all – all knowledge, all wisdom, all energy and thereby all existence in heaven and earth.” That is a far cry from the anthropomorphic image of God usually gleaned from reading the Bible.

 
Now, I am not knocking the way the Bible talks about God. The Bible is written in language, and language is limiting. The Bible was written to reveal man’s relationship with God. It follows naturally that the Bible would focus on the personhood of God and his intimate character. Therefore the Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God as a person with whom man can be intimate. But if we take the language too far and think of God as human, albeit some kind of super-human, we have severely limited God. Countering that limitation, St. John describes God as Logos, the sum of all. Then, once he has us viewing God in inexpressible expansiveness, he goes on to say, “The Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

 
The concept that God became man for a brief point in human history is the fulcrum of Christianity. It is what Christians refer to as the incarnation. To those of us who have inherited two millennia of Christian culture, it seems like a very normal thing to talk about. To first century Jews who believed you might be struck dead for just whispering the name of God, the concept of God being human – eating, drinking, shaking hands with the guys – was inconceivable. However, the incarnation event, that of Logos in flesh, was inevitable, as it is written into the very fabric of existence.
Let me make it clear that you do not need to understand quantum physics to have faith. I, for one, find it helpful to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the way the universe works in order to expand my understanding of God and embrace the power of faith in a new and more expansive way. Others, especially those who began searching the internet for images from the Hubble telescope in kindergarten, may find it difficult to believe in a God as explained by their parents and grandparents (old fogies like me). For them, perhaps a quantum understanding of God is essential to find their faith.

 
We all know that the universe is made up of atoms. We learned in school that atoms are made up of subatomic particles called protons, electrons and neutrons. Now, here is where the Logos comes in. While protons, electrons, neutrons, and photons (light particles) for that matter are indeed particles (corpuscles in the quantum vernacular), they have no matter unless they are also waves of energy. While energy can exist without matter, matter cannot exist without energy. This is called the “principle of complementarity”. Furthermore, all these energy waves exist as a single energy in what is called the “unified field”, which interconnects all energy in the universe. Remember what I said about Logos, it is the sum of all energy and thereby of all things in heaven and earth. Every particle is Divine energy in the form of matter, fully energy and fully matter making the building blocks that form everything in the universe. Just as Jesus Christ is (from the Christian’s perspective) fully God and fully man becoming the perfect revelation of God.

 
Every atom in your body and in mine is an incarnation of the Divine energy that empowers us and connects us to God, to each other, and to the entire universe. This is not an impersonal god who wound the universe like a clock then went on vacation, or an anthropomorphic god who is a little disguised super version of myself. This is truly the God of the universe whose depths can never be fathomed but who is as intimate and personal as every atom within me. This is a God I, for one, find joy to believe in.

 

Light, Time, and God

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Matter, Antimatter, Photons and Time

 

Everyone over the age of six knows that time moves in only one direction. Yesterday came before today, and today comes before tomorrow. But in the quantum world time zigzags back and forth in a shimmering dance as matter, antimatter and photons interact with each other. When a photon (light particle) encounters a vacuum, it discharges itself into an electron (matter), and a positron (antimatter) converting its energy into mass. Rather than be completely destroyed, the photon moves backward in time to give the electron and positron “space” to collide, annihilating each other with the ensuing energy discharging the photon that started the dance.

 

There is an exception to the matter/antimatter cycle of destruction that involves a singularity (black hole). If the photon is converted into mass along the gravitational vortex of a singularity, the matter and antimatter are not able to collide because one will be drawn into the gravitational field of the black hole while the other will race off in the opposite direction. Fifteen thousand million years ago, the universe was one giant singularity. When light surrounded the singularity, mass and radiation was created that began spreading out in all directions beginning the expanding, cooling universe we know today. That expansion is what started the clock moving forward. As long as the universe is expanding, time moves away from yesterday and toward tomorrow. This moment of primordial light interacting with primordial darkness is what we know as the big bang. Genesis describes it this way, “God said: ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God separated the light from the darkness.”

 

Light particles (photons) are able to do this because of two basic properties of the photon. First, every particle in the universe has an antiparticle seeking to destroy it except for one, the photon. Photons are their own antiparticle so they are never destroyed in matter – antimatter collisions. Second, from a photon’s perspective, there is no such thing as time.

 

We turn our radio telescopes to the sky and watch photons in the cosmic background radiation pass by the Earth. It is easy for us to imagine those photons traveling for 15 thousand million years from the big bang itself. But the photon “sees” the big bang, the current state of the universe, and the chilling end of the universe in the same instant. To a photon, all times are “now”. The result is that everything in the universe: past, present, and future, is connected to everything else by a web of electromagnetic radiation that “sees” everything at once. No wonder Saint John wrote, “God is light. In him is no darkness at all.”

 

Once again, we come back to the basic quantum understanding of God, which is the incarnate understanding of God, that Creator and Creation are one. God is the energy that permeates the universe and empowers its existence. This is a giant leap of courage for the lifelong believer to give up their Sunday school understanding of God who is “out there somewhere watching” to one in which God’s glory is not just seen in the world, but is “all and in all”. It is also a giant leap of courage for those who have decided that science has made God irrelevant to recognize that science and the universe make no sense without God for “in God we live and move and have our being.”

Light, Life and Logos

Bio-photons emmanating from a leaf.
Bio-photons emmanating from a leaf.

Dr. Fritz Albert Popp recently proved that all living things emit light. Furthermore, research indicates that the purpose of this light is to provide a channel of communication both within the cell and between cells throughout the body. The principal subject of communication between the cells is metabolism. During periods of stress, such as illness or injury, the emission of biophotons is increased. One can imagine a scene from the TV series ER, when the near death patient is wheeled into the emergency room. Suddenly everyone is frenetic with activity trying to save the patient. It is as if the cells are both working harder and talking louder to participate in the healing process. However, in malignant cancer cells, the biophoton emissions begin to decrease as the essence of life is being drained from the cell.
We should not be surprised at this intrinsic relationship between light and life. We have often thought of the Sun as being the source of life giving light, providing the energy that drives photosynthesis that ultimately feeds us all. But plants and animals live in the depths of the sea and hidden in caverns that never see the light of the Sun.

Jesus said, "I am the Light of the World."
Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World.”

Do we now see that it is the light from within that is the true source of life?
Jesus once said, “I am the light of the world.” John, on his discourse on Logos stated, “All things came into existence through the Logos. Without him, nothing exists. What came to be through him was life. And this life was the light of the human race.

The Quantum God

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, scientists have been struggling to understand the behavior of subatomic particles. The world as we know it has always been governed by Newtonian physics, which is dominated by natural laws that are very predictable. We all learned the laws of gravity and geometry in school. What goes up must come down. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The problem that has vexed scientists for a century now is that these laws do not apply in the subatomic world. What goes up is already down as particles can be in multiple locations at the same time. The shortest distance between two points is to cease to exist in one place and instantaneously exist in the other without passing through the space in between. To study and understand this behavior that seems so bizarre to us required the development of an entirely new field of science known as quantum mechanics. In the subatomic world, sometimes referred to as the quantum field, particles do not exist as tangible objects, but as pure energy in potentiality. What causes the potentiality to exist in what we think of as the real world is the act of observation.

If you and I are sitting in a room conversing with each other, we appear very real and solid. In fact, everything appears very real and solid. We can sit on chairs, drink from coffee mugs, and set our books on the table in front of us. However, in the quantum world, sub atomic particles of pure energy are moving about, exchanging places with other particles between you and me and the table, waiting for the act of our observation to pass from potentiality to reality in the form we expect to see. So this energy is everywhere and in everything at the same time. We just do not see it that way.

Ever since I began learning about quantum physics, I have been struck by the similarities between the quantum field and the spiritual world. As “Christ is all and in all”, energy in the quantum field exists in all things and connects all things. As the Spirit is “like the wind with no one knowing where it comes from or where it is going”, so the quantum energy is constantly in motion passing between people, objects (some scientists theorize between universes) in their own quantum dance beyond our comprehension. As observation is required to make quantum potentialities into physical realities, faith is required to give “substance to things unseen.” Is the reason that the quantum field does not answer to the physical laws of the universe that it is the realm of God, omnipotent and omnipresent?

The reason this sounds heretical is because we have millennia of anthropomorphic religious expression to overcome. God sits on his throne and saves with the power of his arm. However, which seems more true: to see God as possessing human qualities, or to see God as the divine energy that permeates, animates and interconnects all beings and objects in the vast universe?

In this 21st century, antiquated expressions about God are quickly becoming obsolete. God has not changed, but humankind has. If God is to be relevant, we need to broaden our understanding and expression of God just as we have broadened our understanding and expression of the natural world. When I was a kid, we sang a song in Bible school, “Somewhere in outer space, God has prepared a place for those who trust him and obey.” That concept just seems silly to a generation raised on Hubble telescope images of a trillion galaxies containing a hundred billion stars each. It is not surprising that the median age of regular church attendees is over 50.

In fact, it was looking at the deep field image of the Hubble telescope that started me on this journey. When I realized that the thousands of dots of light in the photograph were not stars but galaxies of stars, I remember thinking, “Your God is too small.”

To expand my understanding of God, I had to set aside my old anthropomorphic language about God and see God as Saint John describes in the prologue to his gospel. “In the beginning was the Logos, the sum of all things, and the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.”