Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: January 16, 2012

Chaos, the Multiverse, and God

In an article in December’s issue of Harper’s magazine, the physicist and novelist Alan Lightman describes what he calls a “crisis of faith” among theoretical physicists. In the history of Western thought, he says, scientists and philosophers have largely held that certain phenomena (the sky’s color, the temperature of boiling water, the patterns of snowflakes, and so on) were “necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature”—laws fixed at the beginning of time and subsequently discovered by human beings. But this belief in fundamental underlying natural laws is giving way to a new understanding, and that view is producing some anxiety among scientists. As Lightman (a professor at MIT) explains,

Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

[Alan Lightman, “The Accidental Universe: Science’s Crisis of Faith”, Harper’s, December, 2011]

In other words: the idea of a “universe” (a unified cosmos comprising the total of everything there is) has given way to the idea of a “multiverse”—a collection of universes each governed by its own rules and characterized by its particular features. Objects may fall at 32 feet per second/per second in our universe, but who’s to say how fast they might plummet in another one?

Order is important to us humans, and so the idea that we inhabit a cosmos made up of a bewildering number of chaotic universes sounds, at first, like a challenge to all we hold dear and believe in. But before we despair, we should remember that even order has its limitations. As Lightman suggests,

The multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen.

The idea of an orderly cosmos appeals to our desire for order; but on its own, order has no generative power. It is the very chaos of our universe that allows it to sustain conditions that give rise to life.

As a Biblical scholar friend of mine suggests, the first verses of Genesis are often mistranslated in English. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[Genesis 1.1] The word we translate “void” (in Hebrew, bohu) really means something more like “lifeless”, “confused”, or “chaotic”. So Genesis 1 never precisely says that God created the world ex nihilo, “out of nothing”. What it does say is that God made the living, abundant world we know out of the formless, lifeless, confused chaos that was there to start with.

Why does any of this matter? I think it’s important for two reasons. First, it’s important because as in the world of theoretical physics, so in the world of the scriptures, God is better understood as an artist than as a magician. God does not produce the world the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Instead, God makes the world out of the materials at hand. And the materials God works with are the very fragments of chaos. The world is like a sculpture made out of found objects. It is beautiful, and it is also random. In fact, its beauty emerges from its randomness. Only the asymmetrical can be really beautiful and alive. If the world were perfect ly symmetrical, it would be perfectly ordered and therefore totally dead.

The relation of chaos to God and creation matters, second, because it suggests that our own chaos (personal and internal, corporate and shared) is a condition of being alive. Our lives are chaotic because the world is chaotic. Our world is chaotic because God used the stuff of chaos out of which to make it. The point is not that we need to be orderly, perfect, and dead. The point is that we are called to be chaotic, random, and alive. As is God, so are we artists. We spend our lives making our lives out of the random hands we have been dealt. God is both in that chaos and in our working with it. We find God not by trying to be perfect but by making life out of what we have.

So: theoretical physicists and control freaks: take heart! As we move more deeply into the season of Epiphany, we join Jesus in the manifestation of God’s glory in our lives and work and relationships in the world. That glory is made manifest in personal and shared asymmetry and chaos. Say no to perfection and death. Say yes to chaos and life. Help God continue to create a beautiful and random world into an ever more hospitable, gracious, compassionate, and joyful place.

Gary Hall


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