The Common Language of God and Physics
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson
I flunked algebra four times during high school and college. And my one attempt at geometry resulted in a grade of 0.7 on a grading scale of 1 to 9.
I enjoy thinking about patterns and the relationship between things. Therefore, one of my greatest regrets about my mathematical illiteracy is that I cannot understand the language of mathematics that is used by physicists to describe the laws of the universe.
I like to imagine that sometimes it is as frustrating for them, as I find the limits of language to describe the nature and qualities and existence of God.
Neither of these limitations has slowed my fascination or preoccupation with both subjects. I spent twenty years trying to describe time and God and love in my novel, A Map of Heaven. This book began after my father died and I wondered about what it meant to pass from this life to the promised afterlife of Heaven.
In one passage at the beginning of the book, Elizabeth, the protagonist, has discovered that she has an inoperable brain tumor and facing the premature end of her life, wonders about the meaning of time. Before her diagnosis, she always imagined time as a straight and narrow diving board that we walked the length of (hopefully for many years) before diving into the cool waters of eternity.
Now, with her diagnosis, she wonders if time could be more appealingly thought of as Einstein did, as many layers of an onion, past, present, and future, existing at once.
This intersection between God and physics and how we use the language of both to describe the unseen, visited me again yesterday as I read my Bible and a book by Krista Tippett, Einstein’s God.
My thought process resembles a Mobius strip, but please bear with me and I hope you will find as much wonder in the mystery of God as I did.
I was reading the Gospel of John 16: 23, where Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” Thankfully, most pastors and believers recognize that to call on the name of Jesus is to invoke the authority and favor of God, and treat it with the respect it deserves. However, this verse started me thinking about how the power of language and naming things is used in two other parts of the Bible and how both instances might help us to understand God.
In the opening verses of the first book of the Bible, God is described as creating the heavens and Earth by speaking them into existence. “And God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was light.” Genesis 1:3
It’s curious to me that the act of creation is the spoken word, rather than a physical act of forming something. In Psalm 33:16, we read, “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”
Thinking about this choice of ‘tool’ for the act of creation, I flipped over to the beginning of the Gospel of John, where Jesus is described in the most beautiful and mysterious terms. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Again, a curious way to describe the long-awaited Messiah, who was expected to come as a warrior King.
But if we consider the creative force used to describe God’s creation of the universe was the spoken word, then I believe the choice to refer to Jesus as the Word, describes his unique relationship to God. It is also an interesting way to consider that ‘when the Word became flesh’ it was a means for God to show himself in a language that we could understand, the language of being human.
What does this have to do with physics?
I believe that there is a metaphor between the mysteries of physics and the mystery of God and that the more we learn about the former, the more it points to the latter.
On the same day that I was reading and thinking about God and the Word, I was reading Einstein’s God, a series of radio interviews between leading scientists and Kristen Tippett, host of a radio show on PBS.
In the first interview, Tippett speaks with Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist, and Paul Davies, an astrophysicist, to discuss the impact of Einstein’s theory of relativity on how we understand the world.
Paul Davies said, “Until Einstein, people thought of time and space as fixed, unchanging, and absolute…Einstein revealed that time and space themselves are elastic and mutable, that they exist in relationship with the unfolding of life.”
The development of a mathematical language allowed Einstein the means to describe this theory. Later advances in mathematics allowed the another scientist, Arthur Eddington, to demonstrate the theory. This particular property of gravity was of course already present, but could only be ‘spoken’ into existence when the language of mathematics became advanced enough to give it a name. In other words, we are not the creators, but the revealers of things previously unseen.
As Freeman Dyson explained during the interview, “Einstein’s universe of a sort of cold, hard space and time, defined by a set of differential equations-it’s there, but it’s a very small part of the real universe. It’s just the mountain peaks…These equations are quite miraculous in a certain way. The fact that nature talks mathematics, I find it miraculous.”
The more we learn about the properties that must have been present at the foundation of the universe the more we appreciate its complexity, and how improbable it is that there is not some intelligent design (God) that sparked such an elegantly intertwined existence into being.
So too, God has given us a key to the mystery of faith when we are told that Jesus is the Word. This morning my friend Lolly sent me a quote by Bishop Ken Untener, that helps to explain the mystery. “Before time began, from all eternity, there flowed a life and love in the Trinity – between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When the Word become flesh, that life and love flowed in a human being – Jesus Christ.”
Their existence is eternal, the Alpha and Omega, but our limited ability to perceive their reality means that we must rely on faith. However, it also means that as we grow in faith, through prayer, through reading the Bible, through participating in our local church, we will grow in our relationship with God and reflect that relationship into the world. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God.” 1 John 4:7
Going back to our physics metaphor, I liken faith in the existence of God to this observation by Paul Davies about a physicist’s growing perception of the universe. “For me the crucial thing is that the universe is not only beautiful and harmonious and ingeniously put together, it is also fit for life…the universe has not only given rise to life, it’s not only given rise to mind, it’s given rise to thinking beings who can comprehend the universe. Through science and mathematics, we can, so to speak, glimpse the mind of God…”
It is my belief that as we grow in our understanding of the universe through the language of mathematics and the spoken language we use to describe our thoughts; we will grow closer to God. Just as the theory of relativity was not discovered, but revealed, so also, God’s eternal presence will be understood and revealed.
There is one final thought I want to consider before we leave the topic of the power of words and language. That is of course, the power of our own words to create or destroy. The words we speak to ourselves, to family, friends, and strangers, can change our future and theirs. Given the responsibility of such power, let us try each day to speak words of encouragement, to use our words as instruments of creation, peace, and love.
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson writes a weekly faith column for The Summit Daily News and is the author of 10 books. You can find her at: www.suzanneelizabeths.com