Monday, September 30, 2013

Strange Attractors and Angels

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, September 29, 2013, the Feast of St. Michael & All Angels

          A story with angels and dragons and a ladder to heaven!  Very cool!  But does it have anything to do with reality?

          If I had preached this sermon in 1950, I might have said, something like what I still hear people say once and awhile.  “They are two different things:  this story and reality, religion and science.  Science asks the question, ‘How?’ and Religion asks the question, ‘Why?’”

          That may still make sense to you (or not) but it is simply not true, if it ever was.  Science and religion may seem to have been at constant war with one another since at least the 17th century when Copernicus first suggested that the earth could not be the center of the universe, but increasingly they speak similar languages, more similar than not.

          So on a day when we speak of angels, we do not necessarily have to throw science out the window, because both science and religion now have language about things that cannot be seen but are assuredly there.

          Religion has spoken this language for a very long time.  Each week we say

We believe in One God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

          For a long time, science seemed to be on a mission to dismiss the unseen.  If it was not observable, it was not real.  But way back in 1667, Isaac Newton had started a different journey by suggesting that the universe was made up of a vast collection of parts, the smallest of which, atoms, could not be seen, but were nevertheless the building blocks of everything.

          Newton’s principles came to be accepted as descriptive of reality and they were reassuring, because atoms acted according to the same laws, no matter whether they were part of the skin of a human being or the clothes that covered the skin.  The world all made sense, and non-fundamentalist religion eventually came to accept this and it began to affect our way of talking about God and faith.  Something called “systematic theology” was written, in which all the principles of faith were talked about as coherent parts of a whole.  Things like angels came to be embarrassing to theology.

          Of course some people like you and me never gave up on angels, and on all those “unseen” things, and it turns out science has come back around to something like our point of view.

          Barbara Brown Taylor has written,

Reality is not a well-oiled machine that behaves in logical, predetermined ways.  Instead, it is an ever-unfolding process that defies precise prediction.  In it, order and chaos are not enemies but fraternal twins.  Creation depends on both of them.  Together they shape life.

If this sounds like religious language, it is not.  It is language inspired by quantum physics, which has cause a revolution in the way we see our world….While Newton’s rules still work in the world we can see, there is another very different set of rules at work in the world that makes up the world we can see.[1]

          Taylor is talking about what some people call the “new science.”  It began with quantum theory but now is a world that talks of fractals, chaos theory, string theory, quarks, and my favorite) “strange attractor.”  None of these things can be seen.  Neils Bohr, one of the great fathers of this new science, once said, “We must be clear, when it comes to atoms, language can only be used as poetry.”[2]

          And that is precisely what we do when every Sunday we say, with all seriousness, that we give praise to God around this Table “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”  The language of things unseen can only be used as poetry.  In one sense, all that we are saying is, “There is uncontrollable mystery in the air. The only thing we say with any certainty (and that really is an absurd word to use here) is that this realm of mystery serves God as well as we do, and somehow we do it together, “ordained and constituted in a wonderful order” that we cannot possibly understand or control, but, nevertheless, can and do participate in.

          As we have a tendency to do, we say too much about angels, talking about them as if we actually understood who they are and how they work.  The Bible speaks often of angels, but says very little concrete about them.  They are God’s messengers, God’s army to defend against evil and bring peace.  They are at least sometimes scary, since they always seem to need to introduce themselves by saying, “Do not be afraid.”  They do not all have wings and look androgynous or even human.  We do not become angels when we die, nor especially do little children when they die.

          What we know about angels is small but it says large things about God.  If they are his messengers, then we know God wishes to be in communication with us.  If they are our defenders, then God thinks we are worth defending.  And if their very existence is primarily to offer God praise then we can indeed join with them in the praise we offer, uniting ourselves to the chaotic order of the whole universe when we do.

          In Jewish commentary and midrash on the creation stories, much is made of the biblical text saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Christians have had a tendency to point to the our and say, “Aha!  The Trinity!”  Jewish reflection is on the angels, and imagines a heavenly council convened to discuss God’s idea for humankind, which many of the angels oppose as a really bad idea.  But they eventually give in, and because it is their duty to praise God, an angel walks before every human being proclaiming, “Behold the image of God!”

          Science now joins religion in saying, “Life is not all that we see.”  Science says, “There are such things as strange attractors.”  Religion says, “There are such things as angels.”  And who is to say we are not talking about the same thing?

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web:  Essays on Science and Religion (Cowley, 2000), p.  60.
[2] Quoted in Taylor, p. 48.

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