One of my favorite classes in high school was physics. To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.
For me, it’s a spiritual interest. According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced. And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force. People of faith call that force God. Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning. Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.
But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union. In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds: one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order. Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe. Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion. And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself. And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’. Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles. Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.
I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it. (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)
What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular. This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas. Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth. Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us. This is the mystery we call “incarnation”. And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.
John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it. There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”
The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff. The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption. And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.
This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person. Stop trying to be more spiritual. Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human. Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.
The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within. Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death. Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart. Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.
Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland