Some months ago I read The Character of Physical Law, by Richard Feynman. Toward the end of one chapter, he describes in broad terms the way the various things in the universe are connected. He uses hierarchical levels to distinguish between all the phenomena humans are familiar with. On the fundamental level, at scales too small for us to fathom, are the interactions of subatomic particles—electrons, neutrons, protons, and all the rest. Just above that is the molecular level, with groups of atoms coming together to form molecules with specific properties, like water or salt. Above that is groups of molecules, like an entire salt crystal or an ice berg. Now we are in the realm of tangible, familiar matter. But still it goes on, with increasing complexity at each level up. Think of all the complex interactions involved in a thunder storm, or a whole planet, or a solar system. Lest we think complexity is only a function of size, we recall biology and the many complicated interactions that make up life. A little higher are things like psychology, sociology, politics. We move from increasingly complex arrangements of atoms to the exponentially more complicated realm of abstract ideas: evil, beauty, hope. Each level is a little, or a lot, more complex than the one below it (Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, Modern Library Edition, 1994, 118-120).
Which end, Feynman asks, is nearer to God?
Is God nearer to the fundamental laws, the interactions of atoms and the things that make them up? Or is God nearer to the complex realm of things, to things like stars, justice, or beauty? Which end is nearer to God?
Feynman, you can probably guess, does not choose one end over the other. He doesn’t believe fundamental particles are closer to God than beauty, or vice-versa. Instead, he writes, we should pay attention to the interconnectedness of the whole thing. He suggests that God can be found in the intricate, myriad threads running all the way up and down from beauty to history to psychology to chemistry to basic physical laws.
I don’t think he was saying God is in the gaps in our knowledge, the connections we don’t know about. Those gaps shrink every day, after all. If God is in the gaps, then God is getting smaller. Instead, I think Feynman was saying that in exploring the interconnections of our world, we have an opportunity to draw near to God.
Feynman was a world-class physicist, but he wasn’t a theologian. We should not make the mistake of assuming that what he meant by God was the same or even similar to the God Christians worship—the creator of all things who made a covenant with Israel and became incarnate in Jesus Christ, the savior who died and rose again, the One we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Even so, I think Feynman’s words can be insightful for theologians and people of faith. In my experience, theology tends to focus on the interconnections of things at the complex, abstract end of Feynman’s spectrum: love, evil, sin, beauty, holiness, hope. If we accept Feynman’s hierarchy—and I’m not saying we have to, just that it’s helpful to do so—then it’s not inaccurate to say theologians spend most of our time at the higher end of the ladder. Feynman gives theology an implied invitation to explore things farther down, much more basic, and discover what we can of God in the connections between all things.
I realize in writing this that I have made some of that discovery for myself in biblical studies. By reading and analyzing the Bible with a view to history, archaeology, and literary context, one moves toward the more basic and material end of the spectrum. Archaeology connects the biblical text with the surviving, discoverable material culture of the past. Chemistry and physics play a role in the preservation of such material and in the way it’s analyzed. Literary context makes a connection with human psychology, among other things. Of course I’m most interested in what the Bible tells people of faith about our relationship with God, how to love, how to be holy, how to have faith in things unseen. But my understanding of these has become richer through seeing the connections with history and literature. In learning how the people of Judah found hope in real, practical ways after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, I have learned much about hope itself. In learning how “love” in the Old Testament often recalls the language of treaties, my understanding of the role of loyalty in love has grown stronger. In discovering these connections and many others, I have come nearer to God.
I am encouraged by this realization as I turn my mind toward things farther down Feynman’s hierarchy. I’m reading more lately about the stuff of stars and cosmology, and the stuff of fundamental particles that make up our world. I’m relearning (too slowly!) the math that will help me truly understand all this. I’m looking for the connections between these basic, fundamental things and cosmic things, and the usual stuff of Christian theology like holiness and love. I am excited by what I will find, because when I discover meaning and intelligibility I draw near to the God who made it all.
Where do you find God? Where do you find meaning and purpose in the connections between things in our world? Where might we find God in exploring space?