Saturday, June 2, 2012

Quantum Physics and the Trinity (Trinity Sunday, June 3 2012)

Homily:  Yr B Trinity Sunday, June 3 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Some of you might know that many years ago I did my graduate work in theoretical physics, and that for a number of years I taught the history of science at a small liberal arts college.  The students at that college didn’t have much math or science background.  And one of the things that I tried to do as part of that history of science course was to teach them some quantum physics in one or two lectures.  Now, that’s not easy!   And to make it even harder, one of the key concepts of quantum physics that I wanted to teach them was the idea of wave-particle duality, the strange notion that an entity such as an electron, for example, is both a wave and a particle.

This created a bit of a dilemma for me.  You see, the simplest approach would have been to just tell the students that this was true, that an electron really is both a particle and a wave at the same time, that the experts have figured this out, and that they as students are just going to have to believe it, even though it might make no sense.  But what would be the value in that?  Simply telling people to assent to something that they don’t have any feel for or understanding of wouldn’t achieve very much.  It wouldn’t open up their imaginations.  It wouldn’t help give birth to any new ideas.  It wouldn’t give rise to feelings of awe and wonder about this universe we live in and it wouldn’t really teach them anything of value about quantum physics.

So instead, I figured that it would be much more productive if I was to help them experience the electron as both a wave and a particle. 

So we talked about televisions.  Not the flat screen TVs that we use today, but the big old TVs with the picture tubes that we used to use.  

And I explained how they work, that a TV is basically an electron gun that fires electrons between some charged metal plates towards a phosphorescent screen.  When the electron hits the screen, it gives off light.  And I showed them that if a physicist was to ask the question “what is an electron?” using the TV as an experimental set-up, the answer he or she would get is “the electron is a particle with a mass and electric charge”. 

But suppose I was to change the experimental set up a little bit.  Supposed instead of having electric plates in the middle to guide the electron, I put a barrier with two slits in it where the electron could pass through.  And instead of a phosphorescent TV screen, I put photographic film which records a little white dot whenever the electron hits the film.  

Now what sort of pattern would you get on the photographic film when you fired a bunch of electrons through the slits?  You might expect to get a pattern like this, where the length of the white bands indicates the number of electrons that hit the photographic plate at each spot. 

But what if I was to tell you that the actual pattern you get when you do this experiment is more like this, a pattern of alternating white and dark bands.

And that this surprising pattern makes perfect sense if the electron is not a particle which passes through one slit, but rather a wave which simultaneously passes through both of the slits on its way to the photographic plate. Something like this wave interference pattern.  

And so now, if we ask the question “What is an electron?” using this different experimental setup, we get a different answer.  An electron is a wave with a particular frequency and wavelength.  Same electron.  Different way of experiencing it.

So now you know something about wave particle duality, how an electron can be both a wave and a particle.  And you know it not because I gave it to you as a doctrine that you had to believe, but rather because it comes out of a shared experience, out of the stories of what actually happened in a physics lab when physicists did these experiments.

Our understanding of God is a bit like that.  Our understanding of God comes out of our experiences and encounters with God, and the stories that other people have told us of their experiences and encounters.  And the doctrines and theology that come out of these experiences and encounters are our way of naming and giving structure to all of this so that we can talk about it, and recognize how our own experience relates to that of others.

Today’s readings are all stories about what happens when humans encounter the divine.  But they are not all the same!

In our first reading, Isaiah has a vision of God as big.  Huge.  Immense.  He sees God sitting on a throne, high and lofty, so big that just the hem of his robe fills the temple.  Isaiah is filled with fear and wonder.  He is painfully aware of his own insignificance in the presence of the one who created the heavens and the earth.  This is the experience of God as transcendent, the God who is beyond us.  In our psalm this morning the poet has a similar experience.  He encounters the awesomeness of God in creation, in the thunder and earthquake, in the lightning and wind.  Paul in his letter to the Romans writes that “ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature have been understood and seen through the things God has made.”  And I think that most of us get this. Think of the times you have beheld the beauty of a sunset, or the peacefulness of a forest or the glory of worship, the times you have experienced the transcendence and wonder of the divine energy which is beyond our grasp and comprehension.  This is one of the ways that we experience and encounter God.

But it’s not the only way.  Sometimes we experience the divine not as something beyond us, but as something within us, not as something that’s immense, but as a still, small voice.  In our second reading Paul talks about God as Spirit, a Spirit that leads him, a Spirit that cries out from within him, a Spirit that teaches us that we are children of God, a Spirit that urges us into intimacy with the divine.  This is the experience of God as immanent, as within and around us.  And once more, it is not just Paul who experiences God this way.  We do too!  Think of the times that you’ve experienced the divine as a subtle presence, as comfort and inspiration and power from within, as an invisible energy which surrounds you and upholds and strengthens you, as love which is poured into your heart and you in turn have to offer to others.  This is our encounter with God the Holy Spirit.

And then in our gospel today we heard the story of Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus.  Nicodemus had heard the stories about Jesus, his acts of healing and the crowds that followed him around.  But what Nicodemus was totally unprepared for, the thing that blew him away was that when he met Jesus, Nicodemus found himself to be in the presence of the living God.  In Jesus, Nicodemus gets a glimpse of God the Son, the one sent by God out of love for the world, the one who makes God known.  We call this incarnation, God revealed in human flesh.  Nicodemus encounters God in the person of Jesus.  And so do we.

Remember the stories you’ve been told of the love and compassion and wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, how he came to seek us out, how he sought out those who were rejected and marginalized by society, how he delighted in their presence, laughing and celebrating with them at table, and how his work and ministry continue in the people who carry on with his mission today.  This is our experience of God as incarnate, God with us, Immanuel.

We experience God in all these different ways, the awesome God who is beyond us, the inspiring God within and around us and the God who is revealed in the humanity of Jesus.  There are so many ways that we can encounter God. If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself that you have yet to experience or name or imagine God in these different ways, don’t be discouraged.  We all have different experiences – that’s why we share our stories.  Don’t be discouraged, instead, think of this as a wonderful opportunity to take the relationship you do have with God and to move and deepen it in new and exciting directions.

My hope for this morning is not just that we’ve learned something new about electrons, but also that we’ve learned a little something about the Trinity, our understanding of God as One God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Not as a doctrine written in some dusty book somewhere, but as a lived experience that comes from our own encounters with God and from the experiences of those throughout the ages who have graciously shared their stories with us.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,


1 comment:

  1. I was at a conference full of church leaders that Phyllis Tickle was speaking at, and she told us to all go back to school to get degrees in quantum physics. I guess you're way ahead of the game!

    Good word, brother.