A ‘Separate and Bound God’ | The Crisis in Evangelicalism

Had a great time at Apple 5 on Wednesday – good crowd of people out to hear Manjit Kumar, author of Quantum talking about The Quantum Cathedral – how the collaborative efforts that went into building the Large Hadron Collider are paralleled only by the immense achievements of the construction of the medieval cathedrals. I’ll be uploading an audio of the night shortly to the Apple site.

One of the many references I bounce off in ‘Other‘ is that of this tricky world of the ‘new physics.’ The advent of quantum mechanics brought about a crisis in thinking among the classical physics community, who had hitherto insisted that as instrumentation improved we would be able to see further and further into the fundamental structure of matter. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle put paid to that. I blogged a series of posts on ‘theology and the new physics’ here, but I thought I’d put up another extract from the new book, paralleling the crisis in physics with the crisis in evangelicalism that birthed much of the emerging church movement:

Heisenberg’s development of the uncertainty principle, and the whole discovery of the quantum properties of matter, precipi- tated a huge crisis in physics. Many great scientists of the day took a long time to come round to it, and preached vehemently against it – insisting that the progress they had made into the inner workings of the atom would continue and reveal a deter- ministic, objective model. They were proved wrong, and one by one, relented.

For those of us who claim faith, there is a zoom level beyond which talk of God becomes impossible. This is the realm of faith. Our languages, our metaphors, simply break down in the face of some deeper, invisible reality. Though that reality may exist, we cannot observe it, and nor can it fully be put to the test. Are our theologies simply divine mathematics, full of complex symbols and attempts at integration? Perhaps no matter how complex their language or deep their thought, their imperfections, their incompleteness leaves them destined to be never quite true.

The uncomfortable realisation that the physical world was, at its core, ‘strange’ seems paralleled in the church by what we might call the ‘crisis in divine immanence’ over the past twenty years. As the crisis in physics gave birth to an iconoclastic move- ment of quantum theorists, reacting against what they perceived as the failings of classical theory, so the crisis of immanence in the Western church has perhaps precipitated the movement known as the emerging church – who in turn I see as reacting against the failings of what we might call ‘classical theology’.

It seems no coincidence that the emerging church movement came straight out of the charismatic/evangelical wings of the church. With its hyper-immanent theology of Jesus being as good as touchable, it was the most obvious place for a group of young, enthusiastic but disaffected theorists to begin to doubt that there was an actual, material immanence at the core.

The model of church that these experimenters played around with was hallmarked by doubts about God’s immanence. Services were dark and abstract. Songs, if there were any, were distant and vague, the soundtrack ambient, space-age, ethereal. Many groups began then to reject any talk of models at all. No metaphorical terms were useful any more. There was no body. Many have preached against it, and many conservatives and traditionalists have scoffed, like tweed-jacketed Oxford physicists, dismissing this emerging church as a fad that will pass. To their chagrin, it has not only refused to do so, but has become more and more part of the mainstream of Christian thought.

The arguments in the physics community rumbled on through- out the first half of the twentieth century. Neils Bohr and the young adherents to his ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’ continued to expound their thesis that objective reality was a myth, while Einstein, almost alone, stuck to his beliefs that time would prove otherwise. While no über-theory has yet settled the argu- ment, time appears to be favouring Einstein: many physicists are increasingly willing to look deeper than quantum mechanics, and many philosophers of science now believe that there is an objec- tive reality at the heart of matter, it’s just that we don’t have the ability to examine it.

I believe this is a useful position for us too: God is both real and unattainable. The evangelicals are right: there is an immanence to God, but God is actually not quite ready for the buddy-close rela- tionship that they have marketed. The emerging theologians are right too: there is a strangeness to God, but objective reality does exist, so we should not be silenced by our fears that we cannot say anything about truth.

‘God is light,’ John wrote in 1 John 1:5, with perhaps more prescience than he knew: God, like matter, like light, is the perfect immanent-Other. It surrounds us, makes us, and yet will not succumb to full examination. It is an irresolvable duality, unquan- tifiable, immensurable and yet blindingly present.


3 responses to “A ‘Separate and Bound God’ | The Crisis in Evangelicalism”

  1. Sweet metaphor, light. Can’t wait to read more.

  2. I can’t wait until your book comes out in the States! Can’t wait!

  3. rodney neill

    reading your book now (got it yesterday)