Monday, June 2, 2008

Theology and the Uncertainty Principle


One of the bed rocks of modern physics is the Heisenberg uncertainty principle , which holds that it is impossible to determine both the momentum and the location of a particle. To quote wiki, "In quantum mechanics, the position and momentum of particles do not have precise values, but have a probability distribution. There are no states in which a particle has both a definite position and a definite momentum." Critically, this is not a statement that follows from our inability to measure or the accuracy of our current theories. Rather the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is a statement about reality, and the conclusion is the result of a mathematical analysis of the quantum mechanical theories. (An important consequence of the principle is that there is a non-zero probability that a given particle could be anywhere in the universe.)

I am beginning to believe that there is an uncertainty principle that applies to our Christian faith as well. The traditional sources of our faith come from Scripture, tradition, and reason, and all three sources are susceptible to error--in this case the error inherent in human nature. Human reason is, by definition, subject to human error. Scripture and tradition are no different:

  • To all but the biblical literalist, there is a recognition that the Scriptures were not the result of God dictating Truth to the writers. Instead, the books of the Bible are clearly the work of men attempting to explain the workings of God in history. Unless we are willing to accept that these human beings are infallible (and even a cursory examination of the Bible hardly supports such infallibility), we must accept the possibility that the version of Truth they present sometimes misses the mark. To put it another way, we must work hard to find the revealed word of God in the works of human beings who fail to deliver the true word for a variety of reasons--cultural bias and assumptions and simple misunderstandings.
  • Early Christianity gives us a rich literature of the struggles of great thinkers to understand our faith. Indeed, it is this literature, rather than the Bible itself, that resulted in many of the most important doctrines of our faith, such as the Trinity and our view of Christology. These were indeed, great men, but they were human beings--indeed, several of the great early fathers were ultimately deemed heretics by the Church.

Don't get me wrong--this human fallibility does not mean that the Bible or the early fathers were completely wrong. To the contrary, I think that they got it mostly right--which is why I am a Christian (and a fairly orthodox one on matters like the Resurrection). Still, if you accept the fallibility of human beings, and reject Biblical literalism, it seems to me that you must also accept a degree of uncertainty about even the most cherished doctrines and dogmas of our faith.

What does this mean? Well, if nothing else, we need to show a little humility in our arguments with those who hold different views. And our humility should be greatest when we argue over issues that are not at the core of our faith--on such issues as sexuality. But I also think it means much more. If, like me, you believe in a loving and gracious God, it is hard to accept that God will damn us merely because we have particular beliefs that prove very wrong. Indeed, it is hard to see how any of us could pass that test. Put another way, our salvation does not depend on how well we do on some Theology 101 exam.

To me, at least, "faith" as the basis of salvation needs to mean something quite different than believing the right dogmas. More likely, "faith" means a disciplined commitment to allow God to transform our entire lives. It is this commitment, and not our particular set of beliefs about God, that will be decisive.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Chuck,
This really hits the nail on the head for me.

I came to the realization decades ago that because of our human propensity for error, that all religions got it wrong in some way. The other part of that realization is that I will never get it right myself.

This realization allows me to completely relax about my faith. I join in community worship at my local Episcopal Church. I join with them because I am not condemned for being gay and because I feel that something special is happening when we take communion. I cannot explain this feeling, but the best I can do is say I feel connected.

Dogma just bores me. What interests me is how we help those who need that help.

Your faithful reader,

Michael