“In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth, [everything] was a formless void and darkness…”
by Sheryl Anderson.
It is hard to imagine a time when all that existed was darkness, when you could travel in any direction for millions of years and still see absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, this is the story that scientists tell us of the “dark ages” that gripped the Universe before the first stars ignited. Furthermore, they hope very shortly, to be able to show us that time, or rather how that time ended – how the cosmos ultimately became filled with light. What is commonly referred to as the ‘Big Bang’.
Along with many, I have been fascinated by the images of the furthest parts of the cosmos created by the James Webb Telescope, which is able to gaze further into the cosmos than any telescope before it; thanks to its enormous mirror and its instruments that focus on the part of the light spectrum known as infrared, allowing it to peer through dust and gas. This type of light isn’t visible to the human eye, but the telescope has no problem detecting it. In fact the telescope’s incredible features allow it to see deeper back in time to the Big Bang, which happened 13.8 billion years ago.
In his book Helgoland, Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist, tells the story of the birth of quantum physics and the bright young scientists who were to become some of the 20th Century’s most famous Nobel prize winners in science. He particularly focusses on Werner Heisenberg who, in June 1925, retreated to the treeless, wind battered island of Helgoland (Heligoland) in the North Sea in order to think. What Heisenberg wanted to think about was the physical properties of nature at the scale of atomic and subatomic particles. This was the beginning of quantum mechanics, an understanding of matter based on probabilities rather than certainties.
Heisenberg was fascinated by the relationship between subatomic particles. Many years later, reflecting on the theory, Heisenberg wrote, “Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection (between subatomic particles) though we can only speak of it in images and parables.” Heisenberg was a devout Lutheran and appreciated that humans are able to give an account of the physical world only in as far as their language and experimental tools permit.
In his book Rovelli makes an extraordinary statement. He suggests that, at the subatomic level, particles have no properties in themselves, properties only exist in the relationships between the particles. He beautifully describes the world we touch as ‘a fabric woven by relations’; where we, as every other thing around us, exist in our interactions with one another.
For Christians, Advent is season of reflective preparation for the birth of Christ. A time of hopeful expectation of the arrival of Jesus ‘in the flesh’ as a new born infant. However, for many the idea of God taking on mortality in order to join in with God’s creation seems like a fairy tale. Many other faith traditions and the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of the gods assuming human form, often to seduce or trick a particular individual. In Christian theology there are lots of plausible and sophisticated explanations about why God would do such a thing, and debates about how God might do such a thing greatly tested the Early Church, creating a theological crisis focused on the nature of Christ. This culminated in the nuanced language of the Nicene Creed in 325, which seemed to bring an end of the matter. To the modern Western mind, much of this seems archaic and irrelevant.
But… what if Rovelli is right? What if particles (which is what everything is made of) have no properties (qualities, characteristics) in themselves but properties exist only in the relationships between the particles? That everything that exists does so, not in itself, but in its interactions with other things. In which case, how about this for a description of what God does in Jesus? How about this for a description of what the person of Jesus offer us – a connection with God that we can fully understand although we can only speak of it in images and parables. Perhaps the means for God to join in with God’s creation is built into the very fabric of the Universe.
 Genesis 1:1-2 NRSV translation, edited for emphasis.
 Rovelli, Carlo, Helgoland, Allen Lane; (2021)
 Heisenberg, Werner, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations, Harper & Row; (1971)
4 thoughts on “Life, the Universe, and Everything”
Thank you Sheryl. You have persuaded me to buy the book by Rovelli. Relationality as the heart of Christology and trinitarian theology makes perfect sense to me.
This reverberates with a Guardian article some time ago which I sent on to my minister at the time. If I had a decent cross-referencing system I could quote chapter and verse, but it makes sense to me. It’s all over my head, of course, but on the other hand somehow and on a very deep and poetic level I get it!!
What an amazing idea! “That everything that exists does so, not in itself, but in its interactions with other things”. Do we become human beings as we relate to others? The popular belief seems to be that we born with a self that then creates a social self, but is it actually through social relations we develop a sense of self? I suggest that we see this happening as we watch children grow as they relate to others. Also, in my inner life meaning arises not from within but through relationship with all that is other than self. So, using the analogy that our knowledge of God is mirrored in the human condition – which seems likely – is it the case that God is interrelational: Not a being or Being or even Ground of Being, but the relationship we call love; the ethical relationship that is inherent in formative human relationships we have with each other, and the created world we live in. So, God is Love. But is it true that God ONLY comes to mind (and exists) in the context of our ethical relationships with each other? I first read this in reading the work of Levinas, though he did not have the word “only” in it. Any ideas? Please excuse the punctuation errors here Sheryl.
“To the modern Western mind, much of this seems archaic and irrelevant.” Yet in many churches reciting the creed is regarded as an essential part of services and they require public affirmation of the creed before people are accepted for membership.
Although the Trinitarian theory of God, if interpreted in a broad rather than a dogmatic way, can allow for a variety of approaches to God, it may still be too limited for modern thinking. Scientists are now postulating that there are far more than three dimensions. Perhaps we ought to be open to the thought that God is more multi-facetted than just Trinitarian.
If “God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), then he is too fluid to be compartmentalised. You might as well stand in the sea off Cape Agulhas in South Africa where the Atlantic and Indian oceans merge and try to work out which water belongs to which ocean, as to try to divide up an omnipresent spirit God.
But it is not how we define or describe God that matters but how we live in relation to him. Astronomers know that stars exist that they have not yet seen, because they can see the deviation in other stars and know that some as yet unseen body is exerting gravitational pull. People will know that God exists if they can see him transforming our lives. Perhaps Christian witness is not about Telling people of a God up in Heaven who will judge them when they die but about Showing them a loving God who is active in the world now.