“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)