“See, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21:5, NRSV
“… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:21, NRSV
Creating Our Future
Ted Peters showed me a great deal about how to put together science and faith. In the process, this leading voice in theology and science also taught me that creation isn’t only in the past—it’s actually ongoing. As he puts it: “To be is to have a future. Here is the implication for the Christian doctrine of creation: the way God gives being to creatures is to give them a future. Each moment, God gives the cosmos the next moment. God is moment by moment giving to all of reality its future. Without this future-giving on the part of God, all of reality would freeze up and cease. God ‘gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Rm. 4:17b).’”
I find this truth potent for spiritual life because it means that God calls us into this unfolding act of creation. It’s what I like to call an improvisational spirituality. (And yes, I’m alluding to jazz here—more on that in a bit).
According to Peters, “God creates from the future.” He then adds: “The first thing God did for the cosmos was to give it a future. By calling us from nothing into something, God bestowed a future that set reality on the course of historical becoming. By the term creation, we designate God’s gracious gift of futurity. And moment by moment with unceasing faithfulness, God continues to bestow a future. Right now, God is bestowing on you and me our future.”
There’s a key shift in physics that happened in the first three decades of the twentieth century—and, of course, continues through today. Quantum physics exploded the concept of a fully deterministic universe. In fact, it suggests that our world is open-ended. We don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens, even until we participate in it.
It’s worth noting a brief contrast with Isaac Newton. When Newton wrote The Principia in 1687, the implication was that, if we know enough of the causes, we will know what the effect will be. That defined deterministic science. With the quantum revolution—led by Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others—the natural world is not deterministic. In fact, it’s probabilistic… and thus improvisational.
- I interviewed Ted for our blog about a year ago.
- My quotations of Ted above come from his paper “Can we locate our origin in the future?”.
- I wrote about quantum theory and its implications for Christian theology in this book (admittedly, with a somewhat grandiose title!), God and the World.
- We have a robust set of church ministry resources on quantum physics.
- In this video, my friend (and pastor) Mark Barger-Elliott and I discussed why the combination of quantum physics and improvisation is connected intimately with hope.
Jazz Improvisation and Hope
In my brain, what I’ve discussed above connects quantum theory with my experience as a jazz musician. The connection is improvisation, and improv is based on the hope that what’s to come is exciting.
I’ve played jazz since I was in my teens (which predates my life as a Christian), and I’ve learned that jazz musicians rely on their intuition and experience to guide them in the moment, allowing them to create something new and unique. The process of exploration and experimentation embraces what is not yet, finding hope in the possibility of discovery.
In a jazz idiom, it should be noted that improvisation is not “playing whatever you feel like playing” (a common misconception). It is directed, and even constrained, by the chord structure, “the changes.” Improvisation also depends on a trust in the other musicians—that they will do their work with integrity and excellence. Put another way, master musicians are the freest to improvise.
Newtonian physics was beautiful classical music. No improvisation. Quantum theory is much closer to jazz. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Along these lines, I learned from quantum physicist and theologian Robert John Russell that, at every moment, there’s chaos at the subatomic level. In his understanding, it’s God who continually brings order out of that deep quantum chaos. Russell writes that “from this perspective we really do not know what the world would be like without God’s action.” And I’d add this: our God is always acting by luring our world toward the good (Rom. 8:28).
Skilled jazz players don’t change their essential character when they’re improvising. And I can see this improvisation in the work of God as Creator, who is not changing in that sense of violating God’s character but in the sense of unfolding and giving more of the creative divine self to this world. Even more, we can lean on God the Improviser out of trust. This, of course, requires boldness. It also aligns with the perspective of jazz greats like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter—and coheres with my own experience in playing jazz for over four decades. As Shorter put it, “Jazz, to me, only means ‘I dare you.’”
And I’ll add—this dares us to hope.
Let Louis Have the Last Word
The common themes here are improvisation and hope. Jazz embodies the creative possibilities that come with improvisation and exploration. Quantum theory suggests that the universe is open to change and transformation. And faith, which bonds us with the Holy Spirit, offers a framework for continually finding hope, meaning, purpose, and beauty at the very depth of life. Within God’s creating, there are always possibilities for growth, change, and renewal.
As Louis Armstrong sang so well, “What a wonderful world!”