Pondering God’s Presence Inside and Outside

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“Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their course. But they pay no attention to themselves.” Augustine, Confessions, book 10

The Cosmos and the Soul

This summer I’ve been re-reading through books that have truly changed me—a “top ten” list of sorts. These are texts that have moved me, inspired me, challenged me. Two have created a stereophonic effect: Augustine’s Confessions and Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Ferris is probably the lesser known of this duo, and so I’ll start there. In beautifully compelling prose, he first charts the exploration of the natural world and particularly our expanding understanding of the cosmos through Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Halley, Kant (yes, Immanuel Kant), Hubble, and Hoyle. As the physicist Heinz Pagel’s commented, Ferris’s book “soars with the spirit of discovery into the galaxy and beyond.” And akin to Pagel’s own brilliant work, The Cosmic Code, Ferris also takes up the quantum world for the next few chapters. The range is striking: if human scale is 1, and the observable universe is 1026, then the quantum world of (“Planck’s length: Quantum of space”) represents 10-35. That’s quite an expanse—and I’m inspired by Ferris and his gripping narrative of the scientific curiosity and searching that creates these wide-ranging discoveries.

Augustine’s work is a different sort. Written in the early fifth century AD, he looks back from his mid-40s to his earlier years and how they led to his conversion to Christ. As he journeys through his wanton ways and his sojourn with the offshoot religious sect, the Manicheans, he searches for God by analyzing his soul. In retrospect, he can see God’s guiding hand. His Confessions fulfills Søren Kierkegaard’s insight, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This means that Augustine can affirm, after all his spiritual quests, the discovery that “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (It’s something I’ve pondered and connected with the cognitive science of religion and John Calvin in an essay here.)

This is an amazing journey. And though Augustine does affirm philosophy and the value of natural knowledge, in the opening quotation, he derided those that sought a knowledge of nature but not of the self. This challenge led me to wonder if we, who take in the insights of science and faith, who read the books of nature and Scripture, can have both? Can we put together our searching the cosmos and the soul?

It’s probably not a surprise that I think that’s entirely possible. But it requires a stretching of our spirits. In fact, the spiritual practice we learn through science and faith is one of contemplating ideas that seem to be polar opposites. It’s akin to what the profoundly philosophical architect of quantum theory, Niels Bohr, placed on his coat of arms, Contraria sunt complementa, that is, “Opposites are complementary.”

  • Project Guttenberg has Augustine’s entire Confessions online.
  • You can find Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way here.
  • I enjoyed this overview of Augustine’s epic text in the Soulen and Soulen podcast.
  • I wrote about bringing John Calvin into conversation with the cognitive science of religion, which could inform our congregation’s spirituality.
  • See SftC’s earlier quantum series: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Going Outside and Inside

It’s simplistic to separate knowledge about science from knowledge about our souls and thus ourselves. To be sure, Augustine, the trained rhetorician, was criticizing those who avoid thinking about their spiritual condition by looking solely at the world outside. Still, his persuasive rhetoric is limiting. At Science for the Church, we have found that the resources of the human sciences greatly benefit our understanding of who we are. We learn from the scientific insights of psychologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists (the list goes on) about who we are and what makes us tick.

Nevertheless, Augustine’s challenge pushes us to a deeper realization: Faith is self-involving. But what about science? Can it be practiced without personal engagement? Following an Enlightenment emphasis on the value of objectivity—where subjective bias was removed to find truth—scientific methods sought to push out any personal interests. For example, scientific methods are designed to depersonalize and thus remove, among many problems, confirmation bias.

But with quantum physics the standard of an absolute objectivity vanished. Suddenly, a pillar of classical physics had to be abandoned. In 1900, the physicist Max Planck (as Ferris comments) found himself forced to leave “the classical assumption that energy is emitted continuously and replaced it with the unprecedented hypothesis that energy comes in discrete units. Planck call these units quanta.” Thus, quantum theory was born.

A few decades later, Werner Heisenberg arrived at his uncertainty principle, which among other things, led scientists to conclude that the design of the experiments and the interests of the experimenters are integral to what they discover.

This ended what Ferris calls the “illusion of apartness—the assumption that man is separate from nature and that acts of observation can, therefore, be conducted with complete objectivity.” Science is, at some level, self-involving. As the polymath Michael Polanyi later (i.e., 1958) wrote, science involves “personal knowledge.” If I understand Polanyi’s intricate philosophy properly, he concluded that scientific knowledge is not purely objective or impersonal but implies the personal participation and commitment of the knower.

Where does this all lead? Though science and theology (by which I mean reflection on our Christian faith) do have commonalities, in several critical areas, they are quite different. And so, I’ll close by emphasizing their contrasts because I am convinced that bringing together theological and scientific thinking is a practice of contemplating seeming contradictions. Here Bohr is my intellectual companion: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a great truth.”

We can find God’s presence on the outside and the inside, that is, in the quests that both Ferris and Augustine lay out. We probably tend toward one direction or the other. By practicing the spiritual discipline of contemplating reality through science and faith, we develop ways to seek God in both directions. My conviction is that the God who is everywhere needs to be sought everywhere. Indeed there, outside or inside, God can be found.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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