Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Miss You, Margaret

For me, reading theology -- or any "deep" topic in general -- is often quite frustrating. I am a visual learner, in the sense that when I read words my mind "films" them. Sometimes I film the words very concretely, like when reading the Bible my mind actually tries to picture the events. What does manna actually look like when it fell from Heaven? What did the Apostle Paul actually see in Corinth that so-enraged him? (Did he see back-alley orgies? Did he see human sacrifice?) Just what did Jesus see when He found those moneychangers in the Temple, and for that matter what did the average worshipper see when this upstart young Jew went ape-shit crazy and beat the crap out of some moneychangers while throwing their tables around? (I'm particularly enamored of the image of my Personal Lord & Savior kicking the crap out of some capitalists, but I digress...)

Where my visual mind gets confounded is when I read abstract text. For me, then, reading theology can be very frustrating. As much as I seek that wordless presence of the Divine, I find it frustrating when it tells me to be still and simply know that it is God. What does God look like? How does God's voice actually sound to human ears? Or does God have no hands, no feet, no face, beyond that which was incarnated in Jesus and which is now resident in all humans since the Day of Pentecost?

I am also fascinated with one of the most curious conclusions the empirical world has given us regarding physics, and how it might apply to my interactions with the Divine Presence. Quantum entanglement. Put simply, quantum entanglement is when particles become linked and remain linked regardless of how many miles apart they travel. When one particle changes, the other particle responds -- despite no measurable evidence of a link -- and the transmission of the information from one particle to the other occurs INSTANTANEOUSLY. This, of course, violates Einstein's fundamental conclusion that the speed of light is an "absolute limit" which cannot be exceeded. Einstein himself, when confronted with the concept of entanglement, called it "spooky action at a distance."

And this is where quantum mechanics and theology become one. For me, quantum entanglement provides evidence of "intelligent design" in the Universe. Before you roll your eyes and think OMG Philip has just lost his mind, keep reading: I most emphatically do not use the term to connote anything like Creationism. For me, "intelligent design" means precisely that -- that God designed the Universe. For me, the idea that God designed the Universe (Multiverse, actually) does not in any way conflict with the scientific empirical method nor any of its conclusions. It's just that for me, things that appear mysterious in physics are only mysterious because we are not God and therefore we cannot know everything all at once.

So you might remember that this post started like it was going to be about reading, particularly "deep" texts, right? Let's return to that now.

For me the reading of words about God is exactly that -- words about God. I can never fully know God until/unless I become God. Therefore, even the most moving words about God are, at best, a crude approximation of the infinite majesty of God. I can certainly "move closer to God" by reading about God, contemplating the words I read, and experiencing the truth of those words in the so-called "real" world. But there is nontheless a limit to what I can do in my head. Sure we use less than 10% of the brain's capabilities -- on a good day -- but even if we used all 100% we would still be "less than infinite" in existence. For me, then, as a person who believes that God is the effect-without-a-cause, the alpha-omega, and a truly infinite being in a way I cannot even conceive, the very suggesting of "knowing God fully" is preposterous. Given that assumption, then, what am I left with?

I am left with embodied experience. For me, it is much more powerful to experience God. And now we step into the concept of panentheism (as distinguished from pantheism). I do experience the presence of God when I listen to the purring of my cats as they sleep on my stomach at night. I feel God in the jaw-dropping beauty I see when I drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. And I felt God's presence in my church community when we sang for two hours in the hospital at the bedside of our beloved parishioner Margaret who died this week (Wednesday, 24 July 2014 at 0815).

And yet, there is still a limitation: because my corporeal senses are finite, and the beings and objects with which I directly interact (cats, Pacific Coast Highway, and my church community from the examples above), I still am experiencing just an "approximation" of God. The magnificent works of God are not in themselves God; they are merely the immanent effects of a transcendent entity that has chosen to enter my physical reality. I will always remain fundamentally unsatisfied by such majesty when I think of what it is in comparison with God's true nature. Perhaps Tillich said it best when he wrote of the Ultimate Concern. Or maybe it was Yoda in The Empire Strikes back.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

I believe that. I must believe it. It must be true in order for me to make sense of the losses I have experienced in the past 7 months. I am mourning the loss of school -- there is definitely a profound loss since graduation. But the loss of which I speak in this post is due to the deaths of several people in my two church communities.

This week I am lamenting the passing from this life of my dear parishioner Margaret at Grace North. She was a mother of our congregation, demure and yet so amazingly fierce. She was a good friend. She was a fellow philologist. She loved us all so subtly and yet so palpably. I do not fear for her -- she is no longer in pain, no longer suffering. She is dancing with the angels in Heaven. She is having an eternal afternoon tea with Princess Diana. She is loving us from Heaven along with Mother Teresa. She is now part of that chorus of maternal figures that includes BobbieJean Baker. She has been promoted to the status recently given to Alexis Dolleman. She watches over us now, with my dear Grandmother Lillian Tanner. And my faith tells me that we will -- all of us -- meet again.

But it still hurts, and makes me so very sad.

And it makes me wonder: if two particles are entangled, and one particle pops out of the Universe, what becomes of the other particle? How does it continue to exist? Does it feel the loss of the other particle like how I feel the loss of Margaret so acutely? Or is there another layer of quantum reality that I cannot (yet) perceive, where the Margaret-particle did not cease to exist in this Universe but merely transitioned into a new state? If this is true then what impact does the change in that particle have on all the other particles with which it is entangled? It follows logically that there has been some sort of change in all the remaining particles. What is the nature of that change? Is it on a level I cannot (yet) perceive? Does the use of quantum mechanics as a unifying theological construct break down at this point? And will I ever know the answers to these questions?

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying "the tabernacle of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God's people and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
- Revelation 21:1-4 (NRSVA)

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