I took a class in college called something like “Conceptual Physics,” but which we all called “Physics for Poets.” It was a physics class without any math, mostly taken by English and other humanities majors in order to fulfill a distribution requirement in the sciences. We studied things like Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Einstein’s theory of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe sketched out on the chalkboard by our professor, Dr. Sung Kyu Kim.
I don’t really fancy myself a poet, though I try my hand occasionally, but the link between the science of the observable world and the theologies that connect my experience of the world to my experience of myself remains. Physics sometimes, unexpectedly, helps me understand religious concepts. For instance, hope.
The German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, published a paper in 1927 that described the unavoidable imprecision that enters when trying to plot both the position and momentum of an object. He was thinking of unimaginably small objects, like electrons or photons I suppose, not soccer balls. His idea, which we now call Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, says that the more closely you try to pin down where a thing is, the less accurately you can say how quickly it is moving, and (I think) what direction it is moving in. Conversely, the more accurately you describe the velocity and trajectory of a thing, the less accurately you can describe just exactly where the thing itself is.
Now, remember, Heisenberg was writing about quantum physics, the laws operating at an unseen level. Fortunately for us, for most of our waking days, we do a pretty good job of determining where, how fast, and in what direction objects around us are moving. This is why we are able to play soccer. But when we begin asking questions about the inconceivably small, invisible and practically undetectable world around us, operating at the microscopic level, different rules apply.
So, and here’s another piece of physics for us to mull over, the harder you try to observe things at this level of existence, the more likely you are to actually alter what you are looking at. This is called the “observer effect,” and if you’ve ever used a tire gauge to check the pressure in your tires, you already know what I’m talking about. You know how this works, you unscrew the tiny cap to the inner tube of your tire and, as you apply the gauge to the tire, you hear the hiss of air being released. You wanted to know the pressure in your tire, but the very act of measuring the pressure has changed the pressure itself. In quantum mechanics the same thing happens. In order to observe objects at the sub-atomic level, like an electron, we have to direct photons at it, which actually changes the path of the thing we’re trying to observe. There is no neutral observer at this level of science – to watch is to participate.
Friday of last week, our Café group gathered at Heather and Ben’s home for a holiday potluck, and to introduce some of our new members to the group. Folks who’ve been coming to the Café gatherings are used to my icebreaker questions, and the one I can be counted on to ask almost every time is, “what’s new and good in your life?”
This isn’t arbitrary on my part. It’s not just another way of saying, “what’s up?” Although I’m interested in knowing what’s persistently old and difficult, I like to begin our time together by asking the group what’s new and good because I believe that choosing to focus, training yourself to observe, what is new and good in the world is a spiritual practice. Although each of us has a multitude of stories we could choose to tell about our lives, when we practice looking for the new and the good, we are choosing to find evidence that the past doesn’t define the future – that old hurts do not cut off the possibility of future healing, and that signs of that new life are already appearing.
Like any spiritual practice, choosing to look for what is new and good in the world is not easy and does not come naturally for most of us. Like the painful throbbing of a stubbed toe, old hurts cling to us and demand our attention. Persistent hurts, ongoing illnesses and the injustice of oppressive systems that surround us make it difficult to concentrate on what is emerging and new, what is healing and hopeful.
This morning we sang the text of the Magnificat as our canticle in place of a psalm. These words, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” are first sung by Mary in response to the news that she is carrying God’s own child. Burdened by pregnancy, caught in a society that would condemn her illegitimate conception, Mary has every excuse to cry out in despair over the situation in which God has placed her, yet she sings, “you have done great things for me, and holy is your name… you have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. You have come to the aid of your servant Israel, to remember the promise of mercy…”
Mary, a good Jewish girl who was raised on the stories of Israel and strengthened by the promises proclaimed by the prophets knew that her life was bound together with all of life. Mary knew the words of the prophet Isaiah, “say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… [who] will come and save you.’” Mary was on the lookout for what was new and good in the world, and because of her spiritual discipline, she was able to perceive that even her own struggles as a young, unwed mother could be used by God. She was no neutral observer. What she chose to see changed the nature of the life growing inside of her, and all of creation.
The season of Advent is much longer and much harder than we often care to admit. We say that it is the four weeks before Christmas, but in another sense, it is our whole lives. We spend our whole lives waiting for the vision of the prophet Isaiah to come true,
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…
and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”
The wilderness that we wander in feels so arid, maybe especially this season when the desire to create the perfect Christmas for our families and children is at odds with the struggles we face at work or at home. Unemployment continues at an all time high. People continue to line up for food at the pantry. Isaiah’s promises feel far off, so far off that we doubt we will ever see them in our own life.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Justice, these days, can feel hard to find. It can seem tiny in the face of personal tragedies and ongoing wars, almost microscopic. We would like to know precisely where God’s justice is,
and when it will arrive. But theological physics seems to indicate that we cannot know precisely where God’s justice is and how quickly it is moving – only that it is on the way, and that our own search for the signs of God’s justice, in fact, changes the world we are trying to observe.
So, in this week when the DREAM act, legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented children raised in the United States, failed to receive the support it needed to become law, I am choosing to celebrate passage of the Childhood Nutrition Act, that will help ensure healthier food is made available to school-aged children. And, as I lament Congress’ failure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I am celebrating the state of Illinois’ decision to extend civil unions to gay and lesbian couples. I am looking for what is new and good in the world. I am perfecting my perceptions. I am practicing hope, and I am waiting with patience for the fulfillment of God’s promises – knowing that as I look for evidence of God’s work in the world, I am drawn to join God’s work in the world.
What are you looking at this Advent season? What are you looking for? How are you training yourself to seek and to find evidence of God’s movement in the world? I know it’s hard. I know that! But I also know that there are no neutral observers. To watch is to participate. Stay awake, therefore, and watch for the coming of the Lord!