Einstein once wrote: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand in rapt awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly, this is religiousness.”
Though Christians might quibble with his conception of faith, Einstein, as usual, was onto something. A sense of mystery is elemental to the Christian position, driving our efforts to negotiate the world around us through our work, our study, and our worship. The interplay between mystery and revelation, each of which seems to breed the other, is writ large throughout scripture, providing frequent reminders that even the wisest among us must hold the two in tension. With each new bit of understanding, the mystery deepens, beckoning us to continue our search for its source. In Solomon’s temple dedication, we hear these very echoes:
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built! Yet regard the prayer of Your servant and his supplication…that Your eyes may be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that You may hear the prayer which Your servant makes toward this place” (I Kings 8:27-29).
The temple was a massive feat of engineering, the work of thousands upon thousands of hands in forests and quarries from Lebanon to Israel, cutting and shaping timber, stone, and metal into a coherent, precise design that was intended at every point to speak to the nature of the Creator. Yet, after seven years of obedience and revelation, Solomon remained baffled at the notion that the God of the universe would live amid these earthly materials and inhabit the work of man.
One might assume that a limited and imperfect creature would not be qualified for the construction of God’s temple. But God clearly thought humans both worthy and capable of it. So what does it take to build a temple to house the glory of God? What does that say about the abilities God has imbued in each of us? What does it say about his faith in our capacity to discern the proper moral and physical structures of his world, or to create and invent in harmony with his intentions? The passages describing the temple’s construction are minutely detailed and represented the cutting edge of technology at the time. The construction of a physical temple to house God’s moral authority actually required a giant leap forward in the technological capabilities of the ancient Israelites.
What difference, then, is there between Einstein’s approach to the mysterious and Solomon’s? Perhaps precious little. The scientific knowledge we have gained and the technological advances we have made over the ages reflect our progressively deeper understanding of the universe and our place in it. Through this line of inquiry and its attendant breakthroughs, our notions of beauty expand and our sense of awe stirs anew. Undoubtedly Einstein would be able to tell us far more about the mechanics behind the mystery, but perhaps Solomon could reveal its more poetic nature. To fashion something worthy of the Creator, we need bright minds and brilliant materials. Like Solomon, we need cedar and builders from Lebanon; like Einstein, we need technical knowledge and calculating power. But in the end, we also need those who can see the meaning behind the beauty, who can not only find order amid the complexity but also begin to illuminate the very source of that order.
If our imperative to understand and explore the natural world feeds our technological inclination, which in turn is to be used for God’s glorification, then we are obligated to pursue fully our creativity and inventiveness in this regard. Who could possibly be worthy of building a temple to house the glory of the Lord? In one sense, none of us; but in another, maybe all of us.
Toward a More Complete Picture
Physics is the study of the foundational and emergent structures, patterns, and phenomena in the universe. Unlike the other sciences, the phenomena studied in physics span a far greater range in size, energy, location, and time. As a result, the “laws” that govern physical phenomena are truly universal. Emergent ideas—such as scaling laws, which identify remarkable similarities in behavior across sub-atomic and extra-galactic dimensions, and chaos, which limits our ability to predict the precise behavior of collections of objects even in classical systems—point to a richness in the inner workings of our universe and a depth of cohesion that can only be glimpsed when we step back and ponder all that we have learned about this place. Foundational ideas—such as the existence of four basic forces that govern all interactions of matter and the constancy of the speed of electromagnetic radiation in a vacuum (the speed of light)—demonstrate to us that we have been given the ability to investigate and understand these rich inner workings. Furthermore, through our technologies, we can and do extend our explorations of these inner workings to scales far beyond our own biological limits. One must ask why and to what end we have been given this ability.
Certainly there is much that can be learned about God through the deep and careful study of his creation. This is one of the reasons for a lively and well-supported physics program: because we have been given two books from which to learn of God and his relationship to us—the Bible and the book of nature. Obviously the type of understanding we can get from special and general revelation differs, but nevertheless these two books are themselves inextricably linked, and the fullest understanding of God comes through an inclusive and expansive study of both.
Today’s sincere Christian rightly leans on the Bible as an authoritative source of information and understanding. He typically relies far less on his understanding of God’s universe, perhaps in large part because it remains too mysterious to him. If the mystery overwhelms, he risks becoming that snuffed-out candle of which Einstein spoke. At times, and maybe far too often, modern Christians have even attempted to pit scripture against science in a false competition; this is symptomatic of a dangerous way of thinking, since even the Bible itself makes clear that we have much to learn from the universe in which we have been placed and over which we have been given dominion. How can we glorify God as we exercise the authority he gave us over creation if, in fact, we do not understand creation? Ignoring our ability to think about, explore and experience this universe tilts the well-meaning Christian dangerously toward “bibliolatry.” This lack of balance and integration of both God’s word and his creation is perhaps the real reason we have such loud arguments and controversies over “science vs. faith” topics.
The Moral and the Physical
But is there more to this? Why did God give us this ability to understand the inner workings of his creation, and then compel us to use our understanding to imagine, invent, and create? Beyond the longing for his perfect beauty and function, beyond our ability to glorify Him as his stewards of creation, there is an indissoluble link between the moral and the physical. This point can become muddled when we do not pair our study of scripture with a study of the physical world.
God intended for nature and life to function in a certain way, and we can discern those intentions. Ancient life actually revolved around uncovering and recording these sacred patterns (See Ronald Simkins, Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel and
Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East). Notice in the flood story where God says to Noah: “As long as the earth remains, there will be planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night” (Genesis 8:22). Just as God imprinted patterns onto human nature, he also imprinted patterns onto the universe. These patterns are a language unto themselves from which we can learn and, over time, become wise. With care, our own creations—our technologies—can resonate with God’s imprinted patterns.
The ancients knew this to be the case; their view was that the natural universe functions according to discernible patterns and that nature always has an intended order. For the ancients, the future was predictable based on a recollection of how events had unfolded previously. So for example, if birds migrated by a certain day in the fall, then it meant that winter would be long and harsh because the last time such a migration pattern occurred, winter was in fact long and harsh. If a diviner dissected a goat and found that the lobes of its liver were arranged just so, then other natural phenomena such as weather or harvest could be expected to follow suit accordingly. Today we might view such thinking as quaint or even ignorant, but the ancients understood that God intended for nature and life to be a certain way, and that putting oneself in close enough harmony with God’s purposes allows for one to discern His intentions and His intended order. In fact, there was no separation between the sacred and the secular because there was no concept of a secular understanding – everything was intrinsically sacred. That understanding formed the basis for their system of “superstitious” beliefs, and while the specific predictions and causal relationships we find to be true today may not look anything like those from a more primitive time, we ignore that foundational tenet at our own peril.
It is for this reason that wisdom about the natural world undergirds our ability to discern God’s intended moral order. In 1 Kings 4, Solomon is called the wisest man on earth. As described, that wisdom is about the natural world—about cedar trees and hyssop, about animals, birds, creeping things, and fish—because creation echoes God’s intentions. For Solomon, wisdom about the natural world was a reflection of his superior understanding of this moral order. That in turn lent a moral authority to his rule. His royal gardens and bestiary were a recreation in miniature of God’s dominion over the universe. There was an understanding that such rule and keep would not be possible without the proper moral authority and discernment, in effect that God ordained his rule. For this reason, “men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (I Kings 4:34).
When Solomon built God’s temple and the accompanying palace, it was the ultimate intersection of the moral and the physical. The architecture and furnishings reflected God’s intended order, and the temple itself served as the physical house for the source of moral authority in the universe. The palace built over the same period and in proximity to the temple makes clear the conjoining of this moral and physical authority. This connection highlighted the Israelites’ desire to more deeply understand God’s universe and their place in it, bringing them to a closer resonance with his intentions.
The story of the temple’s construction continues to have the same effect for us today, even as we use our talents and resources to build the things to which God has called us in our own time. And this has been true since the beginning: the physical form of any created object reflects its creator’s understanding of God’s intended moral nature. After all, God created and declared it good. How we interact with the physical world becomes a reflection of our own knowledge of this fusion between the moral and the physical. The more deeply we probe this coupling, the better our technologies will integrate with God’s moral universe. I believe this is unavoidable and in stark contrast to the popular thought that technology runs rampant with an amoral disposition. There always will be those who consider carefully the linkage between the moral and the physical when creating new technologies.
Addendum: In recent years, several schools (including my own) have used any number of different metrics to assess the viability and future value of their physical science programs. This blog post is not at attempt to undermine such processes, but rather an apologia for physics within the Christian liberal arts canon. The full essay was published in our school newspaper and can be found here: https://gordontartan.substack.com/p/an-apology-for-physics-in-the-christian