If I Were a Christian

Author: Gary E. Bowman '95M.S., '01Ph.D.

In 1927 Bertrand Russell delivered a lecture called “Why I Am Not a Christian.” I, like Russell, am not a Christian, and so not a Catholic. But if I were to be a Christian, I would choose to be a Catholic.

What I am is a physicist. My primary interest lies in the foundations of our most fundamental physical theory: quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics forms the basis for our understanding of atoms, nuclei, elementary particles, the structure of matter, light and a vast range of associated physical phenomena, from semiconductors to the Big Bang. Yet at its heart, quantum mechanics itself remains mysterious.

This mystery centers on the meaning of the quantum state, a mathematical entity that, through a well-defined “recipe,” yields physical predictions. But what does the quantum state tell us about the world beneath the level of these predictions? What’s really going on? Some 80 years after quantum mechanics’ inception, this remains an open question, residing in that region where physics and philosophy meet. Albert Einstein recognized quantum mechanics’ practical utility, but he also firmly believed that our understanding of the quantum state was incomplete, that it does not yet inform us of the fundamental nature of the world. “The theory yields much,” he said, “but it hardly brings us closer to the Old One’s secrets.”

The meaning of the quantum state is the central issue in the foundations of quantum mechanics and as fundamental and profound a question as any in physics—perhaps in science. There is a good possibility that this question will not be convincingly answered in my lifetime. And I’m fairly confident that I will also not obtain in my lifetime an answer to the question of the ultimate nature of any spiritual reality that may exist. But, as I have aged, the open-ended nature of such questions causes me little distress.

So, why would I choose to be a Catholic? My sympathy for Catholicism sometimes surprises friends and colleagues. I don’t know why, really, but I suspect it’s largely because many people view Catholicism as tightly constrained by the Vatican, by tradition, by inflexibility, by ritual. Why would a scientist favor that brand of Christianity which has given us the inquisition, indulgences and the Galileo affair, which may have acted with complicity in the Holocaust, and which has spawned the recent sexual abuse firestorm? The answer to this question hinges largely on the parallels between Catholicism and science.

Change and Constancy

We expect the scientific enterprise to subject itself to ongoing review. But in Christianity, only stasis is generally acceptable —suggestions for change are often regarded as highly questionable, if not heretical. And this criticism—which was a significant component of Bertrand Russell’s critique—has perhaps been leveled most strongly at Catholicism.

In maturity, both institutions and individuals must sometimes confront their own imperfections and failures, and both often respond by resisting change. Because it has existed for some two millennia, because it has been the intellectual and spiritual pioneer of Western Christendom for centuries, because it has served as civil authority when no other existed, the Catholic Church has had to face many of its own imperfections and failings, and it has often stubbornly resisted change. But inner conflict can also bring introspection, tolerance and compassion, and Catholicism —even if not always the Catholic Church—remains the most introspective and catholic of Christian religions.

Moreover, Catholicism has transmuted itself over the last few hundred years. And even if it has often done so only after stubborn resistance, that alone is more than can be said for many other manifestations of Christianity. This is not too unlike science, which usually does not seek to overturn what has gone before but to resolve problems within an existing framework. The goal of science is resolution, not revolution, the latter generally being a last resort. Science tenaciously, and properly, holds on to that which works.

And surely both science and religion possess inner cores that should remain immutable. At the heart of science lies an approach to the world, a scientific vision, centered on nature and reason as the arbiters of scientific truth. This vision stands independent of any theory, experiment, or application—immune to scientific revolution. At the heart of Catholicism, I believe, lies an approach to the spiritual, a religious vision, centered on transcendence and unity, and on personal experience as the arbiter of spiritual truth. This vision stands independent of doctrine, of edict, of interpretation—immune, and properly so, to the winds of change.

Reality and Diversity

Mathematics is indispensable to the practicing physicist. But while I have great respect for mathematicians, I do not wish to become one. I seek, through physics, to understand the world_, not the mathematician’s idealistic and unrealistic creation, no matter how elegant or imaginative. Physical law, simple and pure, is best expressed mathematically, but that law becomes manifest in the world not as a clean, pure note, but as an immense cacophony.

A striking example is provided by a system of three objects interacting through their mutual gravitational attraction. Given the vast and intricate structure of the real world, we might expect this idealized system’s behavior to be simple. Yet that behavior can be immensely complex—so complex that obtaining an exact mathematical description of the system is not just difficult, but impossible_. To understand the world, the physicist must live with imperfect representations of physical reality. Physics, imagines the physicist, is a mirror onto nature, even if a distorted mirror. Mathematics, for all of its power, only caricatures nature.

There is a rough parallel here with Catholicism and fundamentalism. Catholicism is a reflection of humanity, carrying within it the hopes, the dreams and the nightmares of the human spirit—its great triumphs and its great failures. And whatever its faults, Catholicism has for two millenia carried on the hard labor of grappling with Christianity in its full intellectual depth. As its basic tenet, however, fundamentalism shirks that duty. It imposes an idealistic view of the person and a shallow and unimaginative religious literalism upon the complexity of human existence. Speaking at its heart to life as it is lived, and as it could be lived, Catholicism is a mirror onto humanity; fundamentalism is only its caricature.

In fact, fundamentalism is thoroughly _un_fundamental. Not basic and deep, but literal and superficial, fundamentalism confuses religion’s outward manifestations with its inner core. While Catholicism does include a thread of fundamentalism, so too does it include threads of good works, of serious theology, of mysticism. My sympathy for Catholicism stems largely from its tolerance of such threads, its catholicity. This tolerance has sometimes been minimized or suppressed over the course of two millennia, but still it survives.

In both religion and physics, I am drawn to the fundamental —the truly fundamental. What is the nature of spiritual reality? What is the meaning of the quantum state? Like Catholicism, however, physics exhibits a kind of catholicity, one facet of which is the peaceful co-existence of the theoretical and fundamental with the useful and applied. Einstein warned that “concern for man himself and his fate must always constitute the chief objective of all technological endeavors.” But it seems clear also that what he personally sought in physics was something different: “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts. The rest are details.”

In religion, cannot good works co-exist with transcendence? Cannot concern and compassion for one’s fellow complement the ultimate search for unity with the One? My sympathies lie more with Einstein than applications, more with transcendence than good works. But in physics, and in Catholicism, such disparate facets are allowed peaceful co-existence.

Mystery and the Limits of Knowledge

For me, the essence of the great religions is the mystery of human existence and human consciousness. For all of our reductionism, our experience of the world remains intensely personal and ultimately inexplicable. Of course, one might answer, the fact that science has not yet explained the experience of consciousness, emotion or creativity means only that we have more to accomplish. Have not the last four centuries demonstrated convincingly that today’s mysteries become tomorrow’s science?

In fact, it is quite wrong to assume that fundamental science may be extrapolated without end. Mathematicians and physicists routinely deal with limits: extrapolations that come arbitrarily close to some limiting value. Yet if that limiting value is reached, a breakdown can occur. From Einstein’s special relativity theory, for example, we know that particles with mass, such as electrons, must move at speeds less than that of light, while particles without mass must move at the speed of light. So an electron cannot attain light speed, no matter how much energy we pump into it. It can come arbitrarily close to that speed, but no matter—because the physics of massive and massless particles are fundamentally different, the electron, in a sense, remains as far away from light speed as ever.

The physicist knows, then, that actually reaching some limiting value may entail a profound change; an extrapolation may fail utterly. Consider the universe itself: With considerable confidence, we can use our present physics to extrapolate back in time, “very close” to the origin of the universe. But the actual limit, the beginning of time, remains unreachable. This is not to argue for the existence of God—whatever that word means—as ultimate creator, but rather to illustrate that the physicist ultimately confronts a mystery.

And so we may never succeed in explaining the humanness of our human experience. It may be a limit that we can come arbitrarily close to but, in a sense, remain as far away from as ever. It is, for me, this mystery that religion should ultimately seek to address.

Seen only as a means to the practical ends of health, wealth and comfort, science becomes rarefied engineering. Seen only as good works, as morality, as reward or punishment in this life and the next, religion becomes a carrot-and-stick connection to God.

Yet always there have been those who sought in religion, and sometimes found, a deep core that transcends self and time— where morality is not an end in itself but a means to that core. This core is immune to scientific and intellectual attack; it is neither history lesson nor moral code nor explanation of the world. It is accessible not through reason and logic but through personal experience of the ineffable, the unnameable, the mysterious —through the mystical experience.

The mystical core has found expression in all major religions. The medieval Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart declared that “man’s last and highest leave-taking is leaving God for God.” And his message of mystery is echoed in Hinduism’s Kena Upanishad: “Brahman is not the being who is worshiped of men . . . the wise know him to be beyond knowledge.”

“Either God is a Mystery,” wrote W.T. Stace, “or He is nothing at all.” As moral authority, religion is subject to moral failure; as explanation of the world, it is subject to scientific condemnation. What refuge, then, can religion offer the modern critical mind? Without a thread of mystery running through religion, without God as mystery at its heart, that mind may well conclude that religion itself is bankrupt, that God is nothing at all.

Why I Would Be a Catholic

The inner core of religious mystery is the reason both why I am not a Christian and why I would, if a Christian, be a Catholic. So much of Christianity has focused on morality, canon, even politics —on providing concrete answers to concrete questions. Yet, though often relegated, perhaps almost denigrated, by the vast institution that is Catholicism, the thread of mystery has endured, for even that vast institution cannot overcome its own tradition. Many Christians never find in Christianity an expression of transcendent mystery. But is not the Christian mystic—one who seeks union with the mystery through direct experience—most likely to be Catholic?

Many scientists never probe the profound implications, and limitations, of science. But are not those that do—those who find philosophy, not technology, at the inner core of science—most likely to be physicists? Of all the sciences, it is physics that asks those questions which are the most fundamental, and perhaps unanswerable.

In physics and, I believe, in religion, humility means recognizing the limits of our knowledge and accepting those limits. To be human is to be unknowing, but it is itself a kind of knowledge to accept that unknowing. “There remains an undefined, unlimited, indeterminate consciousness . . . a vague comprehension of the Absolute,” wrote Antonio Aliotta. “This is the only way in which we can grasp that inscrutable power. We must not seek farther . . . It can only be our duty to subject ourselves to the limits of our thought and to recognize a mystery which really exists.” It is a mystery that resides in that place where the deepest science ends and the deepest religion begins.

Gary Bowman is an assistant professor of physics at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.