Better Living Through Bad Physics?

Yesterday, as I read Beatrice Marovich’s interview with theologian Catherine Keller, so many thoughts rushed around in my mind that I found myself having difficulty making simple distinctions. But after a third reading things began to settle a bit.

The title of the article made my head hurt a little. I wince whenever I encounter phrases like “quantum theology.” There is, after all, a thing called “quantum mysticism,” and it’s not pretty. It began as a respectable philosophical debate among the great physicists of the early 20th century — see Lisa Zyga’s nice article on this — but has since devolved into an industry that somehow brings the New-Age self-help pop-psychology complex together with Eastern philosophy and quantum mechanics. The result is a dreadful morass of half-ideas, feel-good jargon, and bad science. As Dennis Overbye wrote, “Do we have to indulge in bad physics to feel good?”

Apparently some people do. But Catherine Keller is not one of them. As a seminary student I read a substantial amount of her work. She is a challenging and dynamic thinker, one who is capable of reflecting theologically on science without over-interpreting it or being plain silly.

How can she be so open, when many theologians are either indifferent to, or cowed by, or overawed by science? It may have something to do with the apophatic flavor of her thought. Keller, like Nicholas of Cusa whom she cites, takes God’s otherness seriously.

Apophatic (or “negative”) theology is, depending on your point of view, exactly what this world needs, near-heretical foolishness of the worst kind, merely another species of atheism, plain old mystical hoo-hah, or a nice comfy retreat for those who can’t accept the obvious fact that God just doesn’t exist.

But this ancient brand of God-talk should be quite natural for those who take the idea of God seriously. It tries only to take seriously this question: What are the implications of what Keller calls, in one book, “the divine infinity”?

One implication is that, whatever one may think God is, God is not that. I am reminded of a discussion in one of C.S. Lewis’ books. He talks about seeing a table. Look at it; it’s just a table, right? Well, not really. Because once you start getting into the details of what it means to “look at a table,” you wind up face-to-face with mysteries and complications you could never have imagined. Among other things, you get involved with quantum mechanics, and as Richard Feynman famously remarked in a 1964 Cornell lecture, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Apophatic theology tells us that God is not much different from a table. You think you understand, but you don’t. And as Keller says, when one comes face-to-face with this fact, a kind of gate opens up. And in the space behind that gate is plenty of room for science.