Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect?

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Beauty and Trinitarian Theology
The Scriptures9 tell us that it is the Lord God who is the source of all beauty and who is beauty himself. Passages found in places such as Psalms 48 and 50, Lamentations 2, and Ezekiel 16 describe Jerusalem or Zion, the place where God chose to dwell among his people, as “perfect in beauty.” Other passages found in I Chronicles 16, 2 Chronicles 20, and Psalms 29 and 96 exhort God’s people to worship him in “the beauty of holiness.”10 Still other portions of Scripture prophesy the coming of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ and describe this coming savior as beautiful; for example: Isaiah 4:2 and 33:17, Psalm 110, and Hosea 14:6. Some passages speak of God’s beauty directly, like Job 40:10 and Psalm 96:6; perhaps none more directly than Psalm 27:4 which declares, “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” According to biblical wisdom there is nothing better, nothing more worthy, nothing more beautiful in existence than God himself.

Even from this limited look at the biblical witness, it would appear that C.S. Lewis does not make an unwarranted claim regarding the source of beauty in his book The Four Loves. When he writes of Friendship as the “instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others,” Lewis goes on to say, “They are, like all beauties, derived from Him…”11 If all beauty derives from God, then God, as he has revealed himself to us, as one God who exists in the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is himself the highest form of beauty there is. If that is the case, then it might follow that a Christian, someone whose life is “now hidden with Christ in God,”12 who participates in the life of the Trinity, would be most likely to recognize beauty wherever it might be found.

In Romans 12:2, the Apostle Paul exhorts us with these words, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Paul does the same in Ephesians 4:23 where he writes to the church that we are “to be made new in the attitude of (our) minds.” In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul again describes the impact of Christian faith upon one’s mind, “…we take every thought captive to Christ” (10:5). Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains one of his most powerful expositions of the nature and work of God in Jesus Christ when he tells the people, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8).

It is fairly evident that the Apostle Paul, who was an exceptional student of the Old Testament and wrote a majority of the New, understands and expects people’s faith in Jesus Christ to alter their perception of the world. Paul ends his instruction to the Philippian church saying, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8). Not only will Christians be people whose patterns of thinking are transformed by their relationship with Jesus Christ, but they will be people who cultivate this new life of the mind by thinking about what is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy.” In other words, a mind renewed and transformed by the Spirit of God, given to us through Jesus Christ at the pleasure of our Heavenly Father is a mind that is at home in the realm of the true and the beautiful.

Would it not be reasonable to expect that this transformation of one’s mind might have implications when we consider an area of human endeavor, like physics, which appears to depend so much on beauty as a motivating force or confirming feature in discovering truth? Could it be that physicists whose thoughts are captive to Christ, or at the very least influenced in some way by a Trinitarian concept of God, would be among those physicists most likely to make significant discoveries, especially where unified theories are concerned?

Beauty a Common Dialect?
Thomas F. Torrance in his book, Theological and Natural Science, leads his readers back to antiquity to find a groundbreaking physicist whose discoveries were explicitly related to his Christian mindset. He writes, “Never in all the history of science has Christian theology had such a transforming impact on science as through John Philoponos of Alexandria in the sixth century.”13 According to Torrance the work of Philoponos hinged upon his distinction between created and uncreated light, specifically in relation to the “incarnation of the Creator Word of God in Jesus Christ.”14 This line of thought led Philoponos to:

…put forward a theory of light and theory of impetus, which…produced a dynamic understanding not only of sciences such as optics, physics, and meteorology, but of the unitary universe of heaven and earth. In the course of this transformation of classical science he advanced relational conceptions of time and space…15

Though rejected by his Aristotelian contemporaries, Torrance labels Philoponos’s work “an astonishing anticipation” of the work of James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein over one thousand years later.16 The insights Philoponos gained into the workings of the physical universe were directly related to his Christian beliefs, especially those concerning the relationship between at least two persons of the Trinity, the Creator and the Word: the Father, and the Son.

Along the same lines of thought, Fischer writes of Johannes Kepler, one of the founding fathers of astronomy in the seventeenth century:

He believed that no other vision of the world gave witness more clearly to the Christian trinity than the Copernican proposal that the sun was in the center… In the heliocentric system, Kepler saw the incredible “image of the triune God,” and as someone who viewed all scientific study as a service to God—as worship—this was what he had been seeking all along.17

Fischer states later in his book that:

Traditional physics is Trinitarian with its three basic dimensions: the space-time continuum so clearly indicated by Einstein, indestructible energy expressed in the nineteenth century, and causality that determines all activity in space—time and energetic environment.18

Although he advocates for a new approach to physics today, it is clear that Fischer acknowledges the influence of Christian Trinitarian theology on not only those who have made significant discoveries in the realm of the physical sciences, but also upon the foundations of the discipline itself.

Colin E. Gunton, Professor of Christian Doctrine at King’s College, London, contributes to a book of collected conference papers entitled, Trinitarian Theology Today, a piece entitled, “Relation and Relativity: The Trinity and the Created World.” In this piece he says, “The claim to be argued is that some Trinitarian concepts appear to bear a certain likeness to some of the concepts that have been either appropriated or developed by modern scientists.”19 As one example, Gunton cites Michael Faraday. Faraday was a British Scientist and inventor in the nineteenth century who is best known for his work with electricity—electromagnetism and electrochemistry in particular.

Gunton says that he begins his examples with Faraday because:

He speaks of the solar system rather as the classical Trinitarian theologians did of the Trinity. What we have in Faraday is a kind of doctrine of the perichoresis, the interpenetration, of matter. As the three persons of the Trinity interpenetrate the being of the others, so it is with the matter of which the world is made.20

Gunton claims that he is “…not suggesting that the doctrine of the Trinity is in any way necessarily responsible for the way that Faraday came to think—at least not directly…”21 Yet he does remark in a footnote on the same page that his further reading, namely a book on Faraday by Geoffrey Cantor, “suggests that Faraday’s conception of the notion of unity in diversity reveals ‘a clear echo of the Christian tri-unity.’”21 There may be no direct influence of his Trinitarian theology on his science, but some kind of influence is evident.