Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect?

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Fischer comments on Faraday’s painstaking years of work, “The length and intensity of Faraday’s search can best be understood as an expression of his longing for beauty…”23 Faraday was in fact, a devout Christian. He belonged to a congregation of the Sandemanian sect, a group that had broken away from the Scottish Presbyterian church over some finer points in the Westminster Confession. He attended services regularly and served two terms as an elder in his church. One obvious explanation for the correspondence of Faraday’s work with a Christian doctrine of the Trinity and for his keen pursuit of beauty is that the formation of his mind in the Trinitarian faith had some impact on his ability to discern so much that is true about the physical world.

The dynamic and relational theories of light put forward by John Philopnos in the sixth century and the work on electricity done by Michael Faraday in the nineteenth both paved the way for the work of James Clerk Maxwell in the late nineteenth century. In fact, Faraday’s findings became one of the four Maxwell equations depicting the laws of the continuous dynamic field of particles of light.

Maxwell was raised in Scotland in an evangelical Christian home. His father was Presbyterian and his mother was Episcopal. As an adult he became an elder in the Corsock Parish Church his father had built.24 Torrance writes:

It is ultimately to him that we owe the radical change in our understanding of physical reality and of the rational structure of physics…. In bringing his distinctive form of light theory and impetus theory together, to which he gave expression in his epoch-making work A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, he formulated his famous differential equations, and in his great work A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, he laid the foundations upon which our empirico-theoretical science rests, and supplied the platform for their further advance. That work must be reckoned with Newton’s Principia Mathematica as one of the two great works on which all modern science rests.25

Maxwell’s insight, which led him to unify the theories of electricity and magnetism, launched human understanding beyond the mechanistic world of Newtonian physics into the new universe of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. What is interesting is that Torrance attributes this insight directly to Maxwell’s understanding of Trinitarian theology:

Of special interest for him was, I believe, the teaching by Robert Boyd of Trochrig on the Holy Trinity, in his great work Praelectiones in Ephesios…he showed that on a human level the relations between persons belong substantially not accidentally to what they really are. Relation there is the most important thing to know. That is the kind of ontological and dynamical relation which Clerk Maxwell was to call to his aid when again and again he failed to offer a satisfactory explanation of the behavior of the moving lines of force in the electromagnetic field in terms of Newtonian physics and mechanics.… Thus when Clerk Maxwell put forward an explanation of the behavior of electromagnetic particles which are what they are in onto-dynamical relation to one another, in particular of the way in which the particles of light moving at the speed of light relate ontologically to one another, he came up with the concept of the continuous dynamic field, and developed equations which are laws representing the structure of the field. The formulation of those equations Einstein held to be the most important event in physics since Newton’s time.… It was not that Clerk Maxwell imported theological conceptions as such into his science, but that it was the slant of his deeply Christian mind informed by faith that exercised a guiding role in the choice and formation of his leading scientific concepts.26

Being steeped in Trinitarian Christian theology appears to have made Maxwell particularly adept at the kind of thinking required to discover the necessary components of quantum mechanics. It is probably not surprising to see Maxwell’s equations cited as a prime example of the beautiful either; Fischer prints them out in their entirety in his chapter entitled, “Aesthetic Science: Beautiful Ideas and Elegant Experiments.”27

It was the Maxwell equations and his work on solving them that led German Physicist Albert Einstein to the theory of General Relativity, about which Paul Dirac claimed, “What makes the theory so acceptable to physicists, in spite of its going against the principle of simplicity, is its great mathematical beauty.”28 Torrance devotes a whole chapter of his book, Theological and Natural Science, to “Einstein and God.”29 Although Einstein was Jewish, Torrance claims the influence of Christian Trinitarian thought upon him. This influence came through three primary sources: his first wife who was a Serbian Orthodox believer, his regular reading of the Old and New Testaments, and his time living on the campus of Princeton Seminary, interacting often with the Christian theology professors there, while at the Institute for Advanced Study. If Torrance is right, then we have another example of a mind formed by at least some understanding of Trinitarian theology that has made a profound discovery in the realm of Physics.

Each scientist mentioned above has either sought out beauty in his work, such as Kepler and Faraday, or has produced work known as particularly beautiful, such as Maxwell and Einstein. In each case beauty plays a part in the scientist’s major discoveries. In addition, with the possible exception of Kepler, each of these physicists was one who made milestone contributions to the discipline of physics by uniting two or more concepts that had been previously perceived to be irreconcilable or unrelated. There is also some evidence that each of them were in some way influenced by a Christian Doctrine of the Trinity, which led them to perceive the beauty of the creation they were studying in a way that others before them had not. This mindset led them to concepts of the way the world works that were relational, unifying, and which later exploration has shown to be true.

All of this fits together with the understanding that the Trinity is the highest form of beauty from which all other beauty derives. The Trinity, one God in three persons is both distinct and unified, and is in essence relational. It is probably no accident that the concepts of the world considered most beautiful, and which bear out to be true, are those which in some way reflect this unifying, relational beauty of the One from whom they are derived.

If this is so, then it might also be true that those whose minds are formed by, or at least have within their thought life some concept of, the highest beauty would be those minds most adept at perceiving the derived beauty that serves as a handmaiden to the truth. It might just be the case that those whose minds are renewed by the transforming work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be those who are most likely to make the most profound and beautiful discoveries in the physical sciences; especially where it concerns the ultimate theory of how the universe is related and what unifies it. The “holy grail” of modern physics, might actually be Holy after all. Physics and theology may not be as far apart as they seem at times. At the very least, it would appear that beauty might provide a common dialect for a conversation that would enrich and enlighten both disciplines.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.