Quantum Physics and the Nature of Eternity - Faith & Science Series Part 4

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Nicholas Knisely : Isaac Newton, following Galileo's lead, described time as a river, with a steady current that flows from the future, to the present and on into the past. Newton's laws of motion, which undergird all of classical physics, are dependent on this assumption. And our own daily experience of time, with our watches and atomic clocks and GPS devices, seems to fit neatly into this metaphor. But it's wrong.

_ Peter Wallace: _ That's Bishop Nicholas Knisely...and today he joins us for our special series on "Faith & Science in the 21st Century." I'm Peter Wallace...this is Day 1.

Sherrie Miller: Welcome to Day1, the weekly program that brings you outstanding preachers from America's mainline Protestant churches, sharing insight and inspiration from God's Word for your life.

Today we continue our challenging series of special programs and to introduce this week's preacher, here's our host, Peter Wallace.

Peter Wallace: Thank you, Sherrie. Today we continue our special series of Day1 programs: "Faith & Science in the 21st Century, which is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Through this series we're exploring some of the major issues of science today with a goal to facilitate meaningful conversation around these issues among people of faith. This week we're delighted to have with us the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Knisely, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, based in Providence. Nick was elected in June 2012 and was ordained bishop in November 2012. Previously he served as a priest in Delaware, Western and Eastern Pennsylvania, and as dean of the cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona. He earned undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy at Franklin and Marshall College, did graduate studies at the University of Delaware in cosmology and solid state physics, then left the world of physics and studied at Yale and Berkeley Divinity schools where he earned his theological degrees. Nicholas, welcome, thanks for being part of this series.

Nicholas Knisely: Thanks.

Peter Wallace: You've served as bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island for about three years now. Give us your summary of the people, the parishes, and the ministry of your diocese?

Nicholas Knisely: They are a dear group of people who are learning how to be Christian in a new way in a community that isn't what you think it is from a distance. Rhode Island leads the country in heroin use; it has the highest rate of marijuana use. It has a significantly high unemployment rate. The economy has been sputtering along; and in a place where there isn't a lot of hope, the Christians of the Episcopal diocese of Rhode Island are striving to be beacons of hope to that larger community.

Peter Wallace: Your background is somewhat unusual--you did your undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy, then graduate studies in cosmology and solid state physics--but then you left the world of physics and went to seminary. So how did you experience your calling to the ministry? What happened?

Nicholas Knisely: The odd thing is it was actually a sense of calling that I had in high school; and in my very first grown-up experience in a church, I witnessed a pretty significant split among the leaders in a church fight. And I didn't have a way to understand church fights and be Christian, and so I frankly hid from church. I hid from God, and that's why I went into scientific studies. It was as I was finishing up my doctoral studies that I recognized that I recognized that I was in the wrong vocation. I had classmates who adored what they were doing in the lab--who just couldn't wait to get back into the library and open up another science textbook. Well, I wasn't that way at all. I was forcing myself to go into the lab; I was forcing myself to open textbooks. What I was doing was curling up with books of philosophy or books of theology, and I began to think, "Maybe I'm in the wrong field." And simultaneously I ended up going back to church. I started getting involved in outreach ministries--feeding the poor, working with homeless people--and I really re-discovered my vocation.

Peter Wallace: And you continue your interest in both fields. You're part of a group of ordained scientists. Tell us about that.

Nicholas Knisely: So the Society of Ordained Scientists is a religious order, a dispersed religious order, about a 150 of us worldwide. Most of us are Anglican, but there are Roman Catholic. There are Presbyterians, Methodists, people of different denominations, all of whom have to have had professional training in science and be functioning as ordained people and trained theologians. And part of our life's work in the order is to interpret science to people of faith and faith to people of science and to be supportive of one another as we live out that vocation.

Peter Wallace: You've written a lovely and thought-provoking Lenten devotional called "Lent Is Not Rocket Science, An Exploration of God, Creation, and the Cosmos." And in another book of yours, Entangled States, you say one of the fundamental insights of quantum physics is that our reality isn't limited to our physical boundary but extends throughout time and space--which means we are all interrelated, completely entangled in each other's lives, a harmonious connectedness, you put it. How does this help us understand not only ourselves but God?

Nicholas Knisely: I think we're moving in the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century from an understanding of human being as individual only to an understanding of human being as part of community. And in a sense, community becomes the dominant metaphor; the network becomes the model for how we understand what it is to be human. Somewhere in that network God exists and is completely entangled up with us. And it's that idea that we had extent beyond our own boundaries; we are connected one and another. It redefines what it is to be human, redefines what it is to experience life.

Peter Wallace:   And while you were serving as rector of Trinity Church in Bethlehem, PA, you taught astronomy and physics for six years or so at Lehigh University. Did you find it easy to wear those two hats of priest and professor?

Nicholas Knisely: Oh, it was completely and totally dislocated for the first couple of years. The physics department and the church were on either side of a bridge across the Lehigh River called the Penny Bridge--used to cost a penny to cross it. And it took me about five minutes to drive from the church to the physics department, and in that five minutes I had to switch persona in my head. I had to change from being a parish priest to being a physics professor, and then I had to change from being a physics professor to being a parish priest again. And the first couple of years really felt like an experience in mental whiplash. But what I noticed as I did it, the whiplash sense went away, and I began to find that what I was doing in the pulpit was being motivated by my meditation on how God made the universe that I was doing in physics. And my teaching in the classroom started to have ethical conundrums being posed to the students as I asked them to think about what the implications of science were on the way we live our lives in modern society. And at that point I began to realize that I had begun the work of integrating these two parts of my life. In fact, that was an incredibly important time in my life as I learned to be not a scientist who happened to be a priest or a priest who happened to be a scientist, but a priest who was trained as a scientist and used that scientific training to understand God and to serve the church.

Peter Wallace: Your message today focuses on the gospel lesson from Mark 10 in which James and John approach Jesus with a bold request. Would you read it for us?

Nicholas Knisely:

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?"

37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."

38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;

40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."


Peter Wallace: Nicholas, your sermon is entitled "Quantum Physics and the Nature of Eternity." Thanks again for being with us.

Nicholas Knisely: It's a delight.




"Quantum Physics and the Nature of Eternity"


In Mark's Gospel the two brothers, James and John, ask Jesus to give them the seats of honor in the fulfilled kingdom of God. It's not a huge surprise that it should be these two who ask such a thing. They're known as the Sons of Thunder, a nickname that Jesus himself gave them, most likely because of their boisterous and impetuous behavior.

When he hears their request, Jesus doesn't dismiss it. He asks them if they're prepared to share the sort of trial and test that he is going to undergo. They exclaim that they are able! Jesus' response is haunting. Yes, you will suffer as I suffer he says. And...he's not the one who decides who sits where in the kingdom of God.

Leaving aside the question of why Jesus asks them the question about their suffering if it isn't his to decide, how exactly does he know what is to happen in the future? Is it a guess? Or is it something more? Does Jesus have the ability to see forward in time? It certainly seems like he's claiming that.

If you look carefully in other places in the Gospels, Jesus makes a number of predictions about what is to come. And he describes things that happened in the distant past as if he were an eyewitness. While he lives a mortal life on earth, eating and sleeping and dying like any other human, he seems to also have the ability to perceive events outside of the experience of the normal flow of time. This prediction of the deaths of James and John is just one example of this ability.

There are certainly other places in the Holy Scriptures where we find ourselves scratching our heads about the way that the various authors use language about time. Jesus, for instance, in a question about the truthfulness of the resurrection of the dead, says that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive--even though they had died many thousands of years prior, and are presumed to still be dead at the time of Jesus' words, because the general resurrection had not happened--and still hasn't as far as we know. And yet to God they are alive! How?

Such riddles don't just exist in the Gospel texts. In the Book of Job, we have the paradox that Job exclaims to those who attempt to comfort him in the misery of his unjust suffering. Job says in Chapter 19: "As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another." How will Job see the future redeemer even though his eyes have been destroyed, and how does this redeemer live even though Jesus had not yet been born?

Okay--so here's the thing. The way the Scriptures use time is different than the way you and I experience it. So, is this a poetic device, or is it something more?

There's an idea that I've heard attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo that essentially says in regard to all these sorts of questions: "When a paradox occurs, it's resolved by remembering that God exists in eternity, not in time." I've not been able to track down the exact quote, but the sentiment is certainly in keeping with St. Augustine's writings, particularly the last sections of his "Confessions." Augustine invites us to remember that God exists outside the flow of time as we know it, so that all is "eternal day" to God, that the past, the present and the future are all "now" to God's experience. We as creatures live in the time that we call the present, though it is a constantly moving and transitory state as the present fades into our past, flowing from the stream of our future.

When you say it that way, it's all much easier, isn't it?

Well, maybe not so much as I might hope.

To make sense of this idea that God, that Jesus, has all the future as present, and all the past as present as well, we might do well to take a moment and talk about what we know about time.

Our modern experience of time is relatively novel. We have machines strapped to our wrists or computers in our pockets, that slice time up into exactly defined moments each marching equally past us as we watch the seconds tick by. At least that's what seems to be happening. There's an innate belief inspired by the design of a clock face that each second is like each other second, each one representing the same duration of time.

It's more than just the clock face that communicates that idea. All of our language about how we experience the world, how we measure things like speed or acceleration or growth or decay, depend on the assumption that time is "flowing" at a constant rate for all of us. When you and I agree to meet for dinner at 6 p.m., we are tacitly assuming that 6 p.m. for me is the same for you.

Isaac Newton, following Galileo's lead, described time as a river, with a steady current that flows from the future, to the present and on into the past. Newton's laws of motion, which undergird all of classical physics, are dependent on this assumption. And our own daily experience of time, with our watches and atomic clocks and GPS devices, seems to neatly fit into this metaphor.

But it's wrong. It's not wrong in our daily experience; but as soon as we start moving quickly or climbing into orbit, we realize that our clocks compared to Earth-based clocks are behaving oddly. The rate of the flow of time isn't constant; they speed up or slow down depending on where we are or what we are doing.

This observation, first predicted by Albert Einstein in his theories of special and general relativity and experimentally verified again and again and again, teaches us that time isn't at all what we thought we knew it to be. Einstein went as far as to fold this sense of elastic time into his description of the fundament of the universe, speaking of space-time rather than of space and time, and then showing how the elasticity of this strange hybrid exactly describes the experience of gravity. Bend in the space-time of the Universe strong and tight and you are caught in a gravity well that might not be escapable. Stretch this fabric out as far as you can, and the misnomer of zero-gravity becomes a reality and not an exaggeration.

And the flow of time changes in these situations too. Bend the space-time strongly and time slows to a crawl, even stopping at the edge of a black hole's event horizon. Or measure time in a flat and smooth region of space-time, and you'll experience the sort of time Newton and others assumed was the universal experience. It all depends on the local shape of the universe.

It is almost impossible to imagine, but much of modern life would be impossible without our ability to calculate and even exploit this variable aspect of the way the flow of time changes between one place and another. Satellite transmission, nuclear medicine, communication theory, all depend on this phenomenon to one degree or another. That which staggers our imagination is actually our commonplace experience.

But wait! There's more!

Everything I've said assumes that time is a classical variable, a thing like a line as described by Euclid, a thing that is infinite in extent and can be infinitely divided into smaller and smaller divisions. That idea, which is true for spatial variables as well as time in Einstein's and Newton's theories, is called a classical understanding of time. It's based in classical geometry and inherits many of the tacit assumptions you might remember from high school math.

But in the early part of the twentieth century, a new way of understanding time and space began to develop. Rather than being like a classical one dimensional line, time and space, and pretty much everything else, comes in tiny, indivisible chunks--quanta--that are strung together like pearls on a string. Instead of moving smoothly along the line at so many units per unit of time, you jump from quanta to quanta in instantaneous leaps called transitions. This is the fundamental insight of Quantum Physics, and it's where it differs from Classical Physics. There is a smallest chunk of something--whether it is a chunk of charge--an electron--or a chunk of distance--a Plank length--or a chunk of energy. You can divide things and divide things, but eventually you come to a place--a very, very small place--where you can no longer divide things. The Universe comes in quanta--small indivisible chunks.

Well, okay. What does this have to do with time and being able to see the future and live in the past all at the same moment? Perhaps you noticed that I didn't include time in the list of things that become quantized. To many physicist's dismay, time can't be quantized. In fact, when you start thinking of nature as being quantized, in a subtle sort of way, it isn't clear actually that time exists!

We experience the sensation of time because we experience things going from ordered states into disordered ones--whole things can be broken; but it's essentially impossible to make a broken thing unbroken. Run a movie backward; you can immediately tell that something is off in what you're seeing. Time, it is argued, is a way of counting and ordering the quanta of transitions between quantum states as complex systems evolve from order into disorder. You might recognize a nod here to Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. You'd be right.

Confused yet? Many of you probably are and that's not surprising. Much of this makes little sense to the physicists who study it. And I'm just starting to open the door to the whole and complicated thinking in this particular research field. A full treatment of this is really the work of years of study. And we only have a few minutes left in this sermon...so let me tell you some of the surprising consequences of thinking this way about time and space.

First, we have to reconcile our experience of time versus what the theories are saying. That is done by noting that what the theory is saying is that there is no such thing as time in the full universe, but that time--as we know it and experience it--can exist in regions, or bubbles, of space-time within the full universe. We know, for instance, that time stops at the edge of black holes. We know that there was no time before the Big Bang. Some leading theorists believe that there will be no time after the universe has expanded. There are even those who believe that what we are seeing as the rapid acceleration of distant galaxies as they fly away from us is, in fact, the consequence of time stopping at the edge of the universe.

So what does this have to do with God? Well, St. Augustine's ideas that God exists outside of time and in eternity, a place without the flow of human time, suddenly stops being poetic or philosophical, and becomes instead calculable and sensible in terms of our best scientific understanding of gravity. The language that Jesus is using in the Gospel isn't poetry or mystery, but a direct consequence of the way the universe is ordered.

Look now at the first lesson that's read today, the reading from the Book of Job. It is, to my mind, the great climactic moment of the book. Job, who has been suffering because of a decision that God made as a result of a challenge from Satan, has been rightly insisting that his suffering is unjust. His friends gathered around him argue with him that God could never act unjustly. This complaint to and defense of God goes on for many chapters. Finally, God appears before Job and responds. But the response is profoundly challenging in and of itself.

God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements--surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?"


Might we, in light of the discussion we just had about time and space, quantum physics and reality, recast this as an answer to Job that is essentially; "Job, I am a being that speaks from eternity, where cause and effect do not mean the same thing as what you experience. What I created out of the chaos of the beginning of your reality in a portion of the universe is ultimately beyond a finite creature's full comprehension. There is a reason and a purpose to everything I do. But it is ultimately impossible to explain to a being who cannot perceive the full reality and lives within a shadow portion of the whole."

It is exactly what we should expect from the Divine Eternal fount of all existence. It is asking the universe "Why?" and getting back the answer "Because." It isn't terribly satisfying. But it may be all that we can ultimately comprehend until we too inhabit eternity.

This idea that God's actions have purpose, but that we might not ever be able to fully comprehend them, is to me a profoundly important insight.

It has helped me trust that while I've not been able to understand the reason that bad things happen, why the innocent suffer, and have been unwilling to accept the facile answers that you often encounter when you ask about it, there is an answer. I just may never be able to understand it or bear it. But it means that we don't live in a random purposeless world with a capricious God or at the hands of unthinking fate.

Jesus' words about time and eternity, God's beautiful poetic response to Job, are exactly what we ultimately hope for in our longing to make sense of the senseless. There are no easy answers to the paradox of time and eternity. But God inhabits Eternity and Jesus inhabits Time, and we believe by Faith that God is good.

So somehow our faith tells us, in the fullness of the reality of the universe, things are sensible; there is order and not chaos and God is working out a deep purpose that we can only dimly perceive--a purpose that is healing the pain and bringing renewal and re-creation out of eternity and into the portion of the universe where there is time and in which we are born and live and die.


Peter Wallace: Nicholas, I find it stunning that Bible texts you referenced in your sermon echo the concept of time and eternity that you have guided us through so skillfully. Sometimes the Bible can offer some very fresh insights, even scientifically speaking--what do you think?

Nicholas Knisely: Oh, absolutely. I'm fascinated today by colleagues of mine who are scientists who are using some of the things that they find in the Bible or the concepts that are contained within the Scriptures to challenge their way of viewing the universe, and to challenge them to write equations in a different way and then ask questions of those equations to see if that gives them a new insight or the ability to make a new prediction about what's happening in the universe.

Peter Wallace: You said St. Augustine wrote that God exists outside the flow of time as we know it, while we creatures live in the time that we call the present, though it is a constantly moving, transitory state. Can that realization help us understand and appreciate our relationship with God more fully?

Nicholas Knisely: Oh, I think so. We have to always remember that God doesn't see us as a process that is unfolding, but God sees us as what we will become and what we once were. In the same way, when I look at my daughter right now, I don't just see this incredibly poised 21-year old college student. I see the little girl, and I remember her trying to learn to walk. I see the teenager who was navigating the social moirés of high school, and I see them all in a glimpse, in an instant. It's that whole perception of my daughter that is so powerful and so meaningful to me. And I expect it's exactly the same way for God, who sees us in the entirety of our life.

Peter Wallace: In the light of our understanding of time and space, quantum physics, and reality, God's answer to Job is essentially that what God created out of the chaos of the beginning of our reality is ultimately beyond a finite creature's comprehension. You said, "There is a reason and a purpose to everything I do," God is saying in essence, "But it is ultimately impossible to explain to a being who cannot perceive the full reality and lives within a shadow portion of the whole," you put it. This can be frustrating to us--even so, should we stop trying to understand, either from a theological or a scientific approach?

Nicholas Knisely: A rabbi once told me that God hides the truth from us and expects us to use our minds, the reason that God gifted us at our birth to uncover the truth. I find it fascinating that we have this itch in us to make sense of what is probably, ultimately, unsensible. It's the pilgrimage, it's the struggle to understand, that transforms us.  It's not the answer.

Peter Wallace: Bishop Nicholas Knisely, thank you for being with us!

Nicholas Knisely: Oh, you're very welcome.


The Day1 Faith & Science Series project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.



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