Quantum Theology – seeking meaning in a world of quantum leaps and fundamentalists

By the beginning of the 20th century it was thought that there was little left to be discovered about the natural world. As Bryson so aptly puts it, “If a thing could be oscillated, accelerated, perturbed, distilled, combined, weighted or made gaseous [science] had done it, and in the process produced a body of universal laws so weighty and majestic that we still tend to write them in capitals”. However, like some cosmic joke, the 21st century was to herald a period of bizarre scientific discoveries. Turning from big physical phenomena determined by universal laws, science discovered that “things on a small scale behave nothing like things on a large scale” (Feynman 1998). Nice neat formula science was about to be run over by the fuzzy science of quantum mechanics where very small things could be in two places at the same time!

Though often seen as competing deities during the period of Western modernity (circa1790-1990), science and religion shared a common obsession with authority. With an overrated confidence in its monopoly on truth, religion developed a zealous evangelism and science a series of immutable Newtonian laws. Both functioned deterministically, holding the promise of something truly objective to measure facts, truth, beauty and goodness against. Quantum physics became a way science explained phenomena that clearly sat outside accepted natural laws. Science had to make sense of atomic structures that behaved entirely outside accepted theories. How do you explain clouds of electrons in an atom changing orbit without ever moving the distance between the old and new orbit (this is where we get the term “quantum leap” from)? Or how atomic structures separated by seven miles instantaneously mimic each others independent activities as physicists at the University of Geneva observed in 1997. If quantum mechanics is an invitation to Newtonian science to wake up and smell the coffee, what might be religions “quantum leap”, a serious challenge to its love affair with deterministic absolutes?

Religion’s quantum may have already arrived in the form of alternative voices from the margins of the third-world. Over 1500 years Western Christianity developed a religious system or framework of meaning that answered all the big questions about life, death and the cosmos. It got away with this because it also welded ultimate political power. Its brand of meaning-making was to stow away on boats to the New World embedded, albeit unconsciously in European colonialism. During the later part of the twentieth century Marxist critique of systems of European political power gave birth to not only new social constructions of meaning but also new theological reflection. Drawing directly from the incongruent experiences of Christians in oppressive political regimes, theologians (particularly of Catholic tradition) began to question the West’s fundamental religious systems of meaning.

Western Christianity failed to adequately provide a practical response that dealt specifically with social and political issues for the poor, and for eco-feminists, the poorest of the poor; women and the voiceless environment. The experience of political oppression, rape and plunder became the starting point of theological reflection. This was to mark the beginning of a theological quantum leap. In the face of oppression, Western forms of Christianity were useless, full of sound and fury signifying nothing (to borrow from Shakespeare). Marginalised people could not find a voice, a place for themselves in the two great Christian pillars of Scripture and tradition. Beating louder on the authority drum became increasingly hollow and abusive.

With a growing understanding of the role culture plays in sustaining ultimate meaning, a body of theological reflection developed that sourced its authority not from some external law (the Bible says!) or culturally bound faith practices (church traditions) but directly from the context of such reflection. Religion needed to make sense of the experience of marginalised, vulnerable, powerless and voiceless people. The old well-worn ways just didn’t cut it. Thus, out of critical reflection on the very real experiences of the poor, came the substances from which liberation, feminist, black and eco theologies developed. Later these would find a common thread as branches of an emerging quantum theology, a way of making sense of experiences that sit outside older deterministic forms of Christian faith.

As an example of quantum theology, feminist theology seeks as its starting point the experience of women. Rosemary Ruether, a feminist theologian suggests that “the uniqueness of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience [as a starting point of theological reflection] but rather in its use of women’s experience, which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past”. Eco-feminism seeks to reinterpret creation narratives, formulations about Jesus and ways of being the church from the daily experience of women. Some of these reflections are robust and challenging and have enormous potential to reform the Christian church away from its flirtation with patriarchal, hieratical and imperial structures. Eco-feminist theology assaults the predominant linear, in-or-out, right-or-wrong, expressions of God, sin, the church and ecology in much the same way as quantum mechanics assaults the neatness of Newtonian physics. It seeks to develop a theology that is “from below”, or to use Song’s term “gravity bound,” in the praxis of women, particularly poor women. Its linguistic form is vernacular, seeking to voice meaning using inclusive language that invites reflection upon female incarnations of God. These forms are rich in images of equality and ecological partnership with the nurturing elements of the earth.

Religion’s quantum leap is to regard local experience as a valued partner in faith and not subject to the hierarchy of Scripture or tradition. It is context with a capital “C”, or perhaps more accurately Scripture with a small ‘s”. Quantum theology seeks to re-positioned authority as a tripartite collaboration of context, tradition and Scripture. Each informs the others, rather than one arbitrating over the others – a three-legged stool. Our locale is the place we begin, a companion that introduces us to the Christian Scriptures and traditions. Quantum theology invites Western forms of evangelical and Roman Catholic faith to put away their infatuation with the authority of Scripture or tradition (or both) and invites a conversation of equals rather than a monologue of edicts. Quantum theology has implications for the way we do church. It has implications for ethical and moral responses. It places emphasis on:

  • Finding a place to stand and a personal voice within the story and significance of Scripture, rather than mining it for principles to obey (or the more modern 5 practical applications from 3 abstract thoughts all beginning with the letter “e”)
  • Finding points of confluence with other Christian faith traditions, rather than theological positions to defend
  • Finding a mature inner authority from below, rather than an external and immature paternalism from above
  • Owning choices of ultimate meaning, exploring conscious meaning making from the substance of tradition and Scripture
  • Celebrating other forms of spirituality such as mystical, Celtic and indigenous
  • Accepting voices from the margins including older heresies that often carry an uncannily accurate critique of popular culture i.e. Pannenberg‘s myths.
  • Seeking new forms of church with circular governance, attractiveness by virtue of relationship rather than by orthodoxy or orthopraxis
  • Exploring sociosexual concepts of family and legitimate forms of singleness and monogamous life-partnerships that include civil union between same-sex couples
  • Exposing socio-political oppression of people, places and philosophies as an integral part of the prophetic voice of the church as mission

Just in case there are accusations of faddishness and novelty, the way quantum theology sources its starting point of theological reflection from the local may also be found in a series of mysterious episodes in the emerging holy nation of Israel. Take, for example, Elisha’s bizarre acceptance of Naaman’s servants faith (a Gentile) to worship Israel’s god in a pagan temple (1 Kings 5). This episode seems to sit way outside conventional evangelical in-or-out frameworks of faith and concepts of church as missional gathered communities. It “locale” also seems to sit uncomfortably in the middle of a detailed account of a period of God’s activity in forming a special and role-model type nation. Of further note, is that this seemingly isolated episode is one of the few Old Testament stories that Jesus specifically is recorded as mentioning.

© Craig Braun 2006


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