Science and Religion: A Typological Exercise

A few weeks ago I posted several versions of an essay on Faith and Science, this is the start of another (which unlike the first has no “target” for publication). I may return and extend and refine it, but I have no definite plans to do so. In part that depends on whether this attempt engenders any response. In the spirituality class I am taking we read a number of St. Ephrem’s hymns “On Virginity” from the CWS collection. A few of these in the series concentrate not on virginity but St. Ephrem uses oil (olive) to indicate a “type” of Christ. In Syriac apparently oil, Messiah, and Anointing all come from the same root word, which is not the case with English (or Greek apparently). St. Ephrem also then lists a number of properties of oil, used in cooking, healing, for light and so on and illustrates how, because Christ does the same, that oil is a “type” reflecting and illuminating our understanding of Christ. This hymn thereby becomes a way in which common practice (contact with oil) in daily life can be uses to remind oneself, a trigger for reflections, and in general a way of connecting one’s daily life with one’s theological practice and belief. It can be noted that the common features and uses of oil come from the science and practices of the day.

So it might be an interesting project to do the same with modern science. Light was a common type of Christ in the days of St. Ephrem and the theological writers of late antiquity. Today, in late modernity, we can add to thse typological constructions. Today we might add things like the following:

  1. Light is simultaneously without confusing both particle and wave. Likewise, Christ was man and God. 
  2. Light illuminating an atom can stimulates it to a higher state. Again Christ’s actions in a man’s heart can stimulate it to seek (and attain) for higher things.
  3. This same light, further illuminating a population of exited (previously stimulated) atoms can cause the creation of more light, i.e., lasers. Atoms acting in concert, a type of “communion” through Christ (the light) and by Christ in communion a type of Christ and the Eucharist.
  4. Light exists in a sort of timeless fashion, particles travelling on null or light cones in Minkowski spacetimes interact with things “in time” yet for the massless particle no time passes. 
  5. Light through photosynthesis is the source from which oxygen and sugars comes into our world, that which we derive our very life depends. We similarly depend on Christ to “trample death by death” unlocking the gates of Hades.

That was the product of a just a few minutes reflection on light and modern scientific discoveries in a typological exercise. One could likely do similar exercises with our understanding of astrophysics, matter, the standard model and so on. So, here’s the question: Is science education so poor these days that these sorts of typological reflections are useless to the lay Christian? That is, in St. Ephrem’s day oil (of the olive) was in many ways akin to petroleum today, it was a linchpin of their economy. Olive oil then was used for light, food, health, lubrication and a myriad of other applications. It took no real specialized knowledge to understand this. People today have likely all heard of quantum mechanics (things have a wave/particle duality), that light excites atoms to higher states, that lasers exist, and even have heard via special relativity that time slows for fast moving objects and that via extrapolation coupled with remembering that nothing travels faster than light that perhaps time might essentially stop for objects travelling at the speed of light. So, there are two questions here. Is this sort of reflection (a) useful in helping people connect theological abstractions with things with which they are familiar and (b) perhaps have the further use of reducing what friction now exists between religion and science.

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10 comments

  1. Arguments by analogy are useless because analogies can be made so easily. Here, let me play:

    1. Light is simultaneously without confusing both particle and wave. Likewise, gasoline is both chemical and man.

    2. Light illuminating an atom can stimulates it to a higher state. Again gas’s actions in a car’s engine can stimulate it to seek (and attain) more mileage.

    3. This same gas, further power the propulsion of other fuels can cause the creation of more fuel, e.g. by transporting uranium to pwoer plants. Fuels acting in concert, a type of “communion” through gas (the fuel) and by gay in communion a type of fuel and the Fuel Man.

    4. Light exists in a sort of timeless fashion, particles travelling on null or light cones in Minkowski spacetimes interact with things “in time” yet for the massless particle no time passes.

    5. Light through photosynthesis is the source from which oxygen and sugars comes into our world, that which we derive our very life depends. We similarly depend on gasoline to power our economy.

  2. Mark says:

    JA,
    Type is not an argument. This is not polemic nor argument nor justification.

  3. Fair enough. How about “typological exercises are useless because analogies can be made so easily.”

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    Typological exercises are useful for pedagogical value if nothing else. The “wave/particle” analogies used for light (and matter) are analogies which “can be made easily” and which are instructive. Yet, neither are really descriptive of the actual mathematical representations (complex amplitude, Hilbert spaces or S-matrices). Yet the wave/particle analogy has uses beyond merely the pedagogic. They inform and allow us to develop intuitions even for the expert.

  5. But the wave-particle paradox of light is sui generis. How can you use it to analogize when nothing else is like it?

  6. Mark says:

    JA,
    I’m suggesting here that the wave particle thing is not sui generis but a type for the God/Man duality of Christ, i.e., that the two share features. It is an analogy that can inform and allow us (as Christians) to develop intuitions into the mystery of the nature of God.

  7. Boonton says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I kind of remember from reading old Catholic Cathechisms that the God/Man duality of Christ is a Mystery which means it cannot be fully understood by the human mind. The partical/wave duality of light is not a Mystery with a capital M but simply something that is hard to visualize. Even if it is impossible to visualize it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to comprehend.

    Which is something important to keep in mind about analogy. The things that the analogy *doesn’t* explain is often as important as the stuff it does.

  8. Boonton says:

    For example:

    Light is simultaneously without confusing both particle and wave. Likewise, Christ was man and God.

    But we understand clearly what is a particle and what is a wave. What’s hard to understand is how something can be both at once. On the other hand, we don’t understand really what God really is and what man really is. At least from my point of view it’s not that hard to accept that Christ can be both….what’s hard to comprehend is what exactly that means to be both or either.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    St. Ephrem in his hymn suggests that oil is a type of Christ because it illumines, it heals, it feeds, and keeps blades from rust and so on which acts as typological representation.

    And you’re right that the particle/wave duality is not a “Mystery”, but it isn’t as easy as you might think, and that there is indeed remaining facets of how something might really be particle/wave at the same time which is unexplained, e.g., the insufficiency of the Copenhagen interpretation of the wave function remains an issue.

    But the point is St. Ephrem wasn’t suggesting that oil completely elucidates Christ’s nature either, but that by noting it as a type acts to enlighten us as to what Christ means (and since the word “Christ” comes from the Greek root for annointing this leads to etymological connections not present for light).

  10. John says:

    Please check out the essay featured on this webpage (scroll down).
    It is very much about the nature of light and the limits of knowledge whether scientific or so called religious.

    http://www.dabase.org/s-atruth.htm

    Plus

    http://www.dabase.org/broken.htm