Sometimes, I read popular books on modern physics by the likes of Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and Lee Smolin. This is not a good idea, I know, since I am almost pathologically bad at math and rarely understand any of the underlying concepts; but I try. Several years ago I read a book called Warped Passages by a brilliant theoretical physicist named Lisa Randall. The thesis of the book is that there are multiple extra spatial dimensions hidden in plain sight all throughout the universe. And this can be proved (or at least confidently theorized about) with math.
Let me try to explain how profoundly this impacted my understanding of God.
It’s not that I think that God lives in these extra dimensions, or that the soul is a quantum particle, or that contemporary physics explains anything about God or humankind’s spiritual nature. People who make this kinds of arguments end up forcing God into the gaps of the most current models of the universe, only to have to evict Him once again when our collective understanding advances. My point is much more prosaic: understanding how much I don’t understand about physics helped me realize how much I don’t understand about God.
You see, as hard as I tried, and as good a writer as Randall is (and she is a very good writer), I can’t wrap my mind around the main point of her book. I simply can’t imagine how an extra five or six spatial dimensions might look. I can’t even understand how a fourth one would look. My mind and my imagination are completely constrained by the three dimensions that I have always experienced. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here; human beings evolved in three-dimensional space—all of our sensory and cognitive mechanisms have been designed to perceive such space. Very few people can imagine wandering through a backyard with eleven dimensions.
Whenever I hear somebody talking about God’s attributes and opinions as through these were easy things to understand, I start thinking about string theory–and realize that God is even harder to understand than Lisa Randall. I haven’t always thought so. At different points in my life, I have imagined that I understood a staggering number of things about God, Jesus, the afterlife, angels, eternal families, the Celestial Kingdom, sexuality and gender identity, the necessity of baptism, and the reasons that all kinds of things happen on earth.
I am now certain that I don’t understand anything about these issues, and I struggle to be charitable to those who think that they do. If there is a God, then He and/or She is something beyond our experience in the same way that extra dimensions are beyond our experience. This does not mean that we cannot have a relationship with God, or that we cannot try to make our lives conform to a divine direction. But it does mean that we need to stop being so cockamamie sure that we understand God’s perspective on stuff—especially stuff that deeply impacts other people’s ability to live full and meaningful lives.
When God appears in a whirlwind at the end of Job, He asks a series of cosmological questions designed to show Job that he cannot understand the divine perspective. All he can do is trust that God is competent, that God is good, and that the universe is governed by purposes that mortals cannot understand. These, too, have become the anchors of my own faith.
- I believe that God is good, that He loves me the way that my father loves me and that I love my children—absolutely, unconditionally, and perfectly. I do not know what it means for a timeless and omnipotent being to love, but I accept that He does, and I trust the power of that love. And I believe that he loves everybody else who has ever lived in exactly the same way.
- I believe that God is competent, that He knows how stuff works, and that He can navigate all of the dimensions, dark mater, Higgs boson particles, and quantum irregularities in the universe. I don’t have much of an opinion on whether God is omnipotent, or merely almost omnipotent, or just really clever. But I believe that He knows how to get important stuff done.
And, really, that’s about it. I don’t understand much about God, how He works, how He thinks, or why He does things. I am pretty sure that, even if he told me all of these things in plain English, I wouldn’t understand them any better than I understand string theory. Furthermore, I am perfectly aware that the beliefs that I do have come as much from hope as they do from anything that counts as evidence. And I also know that I could be wrong. But the very act of believing these things gives me hope and makes the universe feel like a better place to be—however many dimensions it ends up having.