A Different Path into Mystery—at the Intersection of Science and Religion

A bit of somewhat relevant background 
In mid-May, as a lay preacher at the small Episcopal parish of St. Mary Magdalene in Seven Lakes, North Carolina, I presented the homily for the Office of Morning Prayer. My talk, “The Ineffable Mystery: To Know God and Make Him Known,” took as its starting point Walter T. Stace’s famous dictum: “Either God is a mystery, or he is nothing at all.” As suggested by the lectionary and the collect of the day, I directed my thoughts toward locating glimpses into that mystery by seeking to know God the Father through the example of Jesus his Son.

Even as I finished my preparations for speaking, however, I knew there would be a coda. I just wasn’t ready for it yet.

During a few long walks, I had listened with both delight and wonderment to Alan Lightman’s whimsical but thought-provoking Mr g: A Novel About the Creation. As I wrote my talk about various possibilities for approaching God’s mystery, passages from this little novel kept buzzing in my head. But I didn’t feel I could express their hints adequately without actually reading the words on the page (and doing my usual underlining and annotating and peppering with asterisks and exclamation points and question marks). Reading ground to a halt in the midst of end-of-semester essay grading, so I was just about halfway through the novel when I spoke at church. However, summer arrived, and I can now attest that having the leisure to savor the language and contemplate the insights was well worth the wait.

I will add that my experience with this novel is closely intertwined with two other meandering paths in my recent spiritual and intellectual journeys. The former began last summer during a particularly dark period and has resulted in some miraculous moments of grace. I long to tell the story here, but that narration is another task that will have to wait—until I have more time, a better understanding, and a deeper perspective into the byways my soul has taken.

The latter, intellectual path, more directly relevant here, is related to my development of a new theme for a class I offer in writing across the curriculum. After intensive planning and research, I am teaching a course whose research papers in the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the humanities all focus on the relationship between science and religion—both topics I have been passionate about most of my life and an intersection that compels still more of my attention. One of the greatest blessings of this project has been the myriad ways in which the intellectual quest has informed and deepened the spiritual one.

And now (finally)—to the business of the day!

A Plausible Semblance of the Creator:
Alan Lightman’s Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

According to his biography on a website hosted by MIT, where he is Professor of the Practice of the Humanities, Alan Lightman earned a PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology, did postdoctoral work in astrophysics at Cornell, and was a professor of physics for many years. Clearly, his credentials as a scientist are impeccable. But early on, he also nourished a passion for the humanities, writing not only essays about the philosophy and the mind of science, but also short stories, plays, and novels, including 1992’s acclaimed Einstein’s Dreams However, my specific focus here is religion, and Lightman has also given close attention to religion and to the science/religion nexus in both essays and personal memoir (including, for example, The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew and Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.) As one reviewer of the latter book writes, “Alan Lightman . . . says he is not a believer in God. But he wishes he were. If there’s a theme to [the latter] book, that’s it.”

I’m not sure whether experiencing God but not believing in him (Lightman) is any different from believing in God but losing the experience of him (Mother Teresa). However, my interaction with Lightman’s Mr g: A Novel About the Creation makes me fairly certain the distinction doesn’t matter. Throughout her entire life of loving service, Mother Teresa provided a living image of Christ. Similarly, throughout his playful but profound novel Mr g, Alan Lightman provides a plausible image of God the Father. In fact, many of the fictional works I have devoured in the last several months have immeasurably enriched my understanding of God’s nature, his presence, and his power—and, as a byproduct, have brought me closer to him. That twofold gift is especially true of this little novel in which Alan Lightman’s eponymous narrator (Mr g/God) tells about his creation of the universe, with playfulness, love, scientific accuracy, and clear acknowledgment that that core of creation must remain mystery.

As for science, Lightman is certainly the authority, and in an informative appendix on science, he writes:

The physical creation of matter and energy, galaxies, stars, and planets, and the emergence of life [as presented in the novel] follow the best current data and theories in physics, astronomy, and biology. All quantitative discussion of various cosmic events is scientifically accurate. The unit of time used by Mr g, the “tick of the hydrogen clock,” is the reciprocal of the frequency of the Lyman alpha emission from the hydrogen atom, equal to about 4 x 10-16 seconds.

Whew! I was a chemistry major for my first three years at the University of Arizona, but I certainly can’t attest to this level of accuracy in the novel—never even heard of a Lyman alpha emission and wouldn’t know what to do with one if I found it. So I have to accept the astrophysicist’s claims about his work at face value.

What I can say about the science is that it matches my educated layman’s instincts about cosmology and quantum physics and the nature of time. For example, on the first page of the novel, right after the narrator wakes up from a nap and decides to create the universe, he explains that literally nothing existed in the Void before that decision—neither matter (with its image and form and texture) nor space nor even time—only potentiality. He then immediately realizes that in taking a decision to create, he has already created—time, that is, because at once there was the time before the decision and after it. Yes, I thought as I read those first couple of pages; that makes sense. Suddenly Mr g and his companions in the Void, Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, are described by the arrow of time and the responsibility that comes with acting in its framework. Yes, and again yes. This all fits.

And when time allows for the perception of movement through the Void, measurement becomes possible. Mr g invents the spectrum of colors, the chromatic musical scale, and π as the ratio of circumference to diameter. Soon, all these abstractions become boring, so he decides to create materiality, which requires space, which requires dimensions, so after a bit of experimentation, he settles on three. The next creation—probably not the next thing I would think about creating, but then I’m neither and astrophysicist not Mr nor even Ms g—is quantum physics to smooth out the edges a little bit, allow for probability, and recognize ambiguity. In the process, Mr g also details the natural laws that will govern creation: symmetry, no absolutes, and causality.

These glimpses behind the scenes of the scientific aspects of creation—or perhaps we can call it pre-creation, since nothing material yet exists—continue to make a great deal of sense to my logical mind. And the third leg of my Anglican theological stool of scripture, tradition, and reason tells me that the story of creation must surely make sense.

Mr g moves from time and space and quantum physics to inanimate matter, which is where the real action starts and creation begins to take on a life of its own. Matter and energy act as matter and energy do in the world of science, and we witness a description of the Big Bang and its sequelae more accessible—and certainly more exhilarating—than even that of Stephen Hawking. And still I keep finding myself nodding in affirmation as the story unfolds.

Other aspects of creation begin to rear their theological heads when “A Stranger Appears in the Void” (the title of the fourth chapter). He is Belhor, who claims that Mr g created him when he created the necessary dualities in time and space. In Judaic tradition, Belhor (Belial, Baal, Baalim) is the personification of evil, and as this character develops, he suggests a rationale for the existence of evil as the antithesis of good. He is also an extremely creative and intelligent creature, in many ways resembling Milton’s charismatic antagonist Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Lightman engages Mr g and Belhor in deep conversation, and it is Belhor who finally convinces Mr g to risk the creation of animate matter.

. . . But wait! By this time in the story, it is clear that the universe set in motion by Mr g has become a self-creating phenomenon. The creation of matter enables the development of increasingly complex molecular structures. Gravity sets in motion the contraction of the universe, the creation of stars, and the formation of planets and their moons. And under the right circumstances, inanimate matter begins to take on on some qualities of living organisms. When these structures begin to react to the environment, animate matter—life—emerges without even a nudge from the creator. As Belhor predicted, things become much more interesting when these living things begin to develop self-awareness, and Mr g must decide if they will have free will. Again, though, the decision is made for him by the creatures themselves, who begin to exercise free will because it is their nature—and, as Belhor predicts, that nature is a combination of good and evil.

While the science seems accurate and faithful to reality, Mr g clearly does not resemble hands-on God of the Pentateuch, nor are his actions faithful to the Book of Genesis. However, neither does this Deistic portrayal contradict the Biblical story of creation except in insignificant matters of chronology.

For me, at least, Alan Lightman’s portrait affirms and deepens my understanding of the God I have come to know. After each step of  creation, Mr. g pronounces what he has made good—and that approval of his handiwork is indeed biblical: “And God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24, and 31. At every turn, Mr g expresses his delight with the universe and the creatures he has made. He finds great pleasure in music—both that of the formless universe and that made by His sentient creatures. He expresses awe at the order and beauty of the worlds He has created. And he deeply loves his creatures of higher intelligence as they search for Him, erect edifices for worship, and long for the immortality he refuses to provide because it would violate the three laws by which he set the universe in motion.

Further, as Matthew Selwyn notes in his review, “As the novel develops it moves away from describing the beauty and order of fundamental physics and, with the creation of conscious beings, begins to delve into the world of philosophy.” It is in this section of the book that I discover most of the qualities that help me understand God more thoroughly and more deeply. He feels pain when his creatures suffer and is tempted to intervene despite his vow not to. He wants them to do good and to be happy, but he knows that they must have free will. And when his uncle begs him to reveal something of himself to his mortal creatures, he declares that he must remain Mystery.

However, in response to Uncle Deva’s pleas, Mr g decides to give these mortal creatures just a brief glimpse of immortality. He tells of a young woman tortured with guilt because at her mother’s instigation, she stole meat from one of their neighbors to feed her starving siblings. She feels remorse for stealing, but she would have likewise been unable to forgive herself had she not intervened to save her family. She leads a long and troubled life, and at its end, Mr g allows her to glimpse something of himself and the nature of his immortality—and her own semblance of immortality. And when all the civilizations on all the planets in all the galaxies in the universe known as Aalam-104729 become extinct, the loving Mr g says he would do it again and adds, “I’d like the next one to be the same.” Uncle Deva makes his own pronouncement: “It was a beautiful thing. It had beauty. And joy. And sadness. . . . [And] I think maybe it had a soul.”

No, Mr. g is not Genesis. It is not the revealed Word of God, which “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But this novel by an astrophysicist who claims (with limited credibility, in my view) not to believe in God has enabled me to understand a little more clearly the mechanisms of creation, but also the order and perfection of the laws by which it operates. More important, though, is the philosophical turn when sentient beings appear. The whimsical, sometimes bumbling, philosophical, always believable narrator known as Mr g has provided me with moments of clear recognition and longer periods of contemplative understanding of the mystery that is God. And I am confident that a glimpse into that ultimate Mystery is the most we can hope for from any work created by human hands.

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