As it turns out, this is a spectacularly exciting time in the world of physics.
Add that to the list of sentences I never imagined I’d write in my vocation as a youth minister. While I never turned my back on the value and necessity of science, I’ve also never been particularly drawn to it as a discipline that I wanted to study once I’d finished certain course requirements. In my maturing mind, I’d considered myself firmly in the “right-brained” camp, with my interest in music, art, and poetry, as evidence of my rightful categorization. I figured that I could dedicate myself to these pursuits and let those other “left-brained” folks do the whole math and science thing.1 I honor your quest, fellow sojourners, but I’ll be over here reading Edna St. Vincent Millay if you need me.
This system served me well for many years, but then I had the student in my most recent confirmation class who, mere weeks before our planned confirmation service, told me that he didn’t want to go through with it. “It’s just that…I believe in science,” he said. I told him that, of course, he didn’t have to be confirmed if he didn’t feel ready and that, of course, part of our yearlong journey together was to help him learn more about our faith tradition so he could discern what he believed. Also, I told him that—for the record—I believe in science, too, and that I don’t believe that faith and science are mutually exclusive. He said he believed they are and then added, “No offense, but I think I know more about science than you do.” That, I told him, was an indisputable fact. Perhaps I needed to re-engage with science if I was going to have any credibility in this vocation.
Searching for God (Particle)
The good news of my present re-engagement is that, indeed, this is a spectacularly exciting time in the world of physics. Since June 2015, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland has been on its second run, smashing billions of proton bunches into one another at unfathomable energy levels. Its starting point alone was 13 teraelectronvolts (TeV), which itself was nearly double the energy levels of its entire first run from 2009-2013 that resulted in the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson. This discovery was the result of a forty-year pursuit, as Peter Higgs, François Englert, and other brilliant physicists theorized in 1964 that there must be some as-yet-unobserved particle that explained why some fundamental particles have mass when, theoretically, they shouldn’t. Its existence provides further support to the Standard Model of particle physics, but it also left many questions unanswered and raised some brand new questions for physicists to explore.
These new questions have taken the form of—get this—new physics. This phrase appears throughout the literature on the current findings of particle physics, but I was particularly drawn to the way it is excitedly discussed in the dazzling documentary, Particle Fever, which tells the story of the LHC’s first run. Sensing that theoretical particle physics had hit its plateau, scientists who had dedicated their entire lives and careers to these theories waited with nail-biting anxiety for the LHC to find the Higgs—or to find anything that could lead to something at all. With the successful discovery, the scientists in the documentary are seen leaping from their theoretical plateau into a world of new work. Peter Higgs himself, then 83 years old, is seen wiping away tears at the announcement.
Now on its second run, the LHC’s current crop of data will push physicists even further by as closely approximating the conditions in the immediacy after the Big Bang as humans have ever achieved. The Higgs has already made a repeat appearance, and physicists are diving into the new data in the quest for a deeper understanding of this particle as well as anything for which the Standard Model does not account, such as the so-called dark matter and dark energy that is thought to comprise 95% of the universe. That’s right—scientists openly and raptly admit that “everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter—adds up to less that 5% of the universe.”
I find this admission utterly refreshing. In the decades-long search for the absolute smallest pieces of existence that hold the keys to explaining the existence of absolutely everything, scientists dance with their uncertainty of the known and certainty of the unknown every moment of their work. Rather than fearing these great mysteries, scientists embrace them, holding lightly to pet theories and hypotheses, with the ever-present awareness that they might be wrong, pending further research. Surely, personal pride and ego are as much at play in this scholarship as in any other, but I am still intrigued by the fundamental posture of doubt in the scientific pursuit. This doubt, however, feels very different from the elephant-in-the-room kind of doubt present in so many churches and faith communities today. The doubt in science breeds excitement, wonder, and the potential for newness—new physics, new questions, new problems!2 The scientific literature glows with the excitement of this, and octogenarians embrace one another in joyful tears.
The Science of Unknowing
When my mind returns to my confirmation student, I wonder how I might have better cultivated a space for doubt and for admission of the unknown. The Christian faith benefits from a rich tradition of engaging the mystery of God through this unknowing posture in the form of apophatic theology.3 This theological lens, passed down through generations from figures like Gregory of Nyssa and John Chystostom, acknowledges the limitations of human beings to describe who or what God is and instead explores who and what God is not. Even the very tool of description—human language—falls short of capturing the essence of God, and in the gulf that remains between what we can know and say and what we cannot lies the mystery and wonder at the very heart of the Christian faith. Rather than fearing this reality, rather than ignoring the God-sized elephant in the sanctuary, rather than reifying the alienating myth of certainty as the central component of our faith, apophatic theology invites us to welcome the unknown.
How would my confirmation student have experienced our class if I had opened our discussions with analogy to physical science, saying that we would spend an entire year learning history, doctrine, and tradition and would still only scratch the very topmost surface of our knowledge of God? In fact, I could have said that a lifetime of faith is spent scratching at this surface, scratching deeper and deeper, and that perhaps all of these lifetimes combined since even the beginning of the time of the first human lives—all of us faithfully scratching and digging and seeking and asking have, in sum, worked our way through about 5% of the knowability of God. What if I had left wide open space for the unknown, for the uncertain, and for unanswered (or unanswerable) questions? What if I had finished every class by saying that I might be wrong? What if I had opened each class by praying that God would help us to un-know what we think we know—something akin to “I believe; help my unbelief”?
Of course, I didn’t do this, and by the time my student rightly noted his scientific prowess, my responses to his professed (un)belief fell flat. I had developed a rigorous curriculum, after all, and I felt a lot of pressure to execute every lesson plan and to fill every minute so that, at the end of the year, I’d have a class of well-educated, fully-committed teenagers ready to join the church. But in hindsight, I wish I’d felt the freedom to say with the scientist that even with everything we know, even with everything we can say, we have only just begun to understand.
1. As it also turns out, scientists have pretty thoroughly debunked the left-brained/right-brained binary system. No less a celebrity scientist than Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said, “I’m ‘brained.’ Not right brained or left brained. I have a brain.”
3. I am borrowing these questions and concepts from theologian Catherine Keller, whose book, Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement, playfully invites readers into an exploration of the possible by way of the impossible. “So we hope here not for complete knowledge but for incomplete ignorance. Such an ignorance does not close in on itself in defeat or exhaustion. It finds in the limits, ruptures, and fogbanks of consciousness new relations to—anything that matters…We “know” what we know only with the irony of apophasis, of a language open to its own undoing” (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2015), 3.
Megan DeWald is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry, where she runs the Certificate in Youth and Theology program and manages digital content. Previously, Megan served as the Site Coordinator of the PCUSA’s Young Adult Volunteer program in Nashville, Tennessee. With 15 years of youth ministry experience, Megan is passionate about cultivating leaders in the Church.