By Amanda Alexander
There are some things I don’t remember learning, like how to brush my teeth, how to recite the “Our Father,” or how to draw the “Rutherford” model of a hydrogen atom. In my mind’s eye, I can still see a drawing, done for some science class in my youth: a dot – the nucleus – in the middle of a circle, and on the circle itself, another dot with a minus sign next to it, representing an electron. I’m sure school children everywhere still draw something like this when they first learn about atoms.
I do remember learning that, the larger the atomic number, the more electrons I had to draw. To draw an atom of helium, which has an atomic number of two, I had to draw two dots with minus signs next to them on the circle. If the atomic number was bigger than 2, I had to add extra electron shells, represented by concentric circles, to my diagram. Eventually, I learned that these electrons did not chase each other around the circles, but in fact needed to be depicted as each having their own orbit around the nucleus of the atom.
This proved a great challenge to my own artistic capacity. Imagine my relief when I learned that, in fact, the electrons didn’t move around the nucleus on a fixed orbital pathway at all! Rather, their motion was best described by drawing an electron “cloud” that surrounded the nucleus. The two-dimensional model that had shaped my imagination so profoundly was suddenly 3-D!
When I first started to dip my toe into quantum theory, my conceptual image of electrons changed again. According to quantum theory, what I thought of as a single electron is actually a ripple in a unified electron field that extends across and connects everything that exists. I remember thinking about this as I drove up Highway 101 and being startled by the realization that I was, at the level of the electrons that make up the atoms of my body, connected to every other thing in my field of vision and beyond. There were not “their electrons” and “my electrons.”
Rather, we shared, in my imagination, one electron. That unified vision of all reality was exactly the opposite of the individualized, “atomized” version I had been taught in my youth.
Despite this, I’m hesitant to say that any of the models I was taught were wrong. Each model serves a purpose and explains a particular set of atomic and even quantum behaviors scientists have observed.
No one model is adequate to explain everything, and no one model perfectly corresponds to reality. Knowing this helps us to understand how and when to use these different scientific models. The only mistake is thinking that one model alone is sufficient.
We can make a similar claim about the language we use to talk about God. Augustine of Hippo famously wrote that “if you have understood, what you have understood is not God.” Scripture is filled with different models, or analogies, that help us to think about God. God is variously compared to a rock (Deuteronomy 32:4), a fortress (Psalm 18:3), a bird (Psalm 91:4), a mother bear (Hosea 13:8) a shepherd (Psalm 23:1), a potter (Isaiah 64:7), a warrior (Exodus 15:3), a king (Revelation 19:16), a bridegroom (Isaiah 62:5), a father (Matthew 6:6), a mother (Isaiah 66:13), and even love (1 John 4:8), to cite but a few examples. These scriptural images are analogies that help us to understand something about God. But if we want to avoid falling into idolatry, we must remember that these analogies always point us beyond the model or image itself to that which our minds cannot fully grasp.
The inability of any particular analogy to fully exhaust the divine mystery is one of the reasons why saints like Teresa of Avila and Francis de Sales have taught that there is enough in the “Our Father” to fill a lifetime of prayerful meditation.
When we call God our Father, we invoke a relational model that is familiar to us, and often burdened with personal and social experiences of fatherhood. But then we recall that God is the source of all fatherhood, all fatherliness, all fathering. Perhaps other experiences and longings bubble up inside us. We take these new feelings and insights to God in prayer and are led deeper still into the mystery of God as Father. The back-and-forth play of our own reality and the divine reality in prayer is inexhaustible. The only mistake is to think we have ever fully understood.
Both science and theology make use of figurative language and models to explain particular aspects of complex phenomena and experiences. Inasmuch as these models help us to understand something about reality, they can also help us to understand something about the author of that reality, God. St. Bonaventure writes that we find in creation the “vestiges” or fingerprints of God and that these traces of the divine are meant to help our souls contemplate God. In our own practice of faith, we can joyfully take up the models given to us by science, prayerfully reflect on them, and find that our minds and souls are drawn closer to God.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.