By Amanda Alexander
Early last month, scientists published the results of a years-long study of muons, a type of sub-atomic particle similar to an electron but nearly 200 times heavier. The headlines ranged from ecstatic to alarmist: while some hailed the results as an exciting breakthrough, others suggested the standard model of physics had been broken and scientific theory left in confusion.
The purpose of the Muon g-2 experiment, as this study was known, was to measure the value of the magnetic moment of a muon. Scientists have predicted this value based on what they currently know about different forces that act on particles. While some experiments have confirmed this theoretical value, the Muon g-2 experiment and a previous experiment which concluded back in 2001 have generated results that deviate from the theoretical prediction. If these deviations are correct and not the result of a calculation error, they may signify some unknown particle or force acting on the muon.
It seems that it is only a matter of time before some scientific experiment yields a result that upends, once again, what we know about how the natural world works. These scientific revolutions, also known as paradigm shifts, happen with regularity. We are all probably aware of previous paradigm shifts: Copernicus’ proof that the sun was the center of the solar system, Newton’s description of the laws of nature, Einstein’s discovery of relativity, the discovery of quantum physics, and even, albeit more controversially, Darwin’s theory of evolution. Scientific experiments are not just about proving what we think we know but about showing us how much more there is yet to understand.
We could say the same about our faith life. There is a real danger to holding on to what we understood about God, Jesus, the Sacraments and the Church when we were small children and thinking this is all there is. As Christians, we are tasked with continually being not just open to but also on the lookout for the action of God in our lives. But God is a God of surprises. If we are only looking for ways that God’s action conforms to our expectations, we are probably missing out on the manifold ways God is, as St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “laboring on our behalf.”
One way we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence is by being attentive to others’ experiences of God. Here, there is another parallel with the Muon g-2 experiment. The results of that experiment were actually produced by the collaborative effort of hundreds of scientists who worked together for nearly five years. Every member of the experiment’s team had something important to offer; no one person could have conducted the experiment alone. What’s more interesting is that no single individual understood how their data fit into the larger picture and what its significance was until they gathered together to share what each had discovered.
The same is true of our knowledge of God and our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. While the forces of natural world are theoretically knowable, God will always be beyond our comprehension. Like a team of scientists working together, we grow in our knowledge of the divine in and through our faith community. As we hear about how God has acted in the lives of others, we become more aware of how God may be at work in our own lives. As we share our experience of God with the community, we realize that God is working in our lives for the sake of others.
Like the scientific community, the faith community does not exist to set limits on what we can know. We journey together, guided by the Holy Spirit, learning and growing in our knowledge of God together. As we accompany each other, we will be transformed individually and collectively. As our understanding that we God’s beloved matures, as our attentiveness to God’s presence grows, our understanding of who God is and how God acts in the world will change. This change is something to be celebrated, not feared. If we refuse and insist on clinging to our old ways of understanding, we are nothing more than idolators.
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.