Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science- Part 2, The Language of Physics, Chapter 4: The Kamala Khan Conundrum
By Andy Walsh
We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh. Today is Chapter 4: The Kamala Khan Conundrum. Kamala Khan is a fictional superhero appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. Created by editors Sana Amanat and Stephen Wacker, writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona, Khan is Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic book.
Khan is a teenage Pakistani American from Jersey City, New Jersey with shapeshifting abilities. Her “conundrum” is the latest update of the Spider-Man archetype; the teenager next door just trying to be accepted as normal by her peers while adjusting to abilities that are anything but. And also, of course, there are the additional issues of her Pakistani culture and Islamic faith in modern American society where she faces the challenge of maintaining her heritage while deciding who she will be as an independent adult.
Walsh is trying to draw the parallel with our personal experiences as our identities as spouse or parent, and contrast that with our identity as a member of the workforce. Younger people might express a tension between their identity as a student and their social identity. These multiple identities are often talked about as if there is a tension between them, that the primary dynamic is one of conflict. He then segues into a discussion of the conception of Jesus’ identities as both human and divine. He says:
In the last chapter, we encountered human free will and God’s sovereignty, two concepts traditionally presented as incompatible. We also explored an alternative model that allowed us to describe those concepts in a way that doesn’t require one to be defined as the opposite of the other. I believe we can accomplish something similar to reconcile Jesus’ divine nature and human natures, this time by moving into the realm of physics. While physics relies heavily on mathematics, it also deals with tangible reality that we can experience with our senses instead of relying primarily on our minds. Likewise, for the Christian, Jesus is God made a tangible reality whom some experienced with their senses in the past, and whom we all may have a chance to experience with our senses in the future.
The model from physics that Walsh presents as an analogy to help us understand the two natures of Christ is the wave-particle duality of light. We covered this fairly extensively in our review of John Polkinghorne’s book, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. Light, under certain experimental conditions, will behave as a wave, like the ripples emanating from an object dropped into a pond.
Like a wave, light will be reinforced or experience cancelling interference, a phenomenon in which two waves superpose to form a resultant wave of greater, lower, or the same amplitude. This was demonstrated in the famous double slit experiment, first reported by Thomas Young in 1801. His demonstration of interference by alternate bright and dark lines was taken to be clear evidence for the wave nature of light. One can find YouTube videos giving instructions for repeating Young’s experiment at home.
As the 20th Century dawned, a young Albert Einstein re-introduced the idea of light as a stream of particles to explain the photoelectric effect (the observation that many metals emit electrons when light shines upon them). In 1909 he demonstrated that two distinct terms appeared in Planck’s equations describing black-body radiation [a mathematical relationship formulated in 1900 by German physicist Max Planck to explain the spectral-energy distribution of radiation emitted by a blackbody (a hypothetical body that completely absorbs all radiant energy falling upon it, reaches some equilibrium temperature, and then reemits that energy as quickly as it absorbs it]. Those two distinct terms indicated a duality in the nature of light.
Walsh then notes that Superhero fiction explores the facets of resolving the issues of dual identities. To us older generation, the Superman-Clark Kent duality is the most familiar. Mild-mannered, milquetoast Clark Kent couldn’t possibly be the same person as the indestructible, unconquerable, super-powered Superman, could he? In the pages of X-man Legacy , David Haller is written as having dissociative identity disorder; each identity has its own superpower. As the story begins, David has them imprisoned in his mind and hauls them out of their cells when he needs to exploit a given ability. Walsh says:
Over the course of a world-saving adventure, he realizes the value of employing grace to allow the various parts of himself to integrate organically. Whether that is a viable model for dealing with a genuine mental health concern, I cannot say, but I found it a moving portrait of how to deal constructively with the multitudes we all contain…
Still these are all stories, and fiction isn’t always constrained by the same rules as reality. Integration and unification of identity are clearly the goal for understanding the nature of Jesus, but are those goals plausible? Just as we looked at various experiments that revealed properties of light, we’ll need to look at the data we have for Jesus from the Bible.
Walsh then recounts one of the starkest examples of the human-divine duality in the accounts of Jesus—the story of Lazarus’ resurrection in John 11. Lazarus falls ill and his sisters Mary and Martha send for Jesus, fully aware of his healing ministry. He agrees to come, but knowingly delays while indicating a plan is in place that will maximize God’s glory. When he finally arrives, Lazarus is already dead; the narrative leaves little doubt if Jesus had come right away, he would have found Lazarus alive. Lazarus’ sisters recognize that Jesus might still have the power to help their brother. They seem to be appealing to his divine nature, to exercise authority over life and death in a way no human being would be capable of. And the immediate response they get is the shortest, and one the most famous verses in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35); a most human and emotional reaction. Walsh says:
The Gospel of John does record that Jesus ultimately brings Lazarus back from the dead, apparently confirming his divine nature, but not without complicating our ability to understand what that means. Or does it? Maybe what Jesus is really showing us is that our understanding of humanity and divinity is flawed. That fits with our ultimate premise, that Jesus represents God’s ultimate effort to model for us concepts that we would otherwise have been unlikely to arrive at, in order to facilitate communication between us and God.
Of course, far more people dispute Jesus’ claim to divinity that his claim to humanity. But the life of Jesus regularly challenges many of our popular notions about what is significant or distinct about humanity. He intentionally forfeited his life for the benefit of others, instead of seeking to extend it to the maximum possible. And yet, there is also the sense in which Jesus’ entire mission was to make eternal life possible for everyone. In one act he affirmed the desire for our existence to continue, and yet challenged us to consider the cost of how that will be actually realized—“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)
Walsh then returns to the wave-particle duality of light for another metaphor. He connects the discrete particle duality of light to Jesus’ humanity. The discreteness is fairly straightforward; humans come in distinct units, and Jesus is likewise separate and separable from the rest of us. The waviness he connects to his divinity. One consequence of waves interfering is that adding two waves together yield one wave. And for our purposes, adding three waves together yields one wave. He says:
This gives us a useful way of thinking about the triune, or trinitarian, nature of God. It’s a difficult one to grasp; the analogies that are often used, such as yolk, a white, and a shell being three parts that add up to a whole egg, don’t really capture what is meant by the Trinity. God is not Voltron; in fact, the early church rejected such a compartmentalized view of the Trinity as heresy. But with waves, we have three waves adding up to one of the same kind of thing, a wave. Going a little further, if you have the single wave, there are techniques to decompose it into multiple waves, but the solutions are not unique and require some assumptions about the nature of multiple waves. This would seem to mirror our difficulty in identifying exactly how God as the Father, as Jesus, and as the Holy Spirit relates differently to us and to each other, or in our need to be explicitly told about the Trinity in the first place rather than just being able to figure it out for ourselves.
Walsh acknowledges his debt to Polkinghorne and his book, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, for the analogy with the duality of light. He also agrees with Polkinghorne’s reluctance to push these analogies with quantum physics too far. After all, so many of quantum physics phenomena are beyond regular experience and counterintuitive, so they are described and even named using metaphors to more familiar experiences. People then see a connection between that familiar phenomenon referenced by the metaphor and a topic they are interested in and make the further connection to quantum physics. But I still think that’s OK. After all, there is no other way to understand God’s transcendence except through metaphor and analogy with what is familiar to us. The ancients evoked the splendor of an oriental king on his gilded and bejeweled throne to model God’s majesty and magnificence. Most of us modern’s are pretty unfamiliar with, and unimpressed by, kings on a throne anymore. But quantum physics—even the modern scientists/priests bow in awe to what is seemed to be revealed. I think it is entirely appropriate: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the quantum physics sheweth his handywork.”