Chapter 19. Mistaken Identity

After breakfast this morning I was checking the sports page for the standings in the hockey playoffs. My wife on the other side of the table uttered a low, unmistakably sentimental sigh.

When I looked at her, Kay canted her head to one side and smiled most sweetly. Holding up a small magazine, she enticed me. “Want to hear a good story?”

I felt obliged to reply, “Sure.

“Okay,” she said, “it goes like this. A young soldier had just returned from overseas duty. He was waiting in Grand Central Station to meet a woman he had never seen. Months before, when he was in boot camp, he had found in a second hand book the name and address of its former owner. Intrigued by thoughtful comments in the margins, he wrote her a letter. Before she had replied, he was sent overseas. She did reply though, and they often wrote back and forth. As romantic interest between them budded, he asked her to send him her photo. She refused, saying that, if he really cared, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like.

“On his return they arranged to meet in the station at six o’clock on this particular day. He was to recognize her by the red rose she would wear on her right lapel. So he moved around, watching women closely as they stood waiting or were passing by. One slim young blonde in a light green suit approached and looked his way. As their eyes met, he almost spoke to her. But just then not far behind her he spotted an older lady with a plump face who was wearing a red rose on her right lapel. Her thick-ankled feet were thrust into low-heeled shoes. She was looking directly at him and her eyes had a kindly twinkle. The soldier squared his shoulders, went over to meet her, saluted, and introduced himself. He called her by name and, although he was deeply disappointed, invited her to dinner.

“With a friendly smile the woman said: ‘I don’t know what this is about, son, but that young lady in green who just passed you asked me to wear this rose on my right lapel. She said that if you asked me out to dinner I should tell you that she is waiting for you in the restaurant across the street. She said it was some kind of a test.’”

For a moment Kay was silent, then she raised her eyes to me expectantly. “That’s it,” she said.

As my face lit up, I nodded slowly. “Yeah. That’s a good story all right. Romantic.”

Unfortunately I then broke the spell by blurting, “Hey, that gives me a title for my next chapter: ‘Mistaken identity’! Thanks, honey.”

On my way to the study, I squeezed her shoulder and told her I loved her, roses or no roses.

Science, time and God

For months now I have been trying to comprehend the mystery of time. As far as I can see, neither science nor philosophy nor theology have yet dealt adequately with this subject.

Physicists acknowledge time’s importance by incorporating it in their dynamic equations, but they generally don’t bother to wonder about where time comes from. For them time is just a “given dimension.” Since they assume that in itself time has no power, time cannot create itself or organize any kind of order. The source of time’s importance must therefore lie outside of time. But what does “outside of time” mean?

Because life is a process of continual change, biologists freely employ time-implicating conceptions such as growth, development, differentiation, mutation, evolution and autopoiesis or self-organization. Seldom however do they ask about either the ultimate source of either the time or the energy upon which all those change-producing processes depend. Few ever ask why organisms seem to be so determined to keep on surviving and so intent on perpetuating their species. Why are creatures committed to preparing for a future which they have never known? Plants prepare buds and seeds. Birds build nests for eggs yet to come. Squirrels store away nuts for use after the growing season. Time is an essential vector in living creatures.

I am convinced that any ultimate explanation of time must inevitably involve a Creator: an invisible, unlocalized Source which is always operating everywhere but is not everything. I have come to believe that time is the way the ongoing creative activity of God appears to us.

Upon reading this forthright statement, you the reader, if you have been thoroughly saturated with the current secular scientific consensus, may be inclined to set aside this document. In the worldview of the faith called “Science,” it is scientifically correct to maintain that all phenomena must be explained without reference to God or any other vital spirits.

But what if time should actually be the process by means of which God is creating the world anew moment after moment? Then a dogmatic dismissal of God as the ever-active source of time would automatically annihilate all prospects that science will ever comprehend the nature of time.

The presence and power of God are not concealed. Scientists simply ascribe them to other obscure agencies which they have invented and call by different names, such as Mother Nature, the laws of nature, natural constants, forces, givens, energy, inertia, equations, space, time and the Universe. Are the powers which are commonly accredited to these conceptions any less vague and mysterious than “the agency of God”?

In addition to physical creativity, the traditional conception of God has involved social and moral “laws” which prescribe the kind of human behavior which is most likely to achieve satisfactory and lasting personal and social relations. Although in practice these laws have as much cogency as do “laws of nature,” their requirements would embarrass persons of authority who have at various times chosen to ignore them. Rather than what appears at first sight to be arbitrary scientific dogmatism, “political correctness” may be what demands that all serious reference to God as the supreme, functioning reality be banished from scientific discussion.

The more I learn about the ingenious systems whose orderly functions constitute both me and everything I see, the more I am amazed. It is harder for me to accept that these wonders are entirely produced by dumb material particles than it is to believe that my life and all things depend upon an ingenious, super-intelligent, super-competent Creator.

Time in Western philosophy and religion

When the first Christians were beginning to develop their theology, they – like their contemporary Jewish theologians – drew many of their ideas about time from two sources: the Hebrew Bible and Greek philosophy.

For the Hebrews, time was a function of God’s creativity. The uncreated God brought the world into being and organized its dust. Vegetation and animals were created in orderly succession, not all at once. The unprecedented beginning and successiveness of these unique acts of creation suggested that the Creator operates out of a transcendent, eternal “superstratum.” All things owed their existence to the divine Creator. Unforeseen turns of historical events were especially understood to have been initiated by God. All events were perceived as occurring in a linear sequence of “times.” Although dateable by cyclical astronomical movements, historical events were not expected to recur cyclically as the Greek mind assumed.

The biblical story focused mainly upon the adventures of the descendants of a nomad named Abram, later called Abraham. This man reported that God had promised him and his descendants the land of Canaan as a possession forever. Throughout centuries of migrations, local struggles, invasions and captivities, Hebrew prophets kept alive the hope that their people would eventually possess in peace the land of promise. In God’s good timing, a powerful leader would appear. This Messiah (Anointed One) would be chosen and appointed to fulfil God’s ancient promise to Abraham and would bring about peace and prosperity. Thus the thrust of Hebrew (Jewish, Israeli) culture has always been directed toward the future destiny of that people and that land.

Classical Greek philosophers however were often less interested in human history than in the permanence and change which they saw in the physical world. They supposed that all things were just transformations of one basic homogeneous world-stuff. But how could what was uniformly the same change itself into air, fire, water or earth? With impeccable logic Parmenides reasoned that all change and motion are only illusion. In a world of real being, change and motion simply cannot occur. A thing always is where it is. It cannot be both where it is and where it is not. It cannot be where it is no longer and where it is not yet. What is really Real must be immovable, remaining constantly in its place. Parmenides thus promoted the idea that there is an unchanging world beyond sensible evidence and human experience. He also showed that reason cannot comprehend change and motion. His teachings opposed those of Heraclitus, for whom everything is perpetually in flux, like a flowing river. No one can step into the same river twice. No consensus about the nature of time can be found in early Greek philosophy.

About four hundred years before the Christian era, Plato noticed that, although everything in the physical world is perpetually changing, some things, such as mathematical and geometrical truths, are changeless. He held that beyond the world of senses there must be a world of unchanging, rationally apprehended ideal forms, nonphysical, nonspatial and nontemporal, yet real. These eternal forms relate harmoniously to each other and constitute the orderly, understandable rational system or Logos which underlies this transient world.

That intellectually intuited world is perfect – the very Form of the Good. Any change in it would have to be a change for the worse. Therefore the ideal world must be eternal, meaning unchanging. The physical world’s material things however are inconstant; they can never be permanent and unchanging. They keep appearing and disappearing, moving around, combining, separating, expanding, contracting and perishing. Physical things therefore can be only imperfect imitations of the ideal forms which reside in the realm of the eternal. To account for this mixture of the permanent and the impermanent, Plato suggested that there might be a self-moving cosmic World-Soul with a dual nature which enabled it to mediate creatively between the two realms. Because of its dual nature, it could bring together and meld ideal forms and transient earthly phenomena.

The character, teachings and miraculous powers of Jesus of Nazareth indicated that he was linked in a close and unique relationship with the God. of Israel. His miracles – stilling a storm, turning water to wine, multiplying bread and fish, and healing the sick – revealed his ability to control and shorten the time which is ordinarily required to complete lengthy familiar processes. Jesus showed a concern for the welfare and destinies of non-Jewish peoples, for the whole world – an attitude which was remarkable for that time. Although he commonly referred to himself as the Son of Man, his close followers identified their powerful leader as the promised Jewish Messiah. His compassion generated a large following, but his critique of the ruling establishment led to his execution. His crucifixion devastated his followers, but his bodily resurrection and subsequent appearances plainly endorsed Jesus’ teachings and qualities of life as those which are the most highly valued by God. Having risen from the dead, he was believed to be not only death-proof but able to act anywhere at any time. He had foretold his death, identifying it as a sacrifice for human sin. Having had this power over time, he was believed by fast-growing numbers of people to have done away with punishment for the past sins of those who believed and received him, and to have given everlasting life to those transient mortals.

Gentile Christians soon spiritualized and universalized Hebrew hopes and history. The Jews had been expecting God to bring forth from the lineage of King David a powerful imperial figure – their Messiah. Gentile believers in Jesus accepted him as the Anointed One, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ), but instead of considering Jesus to be a savior solely for Jewish people, they took Jesus to be a Savior for all of humankind. For believers, Jesus was not only the son of Mary of Nazareth, but the Son of God. The “promised land” was relocated in a transformed earth-to-come, into which believers from every nation would be welcomed. The glorified Christ had promised to return in bodily form, ending history’s tumult and beginning a longed-for, glorious future of peace and prosperity.

Jesus and his immediate disciples preached and practiced a way of life. They contributed little about time which had much significance for a philosophical worldview.

During the ensuing four centuries Christian thinkers of considerable talent and philosophical learning carefully distinguished their beliefs from those of influential cults which blended oriental and western philosophical notions. In order to communicate their ideas to non-Christian minds, they combined elements from their Hebrew inheritance with concepts which were common in the Greco-Roman culture around them. Like the Hebrews, they based their worldview on a God who created the world out of nothing, rejecting the Greek idea that matter had always existed. They did accept Plato’s other-world of eternal forms and considered it to be the dwelling place of God. The eternal ideal forms were easily adoptable as decrees of the perfect divine mind. The imperfections and changeability of this earthly world were accounted for by a catastrophic “fall” from the perfection in which the world had originally been created. This disaster was blamed on the delinquency of created free spirits, human and demonic. The prevailing notion that history keeps repeating itself was rejected in favor of the Hebrew conviction that time is directed and purposive, proceeding in a linear, one-way movement toward a divinely preconceived goal.

An unchanging God?

In this semi-Platonized Hebrew worldview the nature of Jesus became an enigma for Christians. Here theologians had to deal with the old Greek problem of the rationally unbridgeable chasm between a realm which is eternally changeless and one which changes with time. The miracles and resurrection of Jesus pointed toward his divine changelessness, but that did not fit well with the humanity of his earthly birth, development and horrible death. Plato’s suggestion of a Mediator who was both fully divine and fully human was easily adopted and adapted.

During the Middle Ages Christian theology more or less abandoned this time-ridden world in order to relate more closely to the “timeless” God. Bells sounded from church towers to remind people that life is short, that they should worship the Eternal One and store up treasures in heaven. Earthly things are deceitfully transient, but in that transcendent, timeless realm, the unchanging God will preserve all that ever was good, safe forever beyond deterioration, aging or dying.

A canny mind, however, might reason that in that supernal realm, if no change whatsoever were possible, no one residing there could ever do anything, not even think a new thought. Would such a fixed-forever existence be much of an improvement on being just plain dead and gone? Moreover that extreme conception of heaven conflicted with the sketched out new heaven and new earth which were promised in the Bible – a lively world in the presence of God with great music, flowing waters and abundant fruitfulness. Uncritical popular preaching however continues even today to define “eternal” as “timeless and unchanging.”

Christian assertions concerning the changelessness and constancy of God were intended to maintain confidence in God’s revealed purposes, promises and policies – these don’t change like the weather. Believing that divine unchangeableness in this sense underlies the universe has undoubtedly given people’s lives a sense of security, purposeful direction, and meaningfulness.

However if saying that God is “eternal” is taken to mean that God is unchanging in all respects, strictly speaking that would imply that God never speaks, thinks, plans, acts, creates or takes note of anything that is done in the world. A completely unchangeable mind, being unimpressionable, is not really a mind at all. Besides, many passages in the Bible clearly ascribe change to the living God. In the scriptures God speaks, creates, acts, repents, changes plans and forgives. As Jesus put it, “My Father is always at work to this very day” (John 5:17).

Saying that God is “eternal” need not mean “absolutely immutable.” It can express not only the belief that God’s character is changeless, but also that God’s vital being is underived, a continuity without beginning, interruption or end. God’s purpose, creativity and memory would thus be held to bestraddle and transcend all created “times.” In Latin “transcend” means to “climb across.” This understanding of God as being forever active makes it possible to use “eternal” to mean “God’s kind of time,” which runs in parallel, as it were, beside all created time. That lends additional meaning to the Platonic expression “time is the moving image of eternity.”

Judging from what we observe as the world keeps changing, the ideals of created permanence and stability do not seem to hold preeminent interest for God. The Creator appears to be committed to a universal policy of changing things and relations. Creation goes on and on as God keeps making all things new.

To avoid making God responsible for this world’s tragic transience, losses, injustice, suffering, death and other evils, some theologians have limited the scope of God’s creating to the first-time, once-only launching of the world. By rejecting any notion of continuing creation they have actually severed the tie between the Creator and all subsequent events in time, space and human history. These “deists” backed theology right out of the temporal world and left it to be explained by science using entirely secular concepts.

Discoveries which revealed the inconceivable age of the universe and the amazing variety of life forms which have appeared upon Earth during successive geological periods have prolonged the exile of the Creator by billions of years. Unless theology revises and popularizes its conception of the relation between the Creator and all of time, God will continue to be irrelevant, not only to science, but to the commonest aspects of human living. By understanding time as God’s continued creating, history takes on meaning and becomes a story with a dramatic plot.

Conservative Catholic and Protestant theologians have maintained that the world as created by a perfectly good God had been perfectly “good.” However it seems to me that anything which had to be created could not be as perfect as its uncreated Creator. If the earth as originally created had been the ultimate in perfection, it should not – as in the biblical story of the garden of Eden – have required any gardeners or agriculturalists to keep it in peak condition. If the perfection of the primeval world was so fragile that it could be wrecked by a single act of human disobedience, the goodness of the world obviously could not have been good in the sense of being “absolutely perfect,” “completed” or “final.” It would be better to say that it was “good but not final.” That would acknowledge the wonders of the world at first, but leave open the possibility that, with time, it could undergo further change. This understanding of good would be compatible with continuing creation and would get around the deistic relegation of the Creator to the remote past, the very beginning.

Human beings were believed to be the high point of God’s creating. Individuals were said to bear the image of God, possessing the ability to decide how they wished to relate to the potentialities and possibilities of the world which God laid before them. Human choices have been wreaking much havoc in the world, but God has kept developing counter measures to control and change human and other relationships. Some of these methods featured influential leaders, governments, laws, punishments, education, medicine, spiritual transformation and physical techniques. If humans could somehow be persuaded to work together properly in the direction of God’s purpose, a harmonious world system could be achieved. Having been counted worthy of resurrection and everlasting life beyond earth-time, the life of Jesus was seen to have not only pointed in the direction of an ideal future, but also as being able to provide spiritual motivation and constraint to those who would work toward it.

The notion of the tragic “fall” of God’s originally good world has raised the question as to whether or not the Creator had known in advance that this disaster would happen. Influential theologians have held that an all-knowing Creator must have known exactly what would happen on all future occasions. Natural scientists likewise began to maintain that past conditions and events had determined in advance exactly what would happen in the future. For many years the physical determinism of science fitted nicely with a theological doctrine of “foreordination.” Today quantum physicists, however, know that in the realm of micro-events, exact and detailed predictability is impossible. It isn’t hard to believe that God knows in general that history, though it wobbles ever so disappointingly, will eventually accomplish the divine purpose. It is also not difficult to believe that God has been aware of everything that has ever happened in the past. Nor is it hard to believe that the Creator knows what is happening right now. Such beliefs however do not justify the conviction that from the beginning of the world God knew absolutely every single, tiny detail about each and every event that would be happening in the future throughout the entire universe.

We can accept that God is all-knowing without defining “all-knowing” to include the details of every event which will happen in the future. The “all” in “all-knowing” may be taken to mean simply that God knows “all that has so far been there to be knowable.”

The teaching that God knew from the beginning the details of everything that would happen throughout the future puts a demonic mask over the face of the Creator. If God knew about awful things which would happen, you would think that precautionary measures might have been built into the system in order to prevent those things from happening. If the future was already known by God, why was it necessary to put us humans through so many torturous, miserable episodes of human history?

Before creating anything, God’s “environment” would have been nothing at all. There was nothing which could constrain any decisions, nothing to restrain the Creator’s possible activities. In order to have creatures, God had to create what was not the One who created it. By creating what was not God, the Creator lost absolute freedom from limitations and sacrificed supreme infinitude. Whatever was not the Creator, the Creator was not that. That was a limited limitation however. It did not mean that the Creator had no power over creatures. The limitation was self-imposed: it was therefore revocable. What was made could be unmade. Nevertheless God’s self-initiated deprivation had profound consequences. From its very beginning the Creator’s relation to the created universe involved sacrifice and suffering – an eternal cross. This is why sacrifice for others is an ever-present phenomenon at every level of being and life.

Creatures and freedom

Our understanding of creation and time has been crippled not only by some of our commonly inherited conceptions of the Creator, but also by the traditional definition of created material things – another instance of mistaken identity.

Everyone sort of knows what matter is. It is that solid stuff which things are made of. Matter is inert. It exerts no initiative. Matter just sits there until some force does something with it or to it. Nonliving matter is blind and insensitive. Particles of matter come in several kinds and the essential characteristics of each atom of a certain kind are identical with those of every other atom of that kind. Right?

Wrong! According to quantum physics, such notions about matter in the small are quite mistaken. Particle accelerators and electronic microscopy have enabled physicists to peer deeply into the underworld of microphysics. What they find there is very different from the traditional static and deterministic conception of matter. On the subatomic level, the “solid” material world dissolves into a panorama of jittery clouds and speeding streaks. Probing a puff which they call an atom, researchers come upon a tiny complex nucleus and, relatively far away from it, they come upon one or more elusive, circling electrons. These and other particles are not mere whirling balls; they vibrate in a strange jiggly fashion.

From time to time the major nuclear particles are apt to engage in unpredictable behavior. For no obvious reason, a neutron may suddenly turn into a proton, an electron and a neutrino, or one of several other combinations of different particles. In any particular case no one can predict which combination of particles will result. No one knows exactly when a radioactive atom will emit radiation. An “unstable” particle is one which may be triggered into sudden change by a tiny twitch of quantic initiative, an unexplainable “fluctuation.”

Electrons possess a surprisingly large repertoire of unpredictable, discontinuous behavior. No one can tell precisely when a certain electron of an excited atom will make a quantic jump from its present energy level to one lower or higher. Somewhere within apparently empty space an electron and a positron may suddenly appear, go along together briefly, then disappear with a flash into the “nothingness” whence they sprung.

How should this unpredictable behavior be understood? Could it be due to the initiative of quantic entities themselves? Or to divine creativity? Or both? Unable to explain these discontinuities, physicists usually throw up their hands and say with a shrug and a grin, “Well, that’s quantic behavior for you!”

When an electron is zipping along and suddenly emits a flash as it changes its direction or speed, it certainly looks as though subatomic particles have a will of their own and are capable of exercising choice between optional futures.

In quantum field theory, nuclear particles keep emitting and absorbing extremely short-lived “not-quite-yet” virtual particles of energy. One of these “virtual particles” may suddenly leap across to unite with one which has just been emitted by a passing particle or with one that has just appeared “spontaneously” in the void. Such opportunistic liaisons can be construed as being somewhat lifelike in that the vectoral tendencies of particles resemble intentional desire and indicate awareness of the presence of other particles.

A regular subatomic particle can be uniquely described by four “quantum numbers.” These designate its energy level, its angular momentum, its magnetic strength and its “spin.” Thus particles of the same kind are not necessarily absolutely identical. Possession of a specific combination from a considerable range of possible quantum numbers gives each atomic particle an individual identity.

The extended material world as we know it totally depends on a revealing “Exclusion Principle.” This decrees that if two particles have the same set of quantum numbers, they cannot coexist simultaneously in the same atom. One may well wonder how an electron which is approaching an atom calculates in advance whether or not it will be welcomed among the electrons which are already orbiting that atom. At inconceivable speed it must be able to scan all the incumbent electrons ahead, read off the values of their various combinations of quantum numbers, compare each set with its own, and decide whether or not to proceed on course.

In summary, matter is not inert; it is amazingly active. Particles of each kind are not indistinguishable; each particle has a specifiable individual identity. The movements of particles are not totally determined and predictable. Particles are capable of taking initiative, exhibiting preferences and making unpredictable choices. They are not insensitive; they obviously react to their environment.

If the physical microworld is as particle physicists say it is, matter appears to possess a rudimentary mentality. Though perception in particles must be extremely primitive, some protopsychic capabilities are evidently present within them. Their obvious spontaneities and unpredictable liberties suggest that they too possess a certain power of decision. They will join in coherent, collective activities with congenial companions but shun association with certain others.

Chemists know that certain substances will not react with certain others except when light, heat or a certain catalyst are supplied. Some refuse to dissolve in water or to combine with oxygen. Gold will not dissolve or “rust.” Glass will conduct light but will not conduct electricity or dissolve in water. The preferences exhibited by materials are usually referred to as their “properties,” but perhaps some other explanation of their negative characteristics is overdue.

Unfortunately traditional science is dead set against “anthropomorphism” – that is, ascribing characteristics which have been customarily held to be distinctively human to things which are not human. Attributing even rudimentary powers of choice and decision to bits of matter has conventionally been deemed ridiculous. Commitment to human chauvinism may be keeping us unrealistically apart from the “subhuman” world and a realm which sustains it.

Biologists have difficulty with the notion that “mere” physical particles are able to perform vital functions. Nevertheless, with time, the “dead” material which I eat somehow becomes living “me.” If no cell or DNA molecule possesses even a vestige of consciousness, how can intelligent awareness be communicated from parents to children via those very units? If matter is actually as deadly dull as it has been traditionally conceived to be, biologists must surely find it difficult to explain how matter alone could generate conscious mind.

Those who accept the authority of the Bible are usually willing to agree that God made human beings in God’s image. They are not so willing to accept the psalmist’s observation that trees and rivers can “clap their hands.” Brainwashed by scientific prejudice, they dismiss such notions as “mere poetry.” But who can show that the Creator, human beings and all creatures great and small do not have in common at least some things to some degree? The goodness for which we are thankful does not all originate with humans. And humans are not responsible for earthquakes, mosquito bites, weeds and viruses. If all things have some say about the direction in which their milieu should go and if God, in creating and recreating the world with time, is understood to be taking creaturely decisions into account, everything I know will have its place in a coherent and meaningful worldview.