Sergei Tarassenko – nuclear physicist – Swanage – May 7, 2006
Translated from French by Patrick Schaer with amendments by Luke Tarassenko
We certainly live in exceptional times, one of the more puzzling elements of which is the scientific search for an ultimate sense to the drama of man and his history.
I refer, amongst other things, to a work recently published in France by Presses de la Renaissance called “Science et quête de sens”, in which scientists of the highest level, including four Nobel Prize winners, specialising in a wide variety of fields, express their different positions. They address the recent evolution in scientific knowledge of which I speak that will drastically change our vision of the world through its search for meaning.
In particular, this evolution has been characterised by the advent of New Physics. This discipline was formed following scientific discoveries made during the first thirty years of the 20th century, essentially following a thorough exploration of the subatomic Universe. The scientists of the time were brought face to face with a strange and unforeseen reality that seemed to defy a logical, Cartesian description of the Universe. They realised with much difficulty that their mechanistic concepts, inherited from thinkers such as Descartes and Newton, and the language and way of thinking that came with them, were inadequate when it came to describing the fruits of their discoveries.
The resulting problems were not only intellectual in nature, but gave rise to an existential crisis too. It took many years to overcome this crisis. However, the New Physicists did emerge from it eventually, newly and firmly equipped with a more thorough vision of the nature of matter and of its direct connectedness with the human mind.
These new concepts brought considerable upheaval to the way we view man and the Universe he inhabits. On abandoning the mechanistic conceptions of Descartes and Newton, according to whom the world is composed of clearly defined, divisible objects that are governed by rigid, predictable, mechanical laws, we come to a fundamentally different understanding. We are now able to develop and use a holistic and ecological paradigm whereby the Universe and man form an organic, non-dissociable whole that resists division into separate components. The shift is therefore from the mechanistic to the holistic. This leaves us with a vision startlingly similar to that of mystics of all times and cultures, who have somehow arrived at it without the help of scientific methods.
Still more strikingly, this new vision, while using a language of description which it developed itself, is curiously similar to that of an extraordinary book, one which never fails to astonish: The Bible. The parallels between the visions of New Physics and the Bible are most apparent if we return to the Hebrew of the Old Testament, along with the commentaries of the rabbinical schools, and the Aramaic in which Jesus taught. Of course we should not ignore the importance of Greek, the original language to seize the extraordinary Pauline vision of the epistles, as well.
One of the most startling examples of such a parallel consists in the conceptions of the hidden truths that lie behind the appearance of things. All in all, what is the ultimate reality, the one that includes all the hidden truths? What is the purpose that all things point towards?
On the one hand, New Physics informs us that the ultimate reality is of course invisible, being independent of time and space and as such not describable in terms of our perceptions. The reality that it penetrates into, then, is of an extraordinary order, in the end exceeding all imagination and especially explanation. It is “implicit”, that is to say it consists in everything, all life, all living beings, without being directly expressed as such. This order “sustains” and makes possible all that is visible, all that appears, all that is measurable, conceivable, imaginable. Furthermore, because it is not only our notion of space that collapses with the most refined understanding of all matter as interconnected and unified, but of time also, it follows that the ultimate reality “contains” all that was, all that is, and all that is still to appear to us in our space-time prison. What appears to us as an “event” visible to us in our life is, whether viewed at the atomic level or in the context of the whole history of the Universe, in fact only possible because all of the “ingredients” -all the elements which bring about the event- have “always been” in existence as a part of this ultimate reality or order.
On the other hand, if we turn to the Bible for an answer to our question about the nature of ultimate reality, we find, amongst others, this somewhat cryptic verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes (Eccl 3:15), “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before.” All in all, the “is” and “will be” have always been contained in what “has been”.
What is going on in our life, as well as what will happen in the future, has its deep meaning only in “something” that cannot be perceived or understood. This “something”, “having been” since always, contains and sustains all that we are, all that our ancestors were, and all that our descendants will be. It contains and sustains all the events, near or distant, that ever were, are, or will be, all our life, our society, our planet and in fact the entire Universe through all of its history. Science can only grasp the observable, measurable, conceivable manifestations of it, but religion goes further in trying to give a name to this “something”, this extraordinary order, this ultimate reality, which is beyond what is visible and apparent.
Both approaches –those of science or of religion- involve man’s use of his faculty of “naming”, without realising that most of the time what he “names” using his well-chosen vocabulary, because to him what he names must constitute the ultimate reality in his understanding, is only a projection of the way in which this understanding functions. Thus words like “scientific truth”, “order”, “ultimate reality” and “supreme being” correspond not to actuality but rather to “concepts” –that is, what he understands and wants to express by these words, however sophisticated and “meaningful” they may be.
Science then describes a Universe that appears very relative to her. For, in the last analysis, it constitutes all that man’s senses permit him to discover thanks to the functioning of his cerebral system and the machines and devices at his service. The latter are themselves invented and built thanks to the functioning of that same cerebral system. His capacity for observation, deduction and conception are thus widened and refined, enabling him to establish an increasingly sophisticated picture of the Universe.
But this picture, as developed and refined as it can become, is only a picture of the Universe and not its reality. The latter remains forever inaccessible to strictly cerebral perception. This is what made Niels Bohr, a famous Danish physicist of the beginning of the 20th century and Nobel Prize winner of 1922, say: “Science does not describe the Universe such as it is, but such as man feels it.” There remains an insuperable gulf that divides the Universe perceived by our senses and our machines and the Universe that is.
Religion is also affected by this divorce of the known –produced in this case by our senses being pushed to their limits through meditation and so-called “religious experience”- and the reality of God, invisible and indescribable, even by the most advanced theologies and philosophies.
This divorce is the root of, for example, what we can discern as the central weakness in Christianity at the beginning of the 21st century. The immense majority of those who call themselves Christian let themselves be trapped by “concepts” of God and of the spiritual life, concepts rationally formulated and then handed down, even imposed on them, by a certain theology and its proponents. The latter have made it their duty to “normalise” the Christian life in setting what they see as a certain standard for what it must be. This basically adds up to a kind of legalism whereby the Christian is encouraged to commit to a set of rational propositions about God and “interpretations” of the Biblical text, which are purely cerebral in nature, whereas the authentically spiritual life is centred in and radiates the Divine Love and not its theological explanation. This life results from a growing union IN Christ. Birth into this “from above”, instigated by the invisible, infinite and incomprehensible God, crucially complements the birth “from below”, that which concerns matter and biological life. And this union IN Christ is only possible through his cross: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives IN me” writes Paul in Galatians 2:20.
The source and authenticity of this Christ-life IN us has nothing to do with what is regarded as “relationship with God”. This is because, where the latter is concerned, all that we are invited to “connect” to are our concepts and images of God, rather than the reality of God, so that in the end all we are left with is indeed our relationship with what we think and believe God is, not God Himself. This “relationship”, the fruit of belief and what is taught and felt, is shut up in a certain definition and theological-Biblical interpretation of what is perceived about God by our senses (intelligence and/or emotions). It leads us to confer upon the God whom we perceive a “nature”, a “character”, “attributes”, and so on.
Assuredly, man cannot explain God, even less reach Him to meet Him. For in this reaching, that of all of the religions of the world, he only ends up with a concept, a picture of God, a God he is desperately searching, reaching far beyond what Reason can offer. He finds himself thus worshipping a picture, a relation, realising only very rarely that in this picture, which only reflects the functioning of his senses and his own way of forming a notion of “God”, he projects… himself! In the worship of his picture, man worships himself! There is no more major and direct cause to the conflicts that plague our churches than this, the spiritual sleep that comes with this subtly-disguised religious self-worship!
Earlier in this text the beginning of verse 15 of Ecclesiastes 3 was quoted: “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before.” This verse ends in the deeply moving words: “For God seeks what is pursued” (Hebrew-English interlinear version).
We see that on the other hand, God seeks man! Not blindly, but having placed man, any man and in any time, on a trajectory, that of his life. This is not a trajectory subjected to the laws of chance or even of necessity, but a trajectory subjected to an altogether different, irresistible force of attraction God has applied to man and the Universe as a whole. For man, as is the case for all of the Universe, was made for God so as to accomplish all that He had conceived and prepared from time immemorial, that is “to bring ALL things IN Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the Earth” (Ephesians 1:9,10).
Man is pursued so that it is God who catches up with him, who indeed meets with him, during the existence of man or when it comes to an end. The “is” or “will be” of the temporal moment and spatial circumstances of this meeting, whether it occurs during man’s lifetime or closer to his death, will be possible only thanks to this extraordinary reality that contains what “has always been”. Invisible reality, because eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18), makes possible a meeting with God -in it the meeting has already taken place, since always.
But God has not just met man in Christ, He has reconciled us with Him, always in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19). This meeting and reconciliation have been in action, but their particular manifestation in time and space was on the Cross of Golgotha. This leads Paul to write to the Church of Rome “We have been crucified with Christ” (Romans 6:6,8). Of course, we were not physically nailed with him on the Cross. We do not need to have been, since the “event” of the crucifixion is really an expression of something timeless and spaceless having “always been” in the ultimate reality in which we participate and share in a way that cannot be explained with words. The influence and power of the work carried out on the Cross is eternal, thanks to the eternal sacrifice of this lamb “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). The “manifestation” at Golgotha, that in history took place more than two thousand years ago, is only possible because of the eternal nature of the work carried out on the Cross. Here again, whatever “is” has “already been”. This solves the puzzle of the meaning given in Hebrew to the word “wood”, translated as “tree” in Genesis 2 (the tree of life). It is only in Deuteronomy 21:22,23 that this word recurs in such a way as to allow paraphrasing “tree of life” with “the wood on which is hung the condemned to death and from whom life will go out”. The work of the Cross is a work of brokenness so that life may emerge. It works as the integral part of the history of the Universe and as such is placed “in the middle of the garden”, at the centre of our history. Indeed, all history is encapsulated by it.
Here is expressed ultimate reality, the order that sustains all life, movement and being.
Of course, what we are, what the Universe is, constitutes a visible and expressible manifestation in time and space. But life, this “animated” life which is our consciousness, our capacity for exercising our senses, our faculty of expression, our oft betrayed hopes, our inspiration, our suffering, is merely a breath which passes through this garden of history, not to return. Is it our destiny then, to briefly live confined by the limits of space-time, and then end in the void from which we emerged?
NO is the firm and final answer to this alarming question that has and will always haunt man in his existence.
For the pursuit of man by God is a research that will undoubtedly succeed, in a circumstance and at a time that man does not know in advance. This meeting will take place; without a doubt it “will be” because, timelessly, it has “always been”. Our ultimate identity is to be found in eternal union IN the One who IS, who IS LIFE. A union made to become Knowledge, not rational knowledge, but true whole Knowledge, “Oneness”.
Such a meeting can be the only central topic of the Good News, the eternal Gospel, the Light, which shone out in history to reveal its meaning and purpose.
It is true; we live in exceptional times in the evolution of knowledge.
If science has reached a unique crossroads in its history, it is so that the man who questions himself may finally receive this Light. This Light is scarcely received, often avoided because man clings to his images and his pictures. We are witnesses of this Light. Will we be able to put it back on the mountain that we have brought it down from in order to stifle it with the experiences of our alleged emotional and intellectual “faith”? To bring it back, to go back there, is to discover that the name of this mountain is Golgotha. This is the defining step for these exceptional times: To come back to the Cross. This is the only step that will allow knowledge to free our civilisation instead of enslaving it.