What is the relationship between God and the world, between the Kingdom of Heaven and the material universe?
Ultimately, this one question lies at the foundation of most of our great theological debates. On one end of the spectrum lies the null hypothesis, atheism. There is no relationship because there is no God.
At the other end of the spectrum is ‘divine determinism’. Everything that happens in the world happens as the result of God’s will or according to a divine master plan. In its most extreme version, Universe exists only in the mind of God and therefore events in the world are simply God’s thoughts.
Between these two poles we have a range of ‘mixed models’. Deism, for example, contends that God created the world, but then “rested”. God plays no part in actual events. Epicureanism is a version of deism: the gods have no interest in the affairs of the world because they are entirely preoccupied with the pleasures of heavenly existence.
Next comes the theology of Rabbi Harold Kushner and others: God cares deeply about the affairs of the world and suffers right alongside us…but He is powerless to change the course of events. According to one version of this school, ‘creation’ requires that the ‘creature’ be entirely independent of the ‘creator”; otherwise it’s just ‘making’ not ‘creating’.
The most traditional Christian solution to this paradox involves the doctrine of ‘free will’. In general, the world is subject to divine control, or at least divine intervention (e.g. miracles), but human beings per se stand apart. They have free will and may act in ways contrary to the will of God. Such actions in turn have consequences, often dire, often long term, in people’s lives and in the world generally.
While there may be attractive elements in all of these theories, there are also problems. Rabbi Kushner has done an excellent job of defining the issue. According to Kushner, all theologies struggle with one of two problems: the power of God or the benevolence of God. Atheists, deists and Rabbi Kushner himself effectively deny the power of God. Traditional Christian solutions struggle to demonstrate God’s benevolence.
This later difficulty is often called the Problem of Evil. Simply put, if God is good, why is there so much suffering, so much evil in the world? One proposed explanation (Leibniz et al.) denies the reality of evil: this is the best of all possible worlds. Others view suffering either as a consequence of human sin (original and/or actual) or as some sort of ‘test’ orchestrated by God (Book of Job).
None of these explanations is completely convincing. In fact, there is no explanation anywhere on the entire spectrum that really satisfies. Atheists struggle to find meaning in life and to ground that meaning in something objective. Deists struggle to show how their view, practically speaking, differs from atheism. Followers of Kushner struggle to explain how their view is operationally different from deism.
On the Christian side, believers struggle to explain how human sin could possibly be responsible for the breadth and depth of suffering in our world or how a just God could possible subject his people to such horrific trials. Job himself, for example, appeals to God just to be as just as humans are to one another – not a very high bar.
Typically, when a problem is this intractable over such a long period of time, it suggests we may be missing something really big. All of the above theories assume that we are playing a zero sum game. For atheists, God = 0, world = 1. For theological determinists, God = 1, world = 0. Intermediate views generate intermediate fractions but those fractions always add up to one.
What if the relationship between God and the world is NOT a zero sum game? What if there is another way, a way we haven’t thought of yet, or haven’t recognized yet, that things relate to one another?
In 1964, an Irish mathematician named John Bell ‘discovered’ just such a way. He proved mathematically that there is a type of relationship that is not zero sum. Since 1964, his theory (Bell’s Theorem) has been tested countless times in laboratories and elsewhere; it has never failed.
Bell was concerned with two independent quanta (e.g. photons or electrons) that either originated in a single event or strongly interacted with one another at some point in their histories. He called such interaction ‘entanglement’ and he asked whether the state of one such entangled quantum was correlated in any way with the state of the other entangled quantum.
He discovered that there was no correlation…until a measurement of a particular state (e.g. ‘spin’) was performed on one of the quanta. It turns out that there is a positive correlation between the results of a measurement performed on one entangled quantum and the results of a similar measurement performed simultaneously on the other entangled quantum.
Bell posited that the quanta were far enough apart so that no information could travel from one quantum to the other (speed of light) while the measurements were taking place. Ingeniously, he also showed that the correlations could not be traced back to the time when the quanta originally interacted (i.e. became entangled). Finally, he demonstrated that the states were positively but imperfectly ‘correlated’ and therefor not ‘determined’.
The genius of Bell’s theorem lies in this: the two quanta are independent entities but their states are highly correlated (when measured). While all previous theories of interaction assume a sum equal to one (above), entangled quanta can produce a sum as high as 1.4 (the square root of 2). Effectively, you now have three entities: the first quantum per se, the second quantum per se, and their entangled state.
Now apply this new model to theology. At some point, God and the world strongly interacted (e.g. at creation). God and the world are independent entities (see the argument re the meaning of creation, above) but there is still some correlation between God’s state (will) and the world’s state (events) resulting from that initial entanglement.
Now I am certainly not suggesting that God and the world are ‘quanta’ or that Bell’s Theorem applies to their relationship in any literal way. What I am suggesting is that Bell’s Theorem offers a model that potentially points toward a solution to a centuries old theological paradox.
God and Universe are independent entities; however, there is an imperfect but positive correlation between their states. God does not ‘determine’ events in the world but there is a non-zero correlation between God’s will and cosmic history. How cool is that!
It is also important to note that in Judeo-Christian theology strong interaction between God and the world is not limited to creation. There are God’s historical interventions (e.g. the Exodus), the prophets, miracles, apparitions, etc… Most importantly, there is the Incarnation itself, the paradigmatic example of entanglement. Indeed, it could be argued that theologians anticipated John Bell by millennia.
While Bell’s Theorem is virtually incontrovertible, the mechanism that makes his correlations real is as yet undiscovered (and perhaps undiscoverable). Consider the possibility that in our theological adaptation of Bell’s model (above), at least one of the operative mechanisms might be prayer.
Prayer seems to be a powerful force in our experience and yet not all prayers appear to be answered. This is another paradox (which I will not explore here) but Bell’s model offers a potential solution. There seems to be a positive but imperfect correlation between prayer and events. Does prayer ‘entangle’ the mind of the worshipper with the mind of God?
The 20th century is known as the century of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics; yet it may be that history will consider Bell’s Theorem more important than either. All the more so if the model can also help solve the fundamental paradox of theology!