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Spring Books

Invitation to plunge into theology, rather than be an observer

Executive Editor

Theology, one suspects, didn't start with a catechism or even a theologian. It began, more likely, when ordinary early humans looked at the world in wonder and asked how they and everything got there. They probably concluded that the seed does not explain the flower, that there is someone or something above and beyond -- the one in the driver's seat, or, ultimately, God.

We like to picture them sitting in circles around primitive fires, arguing like hell, before moving to the more sedate groves of academe. Out of this spiritual and intellectual maelstrom some, with a hankering for order or armed with divine inspiration, organized the like-minded and started religions. Many of the religions grew and prospered.

And one thing most prosperous religions did was create their own theologians, who would officially say what was theologically what, thus wiping out the input of folks sitting around early fires or, nowadays, in bars or therapy sessions or even in contemporary academic groves and Catholic newspapers.

Today, the two final steps in the theology enterprise are wrapping it in authority and handing it down. No church does this better than Catholicism.

Those who rail against this spoon-feeding approach to theologizing may be pleased to discover Quantum Theology, by Missionary Servant of Christ Fr. Diarmuid O'Murchu (Crossroad, 227 pages, paperback $19.95), whose first chapter is titled "You Are Invited," in which he invites us to "come with me on a journey of exploration; let's link arms in a trajectory whose direction and destiny we'll discover as we go along. ... Participate in the task rather than remain a mere observer."

O'Murchu, who lives in London, has lectured and written widely, including Our World in Transition and Religious Life: A Prophetic Vision.

As that word quantum hints, the author has scientific leanings. Instead of juggling abstractions, therefore, his theology wades into the real world of measurements and molecules and ice on your car window. But if that sounds too cold and clinical, perhaps it's because you think science is mere microscopes and telescopes looking in or out on the action. On the contrary, O'Murchu invokes author John Wheeler to the effect that "the vital act is the act of participation."

"Participator," Wheeler goes on, "is the incontrovertible new concept given by quantum mechanics. It strikes down the term observer of classical theory, the one who stands safely behind the thick glass wall and watches what goes on without taking part. It can't be done, quantum mechanics say."

O'Murchu calls what he does "quantum theology." Practitioners will have to use their heads, he challenges, but especially their hearts. "Bring all the reserves you can," he writes, "of imagination, intuition, creativity and your capacity to marvel." And leave at home the prejudices and ideologies that have become barnacles on all the churches, he adds: "Our expedition is about discovering the connections that help to forge unity and not the differences that fragment and divide."

What is theology?

O'Murchu is by no means the first modern to get democratic about theology. Most such efforts -- liberation theology, for example -- usually come under heavy fire from the corridors of ecclesiastical authority, in our case the Vatican. Perhaps this is why O'Murchu goes back, respectfully but unflinchingly, literally to put such authority in its place.

From what we know of our prehistory, it seems we humans lived a sometimes brutish but generally harmonious life. "We sought and discovered meaning in the events and experiences of daily life. We sensed the frightening, yet benevolent, power of the divine in the rhythms of nature." Mother Earth was perceived to be on our side.

But then, writes O'Murchu, with the Agricultural Revolution (about 8000 BCE) came the desire to control life's elements, including the religious impulse. The description strikes a chord as new as it is old: "The craving to dominate took on diabolical proportions. Tribal and ethnic groups vied for ultimate supremacy, as Planet Earth was carved into sections and nations. Finally, we humans tried to conquer and control the godhead itself, that divine, mysterious force that fascinates, puzzles and frightens us. And how did we decide to do it? By inventing religion!"

Religion allowed the religious leaders to create the duties and expectations that any good god -- that is, any god who matched the leaders' notion of a good god -- would think fit. Religious leaders did not have to be knaves to do this; it's very human to conclude God is in agreement with us on a host of issues, and sometimes we are so convinced God agrees with us that we actually hear him telling us so. And often we write it down.

In the light of total human history, the founding of religions is no more than a phase, roughly from 3000 BCE to 1500 CE. Writes O'Murchu: "Formal religion is a very recent visitor to Planet Earth. It has been around for about 5 percent of humanity's spiritual journey."

If having a religion is not a property of humanity as we know it, then what? Again, O'Murchu grasps the problem by the deep roots: "What we cannot escape is that we as a species have outlived that phase of our evolutionary development, and so, quite appropriately (it seems to me), thousands of people are leaving religion aside, no longer feeling the need for it."

This, O'Murchu goes on, leaves the giant dilemma of how to fill the vacuum left by the demise of formal religion. We know that vacuum today as the search for meaning. The basic thrust of spirituality is this struggle for significance. The drive toward meaning, he suggests, is not only within us but around us in creation itself -- spirituality is planetary as well as personal.

So religion, O'Murchu explains, is only one aspect of our spiritual unfolding, and one that, as a species, we seem to be outgrowing. Theology, he goes on, has more to do with spirituality than with religion -- something the churches, preoccupied with issues of creed, power, loyalty and theological battles of long ago, seem to have ignored.

The quantum

One might get the impression this book is critical of the Catholic church, something O'Murchu scarcely bothers to be. Instead, he leaps headlong into another reality: the world undreamed of by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Mohammed -- the world finally being discovered, after millions of years of speculation, in our own time. There seems little new here for those who follow science, except perhaps perspective, but intriguing new possibilities for those whose searching has been church-bound.

The author quotes Danah Zohar (one of dozens of tantalizing quotes with which he begins his chapters): "I want to support the view that the foundation of reality itself is a unified, indeterminate maze of possibilities." Whatever that means, it sounds upbeat and hopeful.

O'Murchu, however, is no more benign toward traditional science than toward traditional theology. Classical science, characterized by cause-and-effect, determinism and such, while it created many benefits for humanity, also "generated enormous human exploitation."

But just when science was in danger of becoming fossilized like the more conservative churches, along came people such as Albert Einstein, for one, with theories about relativity that even dumb non-scientists can see makes a battened-down, stagnant universe a definite non-starter. In this context, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's recent attack on theological relativism evokes regret that a man in such a powerful position, with a good theological point or two up his sleeve, spends so much vital spiritual capital on admonitions that seem adrift and irrelevant in a world where movers and shakers are excitedly waking up to flux and relationship.

Before the Einsteinian dust had settled, along came Max Planck, whose quantum theory is what really set O'Murchu in motion. Central to the theory is the notion that "everything we perceive and experience is a great deal more than the initial, external impression we may obtain, that we experience life, not in isolated segments, but in wholes (quanta), that these bundles of energy which impinge upon us are not inert, lifeless pieces of matter but living energies" -- but just when O'Murchu is in danger of lapsing into obscurity, he gets homely.

Take his desk, he suggests. Or your own. It looks inert, dead, going nowhere. It can be dismantled into parts, which all look dead. But put them under a microscope and we observe that the whole thing is "alive" with moving particles, and particles within particles, essentially the same particles that make up our own selves, make up the universe.

"There lives the dearest freshness deep down things," wrote Gerald Manley Hopkins, who may have been ahead of his time sensing the same phenomenon as O'Murchu, who writes: "My desk may be described as a pulsating conundrum of crystallized energy. Even the sweat, toil, devotion and creativity of those who made my desk belong to its essential nature and may be having a minute but nonetheless real effect on my feelings and thinking as I write these words."

Key to the quantum theory, it seems, is the "wave packet," neither fully particles (such as electrons) nor fully waves. If this sounds vague and elusive, we are actually on the right track because "fuzziness, uncertainty and probability" are features of the quantum world in which the closest we can get to nailing down the meanings of things is to see them as relationships. This comes as a shock to our highly-developed yen for neatness and control.

Writes O'Murchu: "For millennia -- even in prehistoric times -- humans experienced life as an overwhelming array of potential and possibility. Indeed, the patriarchal urge to dominate and control may be understood as an attempt to reduce the awesomeness of life to manageable proportions."

Remember that O'Murchu is searching for a theology, only he is starting in the basement -- or the attic, if you prefer. What he finds on the ground floor -- our floor -- are the fruits of centuries of reductionism: our efforts to wrap God in a neat package. The package is proving to be pathetically inadequate.

This seemingly obscure predicament is as relevant as today's church headlines. On the one hand we have a church willing to ostracize anyone who offers any but the official version of reality. On the other hand, writes O'Murchu, even the way we react to the official version changes it, and thus presumably renders it no longer official: "According to the quantum theory, not only is the observer involved, but the observer actually brings about what is being observed."

This is called the Copenhagen view. It sure is tricky. Baloney, we are inclined to say. Still, we know that at least sometimes our involvement in things changes things. How we interact with another can affect that other and not merely appear to do so. "Whether the wave/particle manifests as a wave or as a particle depends on which one the observer is seeking." It all depends. Relationships begin to loom large in all this.


In the quantum universe, "all life is understood to operate within the context of relational interaction." This confronts the old view that one thing is always caused by another. Not caused but affected, say the quantum people. Francis Thompson is cited: "Thou canst not stir a flower without disturbing a star" -- an amazing foretelling of nearly everyone's pop version of chaos theory.

The universal interdependence thus implied is especially hard to swallow in the Western world where individualism, fragmentation and competition are seen as the way reality was designed to be. The alternative, the new view, is holistic. And when the holistic pot is stirred, scientists begin to recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a cornerstone of quantum theory. Humans are a good example. Writes O'Murchu: "There is no scientific, sociological or psychological means of measuring the intimacy and exhilaration of courtship, the eroticism of sexual embrace, the ecstasy of contemplative prayer ... the rending terror of pain and suffering. ... The whole person can be neither analyzed nor understood in terms of some or all the parts of the human personality."

That there's always more than we can measure, more than meets the eye, should be very comforting. That something extra leaves room for hope. It could be our salvation.

Such a stance is not necessarily a repudiation of the Christian salvation story, but the traditional telling of it seems progressively less effective in a world attuned to different wonders. The author quotes creation theologian Fr. Thomas Berry: "It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we are in between stories." The lexicon of the new story may contain terms like quarks, holons and energy. O'Murchu, who maintains a commendable restraint throughout, doesn't claim to have the story. But he points here and there, with impressionistic flourishes, at how the story might get off the ground.

He points, for example, to dance, not only as metaphor but as a primitive reality that may say lots about us that we are in danger of forgetting. The dance starts with energy, "the substance of life, the unrelenting wellspring of pure possibility." The dance is almost as old as we are, probably 600,000 years. It was related to the hunt, to the changing seasons, to transitional moments in human life. It represented something elementary welling up and breaking out. Scholars later referred to us as homo ludens (playing persons) because we had this capacity. It was sacred in its origins and still is fundamentally spiritual. While it gradually got organized and choreographed, it could not, almost by definition, be controlled. The unpredictable and creative were of its essence.

O'Murchu sees in dance's decline the decline of our story: "Perhaps the greatest disservice that formal religion has rendered to our world is its tendency to disrupt the dance. It tried to project God out of creation into the 'divine' realms of the church (on earth) and heaven (in the world beyond). It has led us into a speculative, cerebral mode (of thought and action), which ultimately was not about devotion and worship but an insatiable desire to control the capricious power of the deity. We tried to sever the divine connection with the heart and with the imagination and substituted the head and the soul in their place."

The whole blessed world is full of weirdness, and it must matter somehow, and O'Murchu kicks some of it about as if it mattered. For example, the monkeys on Koshima Island in Southern Japan. In 1954, the monkeys initiated a new way of eating potatoes there. By 1958, monkeys all over Japan had adopted the new way of potato-eating, although there had been no physical contact between the two groups.

There is an esoteric scientific explanation for what happened. But also bigger ramifications. Theology, in short. A few pages later the author is saying that creation itself is the primary revelation. That means the various religions are secondary, "particular expressions offered in the specific context of certain historical and structural milieu."

Those "expressions" were our story to date, O'Murchu is saying, but as a species we are now "creatures without a common story, actors without a script." The arts are not the least aspect of our civilization to reflect religion's entropy. Both have succumbed, he claims, to the depleted culture of today.

The death of the imagination is catastrophic, O'Murchu says: "With two-thirds of humanity struggling to meet basic survival needs and the other third largely preoccupied with accumulating and hoarding wealth, the human capacity for reflection, intuition and the development of the imagination is at an all-time low."

Still, some are striving to tell the story anew, he goes on. His own telling of it is an exciting contribution.

Make room for theology

No one has ever seen God. All efforts at theology, including O'Murchu's, are just that: shots in the dark, using fickle, sometimes treacherous human words to match a reality for which no adequate word has yet been coined, not even by the churches. It is nonsense to nod assent to musty theological cliches that date back to Thomas Aquinas, himself muzzled in his own day, or to the mental constructs of pre-Christian Aristotle, or for that matter to any cliche that fails to engage the culture of the day, which is what religion, if it means anything, is supposed to do.

The present pope, talented and versatile and probably saintly, may go down in history for many reasons: his world travels and appeals for social justice; his contribution to the fall of communism. Or the John Paul II papacy may be remembered as the decline of theology, at least within the Catholic church: the era when fear and the matching instinct for self-preservation eclipsed the human hankering to reach higher, dig deeper, for meaning, for spiritual answers in an exceptionally troubled world.

A book like this, a small, unpretentious paperback, might remind searchers of the immense, unexplored areas waiting for theologians when theology is again treasured.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997