Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thanksgiving Three: Communion

I spent time this week in Pittsburgh at a conference on Shale and Public Health, where I listened to doctors, public health officials, environmental chemists talk about the unexpected consequences of unconventional gas drilling.

What happens when more than 750 different chemicals and compounds, mixed in more than 2000 different ways, are shot at high pressure and heat into fissures in the earth? We know the impact of one chemical at a time on adult males over short periods of time. What about multiple chemicals, over long periods of time? On skin? Lungs? Blood stream? Other organs? What about impacts on women, growing children, unborn babies whose organs are still forming?

We are all connected, in more ways than we know. Surfactants shot into the earth in one place can bubble up in another. Fractured shale in one town can increase radon in towns many miles away. Particular matter released in the air can be detected through markers in the next state downwind.

Newtonian physics posited an orderly world with discrete, separate entities interacting in predictable, definable ways according to their own particular traits. Quantum physics shattered that, offering instead a more complex, interwoven world.

In my high school physics class, our brilliant teacher, Mr. Appell, set us to testing quantum particle and wave duality. For weeks we worked our way through detailed experiments attempting to prove matter functions as either wave or particle. In the end, we were asked to defend and debate our conclusions, with mounting frustration: how could both be true?

I remember Mr. Appell twirling the ends of his reddish mustache, smiling with glee, as we argued, scribbled notes on the board, waved our results at each other. Logically speaking, both can’t be true: how can electrons be both particles and waves? How would you draw it? What would that look like?

That’s the challenge at the heart of quantum physics: our binary thinking doesn’t hold. We want to say choose one or the other. Door A or Door B. But somehow, it doesn’t work that way.

One of Einstein’s most puzzling, frustrating experiments revealed something called “entangled states,”a challenge to a core principal of classical physics known as “locality.” According to locality, and our most basic logic, an object is directly influenced only by its immediate surroundings. According to “entangled states,” testing or measuring an object in one place can simultaneously impact an object many miles away. Einstein called this “spooky action at a distance,” and for eighty years physicists have been trying to prove, disprove, explain the phenomenon. 

Physics points us toward a universe where what happens on a plant light years away can somehow influence what happens here.

Microbiologists have been coming to strangely similar conclusions from very different directions. Recent research has made clear that the human body is host to billions of invisible microbes, living on our skin, our hair, our teeth, multiplying in our blood, bones, brains, digestive systems. Since 2007, the National Institutes of Health have been promoting and funding experiments that catalog human microbiota and demonstrate connections between microbes and human health and disease. Depression, anxiety, autism, diabetes and more have been linked to abnormalities in human microbiotic communities.

Other research is showing that environmental changes caused by things like fertilizers, antibiotics, nanoparticles in sunscreen or packaging can impact the microbiome in ways that support or harm human health. 

What happens to a cow on a farm in Iowa can impact the mood of a child in Pennsylvania.

The work of a farmer in rural Guatemala can help or harm an executive in his office in Manhattan.

We are a tangled web of untraceable cause and effect, tied to “spooky action at a distance” in more ways than we’ll ever know.

The news, as I’ve traveled through the week, has been of bombs in Paris, migrants in Greece, airstrikes in Syria, terror alerts in Brussels.

Endless political posturing by our national would-be leaders.

It’s all connected: what’s said in New York echoes in Syria, flares across Europe, ricochets across college campuses, triggers violence in ways we can’t track, foresee, undo.

It’s beyond our control. Most of it.

Invisible microbes. Unknown additives. Planetary movements. Drones exploding houses on unnamed lanes in distant nations.

Two thousand years ago a group of friends gathered around a wooden table in a modest Middle-Eastern house, surrounded by forces beyond their control.

Romans patrolled the city, mercenary invaders wielding deadly swords.

Their own religious leaders were plotting to kill them, partisan patriarchs unable to consider any viewpoint but their own.

Their friend, the only one they’d ever met who spoke to storms, rebuked death and disease, that friend offered bread and wine as symbol and substance of his own imminent death. 
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11) 
For two thousand years his followers have debated what he meant.

Symbol or substance? Real food and drink, or memorial of faith?

Does he become part of us? We part of him?

Particle or wave?

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul wrestled with the implications: 
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” 
We are individual particles bound into waves by the body and blood of Christ.

But more than that, we are bound to all creation by the one who holds it in being: 
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17 
I follow with interest the studies of gravity, Higgs bosons, forces that hold matter in tension, that bind molecules together. Beyond any force our science can discern lies yet another force, announced millenia ago: in him all things hold together. For in him all things were created, visible and invisible.

There are Christians who object to language like that: only pantheists revere creation, or talk of God in Christ dwelling in every molecule.

And there are materialists who still believe that matter is all we have: nothing beyond it, inside it, before it. Just matter. Physical reality.

We know someday this world will end.

Atomic scientists point to a moment when matter explodes, when the mysterious force in atoms lets go in a blaze of light and fire.

Environmentalists posit a world ablaze: drought and wind and warming seas until the atmosphere itself bursts into fire.

Cosmologists talk of an ever-expanding universe that hits the limit of expansion and collapses back into a black hole singularity.

Apocalypse, once hard to imagine, seems closer each day, with war and rumor of war, global unrest and unprecedented population displacement.

John, the beloved disciple who sat nearest Jesus when he passed the bread and wine, saw his own world explode in persecution and war, saw his own closest friends martyred by stoning, beheading, crucifixion.

But he saw something beyond that – a sustaining word that will not leave us. 
A light in the darkness that will never dim. the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 
Fear not, the angels said.

Fear not, Christ himself repeated.

We are held in communion by a power greater than gravity, greater than darkness.

Greater than death, 

Thanks be to God. 

This is the third in a short Thanksgiving series.

Thanksgiving One: Provision, November 8, 2015
Thanksgiving Two: Creation, Novmeber 15, 2015