Lately, I’ve been reading about the history of Christianity, in order to better understand the rituals I encounter in church and, more broadly, the importance of Christianity in today’s world. Three books, in particular, have opened doors: Zealot by Reza Aslan, An Historian’s View of the Gospels by Michael Grant, and A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass. Their generally historical perspective has helped me put the substance of our organized religious practice into perspective.
I learned that Christianity has always found room for a variety of interpretations and perspectives and that, in the years immediately after the crucifixion, two schools of thought developed around Jesus. The first, led by Christ’s brother James the Just, was centered in Jerusalem and was directed at bringing his message to Judeans of Jerusalem other communities around the Middle East. For this group, the assumption was that Jesus’ message was directed specifically to Jews. The second school of thought was led by Paul—Saul of Tarsus. Paul saw Jesus’ message as being universal—intended for all people, not just Jews. Paul took the message to the Gentiles. He argued that all people could enter into Christ’s Kingdom of God. For the adherents of James the Just, Christ must have seemed like another in a series of failed messiahs. Within a few decades of his crucifixion, James would be stoned to death and Jerusalem—and its Temple—would be destroyed by Roman armies. Paul, too, was killed for his beliefs, but his idea of a universal new covenant ultimately stimulated a social revolution that defined a new western civilization and, eventually, became a global religion and way of life.
Christ preached that what the apostles called the “Kingdom of God” was approaching and, with it, a “new covenant” that would replace the covenant between Jehovah and Moses that gave Jews the ten commandments. One thing both historians and theologians have remarked on is that Christ said little to define what he meant by “Kingdom of God.” I have often wondered how Christ—and those who wrote the Gospels in the decades after his life—would have described his vision if he had lived in a time when kingdoms were not the normal structure of society. What if he had lived in a democracy? How then might he have described the idea? Would it be a community of God? Two millennia later, we might want to put the concept into a context that reflects our current understanding of the world around us.
One of the biggest changes in our worldview since ancient times has been our understanding of our physical world. For several centuries, classical physics described a universe of things, where the big bang created a physical universe out of which our consciousness developed as biological forms evolved. In the twentieth century, quantum physics began to replace classical physics as a way of understanding the world. It introduced new ideas about the relationship between physical reality and consciousness. The “quantum enigma” is that, at the atomic level, things seem to exist as waves of potential and take on a fixed physical form only when they are observed. Most recently, this idea has taken the form of “biocentrism.” It suggests that, before the physical universe came into play, there already existed an infinite or universal consciousness, which, in turn, gave rise to the physical universe (or, perhaps, universes) as we perceive it. In this view, one could argue that all conscious life is an extension of the universal consciousness into a particular physical environment. God is not a bearded old man on a throne in the sky, but instead is the universal consciousness itself. One can then project that human beings—along with all the other conscious beings around us—are extensions of that universal consciousness, embedded in the particular physical environment which we experience as our world.
The quantum approach also resolves an issue that was divisive in early Christianity and that still affects many Christians: the tendency to see spirit and the material world as unavoidably in conflict with one another: the belief that the spirit is good and that the material world is evil. In a quantum world, there is no division between the material and “spiritual” (or “conscious”). They are inextricably related. Perhaps, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God is the ‘beyond’ in the midst of our life.”
The one thing a reading of quantum physics will leave behind is a sense that the universe is vast, that little of it is available for us to understand, and that as a result, we know very little about our world. We live by faith, being it religious or scientific—or both. Using quantum theory to experience Christianity through a modern lens is a leap, perhaps, but I think universal truth of Christ’s message remains viable in the context of a new scientific understanding. There is a universal consciousness out of which all things—including all conscious beings—in the universe have come. One could argue that this is the best way to interpret the “kingdom of God” in our times.
Ultimately, the challenge for this generation is to find spiritual fulfillment—to discover faith—in both science and spirituality. Christ’s moral teachings about compassion for each other—about the need to love our neighbors as ourselves—and many of the teachings of his apostles take new meaning and are right at home in this new context. The Christian ideal of a new covenant is especially meaningful in today’s quantum world.