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Quantum Physics & the Trinity

Some of you might know that many years ago I did my graduate work in theoretical physics, and that for a number of years I taught history of science at a small college.  The students at that college didn’t have much math or science background.  And one of the things that I wanted to do as part of that history of science course was to teach them some quantum physics in one or two lectures.  Now, that’s not easy!   And to make it even more challenging, one of the key concepts of quantum physics that I wanted to teach them was the idea of wave-particle duality, the strange notion that a basic entity such as an electron, for example, is both a wave and a particle.


This created a bit of a dilemma for me.  You see, the simplest approach would have been to just tell the students that this was true, that an electron really is both a particle and a wave at the same time, that the experts have figured this out, and that they as students are just going to have to believe it, even though it might make no sense.  But what would be the value in that?  Simply telling people to assent to something that they don’t have any feel for or understanding of wouldn’t achieve very much.  It wouldn’t open up their imaginations.  It wouldn’t help give birth to any new ideas.  It wouldn’t give rise to feelings of awe and wonder about this universe we live in and it wouldn’t really teach them anything of value about quantum physics.


So instead, I figured that it would be much more productive if I was to help them experience the electron as both a wave and a particle. 


So we talked about televisions.  Not the flat screen TVs that we use today, but the big old TVs with the picture tubes that we used to use.  And I explained how they work, that a TV is basically an electron gun that fires electrons between some electrically charged metal plates towards a phosphorescent screen, which is the set up shown in the first image in your booklets, and the experimental set up used by J.J. Thomson in 1897.

When the electron hits the screen, it gives off light. That’s how an old TV works. And I explained to my students that if a physicist was to ask the question “what is an electron?” using the TV as an experimental set-up, the answer she would get is “the electron is a particle with a mass and electric charge”.  So far so good.


But suppose I was to change the experimental set up a little bit.  Suppose instead of having electric plates in the middle to guide the electron, I put a barrier with two slits in it where the electron could pass through.  And instead of a phosphorescent TV screen, I put a photographic film which records a little dot whenever the electron hits the film.  Now what sort of pattern would you get on the photographic film when you fired a bunch of electrons through the slits?  You might expect to get a pattern like the one shown in the second drawing, two clusters of dots, one for each slit, where the number of dots on the film indicates the number of electrons that hit the photographic film at each spot.

But what if I was to tell you that that’s not what happened, that the actual pattern you get when you do this experiment is more like the third drawing, where the dots create a pattern of alternating white and dark bands.  Would you believe me? Believe me, this has been replicated many times in lab experiments.

And this surprising pattern makes perfect sense if the electron is not a particle which passes through one slit or the other, but rather a wave which simultaneously passes through both of the slits on its way to the photographic plate. Something like the wave interference pattern shown in the fourth drawing:  

So you see, now if we ask the question “What is an electron?” using this different experimental setup, we get a different answer.  An electron is a wave with a particular frequency and wavelength.  Same electron.  Different way of experiencing it.


Now you know something about what physicists call wave particle duality, about how an electron can be both a wave and a particle.  And you know it not because I gave it to you as a doctrine or a scientific law that you had to believe, but rather because you’ve experienced something about an electron, from your own experience of TVs, waves and particles and from the stories of what actually happened in physics labs when physicists did these experiments.


Our understanding of God is a bit like this.  Our understanding of God comes out of our own experiences and encounters with God, and the stories that other people have told us of their experiences and encounters, many of which we find in the Bible.  And the doctrines and theology that come out of these experiences and encounters are our way of naming and giving structure to all of this so that we can talk about it, and talk with each other, and figure out how our own experience relates to the experience of others.


Today’s readings are all accounts of what happens when humans encounter the divine.  But they are not all the same!


In our first reading, Isaiah has a vision of God as big.  Huge.  Immense.  He sees God sitting on a throne, high and lofty, so big that just the hem of his robe fills the temple.  Isaiah is filled with fear and wonder.  He is painfully aware of his own insignificance in the presence of the one who created the heavens and the earth.  This is an experience of God as transcendent, the God who is beyond us, who is so much bigger than us.  In our psalm this morning the poet has a similar experience.  She encounters the awesomeness of God in creation, in the thunder and earthquake, in the lightning and wind.  Paul in his letter to the Romans writes that “ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature have been understood and seen through the things God has made.”  And I think that most of us get this, at least in some measure. Think of the times you have beheld the beauty of a sunset, or the peacefulness of a forest or the glory of worship, the times you have experienced the transcendence and wonder of a divine energy which is beyond our grasp and comprehension.  This is one of the ways that we experience and encounter God.


But it’s not the only way.  Sometimes we experience the divine not as something beyond us, but as something within us, not as something that’s immense, but as a still, small voice.  In our second reading Paul talks about God as Spirit, a Spirit that leads him, a Spirit that cries out from within him, a Spirit that teaches us that we are children of God, a Spirit that urges us into intimacy with the divine.  This is the experience of God as immanent, as within and around us.  And once more, it is not just Paul who experiences God this way.  We do too!  Think of the times that you’ve experienced the divine as a subtle presence, as inspiration, as comfort from within, as a power that fills you, as an invisible energy which surrounds you and upholds and strengthens you, as a love which is poured into your heart and you in turn have to offer to others.  This is our encounter with God that we name as Holy Spirit.


And then in our gospel today we hear the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus.  Nicodemus has heard the stories about Jesus, his acts of healing and the crowds that followed him around.  But what Nicodemus was totally unprepared for, the thing that blew him away was that when he met Jesus, Nicodemus found himself to be in the presence of the living God.  In Jesus, Nicodemus gets a glimpse of God the Son, the one sent by God out of love for the world, the one who makes God known.  We call this incarnation, God revealed in human flesh.  Nicodemus encounters God in the person of Jesus.  And so do we.


Remember the stories you’ve been told of the love and compassion and wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, how he came to seek us out, how he sought out those who were rejected and marginalized by society, how he delighted in their presence, laughing and celebrating with them at table, how he died on the cross asking for forgiveness for those who killed him, how he rose from the dead, how his work and ministry continue in the people who carry on with his mission today.  This is our experience of God as incarnate, God with us, God the Son, Immanuel.


We experience God in all these different ways, the awesome God who is beyond us, the inspiring God within and around us and the God who is revealed in the humanity of Jesus.  There are so many ways that we can encounter God. If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself that you have yet to experience or name or imagine God in these different ways, don’t be discouraged.  We all have different experiences – that’s why we share our stories.  Don’t be discouraged, instead, think of this as a wonderful opportunity to take the relationship you do have with God and to move and deepen it in new and exciting directions.


My hope for this morning is not just that we’ve learned something new about electrons, but also that we’ve learned a little something about the Trinity, our understanding of God as One God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Not as a doctrine written in some dusty book somewhere, but as a lived experience that comes from our own encounters with God and from the experiences of those throughout the ages who have graciously shared their stories with us.


In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,



Homily:  Yr B Trinity Sunday, May 26 2024, Trinity

Readings:  Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17



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