Science and religion share similar principles. For example, both use tangible representations to understand abstract ideas. However, these representations may be more obvious within the context of science than religion. In chemistry there are a handful of ways to represent a molecule and the whereabouts of its electrons. The silly thing is that we never know where an electron is. Nevertheless, in order to do their work, chemists must create reliable representations of molecules. So we create our representations of a molecule knowing that the molecule does not ever truly resemble our representation. To fix this gaping hole of identity, scientists created resonance structures. A resonance structure is a modification of the original representation to account for not knowing where exactly the electrons are. Many complex molecules have three or four resonance structures, and every molecule is all of its resonance structures all at once all the time. However, our minds are too limited to come up with a model that can represent the true essence of the molecule. Thus we resort to having many different pictures for one unified body, each of which are correct in some ways and wrong in others.
Perhaps you are thinking all scientists are simply inadequate, but they work with the knowledge they have. Moreover, they work fully understanding that they do not, and likely cannot, know all that they would like. It seems that unfortunately, Christians are not as quick to acknowledge our pervasive inadequacies. We compose grand representations of who our God is, and we fail to recognize that our representations, like resonance structures, will always fall short of who he is. Consider the most prevailing description for God: our Heavenly Father. The picture of the Christian God as a father is so widespread that the church accepts it as true, forgetting that it is a representation. Of course, God portrays fatherly characteristics: love, strength, determination, protection, provision. In fact, the description of God as our Heavenly Father is found throughout the entire Bible.
We must not forget, however, that God also displays typically feminine characteristics as well: gentleness, grace, kindness, beauty, compassion, and for heaven’s sake, God birthed the universe! Confining the Creator to gender roles belittles God’s greatness to our own limitations of seeing all things through gender roles. Referring to God as our Heavenly Father is a beautiful description, but forgetting God’s maternal characteristics disregards the true essence of God. Though most languages force us to use a gender-specific pronoun in reference to God, we must remember that God cannot be restrained by our earthly idea of gender. To summarize, our God has many resonance structures which are all expressed simultaneously, two of which may be God the Father, and God the Mother.
Yet another resonance structure that we take for granted is God as Love. So often we let our earthly perception of love define God. Time and again, we look to God solely for comfort, overlooking the jealous, convicting, passionate and fierce love that she embodies. While God is definitely a god of kindness, gentleness, and grace, we cannot let the idea of a soft God mask other aspects of God’s love. The prophet Jeremiah gives a beautiful example of God’s fierce, passionate love. God convicts his people of their wrong doing, and sends them into exile. Nevertheless, God speaks to his people:
This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer 29: 10-11)
God’s promise of prosperity and safety show that he sent the people of Judah into exile for their own benefit and that he will never forsake them. God’s love does not simply provide comfort, but fiercely and powerfully encourages us to turn from our harmful ways, as God convicts her people of their sins, but she continues to protect them while in exile. By projecting our notions of a gentle and kind love onto God, we misrepresent his greatness. Rather than defining our God by our own understanding of love, we must realize that God himself defines love. God’s gentle, gracious and forgiving heart is yet another resonance structure we use to describe him because it will always fall short of the true essence of God’s love.
Addressing a similar problem as resonance structures is the theory of superposition, which states (in great simplicity) that while we do not know the arrangements of subatomic particles of an atom, namely its electrons, they exist in all possible states until proven otherwise. In other words, if an electron could be in spots A, B, or C, I assume the electron to be in all three spots at once until I calculate exactly where the electron is. The theory of superposition was quickly debunked by an illustration famously known as Schrödinger’s cat. Schrödinger explained that if we put a cat in a box, the cat will be either dead or alive. The cat cannot be both dead and alive (as the theory of superposition would assume); the cat exists with an absolute disregard of whether I believe it to be dead or alive. Therefore, an electron is where it is regardless of my calculations. Similarly, we must also recognize that, like an electron, God is God regardless of our understanding, or lack thereof. God refuses to limit himself; when Moses asks God for a name, God replies, “I am that I am” (Ex 3:14).
The Great I Am cannot be restrained by any of our labels. Nevertheless, we will always put God in the box of our human understanding. Scripture tells us that God is limitless, boundless, and forever. However, our minds cannot conceptualize something that is infinite in every way; we only know new things from the perspective of what we already know, and everything on this earth is bounded and finite. Though our descriptions of who God is will not change or limit her, they may limit how we see God work in our own lives. This is exemplified by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. In one instance, Jesus’ disciples are amazed when Jesus calms a raging storm, though they have already witnessed Jesus perform many miracles (Mk 4:35-41). In some way, the disciples had a limited perception of Jesus’ power. Though the disciples lacked faith, Jesus’ power and authority over the earth was unaffected: he was still able to calm the storm. Two chapters later, Jesus returns to his hometown to preach, but in the face of disbelief, he does not perform many miracles. The people of Jesus’ hometown had preconceived notions of who Jesus was and they lacked faith in his power and wisdom. However, it would be inconsistent to assume that Jesus could not work miracles in his home; after all, he previously calmed the storm although his disciples also lacked faith. Jesus chose not to deliver in his home, perhaps because of the limitations that his people had placed on his identity, but he was certainly not incapable. Jesus demonstrates that our incomplete understanding of God cannot limit God’s power, but may affect how we perceive him working in our lives. While we must remember Schrödinger’s lesson—God’s true essence is never changed by our classifications—we must also be wary of how our misconceptions of God may restrict how we experience him in our lives.
If we are to have a genuine connection with God, representations of who she is will always be necessary. Here is where Christianity could take a piece of scientific wisdom: we must remember that our representations of God will always fall short of his glory, just as every resonance structure cannot fully capture the true molecule. Scientists work knowing that their representations of molecules are incomplete. Likewise, as Christians we are to pursue God knowing that any representation we have of him cannot fully encompass her identity. When we forget that our descriptions of God are nothing more than representations, the representations themselves may become what we worship instead of our God. So we result to resonance structures to describe our God: tangible representations, analogies, and descriptions of a God who is by nature intangible and untouched by any limits we place on him.