The Physics of Belief

October 5, 2009
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God According to God: A Physicist Proves We Have Been Wrong About God All Along, Gerald L. Schroeder (256 pages, HarperOne, New York, 2009, $25.99)

Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World, David W. Nelson (300 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2005, $24.99)

Reviewed by Andrea Wershof Schwartz

The intersection of science and religion in America often enters the spotlight at moments of tension, such as the debate over how, or whether, to educate children about evolution or the age of the earth. The two fields are so often depicted in conflict that one might forget the possibility that both science and religion can serve as paths to deeper understandings of humanity and creation. Two recent books strive to remind us of the positive contribution to be made by both science and religion to understanding God: physicist Gerald Schroeder’s God According to God: A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along and Rabbi David Nelson’s Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World are both eloquent attempts to revive conversation between science and religion.

While Nelson’s book is a self-proclaimed “book about Judaism” that draws on lessons of physics to enrich the discourse about God within the Jewish community, Schroeder’s book addresses a more diverse audience, drawing on the wonders of nature and the words of the Bible to describe an unknowable God. Both books engage in a rich dialogue between the discoveries of science and the sacred beliefs of religious traditions, building on both in their quest for a clearer understanding of God and of the world.

In Judaism, Physics and God, Nelson reframes scientific metaphors in a Jewish context. For instance, Nelson describes the scientific concept of a fractal, a shape within a shape, a pattern repeated infinitely within a larger finite pattern, as a beautiful metaphor for understanding God and creation. The idea of the fractal structure of nature is echoed in Jewish prayer as well; as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in the new Koren Sacks siddur, the structure of the first blessing of the Amidah, composed of praise, request, and thanks, mirrors the structure of the Amidah and of the prayer service as a whole. Nelson provides many elegant examples of metaphors drawn from the natural world — from string theory to the uncertainty principle — that enrich the Jewish approach to understanding God.

In God According to God, Schroeder seeks to strip away preconceived notions about God that readers may have absorbed as children but not revisited, and introduces a language of discourse about God based on a close reading of biblical narratives and the principles of physics. He uses the flood narrative to explore the notion of a God who regrets, who is part of the ongoing learning process of creation and renewal. Schroeder reframes biblical narratives as windows into human perceptions of God: a God who needs human partners yet argues with them, gets frustrated with them, and loves them. The lessons of science, for Schroeder, serve as yet another passageway into understanding God, a counterpoint to the biblical narratives about the divine that provides further clues to God’s nature.

These two books remind us that the relationship between science and religion need not be one of conflict, nor one of two parallel but non-intersecting realms. Rather, as Schroeder and Nelson convincingly demonstrate, the language of science, particularly of physics, is well served in describing the complex relationship between humans and the divine, and can contribute to a richer understanding of Jewish texts and traditions. Similarly, reading biblical narratives with a mind toward the interconnectedness of nature enables the reader to envision a God of complexity and nuance. Both of these books require the reader to move beyond a simplistic, if perhaps comforting, notion of God toward a nuanced, multifaceted understanding of the mysteries inherent in nature and in the quest for understanding the divine.

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Andrea Wershof Schwartz is a medical student at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She is an alumna of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel and earned a MA from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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