Not a bad case of Beckham’s underpants
Not a bad case of Beckham’s underpants
In his essay Viruses of the Mind Richard Dawkins argues that the nonsenses of religious belief invade brains and take over their copying strategies to spread themselves, just as viruses spread themselves by hijacking the copying machinery of biological cells. Through hymn books, catechisms, creeds, rituals and Sunday schools the nonsenses infect other brains as well. And what nonsenses they are, especially Catholic nonsenses. Catholics believe that God can be both one and three at the same time. Even worse, they think that through exercise of magic a bit of bread on the altar becomes the body of Christ. You might as well say it becomes Beckham’s underpants (perhaps I could point out that this rather brilliant reductio to an even more absurdum is my idea, so don’t you go claiming ownership of it Richard Dawkins).
One of my very favourite books is The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlonodow, especially chapters three and four where they talk about wave/particle duality. As an idiots’ who were educated exclusively in the humanities guide to science this is the best book I know. It turns out that at the level of very small things – electrons and protons and neutrons – these very small things are particles of stuff in a particular place at a particular time just as bigger things are. The only difference is that they are too small to be observed, but, in principle, would be intrinsically visible enough if only we had instruments with which to observe them (actually because nobody has ever seen an electron they are only theoretically real, but the idea works so well and explains so much, for working purposes let’s assume they are real and therefore in principle observable). But, the scientists tell us, they are also – ridiculously, amazingly – intrinsically invisible waves that are not only in this particular place at this particular time but everywhere in the universe, flashing instantaneously and randomly in and out of actual existence all over the place. Inside Nigel Farage’s pint of beer, somewhere on Andromeda, on the door of 10 Downing Street, could be anywhere. If you drop a teaspoon to the ground the electrons in the atoms in the spoon fall straight to the ground. Well of course they do, they are in the spoon. But according to Richard Feynman they follow an infinity of paths all over the universe on the way. But most of the paths cancel each other out, leaving just the one that goes from your hand to the floor in a straight line. Well this really does sound like a bad case of Beckham’s underpants. But multitudes of experiments have confirmed Feynman’s ideas over and over again.
Underlying our everyday world there is a completely different and, to our common sense and every day logic, completely mysterious and irrational dimension of reality that the scientists themselves cannot explain. I find it the most extraordinary thought that our bodies are made of cells that are made of molecules that are made of atoms that are made of electrons and protons and neutrons that exist on both levels of particles and waves. We are already living in this astonishing other dimension deep in our bodies and are completely unaware of it. Particles by definition are separate from each other. But waves are not. They interfere with each other, to put it in the language of physics. Think of two waves going through two gaps in a breakwater and mingling with each other on the other side. In fact these things were discovered when scientists shone light through two slits in a screen onto a further screen. Because light travels in waves when the troughs or peaks of the waves co-incided with each other the light was doubly bright. When they failed to co-incide they cancelled each other out and there was darkness. In 1927 the same experiment was repeated with electrons. When the electrons were fired one at a time through the slits they arrived on the back screen randomly in accordance with the angles and velocity with which they had been fired, just as two much bigger objects like footballs would. But when more and more were fired they gradually built up into strips full of electrons and areas completely empty of them, just as the light had formed strips of brightness and darkness. Particles are by definition separate from each other. But waves are not. The electrons were not just particles and waves. The waves are particles and the particles are waves. As particles they are separate from each other. This is my space so keep out of it. Waves, however, are not separate as particles are but interfere with each other. Underneath our particulated everyday world where everything is separate from everything else, there is this deeper dimension in which everything is interpenetrable and interferes with everything else.
Think of a sign at a crossroads. You are out walking and you come to a signpost that says High Wycombe 5 Miles. There is no connection between the bit of wood at the crossroads and the collection of houses and streets that is High Wycombe except one is pointing towards the other. On one level you are not in High Wycombe, you are five miles away. But in another sense High Wycombe is in you because the idea of it is in your mind. The daubs of paint on the signpost are just daubs of paint. H followed by I followed by G mean nothing. But once they spell out the whole name everything changes completely. Now they are full of meaning that co-incides with the idea in your head. Could we say that your idea and the meaning on the signpost interfere with each other? I think we could. Or think of notes on a musical score. Taken separately they are just black marks on a bit of paper. Each represents a sound wave. And taken separately the sound waves are just noises travelling through the air. But put in the right order bv the composer they convey meaning. Nor is that meaning floating somewhere in the air above the musical score. The black marks carry the meaning, they have become suffused, saturated with it. You can’t separate the notes from the music.
Catholics do not believe that the eucharist is a material reality as Dawkins, who is not too genned up on other types of reality, imagines. We think it is not a material but a sacramental reality in the realm of sign. In the arena of the material world that is all around us the bread is just bread as any other bread is. But there is another level. The eucharist is the sacrament – the sign of, pointing towards, saturated with it as the notes are saturated with the music – of unity. In the same way that the signpost points us towards High Wycombe, the bread on the altar points us towards this deeper dimension underlying all material reality in which everything interpenetrates and interferes with each other. It is a real presence because this underlying dimension in which things are waves as well as particles is itself a real presence underlying everything that exists. The scientists are telling us so. It underlies and interpenetrates with the bread on the altar because it does with everything else too. Well you might say, if this other dimension underlies everything that exists why make a big fuss about this particular piece of bread? I’d answer that in two ways. One is that it didn’t have to be a bit of bread. The crotchets and quavers you find on a musical score are just arbitrarily chosen symbols, They could just as well be little pictures, say, of different animals. But the people who first started notating music chose crotchets and quavers (actually I think they evolved from the neums of plainchant). Christ could just as well have chosen fish and water. But you do need a concrete thing to focus, gather round itself, the nebulous realities it represents. There would still be liberty even if there was no statue of liberty. But what a thrill for refugees fleeing persecution in Europe when they sailed into New York and first saw that defiant lady holding up her torch.
There is no magic about it. It’s just that Christ chose this one thing, and the Church has followed him, to represent the truth that underlying everything there is this dimension of unity that transcends space and time.. But for Catholics there is more than this. There is no God somewhere beyond the stars. But there is a further and deeper dimension of reality in which everything is not separate and particulated but joined together in a single unity. We believe that single unity is a person –
His purpose he set forth in Christ
As a plan for the fullness of time
To unite all things in him
Things in heaven and things on earth
says this most beautiful hymn in the Epistle to the Ephesians that must date from the very earliest years of Christianity. We believe that through his passion and resurrection Christ opened the way for all ‘the things in heaven and the things on earth’ to join together to become God in this higher unity.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
And through him to reconcile to himself all things
Whether on earth or in heaven
Making peace by the blood of his cross
says another very early hymn in the Epistle to the Colossians. Of course Dawkins would think this idea that the unity of all things is a divine person is a very bad case indeed of Beckham’s underpants, a king size virus. But I think there is a rational case to be made for it, though that would have to be on another occasion.
Think of a national flag. The love of country that it represents isn’t floating somewhere up in the air. It is in a sense, a symbolic or as theologians would say sacramental sense, in the flag. The flag is suffused with it. The flag is a kind of real presence, a grounding, a materialization of the patriotism it represents. But that patriotism is a single unity because it is in the realm of ideas. You can’t have bits of patriotism. So there is only one flag to represent a reality that is everywhere all over the country. So it is with the eucharist. We could have chosen an oak tree, a turnip, to represent our love of our country but we didn’t. In the case of the UK we chose the union jack. And in the case of a symbol that represents the underlying unity of everything we have the eucharist. And just as the flag is suffused with the immaterial qualities that it represents, so is the eucharist. There is no magic about it, it’s just the way symbols work. Except that in the case of a symbol that represents this deeper dimension in which everything interpenetrates and interferes with everything else this symbol, even as symbols go, is exceptional and special. ‘Oh sacrament most holy, oh sacrament divine ‘ as the hymn says.