Who am I?
That has been the central issue of my life; unbroken since, in childhood, I learned that my living experience was made up not only of deep passions but of a deep curiosity to know the makeup of my world. By the time I grew up, both these elements, passion and curiosity, played out in my career as a research physicist.
I say ‘my’ world to discover because my childhood was, in fact, one of profound psychic isolation. By no means any kind of reflection on my parents’ evident love, this inner state led me to forge a robust intellectual self-sufficiency. But the intellect is a poor counterfeit for the internal sense of being accepted. Today the diagnosis would be juvenile depression – and be, perhaps, ameliorated; in the ’50s, little was understood. In such a state, the other-person-regarding quality of living among other people comes very slowly, and often painfully as well. In the depth of human loneliness there is no guide – except the will to survive.
Why, at least for me, is identity the central question? Because, if I cannot come to know who I truly am, I cannot know who it is to whom all those other beings in my field of view are trying to relate. And with an unrelenting desperate faith in relationship, the sole bedrock of existence, even the loneliest and most isolated young soul will live. This is an elemental truth, and one child’s struggle in attaining it, of growing into wholeness within it, was beautifully documented by Virginia Axline in her book Dibs: in Search of Self.
Enter the Eucharist. At age ten or so, I was prepared by the Nuns at my primary school for the usual entry into Reconciliation and, not long after, First Communion. Both to me were experiences almost of sheer terror. I was imbued with a sense of the judgment of God, not at all with a sense of His unconditional love and, more crucial yet, His acceptance. Over the first few months of regular Communion I was overwhelmed by a burden of unworthiness, compounded by what I perceived was an expectation from the adults that I should go through this awesome ritual, now that I was fully part of the celebrating community.
Until one Sunday. Inwardly distraught, I went to the Communion rail and received the host (this was still when the old theology seemed to dwell ad nauseam over the ‘terribleness’ of the Presence, and to gloat over our intractable sinfulness before It). Out of the blue what I received was not condemnation, but an all-encompassing intimation of Grace; Grace that I had not sought, because I did not even suspect it existed. This was, in the personal ‘creation myth’ that we call hindsight, the true moment of individuation, not just as a fully free person within Christ, but as myself: imperfect; inconstant; all-too-fallible – yet whole.
That singular experience of the Eucharistic Jesus has never left me. Even over the twenty years in which I lived Godlessly – intellectually more than morally – neither dogmatic nor rationalistic arguments could touch my scepticism. But what I could not assuage, in any way adequately, was the nagging question: ‘What are you going to do about the Eucharist?’
The response to such a question has nothing whatsoever to do with doctrine. It is about identity at the core; and to come to know and accept it, without strings and perhaps even unnamed, is truly an undeserved gift. That’s not because any of us is somehow ‘unworthy’ of it, but because its divine origin is of a totally different order from anything that we can provide for ourselves.
It is natural to ask how I, as a theoretical physicist in a milieu commonly believed to ‘have no need for the hypothesis [of God]’, live with equal ease within a spiritual reality. First, I am not unique by a long shot. It is said that 40% of working scientists are committed believers (not all Christian – as if that were relevant to God in front of what is good in humans). And far more elegant, powerful thinkers than this writer not only navigate this (spurious) ideological divide, but have shared their own original insights on how to live it, most importantly by who they are. It is their own God-given personality that shines out in their professional lives; for, intellectual style and personal integrity are of one piece.
Second, it happens actually to be true (in my view) that science has no need to invoke God. Why not? Because only the divine can give value to existence; and the role of science is not to ascribe value, but to reveal relationship: not the why, but the what and the how. Yet it is also the case that science can readily inspire wonder – and thus lead to God.
Science cannot be brought either to compel or destroy belief. We cannot do this to science without corrupting its witness to truth – and so before God. Very much, whether believers or not, we have to be humble here and simply hear one another. ‘Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.’ (Jacob Bronowski.)
From this side of life we cannot conceive of the ways in which God navigates material and spiritual realities with no effort. For any scientist with a poetic bent, this Godly talent may be echoed in the way that Nature herself negotiates effortlessly, in breezy oblivion to our own mental contortions, between the two great incompatibles that tower over contemporary physics: quantum mechanics and gravitation.
We shall never have an earthly language for God’s consummate wizardry with Creation. Nor do we need it: how God does business is not for us to figure out. He chooses not to impinge upon our long search for the world’s harmonies and – so I believe – we do well to stay with the original plot from Genesis: to be stewards and nurturers of His Garden. And that, naturally, includes both an apprenticeship in and an eventual mastery of the gardening arts; that is, human knowledge and our eventual wisdom, as all knowledge will become when we let it be graced with value.
So now, rather closer to the other end of my life, I do know who I am. I cannot know myself fully (not yet, at any rate). Nor am I any less liable to do wrong than the next person. What I carry – through no effort except to appropriate its joyous reality – is the mark of being God’s child; Jesus’ brother, renewed every moment in His flesh and in His blood. In His divinity He makes us truly human. A paradox? Indeed – but only until God will unveil, at long last, all its wonderful resolution.
If you have received well, you are that which you have received . . . Your mystery is laid on the table of the Lord, your mystery you receive. To that which you are, you answer ‘Amen’ and in answering you assent. For you hear the words ‘the Body of Christ’ and you answer ‘Amen’. Be a member of the Body of Christ that the Amen may be true.
‒ St Augustine