“For He spoke, and it came to be. He commanded, and it stood firm.” – Psalm 33:9
Of all the metaphors for God and His works, my favorite is the image of God’s voice issuing forth and taking shape in creation, as depicted by Aslan singing Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew. I am currently a research physicist overseeing several programs which study superconducting electronics and quantum computing, but I can trace the origin of my fondness for this particular analogy back to the autumn of 2001, when I was a sophomore in college at Iowa State University. Three separate experiences aligned that year to make me reflect upon the full meaning of that metaphor, and consequently they had a dramatic effect on both my faith and on how I think about my work as a physicist.
The first of these experiences was that my pastor at the time, Fritz Wehrenberg, was leading a Bible study discussing the attributes of God. He was a great teacher, and led an engaged group of students in lively discussions. One week, while studying the creativity of God, the conversation turned toward discussing the relationship between God and His creation. We debated whether He was more like a potter shaping us as clay (Isaiah 64:8), or a craftsman preparing his tools (Ephesians 2:10). Perhaps He was more similar to a jeweler refining us like gold (Zechariah 13:9) or a weaver knitting us together (Psalm 139:13)? It was an interesting discussion, and all those analogies reveal some truth about God and His creativity and control over creation, but they are also more focused on us and our purpose than on God and how He creates. I left that meeting feeling that all those analogies were incomplete, as they all implied a creation that exists separately from its creator and that has a reality all its own. I did not want a divine watchmaker who stepped back and watched His creation tick along. I craved a metaphor that captured the ongoing and sustaining power of God.
The second influential experience that year was studying St. Augustine’s Confessions in a literature class. I did not expect to enjoy a book from the fourth century, but Augustine had an extended meditation on the meaning of God’s creative word that resonated with me. In it, he declared that God’s word is not transitory, spoken once only to fade like an echo. Instead, God’s word is eternally spoken and sustains creation continually. In Augustine’s words, “Your word is spoken eternally, and by it all things are uttered eternally…No element of your word yields place or succeeds to something else, since it is truly immortal and eternal. And so by the word coeternal with yourself, you say all that you say in simultaneity and eternity.” This means that at the beginning of Genesis, God did not say the word “light” as a mere announcement, like flipping a switch to turn on the sun, which then keeps burning on its own. Rather, God is saying “light” continuously, and should He ever stop saying that illuminating word, then we would be left in darkness. We exist moment by moment only because God is speaking us into being. (Hebrews 1:3) I found that this idea of ‘eternal words’ made even more sense when I replaced ‘word’ with ‘song.’ A note being sustained for a long time is a familiar concept, and it is easier for me to imagine a word being sung forever instead of being spoken. At last I had the metaphor I had been searching for, and it filled me with a remarkable sense of happiness.
Augustine’s analogy also serves as one of the best pictures of the Trinity that I have heard. In Augustine’s picture, God the Father is the speaker, the Spirit is His voice, and the Son is the Word. All three pieces are distinct, but they are also inextricably linked. To flesh out the example, when I speak, my voice leaves my body and goes out to be heard by others, indicating an existence apart from me. On the other hand, my voice is uniquely mine. It can only come from me, and a listener can recognize me just by hearing my voice. The words I speak are likewise separate from my person and my voice, and they can even take on a life of their own in the hearts and minds of the listeners. However, they cannot first exist without my will and voice, and any message I wish to send must take shape through my words. Once again, I found the analogy worked even better for me when I framed it in musical terms, with God the Father as the singer, the Holy Spirit as His voice, and Jesus as the song, since that seemed to better capture the ongoing relationship between them. Of course, no analogy is perfect, and this one is no exception. The nature of an infinite, trinitarian God cannot be captured in a simple human example. Nonetheless, it has helped me picture one of the mysteries at the heart of our faith, and it has added new meaning to John’s words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
The third insight that shaped my picture of God came from taking a physics class simply entitled “Waves.” This was a required class for all physics majors at ISU, and it reflected the central role that wave equations play in all aspects of physics.While wave equations are used to describe phenomena that everyone thinks of when they hear the word ‘wave,’ like sound waves and water waves, essentially any oscillating motion can be described by wave equations, whether it is a bouncing ball, a guitar string, or a rotating flywheel. Most people are also aware of radio waves and light waves, but indeed every part of the electromagnetic spectrum exists as a continuum of waves of different lengths. They range from radio waves that extend the length of a football field (either kind), to microwaves the size of your cellphone, to visible light waves the size of a speck of dust, to x-rays and gamma rays that are smaller than a single atom.
Every vibration in a material is a wave called a phonon, and what we call temperature is just a measure of how many vibrations are present in a substance at one time. More vibrations mean more energy, just like more waves in a pool increases its energy. Even at the cosmic scale we describe the motions of the universe as waves. The arms of our galaxy are simply waves in the density of stars, and gravitational waves ripple throughout the universe. Down at the atomic scale quantum mechanics takes over, and we must even think about the very particles that make up our bodies as waves. The old picture of electrons like little planets orbiting a nucleus has been replaced by a model of electrons as standing waves without a fixed position, and there are beautiful experiments in which electrons create interference patterns that are possible for waves but not particles. Even the strong forces that bind together the atomic nuclei are mediated by wave-like particles delightfully named gluons.
It was at this point that the picture of God creating the universe with His voice became more than just a metaphor to me. Two decades of research into superconductivity and quantum computation have only deepened and confirmed this picture for me. Everything really is made up of waves, and if those waves ceased to oscillate, if all the quantum mechanical motion were to cease, then so would the existence of those atoms. It is truly as if God is singing a song composed of a nearly infinite number of notes, with each note making up a subatomic particle and every object representing a chord of a trillion trillion notes. As Jesus said, even the stones shall cry out (Luke 19:40). Just imagine the colossal fanfare when the universe began in Genesis 1:3. Picture a radiance so intense that protons could not even form until it dimmed–that is what holiness looks like!
This confluence between different parts of my life is one of the reasons that I have never felt the conflict that people often seem to assume exists between science and faith. Far from diminishing my faith, studying physics has amplified my appreciation of God’s creation. The more I understand about how vast and complex the universe is, the more I am in awe of God. In a similar way, I can enjoy a piece of art at an aesthetic level, but it takes an expert to truly appreciate the difficulty in what the artist accomplished. I believe it glorifies God to study the intricacies of His handiwork, and I think that He enjoys having His craftsmanship appreciated on a deeper level and wants us to study it as deeply as we can.
Finally, I want to leave you with one last illustration. Sound cannot travel in a vacuum, but the song of God actually creates its own medium. Not only that, but this song is capable of singing back to its Creator. Imagine the joy that experience would bring. Is it any wonder that the songs of David pleased the Lord and that we are told to worship God through music? There is something sublime about being a part of a talented chorus or orchestra and losing oneself in the rich harmonies, but that is just a weak earthly approximation of the music in heaven. I look forward to the experience of joining the choir of angels and every living creature around the throne, worshiping God without any of the discordant notes of sin. The next time that you lift your voice in worship in church, remember that you are adding your voice to God’s song of creation and that every atom of your body is resonating in tune to His voice.
Joel Strand is a senior staff physicist and technical fellow at Northrop Grumman, where he is the chief engineer for several programs studying superconducting electronics and quantum computing. He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also teaches high school Sunday school and serves on the board of trustees at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Maryland.
*Image Credit: Unsplash
C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Macmillan, 1970) 98. ↑
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Book XI.vii, 226. ↑
B.P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Collaboration), “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger” Physical Review Letters 116, 061102 (2016) ↑
Davisson, C., Germer, L.H. “The Scattering of Electrons by a Single Crystal of Nickel” Nature 119, 558–560 (1927) ↑
Gell-Mann, Murray. “Symmetries of Baryons and Mesons” Physical Review 125, 1067-1084 (1962) ↑