A painting of shooting stars at night over a body of water

Nancy Friedland

Nancy Friedland: Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone, 2021

I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century. For the next one hundred years and more science flourished, applying its model of rationalism to every question, while increasingly religion struggled to find any way to justify its existence in the face of triumphant demystifications of reality. Then an odd thing happened. With one brilliant advance after another, science burst out of the constraints of rationalism and found itself in the terrain of quantum theory, which everyone says no one understands, but which is very robust and has been put to all sorts of practical uses. Rationalism had been choking out religion for generations as it proposed etiologies for the creatures to refute creation myth and ethics for human beings that often ran directly counter to the traditional teachings of religion. For a while nineteenth-century versions of evolution, with sundry determinist implications, survived despite the always more subtle and complex findings in physics, genetics, and other fields.

More recently certain stalwarts of nineteenth-century truth and reason were sure they would at last deliver the death blow to religion. But they lost heart or retired or went to their reward before that mortal blow was struck, if it ever could have been. They may have noticed that science as it advanced did not much resemble their conception of it, but their views never moderated. In the meantime religion was damaged and science was, too, so far as their reputations are concerned. Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant. It is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.

In light of the fact that science and religion are two major pillars of our civilization, it seems there should be some effort at rehabilitation. I haven’t noticed any. Science has felt the consequences of all this in budget cuts and controversies in schools and the refusal of important segments of the population, in critical matters of public health, to accept the views of scientists as offered in good faith. Religion, meanwhile, has been largely overtaken by a belligerency darker and cruder than obscurantism, the very antithesis of theology, whatever it might have to do with faith. At the end of this hard-fought and meaningless struggle nothing was resolved, but there was grave loss on all sides.

The Ptolemaic universe was the dominant scientific model of the heavens for centuries, and it worked surprisingly well, especially considering that it was fundamentally in error. In any case, beautiful images and models were made of it. Dante put it to glorious use. Now we have a vastly more beautiful cosmos, within which we have found an endless wealth of variety and wonder. And our arts hardly respond to what we know. A related fact: our theologies hardly respond to what we know. The general public, insofar as it is aware of advances in science, puts them all aside as it does the more obscure reaches of theology.

Religion has sometimes tried to respond to the challenge of science by ceding to it the magisterium of the factual, the demonstrable, the measurable, while retaining for itself the magisterium of truth in the higher sense—human creativity, human values, which exist, of course, in profound reference to the actual, that is, the factual. This division was meant to stop the quarreling. But it is really not consistent with the ethos of either science or religion to cede territories of thought or inquiry. The God of the Abrahamic traditions is God the Creator. His nature has been taken to be inscribed in His works. As Paul says in Romans:

Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.

So look at the world as well as you can in any way that you can. There is no risk of unweaving the rainbow—which we must consider safe from the coldest analytic eye at least until we understand anything at all about the nature of light. In any case no serious theologian can put aside Genesis 1:1. The six-day creation is an issue for those who think time is the same for God as for ourselves, though we are told, by Moses no less, that for God “a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past”—incommensurable, like now and then, like the moment in which we can make a choice and the years after the choice is made. We could possibly begin to resolve anomalies like this one if we knew anything at all about the nature of time. Space, time, light, gravity—all of these elude understanding, radically and profoundly.


Science has pondered the evolution of the eye as a special problem. In the case of the scallop, that morsel so much a staple of our menus, the emergence of the eye seems to have happened twice—once as a fringe along the shell for ordinary scallop business, and again as two stalks that look straight up so that the creature can find its way back to the shadow of the mangrove forest. This is charming. This is delightful. A courtesy, a solicitude. What an uneconomic deployment of possibility. But that phrase could be applied to humankind, to the whole of creation. After all, why is there something rather than nothing?

If I seem to be proffering a version of intelligent design, I want to make it clear that I reject any argument that presents itself as a proof of God’s existence. I think there is a degree of irreverence in the very idea of proof. At the same time, whether or not His existence is a factor in the nature of the world, there is a glory in creation to which the hyperbolic celebrations of Scripture are uniquely appropriate. The Book of Job describes creation as the moment when “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” In the long final speech from the whirlwind, God names the beasts and the natural forces and luxuriates in their power and strangeness, in overwhelming reply to the questioning of His justice. Granting that this is a difficult teaching to absorb, it can only mean that the world, the cosmos, in its infinite particularity, should be seen as a joy to God Himself. Let us say, therefore, that it is recommended to our attention. And it is not without meaning that we are richly capable of such attention, as the arts and the sciences have demonstrated.

In the course of writing this essay I experimented in a general, nonspecialist way with some familiar concepts of contemporary physics with regard to their possible application to theology and religion, and also to worldview, not in order to justify religion but in order to enjoy the light cast on Being itself when it is understood as sacred, and as continuous with that first moment, as it certainly is—and when it is considered in view of the fact that, by grace of science, many old assumptions and certitudes important to our sense of reality have been shaken, like an apple tree full of ripe fruit.

My favorite theologian, John Calvin, called this world “the theater of God’s glory.” I incline to the view that reality is, figuratively speaking, a theater, arbitrarily circumscribed so that what passes within it can seem or be comprehensible and meaningful. This is anthropocentric thinking, necessarily. But then the given world is anthropocentric, scaled to our perceptions, accessible to manipulation by us, allowing endless uses for our ingenuity. I know it has seemed generous lately to try to step away from our dominion and to renounce our singular nature. And no wonder. It is, we are, such a problem. But this is only a proof that the drama of existence as we know it is centered in us. There is more to existence than we can begin to conceive of, but we have the useful illusion of knowing essential things. We lived in the uncanny quiet of sun and moon, morning and evening, for hundreds of thousands of years, never dreaming that everything in the universe is rushing away from everything else in the universe at a rate that must ultimately shatter the web of gravity that holds it all together. Or so they say. Within our little quiet, which is at least as remarkable as the cosmic roar and everything it carries with it, we have been up to all sorts of things, testing the limits of good and evil, filling the calm with havoc and disruption, making music and poetry.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, highly reputable scientists denied that the universe had a beginning. In a few of the ancient religions there were fables of beginnings, similar at least in rough outline. Gods were born from the earliest gods, there was war among the gods—something always preexists, and eventuates in, earth and sky and humankind—except in the Book of Genesis. A classic translation, the Revised Standard Version, which preserves the music of earlier versions, asserts this difference sharply:


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

The Jewish Publication Society, whom I always consult since they are so much closer to the Hebrew, has a slightly different version:

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

Granting interesting differences, its commentary allows for the suitability of the English version.

I prefer the traditional RSV version because I have heard it all my life, which is no reason at all, and because it sounds more like contemporary physics and its approximation to creation ex nihilo. I am aware that I might be committing some new variant of the old errors that have come with grafting Scripture and science. Putting aside my reservations, I can only wonder how people living so long ago shared the intuition that the world had sometime come into being, how they might have felt some lingering newness in it. These pagan worlds were made by gods with no special interest in humankind. For them no Eden existed to be lost. Their worlds are arbitrary in their making; that is, they express the nature and offhand intentions of the gods who made them, who are always engrossed in struggles among themselves that take place in an elsewhere, a reality in every sense prior to the created world.

The great insight of Hebrew Scripture, that God is one, precludes the dramas that consume the attentions of pagan deities. It should be noted, however, that the word “God” in Genesis translates the Hebrew word Elohim, a plural form of the word El, which is a very general word meaning “god” with a small g. It is also the name of the chief god in the Canaanite pantheon, and it can be used more generally to mean even human power or authority. The tetragrammaton, the four letters modern scholars pronounce “Yahweh,” though we probably shouldn’t pronounce it at all, is profoundly metaphysical, a verb of Being, in fact. It seems perfectly suited to figure here in this account of the emergence of Being.

But the word Elohim can acknowledge a universal sense of sacred, present power. It is not national, not derived from a specific history of revelation. The language avoids the suggestion that the God of Hebrew Scripture was simply one god among many, one more claimant to the role of creator. Instead it implies a great, holy potency behind creation that conditions existence itself, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, in the words of the pagan poet quoted by Paul in Athens.

This creator without history or lineage, outside time, freely and sufficiently, by His effortless will, gave us the world we know. Since nothing in existence in any form assures its own continuance, its self-replication from one moment to the next, all existence can be thought of as willed into being from moment to moment. Let there be—and there is. Such efficaciousness is one definition of God. This continuous reemergence of being as it is, including in the aspect of predictable change, or change we describe in causal terms, appears to me to be of one fabric with the initial singularity from which all that we know and don’t know, all we will ever know and never know, has emerged.

The question arises: If reality as we know it is continuously created as itself by God, why is it not a gentler thing, a purer thing? Why do deserts spread and illnesses progress? Why do resentments live on in our brains and the brains of those we might have injured, when we would all be better off without them? Such questions could be put another way: Why do we have moral expectations of God? We know from pagan myth that this is not to be assumed. And why does creation not satisfy these expectations? These are very serious questions, and this is the point at which much religious thinking stops, finding no resolution possible. I can’t answer them.

I will say this: I am not comfortable with the idea that the terms of our existence put in play a kind of contest that figures in every aspect of experience, among ourselves, within ourselves. But I haven’t found better language for expressing it. God forbid that I should be understood to be implying anything Darwinian here. The great struggle is to look at a stranger or an enemy and see an image of God. The great struggle is to love and enjoy the aspects of one’s own singular being that can at all withstand the comparison this phrase implies. Then there are the millions of lesser struggles that are much more likely to engross us.

Genesis tells us that we are or can be morally competent. We know about good and evil, as concepts, at least, if not as they figure in specific cases. This is true for good reasons. Joseph forgives his brothers, who sold him into slavery, because, he says, though they intended it for evil, God intended it for good. This can be true under almost any circumstances, presumably, so the punitive bias in our moral thinking must often put us at odds with divine will. We can say, no small thing, that our circumstance does not condescend to us. The questions that arise in a conscientious mind are real questions.

When he forgave his brothers, Joseph had become a powerful man in Egypt, able to rescue his family from famine and to settle them on land that was suited to their life as herdsmen. This could satisfy Joseph, or anyone, as the working out of the will of God. But it was also the descent into Egypt that would lead to centuries of enslavement for his descendants and then finally to the Exodus and to Moses, among the most influential figures who ever lived. One cruel prank opened into a major event in the history of the world.

Aside from fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, or being understood in retrospect as having been the fulfillment of such a promise, this narrative offers a parable of the phenomenon of history itself, which amasses in time, unperceived in the moment-to-moment reality that engrosses us, then asserts itself with a power that makes it seem like inevitability. Most people in the world would say that their lives are insignificant, historically speaking, but it might be prudent to consider whether the relative blamelessness that is assumed to come with insignificance can be relied upon. We are not competent to decide how much we matter in the long term. One of my Puritans—the seventeenth-century divine John Flavel—said that we will be judged twice, once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect. Whisper a cruel rumor—who knows what force it will acquire if it lives.

Here we have the mystery of time asserting itself. Scientifically speaking, no one knows what time is. It is very useful for structuring things, for example cause and effect, music, narrative, expectation. It gives us tools, as gravity, in our gentle experience of it, does also. God, aloof from time, need not await the working out of the effects of our lives to know what, humanly speaking, their consequences will be. If this seems to impose an unacceptable determinism on later generations, the idea of two judgments anticipates the problem. The beauty of this view of things is that it acknowledges the reach and potency of our lives, for good or for ill. The apostle James cautions readers to control their tongues: “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

We are in a position to testify to the truth of this. Over centuries slanders have burned heretics and witches, launched pogroms and inquisitions, inspired lynchings and purges. Now we have grown used to hearing Americans calling Americans demons, Satanists, and pedophiles—utterly damning language, abetted by the Internet but not qualitatively different from the language that fueled the great fires of hatred and fear that mar and disgrace Western history. We can see with our own eyes how exciting this conflagration is to many people in this country, even while it threatens to consume democracy, root and branch. Our children and their children will grow up in a country much changed by this, not for the better. The most effective polemicist of the day is legislating for our descendants. And anyone who gives force to his or her word will be liable to that second judgment. These crimes are collective, and a nod or a silence is complicity.

In any case, time is a factor in existence, which seems to involve a kind of memory. There is no explanation for the fact that anything persists at all, and yet experience itself depends on the truly countless things that persist in time. My world is familiar to me. It and I are, miraculously, constants. I know what I will find when I open most of my books. This is true because I share in miraculous human consciousness, and also because the book, a work of human consciousness, is a physical object and will be there for many years, to open in hands other than mine.

This used to be a materialist argument. The ineluctable modalities, the visible and the tangible, were evidence of the nature of things that need not be elaborated and could not be refuted. We thought we knew reality exhaustively when we knew its physical properties as they were understood when Samuel Johnson refuted Bishop Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone. Now we know better. We have a richer definition of terms. If we say what we know about the physical, we find ourselves dealing in quantum phenomena, in the supposed void where matter and antimatter forever wink into and out of existence. How to account for the solidity of the book, or of the hand that holds it, when solidity is analogous to nothing in the deeper strata of Being?

It is beautiful to think that both hand and book are shaped from the energies of near nothing in a manner consistent with the emergence of Being itself. Let hands be shaped by every use they have been put to, and let life be etched into them like something tenderly remembered. How is such delicacy as this possible in the wild roar of the cosmos? Say there is a kind of ontological fidelity, a cosmic faithfulness proved in a million small attentions. The Psalms are full of wonder at this utterly lucid, utterly embracing awareness: “Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.”

Popular ideas of God have often been essentially anthropomorphic and have tended to limit their conception of His awareness by a standard of the possible that imagined a vastly heightened but basically humanlike consciousness. Now we know that the nature of things is negotiated moment by moment at the level of quantum indeterminacy, that from a subatomic point of view the clay is still in the potter’s hands. We know that an observer, literal or other, can effect this openness to possibility, can cause the indeterminacy to de-cohere, to become one version of the array of possibilities present in any instance. This underlies what we experience as a great constancy.

I am sorry if I have not described this as well as might be, and I do not want to suggest that this theory amounts to a theology in other terms. But for the theists among us there are no grounds for denying that every true thing we know about creation is relevant to an understanding of the nature of God. And the subatomic is the fabric of creation, according to present knowledge. A universe that is alive to influences at this deep level gives great weight to words like “omniscience” and “omnipotence,” always remembering that there is no more account to be made of the persistence of this cosmos of scintillant energy than of anything else. Let there be and there is.

If all this seems inconceivable, we can remember that within it all floats tiny Earth, gleaming and blooming gaudily in a universe where nothing else blooms. These days all our thoughts of the future of Earth are bleak. When we think what a wonderfully anomalous thing it is, our thoughts come burdened with guilt and dread. There are excellent grounds for this. The planet is vulnerable in every way it is exceptional, at our merciless mercy. At the same time, I wonder whether the guilt we feel toward it is compatible with the love it needs and certainly deserves. (People harden themselves against guilt. They reject culpability by persisting in behavior that arouses guilt. The reality of harm has to be addressed in ways that are less liable to triggering this defensiveness. All the versions of denialism, which can be very intractable, are expressions of this defensiveness.)

We live at the Earth’s scale, which makes us forget what a mote it is by the standards even of its own galaxy. Evening and morning, seedtime and harvest, it shapes time for us, and the days and the years can seem long enough, though in the life of the universe they are nothing. We should feel awe at the power of this little world to somehow remake time and scale so that we can wander and work and learn and finally grow old, and feel that the dimensions of our lives have been wide indeed.

This planet, and our species, may serve as the consciousness of the universe, its sole aperture of awareness of itself. From earliest antiquity humankind has pondered the movements of the heavens, and now we have sent instruments to gaze at the farthest celestial reaches and send their histories home—emerging histories, since we are looking far back in time. Who could have imagined such a thing? Our investigations tell us of great storms and terrible heat or cold, craters, frozen seas. Humankind may find a place to put a technology-encumbered colony, tapping off wealth and ingenuity better spent here. We are what we are. And even our errors and failures are impressive, in their own way. Earth is the only planet strung with light. Which is among our costly excesses. Still, it is adorned. Its cities shine so brilliantly they might seem to allude to the starry regions and to claim some bond with them. Little Earth, alone in an indifferent universe, flaunting its jewels.

I believe we should consider a theology of the present moment. Our best hope is that the world will continue to be as it is now. Granting injuries and losses, granting drastic weather, we could figure out how to live with the world as it is at present. It is true that there is momentum behind invidious change, but let us suppose we find compensations that create a kind of stability overall. Then suppose we step back and consider what the world is. Or, putting aside these hopes, we look at the world as it is now, as healthy and replete as it will ever be again, ideal in the sense that it defines the height of the possible. God says, Let there be a garden in the midst of measureless reaches of sterility. And it is so. The remarkable, the inexplicable, life itself among them, are the occasions of divine fiat. If we lost Eden once, we can do it again.

And still. My theology of the present moment finds the immediate will of God, as act and as intention, in the world we have—the tender atmosphere, the satellite moon skirting our path, every tree and herb. The reduced thing the Earth is now is the most astonishing thing in existence—including its creaturely life, including humankind. If we imagine a day when the last dandelion frees its last seed, that seed will be the most astonishing thing there is, even if there is no one to see if it finds a niche. Everything potentially miraculous in a blooming weed is miraculous in it now. It is given its being in this moment along with the sun and the stars, and on no other, no lesser, grounds.

I will mention one more thing that is known and proven, just another observable phenomenon from the point of view of younger physicists, already put to work in industry: quantum entanglement. If a photon is split in two, a change in either half will occur simultaneously in the other half at any distance—across the universe, in theory. I know that other particles can be entangled. I have no idea what this means. Basically, however, in its nonlocal expression, change can occur in physical objects, the entangled halves of a photon, unmediated by space or time—that is, as if there were no space or time. What are we to make of that? Dr. Johnson’s rationalist boot struck the irrefragable stone, which flew a distance proportionate to the angle of the blow, the weight of the stone, and the force expended. Textbook causality. It has worked so well. But it seems that reality has other options.

Space and time are now being thought about as the effects of entanglement. This is all too complex and counterintuitive for me to attempt to enlarge on, heaven knows. But it has given me a good phrase: local realism. This refers to contact as a condition of change in physical objects, Dr. Johnson’s foot vis-à-vis the stone. Classical physics. I began this essay with the idea that we inhabit a special reality, a reality special in the sense that its properties are arbitrary, and that these properties include space, time, causality, and everything they sustain. By “arbitrary” I mean that they do not have to exist as they are, or to exist at all. I don’t want to suggest that this human-scaled reality is an island or an enclave, a space in any ordinary sense. The universe clearly participates in local reality and has the impact craters to prove it.

Then again, if the hypothesis is correct that time and space emerge from quantum phenomena, which are therefore in some sense prior to them, then I find myself failing to imagine Being that is not spatially or temporally local and yet is generative of these conditions for and of our existence. I find myself thinking of the intuitions of the ancient people that there was a time when the world came into being. In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk slays the goddess Tiamat, a giant, raging serpent. He slices her corpse in two and uses half to form earth, half to form sky. Scholars have claimed to find evidence that a tale like this lies behind the serene, magisterial creation in Genesis. And there are glimpses in the biblical creation of the suppression of a primordial chaos, tohu va-vohu in Hebrew, “without form and void” in English. The prophet Isaiah says God will punish “Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” This precedes an oracle that says:

In that day:
“A pleasant vineyard, sing of it!
I, the Lord, am its keeper;
every moment I water it.”

A nice metaphor for a kind of sheltered and intended reality within reality. In the Bible the sea is often an image of the threatened eruption of chaos.

Psalm 89 says of God:

Thou dost rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, thou stillest them.
Thou didst crush Rahab like a carcass.

In the Book of Job the Lord asks:

Who shut in the sea with doors,
when it burst forth from the womb;
when I made clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come,
and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed?”

The biblical writers were fortunate to have the free use of figurative language, which can sound very like the language of myth. In all these instances there are images of the calming or exclusion of primal chaos, which is how unmodified reality would seem if it could be imagined in all the freedom and power hinted at by entanglement—simultaneity, nonlocality, and who knows what else—and imagined at the same time as yielding space and time. The passage from Job describes a great, wild infant thing that God Himself boasts of being able to restrain with bars and doors. Perhaps with the ancient intuition that the world was created there was an intuition of what this meant—ultimately, that inchoate possibility was made a vineyard, a garden.

I have been struggling to find a metaphor for the created and curated reality I wish to describe, and now I realize that reality itself, as we experience it, as it is given to our experience, is the metaphor I need. We can live as if there were no entanglement, no indeterminacy, no plasma of unselected possibility, no deeper strata of Being, physically speaking, than the one we have always known. Say that out of teeming possibility the Creator chose a modest star and a single moon, elegant restraint over and against even the universe—itself an endless array of choices made, or so we experience it. Let there be light, birds, sea monsters, and then, the most amazing act of restraint or of will, let there be humankind, with all its gifts, left with a certain freedom.

I am not satisfied with this. Even if my pondering does give me ways to think about omnipresence and omniscience, which all these words imply about a capacity for intimate awareness of all aspects of all lives, even if it does suppose an undiminished creative freedom in the Creator, limited, if that is the word, only by His loyalty to what He has made. If what I have said touched truth at some point, it does absolutely no justice to creation. The words “sacred,” “holy,” “numinous” should be necessary to the subject, but I have avoided them in deference to a cultural habit of excluding such language from any context that mentions science. I consider the most “scientific” part of the Bible to be that poem at the end of the Book of Job, where God identifies Himself in His works, and shares His passion for His creatures with Job:

Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?…
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?
On the rock he dwells and makes his home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
Thence he spies out the prey;
his eyes behold it afar off.
His young ones suck up blood;
and where the slain are, there is he.

This poem is a retelling of the creation in Genesis, startlingly full of naturalistic detail in this iteration. The Lord is telling Job, “Human being, look carefully at what I have made, see what you see. That will be revelation.” And behind revelation is prophecy, impervious to time and change, the sense of a gracious intent not contingent upon things as they are, that will free these glorious beasts, and us as well, from the threat and intensity and tragedy of struggle. Isaiah speaks for the Lord:

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox….
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

This essay, in somewhat different form, was delivered as a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution last summer.