The Atom and the Atonement: Why we need models in science and theology

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Atoms by Cezary Borysiuk. Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

If you ask a 14 year old, an 18 year old and an undergraduate to describe an atom you will get different answers. Ask them to draw an atom, and the discrepancies become even more noticeable.  A 14 year old will have no issues producing an image like the one below. The undergraduate is likely to look at you quizzically. “Draw an atom? You must be joking!”

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Chemistry, much like the other sciences, relies upon models. As students progress through their chemistry education they are introduced to increasingly complex models of the atom. Each model is used to explain the various chemical observations that students encounter.

From age 11 to 16, students work with an atomic model that can provide an (adequate) explanation of why sodium chloride’s structure is composed of positive sodium ions and negative chlorine ions in a 1:1 ratio. But it fails to provide an explanation for the beautiful colours of transition metal complexes such as haemoglobin.  The simplified atomic model cannot account for the different colours of oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood. As the model begins to fail, we are forced to reconsider our model and develop it.

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By Helium_atom_QM.svg: User:Yzmo derivative work: Cepheiden (Helium_atom_QM.svg) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
So is the simpler model wrong? I think it’s best to say that the model is incomplete. It suffices to explain some things and it is, in fact, very useful as a way to rationalise many of the concepts we might meet during ‘beginner’ chemistry. Unfortunately for many students, models are sometimes presented as reality instead of an approximation.

So what, you might ask, does this have to do with belief in God?

As a Christian and a trained chemist, I am interested in the pursuit of truth and reality. Yet I am often forced to recognize that the real truth and the true reality may in fact be difficult to fully comprehend, and I reach for models to help me explain and grasp these concepts. None of the models are wrong. But neither are they complete. Every model captures an essence of reality.

When it comes to understanding and talking about God, we make comparisons: God is like this or like that. One could go so far as to say we are limited to models of God. The reality of God is surely much more complex than our understanding.

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Holy Trinity by Lawrence OP. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

As a Christian, I believe in the three persons of the Godhead often called the Trinity. I believe in one God, whilst affirming that the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct.  Believing in an apparent contradiction may seem irrational. But through chemistry I’ve become familiar with the wave-particle duality of an electron. Sometimes an electron seems to act like a particle. Sometimes it seems to act like a wave. There is nothing from my everyday experience that is remotely similar to wave-particle duality. It seems contradictory and yet, scientific experimentation suggests otherwise.

In organic chemistry, I used to write out reaction mechanisms using curly arrows to represent the movement of a pair of electrons. It was problem solving with pictures, and we used a simplified understanding of chemical bonding. However, quite remarkably we could use the method to predict the product that would be formed from a complicated chemical reaction.

In inorganic chemistry, I studied molecular orbital theory that looked at bonding within compounds in a lot more detail.  This often seemed incompatible with the simplistic model we used when working out organic reaction mechanisms. Being an inorganic chemist, I naturally also thought it was superior. The models had huge explanatory power but were useful for different problems – I needed to know when to use each model.

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(c) FreeFoto.com. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

It might come as a surprise that we do this in theology as well. Christians all agree that something unique happened when Jesus died on the cross. He atoned for our sin: through his death our sins can be forgiven.  How exactly he achieved that feat can often be a subject of debate. Throughout history, the church has taught various ‘atonement theories,’ or we could call them atonement models. Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to emphasize one of these models to the exclusion of others, seeing one as the ultimate truth. Each model of the atonement has explanatory power, adds to our understanding and calls us to worship. However, each model is not without its difficulties or limitations. Apply a model too literally and we will likely end up with heresy. Appreciate its limitations, and the model can be helpful.

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Holy Cross-Immaculata Church  By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
You may start to feel little depressed at the thought that our scientific and theological models seem destined to fail to capture full reality. And perhaps this is why I find Christianity so compelling. The inherent otherness of God is why I am deeply inspired by the incarnation, God in human form: Jesus.

The essence of God is difficult to capture in a model, yet Jesus dares us to believe we can speak with confidence about the nature of God. Jesus said to his followers, ‘Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.’ As Paul, an author of the New Testament exclaimed, ‘He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.’

Since God is inherently complex to understand, Jesus is the person of the Trinity I find easiest to grasp. And if I can speak with a degree of poetic license, he is the simplified model that I can begin with.

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Joe Ogborn is a chemistry graduate, musician, teacher, writer, and co-leader with his wife Alexis of the student ministry at City Church, Cambridge. He is really interested in the interplay between Christianity, productivity and creativity. He blogs over at joeogborn.com

 

16 thoughts on “The Atom and the Atonement: Why we need models in science and theology

  1. Richard Barker November 17, 2016 / 12:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Richard's Watch and commented:
    Chemistry graduate Joe Ogden draws a fascinating comparison between the apparent contradiction of the Holy Trinity and that of wave-particle duality in quantum physics, and other interesting insights.

    Like

    • joeogborn November 18, 2016 / 4:46 pm

      Thanks for the reblog Richard.

      Liked by 1 person

    • joeogborn November 18, 2016 / 4:50 pm

      Just read your blog post. I think the absence of maths is one of the reasons I leaned towards physics and chemistry. Biology also felt more like learning lots of facts as opposed to principles/models that could be applied to lots of situations. I wonder whether we are simply playing catch up with our maths.

      Like

  2. thebookofworks November 17, 2016 / 8:01 pm

    Reblogged this on The Book of Works and commented:
    A great article, related to much of my own thoughts, and briefly mentioned in the post “The Reasonable Ineffectivness of Mathematics in Biology” from July 12 of this year. The author Joe Ogborn, is a chemist and student minister at Cambridge.

    Like

  3. SheilaDeeth November 18, 2016 / 2:31 am

    Great article. I remember trying to explain to my friends how Catholics and Protestants were just looking at different sides of the same cube. I grew older. The cube grew more dimensions. Your analogy is so much better!

    Like

    • joeogborn November 18, 2016 / 4:48 pm

      Thanks Sheila. I think sometimes reframing truth in terms of models and looking at the strength and weaknesses of each, as well as seeking to develop them, can be a useful way to encourage conversations between ‘disagreeing’ groups.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Michele's Film Trip November 19, 2016 / 9:38 am

    Absolutely love how you put this! May I repost on my blog? I’ve been talking to people lately about how I approach the theologies of various denominations as helpful paradigms, but because we are corrupt as well as finite, our paradigms are made to be exploded by the inexhaustible majesty/unified complexity of our supra-rational God. Similar ideas are being explored in various ways in so many fecund fields of achedemia and the arts. I have read many articles pitting absolute truth of Christianity against Secular relativism, and I think this is entirely the wrong way to frame it as Kierkegaard argued extensively. Not because God and His Word isn’t absolute truth, but because we are not capable of grasping things fully, even if we sometimes see clearly enough to know them truly in part (1 Corinthians 8:2 , 1 Corinthians 13:9 ). Often Christians seem terrified of unfamiliar models, do not seem to know how to run them through the filter if Scripture, and as a result have little of value to add to conversations about, for example contemporary art and postmodern literature and critism.Love how you used your field of study to explain something that bears much repeating!!

    Like

    • Ruth M. Bancewicz November 22, 2016 / 1:59 pm

      Thanks Michele, we’re gad it has been helpful! Yes you may repost in the usual way (i.e. with no edits and with acknowledgement of the source)

      Liked by 1 person

    • joeogborn November 22, 2016 / 2:58 pm

      Hi Michelle, thanks so much for the feedback. What you say is really interesting. I have often found it helpful to adopt the position that ‘All truth is God’s truth.’ It frees me to pursue things to their conclusion, ask difficult questions, investigate ideas in opposition to my own. Really enjoyed your article on Hacksaw Ridge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michele's Film Trip November 23, 2016 / 12:41 pm

        I agree, that phrase is so helpful!! The Hacksaw Ridge blog was a repost from http://www.besimplyhuman.com . I think listening well is vitally important; a difficult but necessary and forgotten virtue I’ve been trying to get better at practicing.

        Like

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