UPDATED 12/7 I woke up this morning and realized this post, as it was, made no sense. So I dropped the Harold Camping business and added Jesus. This is Jesus season, after all, and Camping’s got enough to deal with these days.
It still may not make sense, but I’m not messing with it anymore.
If you’re a physicist, the joke is pretty funny. Here’s the Wikipedia version:
Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer “I have the solution, but it only works in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.”
The point is, physicists — and other scientists — often idealize problems in order to make calculations possible. Most often this does not amount to evasion or, as the case of the spherical cow, to silliness. Instead, it serves to extract underlying realities that could not be discovered by dealing with the actual concrete problem.
You don’t have to look far to find even famous examples: Think of Galileo dropping stones from the tower in Pisa, which he probably didn’t really do, sorry. Tower of Pisa or no, however, he did find that bodies fall at the same rate regardless of weight.
Yet this is not what he witnessed. If you read Galileo’s description of such an experiment in his Two New Sciences, you find that Galileo says that heavier objects actually do land first. Not by much, only a few finger-widths, but there it is. Galileo’s physics — and all physics ever since — is not about what happens, but is about abstractions from what happens. What Galileo said is that all bodies fall at the same rate in the absence of air friction — an unrealized state of affairs (until 1971, at least).
This reliance on idealized conditions runs all through physics (and, to some degree, other sciences also). Physics is shot through with approximations. They are very often close approximations, but, like Galileo’s finger-widths, there they are. The clarity of the mathematics one encounters in books on cosmology or quantum mechanics is made possible by pushing some realities out of the way: in the case of cosmology it may be the clumping of galactic superclusters that is ignored; in quantum mechanics it may be the tiny gravitational attraction between an atomic nucleus and its attendant electrons.
The power of physics is located in the fact that these realities are not pushed aside in order to avoid truths about the world, but to expose them.
For whatever reason, our notions of the divine do not work this way. With theology, God in God’s self — and not just our idea of God — has to remain concrete or everything gets silly. In theology, simplification is almost always oversimplification.
Take Jesus, for example.
There is a wonderful term for the abstracted, idealized Jesus, the Jesus that is somehow more than human, somehow magic, somehow superpowered: Hovercraft Jesus. Hovercraft Jesus can fly! Hovercraft Jesus can see into the future! Hovercraft Jesus can read minds! Hovercraft Jesus can apply the Schrödinger equation to the entire universe and find a closed-form solution! In less than five minutes!
Hovercraft Jesus is found in many incarnations (harhar). In the Gospel of John we find the exemplar of this Jesus. In John, Jesus talks rationally form the cross: “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.” We find in John no cries of anguish, no expression of God’s abandoning him, just the calm, collected summary: “It is finished.” In popular theology Hovercraft Jesus shows up mostly in an emphasis on his miracles and his factual knowledge of the past and future, as in, “Jesus was thinking of you as he was hanging on the cross.” That kind of thing.
In theo-nerdspeak, this is called high Christology. Here at psnt.net we get the divine part of Jesus but at the end of the day we just can’t relate to it, sorry. But we are commanded to love God, and that means to love Jesus too. And I just can’t love Hovercraft Jesus. Hovercraft Jesus is Big Spherical Magic Jesus. Which makes for neat tricks and stoic suffering but who can love someone who feels no pain? Who is idealized, oversimplified, and chilled on the cross?
Here’s the clip-and-save Advent message: Jesus is not abstract. Jesus is God with us, and absolutely human. I think it’s a mistake to forget that. Jesus, if he is to be found at all, will always be found to be utterly concrete: here, now.
It is always a mistake to assume a spherical Jesus.
A big Thank You goes out to Alert Reader Keith Pierce, who pointed us to the cow cartoon. As for everyone else, keep on sending us interesting pieces when you find them; the Internets are huge, and we here at psnt.net are oh so tiny.