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The Three Legged Stool


Seeking meaning in a world of quantum leaps and fundamentalists.


By the beginning of the 20th century it was thought that there was little left to be discovered about the natural world.  As Bryson so aptly puts it, “If a thing could be oscillated, accelerated, perturbed, distilled, combined, weighed or made gaseous they [science] had done it, and in the process produced a body of universal laws so weighty and majestic that we still tend to write them out in capitals”.  However, like some cosmic joke, the 21st century was to herald a period of bizarre scientific discoveries.  Turning from big physical phenomena determined by universal laws, science discovered that “things on a small scale behave nothing like things on a large scale” (Feynman 1998).  Nice neat formula science was about to be run over by the fuzzy science of quantum mechanics where very small things could be in two places at the same time!


Though often seen as competing deities science and religion shared a common obsession with authority.  With an overrated confidence in its monopoly on truth, religion developed a zealous evangelism and science a series of fixed Newtonian laws.  Both functioned deterministically, holding the promise of something truly objective to measure facts, truth, beauty and goodness against.  Quantum physics became a way science explained phenomena that clearly sat outside accepted natural laws.  Science had to make sense of atomic structures that behaved entirely outside accepted theories.  How do you explain clouds of electrons in an atom changing orbit without ever moving the distance between the old and new orbit (this is where we get the term “quantum leap” from)? Or how atomic structures separated by seven miles instantaneously mimic each others independent activities as physicists at the University of Geneva observed in 1997.  If quantum mechanics is an invitation to Newtonian science to wake up and smell the coffee, what might be religion's “quantum leap”, a serious challenge to its love affair with deterministic absolutes?


Religion's quantum may have already arrived in the form of alternative voices from the margins of the third-world.  Over 1500 years Western Christianity developed a religious system or framework of meaning that answered all the big questions about life, death and the cosmos.  It got away with this because it also wielded ultimate political power.  This way of meaning-making found its way to the New World wrapped up in the context of European Colonialism, albeit maybe subconsciously. During the latter part of the twentieth century Marxist critique of systems of European political power gave birth not only to new social constructions of meaning but also to new theological reflection.  Drawing directly from the experiences of Christians in oppressive political regimes, theologians (particularly of Catholic tradition) began to question the West's fundamental religious systems of meaning. 


Western Christianity failed to adequately provide a practical response that dealt specifically with social and political issues for the poor, women and the environment.  The experience of political oppression, rape and plunder became the starting point of theological reflection.  This was to mark the beginning of a theological quantum leap.  In the face of oppression, Western forms of Christianity were useless. Marginalised people could not find a voice, a place for themselves in the two great Christian pillars of Scripture and tradition.  Simply beating louder on the authority drum became increasingly hollow and abusive.


With a growing understanding of the role culture plays in sustaining ultimate meaning, a body of theological reflection developed that sourced its authority not from some external law (the Bible says!) or culturally bound faith practices (church traditions) but directly from the context of such reflection.  Religion needed to make sense of the experience of marginalised, vulnerable, powerless and voiceless people.  The old well-worn ways just didn't cut it.  Thus, out of critical reflection on the very real experiences of the poor, came the substances from which liberation, feminist, black and eco theologies developed.  Later these would find a common thread as branches of an emerging quantum theology, a way of making sense of experiences that sit outside older deterministic forms of Christian faith.


As an example of quantum theology, feminist theology seeks as its starting point the experience of women.  Rosemary Ruether, a feminist theologian suggests that “the uniqueness of feminist theology lies not in its use of the criterion of experience [as a starting point of theological reflection] but rather in its use of women's experience, which has been almost entirely shut out of theological reflection in the past”.  Eco-feminism seeks to reinterpret creation narratives, formulations about Jesus, and ways of being the church from the daily experience of women.  Some of these reflections are robust and challenging and have enormous potential to reform the Christian church away from its flirtation with patriarchal, hieratical and imperial structures.  Eco-feminist theology assaults the predominant linear, in-or-out, right-or-wrong, expressions of God, sin, the church and ecology in much the same way as quantum mechanics assaults the neatness of Newtonian physics.  It seeks to develop a theology that is earthy, or “from below”; it seeks to voice meaning using everyday, inclusive language that invites reflection upon female incarnations of God.  These forms are rich in images of equality and ecological partnership with the nurturing elements of the earth. 


Religion's quantum leap is to regard local experience as a valued partner in faith and not subject to the hierarchy of Scripture or tradition.  It is context with a capital “C”, or perhaps more accurately Scripture with a small ‘s”.  Quantum theology seeks to re-position authority as a collaboration of context, tradition and scripture.  Each informs the others, rather than one dominating, - a three-legged stool.  Our situation is the place we begin, a companion that introduces us to the Christian Scriptures and traditions.  Quantum theology invites Western forms of evangelical and Roman Catholic faith to put away their infatuation with the authority of scripture or tradition (or both) and invites a conversation of equals rather than a monologue of edicts.  Quantum theology has implications for the way we do church.  It has implications for ethical and moral responses.  It places emphasis on:

  • Finding a place to stand and a personal voice within the story and significance of Scripture, rather than mining it for principles to obey. 
  • Finding points of connection with other Christian faith traditions, rather than theological positions to defend.
  • Finding a mature inner authority, rather than being dependent on an external authority.
  • Owning choices of meaning, exploring and discerning meaning from the substance of tradition and Scripture
  • Celebrating other forms of spirituality such as mystical, Celtic and indigenous.
  • Accepting voices from the margins including older heresies that often carry an uncannily accurate critique of popular culture.
  • Seeking new forms of church with circular governance, attractiveness by virtue of relationship rather than by orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxis (right behaviour).
  • Exploring concepts of family and relationship that include valuing both singleness and monogamous life-partnerships.
  • Exposing social and political oppression of people, places and philosophies.  This is an integral part of the prophetic mission of the church. 

Just in case there are accusations of faddishness and novelty, the way quantum theology sources its starting point of theological reflection from the local may also be found in a series of mysterious episodes in the emerging holy nation of Israel.  Take, for example, Elisha's bizarre acceptance of Naaman's (a Gentile) innocent faith in which he worships Israel's god in a pagan temple (2 Kings 5).  This episode seems to sit way outside conventional evangelical in-or-out frameworks of faith and concepts of church as missional communities.  Its “locale” also seems to sit uncomfortably in the middle of a detailed account of a period of God's activity in forming a special and role-model type nation.  Of further note, is that this seemingly isolated episode is one of the few Old Testament stories that Jesus specifically is recorded as mentioning.©                                   

Craig Braun 2006.

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