Archive for June 6th, 2008

Patsy’s Razor: Remember, It’s Only a Model

When I was a young boy my father used to take me to the Smithsonian at least a couple of times a year. We always avoided the art museums and spent most our time roaming the science halls. I remember a large model of an atom hanging from one of the ceilings, just like the one made of Tinker Toys sitting on my desk at home. It looked like all the pictures that I ever saw of atoms in science books or the National Geographic. I thought it looked a lot like the poster of our the solar system hanging on my bedroom wall, except that the electrons were all the same size and they didn’t revolve around the the nucleus in a single plane. Everyone knew this is what an atom looked like and it had already become the universal symbol for nuclear energy.

I later learned that this model was just one pictorial metaphor for what an atom might look like (if we could see one). To this day, no one has seen an atom nor will anyone ever likely do so. If it were possible, the atom would look like nothing we had imagined.

The electrons of an atom are spinning so quickly that there would be no visibly distinct paths but instead they produce a ‘cloud’ of orbits making up a ‘solid’ shell around the nucleus. And this shell would be much, much farther away from the center than what popular pictures would suggest. If the proton of a Hydrogen atom was the size of a basketball, then the ping-pong ball sized electron would be over 260 yards away. An atom is made up of mostly “nothing” and our common models do a poor job of presenting this.

Since my childhood days at the Smithsonian other atomic models have been suggested. Though not everyone agrees on the same model, most would agree that none of these models are ‘wrong’ while at the same time no one would suggest that any one model has it just ‘right’. For example, in the following picture we have seven different representations of the atom, and each one may help us to have a better understanding of nuclear theory. Although each model is different, they all work to illustrate similar principles. To hold religiously to the idea that any one model is a complete and accurate representation of the atom would be untenable.

The concept of the Trinity is another type of model that accurately, yet incompletely, illustrates the nature of an infinite God that is inconceivable to finite mankind. This Trinitarian model works well for many Christians but to say that it must work for all is, I believe, arrogant. To see Jesus as savior does not require an acceptance of a Godhead that consists of three persons, especially since one of these persons is a spirit that is rarely mentioned in scripture and is not attributed with any personable qualities.

The model of God that the Jews choose to recognize works just as well for them, obviously. They were never Trinitarian, right up to the time of Jesus’ and on to this present day. Jews read the same Old Testament scriptures that Christians do (as did the Jews of Jesus’ time) but they see none of the suggestions for a triune God. An acceptance of Jesus as God must first be a requisite for seeing Trinitarian support in the Bible, but even without that triune support Jews have not come to develop a dualistic, Father/Spirit, concept of God.

As an established church doctrine, the Trinity did not exist for the first 300 years of Christianity, yet since that time it has become a litmus test for ‘authentic’ Christian faith, and is a part of the more common creeds. Criticisms are often leveled at religious leaders where it is suggested that they are not “Christian” because they are not Trinitarian. Large parts of the Church consider entire denominations as not qualifiedly Christian because they do not profess this belief in the Trinity (even though the members of the denominations in question may think of themselves as being Christian.)

There is a popular book out now, “The Shack” (which I have linked to on my side bar) that is causing quite a religious stir. The author has written a fictional work that he hopes will help people understand and appreciate the nature of the Trinity. Many have attacked the book as a being in ‘error’ and promoting lies and distortions about the Trinity (which I find amusing since this book is really just an allegory trying to better explain a metaphor). Many people love this book, and I fairly enjoyed it myself, thinking that the author did a good job turning something so ethereal into an idea that I could better grasp.

This book reminded me though, that the Trinity is just one way to conceptualize the relational aspect that many beleive exists within God as well as between God and ourselves. In this regard I think the concept of a triune God can be a great help for people trying to work out how they relate to God, who by his nature is so difficult to relate to.

But as Patsy says in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; “It’s only a model!” (Of course, as we found out in Spamalot, Patsy is half-Jewish. He never advertised this because, as he puts it, “it’s just not the kind of thing you say to a heavily armed Christian.”)


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