π was remembered by many on the 14th of March (π Day): 3-14-15, at 9:26.53, etc. But we should remember the number for another reason. The number is a given constant in creation. It is nothing we have made or can change. It is a thing that we need to know in order to properly measure and understand many things in the world around us. The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter may not plan any role (that we know of) in the rise of life in creation, but as a thing that does not change it becomes a measure of many things in life. There certainly are other constants, factors in nature that do not change, that do very much affect whether life is possible. This reality perhaps explains why cosmologists (who focus on how the universe works) are the most likely of all scientists to believe in a supernatural power (whether or not they call this power God).
Cosmologists are concerned with the universe, and in their study they have identified what are called “dimensionless physical constants” or “fundamental physical constants”. Each one of these numbers—which describe how things like atomic particles bond, how gravity works, and how the density of the universe relates to the energy present in the universe—does not change. The numerical value is the same in any system of units. Even if, following a popular argument, the number of these “fundamentals” is reduced to six the percentage of variation possible in the numbers is so small that the statistical probability of life just happening would require a number in excess of all of the atoms in the known universe. In other words, the mathematics involved reveal that life is not just “random” and didn’t just “happen”, which goes a long way to explain why four out of five cosmologists believe in a supernatural higher power.
As Christians we call this power God, and this month we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the eternal Son who took on our nature in order that we may share in His eternal life. In this season of celebration, this story of the triumph of life over death, this truth that in making “all things new” (Rev. 21.5) our Lord calls us into this life everlasting, we witness that Jesus’ resurrection is punctuated with a series of encounters. In the Sunday lessons we read and hear in Eastertide we participate in the diverse reactions of Peter and the beloved Disciple, of Mary Magdalene, of the other disciples gathered in the upper room, and of Thomas. Each reaction is different, but in each reaction there is a common element of an initial lack of understanding. Why might this be so? It is because the disciples first reaction is to seek to understand what has happened. (Is this really Jesus? How can we be sure? How can this be?) They seek, in other words, to measure something that is beyond measurement.
We are never going to know all of the digits of π, no matter how long we set a computer working the algorithm to calculate the value. More importantly, we are never going to know why this ratio exists, or why the fundamental physical constants of the universe are what they are. These are matters beyond human understanding, if we define understanding to be knowledge of causation and mechanism (why and how). But if we define understanding to be knowledge in the sense of participation in reality then we do understand π and the fundamentals in the sense of accepting and using them. Analogously, this happens in faith, in which a mystery is not something unknowable but is something that can only be understood through participation.
We want definite “knowledge” as a thing which can be grasped and measured (hence our fascination with technological solutions). But even in the realm of science, even in the realm of testable hypotheses and reproducible measurements, we find that limits exist. For example, a basic principle of quantum mechanics is uncertainty. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that it is possible to accurately measure the position or the momentum (velocity and direction) of an electron, but not both. As soon as you know the position you cannot know the momentum, and vice versa. One cannot associate exact position and momentum together because in nature the two do not exist together. Nature is itself “uncertain” in this sense, which is why “particles” like electrons sometimes act like particles and sometimes act like waves.
Which brings us back to faith. There are limits to what we can explain, just as there are limits in all human knowledge. But by the Holy Spirit there are not limits to what we can experience. We can experience the Body and Blood of Jesus—of Jesus abiding in us as we abide in Him—despite “measuring” (tasting and smelling and seeing) a thing to be bread or wine. We can experience new life even in dark places. We can experience God’s power, His mercy, His glory when we do not attempt to simultaneously define these. Just as the position and momentum of an electron cannot both be determined in or by any measurement, we cannot both experience God and at the same time measure how we experience Him. But just as we can use π without knowing its ultimate value, we can be changed by God, and participate in others’ change, knowing that God is present; that God is the Creator of all and the Redeemer of all who turn to Him, all who confess His Name and cry out in joy, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed!” In an uncertain we world we can be certain of joy.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg Rector