The Work of the Invisible
At any given moment during any time of the year, were you to visit my home, you would find a stack of books on the nightstand beside my bed. Not only do I have stacks of books by my bed, but my office desk is a maze of books. One trail consists of current research, another devotional material, and still another biography and history. Generally, these books represent my varied interests of study. But recently, a new pile of books has emerged amidst the others; I've begun collecting books on science, and specifically on physics.
Now for those who love science, and particularly physics, you might wonder why I wouldn't have a library dedicated to the subject. But for those who, like me, didn't go far beyond biology, you might think me crazy, or masochistic, or both.
Physics in its simplest definition is the study of matter, energy, and the interaction between them.(1) Physicists are concerned with the “stuff” that makes up the universe as well as with questions concerning the beginning of the universe, and the building blocks of matter. As such, they are often concerned with elements so small that they cannot be seen even with the aid of the most powerful microscope. John Polkinghorne, quantum physicist and Anglican priest, explains, “We now know that atoms themselves are made out of still smaller constituents (quarks, gluons, and electrons….we do not see quarks directly, but their existence is indirectly inferred).” While physicists can only see, as it were, the “shadow” of these tiny realities of matter, they point to and indeed make up materials all around us. I cannot see them, but I trust they are there and at work when I sit down on my office chair each day.
My interest in physics began by considering this particular statement from Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is…the conviction of things not seen.” What a complex and seemingly paradoxical statement about the nature of faith! How can we have a conviction in things that are beyond our senses, beyond our perception and understanding? Can we really sustain conviction in that which is beyond our experiential circumstances?
Writing long before modern physics, the apostle Paul wrote that “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot is eternal…for we walk by faith not by sight” (2 Corinthians 4:18, 5:7). Like the quantum physicists who affirm the existence of gluons even though they cannot be directly observed, only inferred, the conviction of faith is the ability to see through tangible circumstances to the spiritual realities behind them. Perhaps it is a form of wisdom and insight. For the apostle Paul also insists that there is grace and strength in weakness and a certain kind of wisdom that is found in both the foolishness of the cross and in the suffering Christ. It is, as Jesus instructed, a blessing and joy that is found among those who weep. All these offer the opportunity, for those who “see through a mirror dimly,” to be bound to a concrete reality in God (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In this sense, then, the conviction of faith sometimes calls us to go beyond reason and tangible knowledge to wisdom. And when suffering or difficulty comes, faith calls beyond a desire for ease and comfort to embrace endurance. The writer of Hebrews names a whole cast of characters known through Israel’s history who endured in faith, endured even when the promise was not received or seen, even when they were “tortured, mocked, scourged, stoned, imprisoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword, impoverished afflicted and ill-treated” (Hebrews 11:35-38). These were individuals of whom the world was not worthy, the writer tells us. They were able to see beyond their circumstances to a spiritual reality. They saw there is something at work in the invisible.
The “conviction of things not seen” is the substance of faith. It is the attention to those spiritual realities that are the true substance behind the circumstances of our daily lives. The conviction of faith is the ability to see beyond the finite to the infinite—in much the same way as physicists have discovered the infinite world of sub-atomic particles. Those invisible particles provide the essential structure for what we see all around us.
In the classic story of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes of a little fox who promises to reveal the secret of life to the young boy in the story. When the secret is finally revealed it is this: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”(3) Likewise, faith sees what cannot always be seen with the eye. It is the conviction of spiritual truths that give substance to reality.
(1) See physics.org.
(2) John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (London: SPCK, 2005), 3.
(3) Antoine de Saint-Exupery as cited by Thomas Long, Interpretation: Hebrews (Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 114.
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