The Language of Rainbows

Quantum Field Theology

“Show me your tomes and I will draw you a napkin.”

The usual way to approach a theological problem is to read just about everything written on the subject by just about everybody else, and quote just about every one of them in a book that almost nobody is going to read. And the result most often looks like the same landscape just slightly rearranged. There is little or no progress.1And some people even get paid to do this.

Although the value of such work should never be underestimated, true innovation in any field seems to be achieved by someone willing to attack its problems from an entirely fresh angle.

Visual Language

Mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash (the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind) was one such individual. Another, also a Nobel Prize winner, was physicist Dr Richard Feynman. His approach to science is very much like the approach of the school of biblical theology to which I subscribe. The scientist observing the laws of nature is like someone who does not know the rules of chess watching the game being played and attempting to make sense of it. Feynman said:

A fun analogy to get some idea of what we’re doing to try to understand nature is to imagine that the gods are playing some great game, like chess. You don’t know the rules of the game but you’re allowed to look at the board, at least from time to time, and in a little corner, perhaps. And from these observations you try to figure out the rules of the game and the movement of the pieces. You might observe, for example, that if there’s only one bishop moving around on the board that the bishop maintains its color. Later on, you might discover that the law for the bishop is that it moves on a diagonal, which would explain the law that you understood before, that the bishop maintains its color. That would be analogous to finding one law and later gaining a deeper understanding of it. You’ve got all the laws, and your understanding of chess is going well.

Then all of a sudden, some strange phenomenon occurs in some corner, so you begin to watch out for it so you can investigate it. This phenomenon is “castling,” something you didn’t expect. By the way, in fundamental physics we are always trying to investigate areas in which we don’t understand the conclusions. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s the most interesting—the part that doesn’t go according to what you expected. We can have revolutions in physics after you’ve been noticing that the bishops maintain their color and go along the diagonals and so on for such a long time, and everybody knows that that’s true, but then you suddenly discover one day in some chess game that the bishop doesn’t maintain its color, it changes its color. Only later do you discover a new possibility: that the bishop is captured and a pawn went all the way down to the queen’s end to produce a new bishop. That can happen, but you didn’t know it. So it’s very analogous to the way our laws are. Things look positive. They keep on working. Then all of a sudden some little gimmick shows that they’re wrong and then we have to investigate the conditions under which this bishop changed color, and gradually learn the new rule that explains it more deeply.

In the case of the chess game, however, the rules become more complicated as you go along. But in physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears on the whole to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience, about more particles and new things. And so, the laws look complicated again. But what’s kind of wonderful is that as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions, every now and then we have one of the “integrations” where everything is pulled together, unified in a way which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.2Richard Feynman interviewed in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” a documentary filmed in 1981. (Edited for clarity.)

This explanation by Feynman struck a chord with me, because it is exactly what I am proposing is the case when it comes to the literature of the Bible. Theological libraries are filled with flattened forests of isolated observations about the Bible, gathered and labeled under terminologies designed to describe similarity of appearance. One thing missing from theology is a “unified theory” which actually makes the entire book simpler rather than more complicated. Systematics are some help but overall they are just isolated collections of similar data, not a window into the internal logic of the “game” of biblical literature.

What is also missing is a way to express this “unified theory,” and Feynman is a help here as well.

Known for his assistance in the development of the atomic bomb, and honored for his work in quantum electrodynamics, Feynman is also famous for introducing a new “visual language” to express quantum field theory processes in terms of particle paths: the “Feynman diagrams.” This “simplification” required a mind not only familiar with the intricacies of physics, but also at ease with the logic behind them.

This was Richard Feynman nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty-three … there was no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics… Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Albert Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau—but few others.3James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.

So, what are the Feynman diagrams?

In theoretical physics, Feynman diagrams are pictorial representations of the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles. The scheme is named for its inventor, Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Richard Feynman, and was first introduced in 1948. The interaction of sub-atomic particles can be complex and difficult to understand intuitively, and the Feynman diagrams allow for a simple visualization of what would otherwise be a rather arcane and abstract formula. As David Kaiser writes, “since the middle of the 20th century, theoretical physicists have increasingly turned to this tool to help them undertake critical calculations,” and as such “Feynman diagrams have revolutionized nearly every aspect of theoretical physics.” (Wikipedia)

Though Feynman was not the originator of this visual language, he was the first to develop it fully and to teach other physicists to use it. What am I saying here? Well, of course, that I believe that what I refer to as the “Bible matrix” is such a language. It not only allows us to understand the complexities of the Bible’s history, architecture and theology in a simpler, more integrated way, but also to express them more efficiently.

Predictably, my “workings” need to be explained in long-winded prose for those unversed in this theological shorthand, but the visual solution itself is simple.

Old School Resistance

For Feynman, persuading the physics establishment to give up pages and pages of complicated calculations for simple diagrams was not so simple.

Feynman had to lobby hard for the diagrams which confused the establishment physicists trained in equations and graphs.4Leonard Mlodinow, Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life.

While many adults’ eyes either glaze over or else look daggers at me for teaching something “new,” children and teenagers most often “get it” straight away. The young not only pick it up but with little training are able to “speak it” quite fluently. It not only gives them an understanding of Scripture beyond their years, it explains the patterns of human life. As a friend commented to me, “Once you’ve seen it, you see it everywhere.” If the Bible is the Word of God, we should not expect anything less.

Thus, my dream is to see this “quantum field theology” with its simple diagrams become the language of Bible teachers everywhere.

Laws of Attraction

Though quite a few have dismissed this approach, I have been working on it for a number of years now and am more convinced than ever. The primary reason for continuing with it is, quite simply, it works. As Feynman describes, when the study seems to have hit a wall, or there is something which appears to confound the theory, further study reveals even greater unity and simplicity. There are now elegant—and extremely consistent—solutions to a growing number of supposedly complex theological debates which have occupied scholars for centuries. For every problem, I could sketch the resolution in a diagram on a napkin.

Layout 1This method almost always provides a fresh angle in approaching a problem, a “third way,” but this means I cannot fit into any particular denomination or theological framework, and explains why my take on many controversial Bible texts is unfamiliar. I can hear the heartbeat of the text, and it is a different drum.

But this “unified theory” also means that the logic behind every one of my positions, on every topic, is identical. What is more, they all gel together perfectly, just as they should. Readers often do not like my conclusions, but I defy anyone to fault my logic. Show me your tomes and I will draw you a napkin.

The second reason is that further study not only reveals greater unity but also more profound beauty.

I am no Feynman. Like Warhol, I take other people’s ideas, fit them together and repeat them endlessly to the annoyance of the establishment. But in doing this, Warhol changed our culture forever. Like Feynman, and like me, Warhol’s ease with the “mechanics” of his field was the result of his fascination with its beauty.

‘Do you know who first explained the true origin of the rainbow?’ I asked.

‘It was Descartes,’ [Feynman] said. After a moment he looked me in the eye.

‘And what do you think was the salient feature of the rainbow that inspired Descartes’ mathematical analysis?’ he asked.

‘Well, the rainbow is actually a section of a cone that appears as an arc of the colors of the spectrum when drops of water are illuminated by sunlight behind the observer.’


‘I suppose his inspiration was the realization that the problem could be analyzed by considering a single drop, and the geometry of the situation.’

‘You’re overlooking a key feature of the phenomenon,’ he said.

‘Okay, I give up. What would you say inspired his theory?’

‘I would say his inspiration was that he thought rainbows were beautiful.’5Mlodinow.

This is an essay from Inquiétude: Essays for a People Without Eyes.

If you are new to this method of interpretation, please visit the Welcome page for some help to get you up to speed.

References   [ + ]

1. And some people even get paid to do this.
2. Richard Feynman interviewed in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” a documentary filmed in 1981. (Edited for clarity.)
3. James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.
4. Leonard Mlodinow, Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life.
5. Mlodinow.

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