God is not real. God is complex.

Posted 6 February 2011 by
The Rev. Canon John Fergueson, Rector, Church of the Redeemer

The Rev. Canon John Fergueson, Rector, Church of the Redeemer

Lately, I have been hanging out at Church of the Redeemer in Kenmore, Washington, on Sunday morning. The rector, the Rev. Canon John Fergueson, has taken to asking us to ponder three questions while we say the Nicene Creed. The concern is that, with repeated use, we can say the Creed without caring what is in the Creed. The three questions are:

  • God is real.
  • God can transform.
  • I love Jesus.

This Sunday, before he restated the three questions, Canon Fergueson mentioned overhearing some parishioners talk about the three questions without knowing he was there. What he overheard was something like, “Those questions annoy me.”

Canon Fergueson’s response to that was:

Good. My work here is done.

My education includes too much mathematics for a sane and normal person. It was 25 semester hours in college, because I started out as an Electrical Engineering major. (Did I mention I have also 13 semester hours in Physics, including a course in atomic and nuclear physics?) This warps what I hear and see in life. This is particularly true when you say things to me like “God is real.”

The mathematics most people do on a daily basis involves the set of real numbers. The set of real numbers includes rational numbers (can be expressed as a fraction—ratio—of two numbers) and irrational numbers (cannot be expressed as a ratio of two numbers, such as π). When you are balancing a checkbook or calculating the area of a circle, this is all you need.

If you use Ohm’s Law with a simple resister in a direct current circuit, you still only need the set of all real numbers. You probably only need the set of all rational numbers.

When you use Ohm’s Law with capacitors and coils in an alternating current circuit, the set of real numbers is not enough. You need to use the set of complex numbers. Each complex number has two parts, a real number part and an imaginary number part. An electric circuit with a home refrigerator on it qualifies for this, as the motor in a refrigerator counts as has having coils in it.

(The term “imaginary number” is fascinating in that it ignores the obvious. Real numbers are not any less imaginary. While every one of you reading this would know what “2 apples” or “2 kilograms of apples” represent, I dare you to find me a kilogram of “2″ anywhere. All numbers are a construct from our imaginations.)

When I hear “God is real,” all I can do is to think that God also has an imaginary part, making God complex. The more I think about God being complex, the more I like it.

Not that “God is complex” is an all-encompassing definition of God, mind you. However, it is better than “God is real.”

In particular, I rather enjoy God being more than something that is real. For that matter, our God is not a tame God, constrained by rational human thought. Sometimes we only grasp a glimpse of God through our imaginations. I think C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling caught more of God through literature than theologians  through philosophy and logic—primarily because literature requires us to fill in the blanks in our minds.

The real definitions of God found in the historic Creeds are necessary. The Creeds set boundaries. Humans need boundaries to work at our best because of how they challenge us. At the same time, the Athanasian Creed defines catholic faith as this: “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity” (emphasis added). This creed does not say, “we understand one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”

It takes the real portion of God along with the imaginary portion of God to even begin to get a glimpse at the complex nature of God.

Canon Fergueson did his job, all right.

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