Is this incredible universe we inhabit potatoes or peas?
This Monday Jacqui and I went to see “The Theory of Everything”, the remarkable film starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones and Cambridge University. Sadly Cambridge hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar. The film is the story of the relationship between cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Wilde. Essentially this is her story rather than his. Not that surprising given that the screenplay is based on her memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. You don’t need a working knowledge of cosmology to appreciate the film.
In fact, the only time there is any reference to Hawking’s work is when Jane tries to explain to choirmaster Jonathan over dinner her husband’s quest. She uses a potato and a pea to describe the two major theories in physics. The pea, she says, is Quantum Theory, the set of laws that govern the smallest components of the universe. The potato represents General Relativity, the set of laws governing the very large — stars and planets.
“If the world were all potatoes, easy — you could trace a precise beginning, as Stephen once did, a moment of Creation. Hallelujah, God lives,” she says. “But if you want to incorporate peas into the menu, which Stephen now wants to do, then it all goes.”
One of the major themes of the film is the relationship between science and faith. Even as they first meet Hawking makes clear that he has no room for God in his thinking. In contrast Jane introduces herself as “Church of England.” But her belief in God is not expressed in an understanding of how he made the cosmos. In many ways, this is but a sideshow. What shines through is her sheer commitment to Hawking, diagnosed as having motor neuron disease and with just two years to live. This comes at huge personal cost – although the film does show the fun they have together. For me the most moving part of the film comes towards the end when things go awry. Jane very simply says to her husband of 25 years “I have loved you.”
She could have been quoting scripture. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says God in Jeremiah 31:3. “I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” God speaks these words during a time of unimaginable suffering for the people of Israel. They had been vanquished and exiled by a cruel and proud people. They are devoid of hope. And it is into this affliction that God assures his people of his love. He goes on to promise: “I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.” Here the reference is to the marriage, the covenanted relationship between the LORD and his wayward people. God will keep his promises. As did Jane. After Hawking’s diagnosis, she tells his father, “I know I don’t look like a terribly strong person, but I love him and he loves me and we’re going to fight this illness together.”
How do you prove the existence of God? I find cosmology fascinating; I buy the books. Certainly the Goldilocks enigma, that the universe seems ‘just right’ for life, appears to suggest a Creator. But my hunch is that the human mind, however much it may comprehend the essentials of this particular universe, will never grasp the reality of God – for the simple reason that it cannot.
We see God not in Hawking’s brilliant equations but in Jane’s selfless service. It’s just knowing where to look – to those who volunteer to nurse those dying of Ebola in West Africa, to those who stand for indigenous people’s against the might of large corporations, to those who care for loved ones with dementia. We see God most clearly at the cross. So Jesus says: ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. (John 15:9).