From the Gospel of John:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 2:1-11 (NRSV) – February 18, 2013.)
Seems strange, doesn’t it, that the lectionary on the first Monday of Lent, this season of self-denial, would have us read a story of Jesus supplying a lot of really good wine for a party? Strange indeed! But I’m used to reading strange things.
Anyone who knows me well knows that there are two sorts of literature that I read for recreation and relaxation: science fiction and theoretical physics. I’ve been reading science fiction (and watching SF movies and TV shows) as long as I can remember. My bachelor’s degree is, officially, in “Contemporary English and American Literature” but, if truth be told, it’s really in science fiction; I went to university that allowed students to design their own major curricula, so that’s what I put in mine.
I might have gotten a degree in physics if I’d been able to understand the math. However, barely passing three courses in integral and differential calculus convinced me that the sciences weren’t going to be my life’s work. They would remain an active interest, but they would never be a career choice. (It always surprises people when I tell them that my first “real” job was as a laboratory assistant to two experimental physicists in the University of California system. It surprises me, too!)
One of the sub-genres of science fiction literature that I have particularly enjoyed over the years is the group of novels that explore the concept of multiple universes or alternate realities. Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and Glory Road, Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador are of this sort. So, too, is a novel given me by my son and daughter-in-law at Christmas, The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter. In the latter novel, people known as “steppers” move among millions or billions or possibly an infinite number of parallel worlds, either by natural ability or by using a simple “step box” powered by a potato (remember, Terry Prachett is a co-author).
This “parallel universe” idea has been a favorite of science fiction authors for years. What’s great fun these days is that it is now gaining some credence with the science fact folks, too! With the advent of superstring theory and then m-theory, the idea of alternative universes, in fact an infinity of them, is finding justification in the mathematics of theoretical physics. Last month, the science website Space.com published an article entitled 5 Reasons We May Live in a Multiverse which began:
The universe we live in may not be the only one out there. In fact, our universe could be just one of an infinite number of universes making up a “multiverse.”
Though the concept may stretch credulity, there’s good physics behind it. And there’s not just one way to get to a multiverse — numerous physics theories independently point to such a conclusion. In fact, some experts think the existence of hidden universes is more likely than not.
By now, I’m sure that anybody reading this is wondering what any of this has to do with Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Well . . . as one of the characters on the British sit-com Miranda is fond of saying, “Bear with! Bear with!” I’m going to make a sideways step for a moment and then pull this together.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the execution of the 16th Century Dominican friar and condemned heretic Giordano Bruno; he was burnt at the stake on February 17, 1600, for among other things suggesting an infinite number of parallel worlds.
Yes, you read that right. A Dominican friar more than four centuries ago proposed as reality a staple of 20th Century science fiction and a theoretical construct of 21st Century physics, and he did so in the context of a theological meditation. In 1584, he published De l’Infinito, Universo e Mondi (“On the Infinite Universe and Worlds”). In it, he argued that there are an infinite number of worlds inhabited by intelligent beings. The universe, he said, reflects God in God’s infinite nature, thus God must exist everywhere, not as a singular remote heavenly deity. Bruno is quoted as writing:
God is omniscient, perfect, and omnipotent and the universe is infinite. If God is all-knowing, he must be able to think of everything, including whatever I am thinking. Since God is perfect and completely actualized, he must create what he thinks. I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs. (Weisstein)
What if Bruno was right? Or at least partially right. What if there are an infinite number of worlds, as m-theory mathematics suggests there are? But instead of a single, unique Jesus needing “an infinite amount of time” to go from world to world, what if that single, unique incarnation of the Godhead had (and has always had) instant access to all of the infinite worlds? (I realize that words like always and instant become problematic when we begin to speculate about infinite parallel universes.) What if Jesus could “step” like the characters in Pratchett’s and Baxter’s The Long Earth, not in the limited way those characters can but in an omnipotent way, instantly from any of the infinite worlds to any other? What if Jesus were able in some way to bring into this disordered universe the proper, unfallen reality of a parallel creation? He could, when coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration, heal the epileptic boy by bringing the reality of his good health from a parallel world into this world. He could, when feeding the 5,000, reach into an alternate reality of abundance and bring its plenty into this world of scarcity to more than feed the gathered crowd. He could, when the wedding party ran out of wine, supply this world’s need with the overflowing vintage of a parallel existence.
Perhaps that is why the lectionary steers us, at the beginning of Lent, to the contemplation of a wedding reception where the Lord provided an abundance of wine, to considering a story of God’s power and grace that, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20) I’ll admit that this all may be a flight of fancy, a fit of fantasy, but the question of God’s omniscience or omnipotence, attributes that classical theology insists God must have, becomes all the more intriguing if we do live in a multiverse rather than a universe, if creation is multiform rather than uniform. And our Lenten meditations become much more fun!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.