Monday, October 17, 2011

Better Christianity through Chemistry

I am a follower of Christ. I have been baptized to become a Christian. I have a community of fellow believers I openly discuss religion with. I am presently in the process of joining a congregation. I regularly attend 2-3 services a week at two separate churches. Both of these churches belong to the same denomination. I find myself pondering on all of this, and wondering what these facts mean to my identity as a servant of Christ. As is often my wont, I am now going to take a sharp turn into a more scientific field, in this case chemistry, and then return to this question.

Let us consider for a time the element Oxygen, for ease of display on the web I am not using superscripts or subscripts, I think the notations should still be clear. For this essay, when I say Oxygen I will mean (16)O and be ignoring other isotopes unless I say otherwise. Oxygen is one of the common atomic elements which have been studied for some time. Oxygen is generally comprised of 8 Neutrons, 8 Protons, and 8 Electrons. We could go deeper and say that it is comprised of 8 Up-Up-Down Quark sets, 8 Up-Down-Down Quarks sets, and 8 Electrons, but that is more than we need concern ourselves with. At standard earth surface conditions, Oxygen’s natural state is as a diatomic pair, O2. Oxygen is a very reactive element, and occurs in a wide variety of molecules, such as water (H2O), as well as Rust (Fe2O3). Oxygen can also be found as O3, sometimes called Ozone. A single O atom does not naturally occur except under conditions very different from those at the Earth’s surface. Oxygen is known to exist in other stable isotopes, such as (17)O and (18)O, which have more neutrons but for our purposes react like the common (16)O with other substances. Oxygen also exists in radioactive isotopes, but these are short lived with the longest having a half-life just over two minutes.

As an element, we can list a number of properties which allow us to identify Oxygen, and make a number of predictions about the way it will interact with other elements and molecules. We can consult a periodic table, and find other elements which share many of the expected behaviors of Oxygen, for example Group 16, the Chalcogens (Including Oxygen, Sulfur, etc.), all have similar chemical reactions due to sharing a common electron configuration. However, each element is unique, and a skilled chemist will know that not all of Oxygen’s reactions will be shared by the rest of the group. Now that I’ve taken a quick refresher on chemistry and established at what level I am considering the elements, I am ready to use this knowledge as the basis for an extended analogy.

If we consider individual people to be atomic, we might devise a set of rules for classifying them and categorizing expected behaviors. In the end, we would produce something akin to the periodic table. I would argue that in this view of things, those who feel that they follow the teachings of Christ the man could be grouped, like the Chalcogens. These are people who in most cases will react similarly to other people and outside events. However, they are not all Christians. Those who have accepted Christ as the Son of God and the Risen Lord would further be the element of Oxygen, a part of the larger group, but with distinctive properties and unique interactions which make it something distinct from merely the group it is part of.

In this way I would return to my opening and see that being Christian, I am like Oxygen, and thus a part of the general group of those who follow Christ’s words. Likewise, this makes clear that the two do share a relationship, and one cannot be a Christian and elect to reject Christ’s words… If I am not a part of the Chalcogens, it stands to reason I cannot be Oxygen; Perhaps I am another element such as Nitrogen, which is more similar to Oxygen in many ways than Sulfur, but does not respond as a Chalcogen would. I’m being quite heavy in my use of the metaphor here, but it has helped me sort out my thoughts that were giving me a lot of trouble.

Let’s move on now to the next steps in my consideration of my Christian identity; the community I share my religious thoughts with (which must include you who read this). This is where the analogy has its core. As Christians, we must always be active in a world made of believers and non-believers. In the same way, Oxygen is in admixture with a spectrum of other elements, all interacting. As an atomic unit of Oxygen, I could run into other elements and become part of water (H2O), or part of Carbon Dioxide (CO2), or even part of Galactose (C6H12O6). Each of these molecules ends up with its own unique identity more complex and textured than that of the individual atoms. I want to delve further into this idea, and propose some thoughts, but we need more building blocks of this analogy first.

There is a special case, the simplest molecule Oxygen is likely to form is O2, a simple combination of two lone Oxygen atoms makes a stable system. In reference to my opening paragraph, this is the level at which we find the congregation. For the longest time I was stuck at this point in my thought, over what is essentially a semantic issue. I was placing the next level as the individual church instead of the congregation, and this was cluttering my thought process. For my purposes, the congregation is the body of worshippers who gather together on a somewhat regular basis to share their expression of faith. The church is the physical location and common trappings which they make use of to express this worship. This is far from the only way to use these terms, but it is how I need to separate them for my current thoughts. The congregation is like the diatomic form of Oxygen. It provides a stable situation in which to explore your identity as an atom of Oxygen, without introducing the traits of other elements which might cause confusion or a loss of self. One reason I am very fond of this analogy is that it is clear that we do not exist in a void. I am not just Me, I am Me relating to You. A Christian is defined by the way he treats others.

Let’s go back to the nature of molecules now, and consider them in a new light. When a Christian mingles with a group of non-Christians, a new community is formed, and bonds are created, just as when Oxygen mixes with other elements. But now that we have explored the idea of 02 as an expression of Christian fellowship and community, we can extend the idea of the molecular bonds. When we mingle with other elements we may end up in many situations, but unlike chemistry, there are good and bad ways for us to end up. If we end up in water, H20, then we know that it takes considerable energy to disrupt the bonds and free the oxygen. Isolated and kept separate from other atoms of Christianity, we are likely to lose our identity and move from an Oxygen atom with two Hydrogen atoms, to simply water. On the other hand, in Carbon Dioxide (CO2) we have formed a molecule which includes within the new bonds an ongoing opportunity for us to have the fellowship of other Oxygen, while being a meaningful companion to the Carbon. I would argue that we must become social chemists, considering the nature of the bonds and properties of the elements with which we find ourselves mixing, being sure to reach out and offer companionship and comfort to all those we find, but wary of being trapped in a situation which will erode our Christian identity or deprive us of our special nature.

What of O3, the Ozone from our chemical lesson? Well, as many may have hazarded to guess by now, In this analogy I link it to the idea of denomination. In the natural passage of events on earth, as O2 molecules ascend into the higher reaches of the atmosphere, they are subject to forces which can disrupt their bonds and result in free lone O atoms. These atoms can be “rescued” by O2 pairs, forming a new stable O3 molecule, which both saves the free atom from being lost, and produces a new kind of Oxygen which protects the earth below. Likewise, I think that many Christians in their stable O2 lives with their congregations would be fine Christians with no awareness of the idea or practice of denominations. But for those Christians who find themselves looking further and further into the mysteries of faith, asking fundamental questions which trouble them but may leave their close circle of believers unfazed, they may reach a point where the answers they can get at their church, from their congregation, do not suffice. They break free, feeling they are no longer a part of the fellowship they have always known, and would be at risk of floating away; but then they are put in touch with something else, a body which goes beyond the congregation and has asked the same big questions over the years and has reached a body of answers which they feel are consistent and adequate. For this kind of seeker, that surety and community is a great comfort. The existence of a body bigger than a local community of worshippers is a great aid to his faith. And this distant cloud may float above countless stable congregations, providing them with support, guidance and protection which enrich them, even if most of their parishioners would never come face to face with the sort of questions one needs a denomination to explore.

Wrapping up, what this chemical study of Christianity has helped me to come to grips with is rather simple. I feel that even if we call ourselves Christian, if we allow ourselves to be bound into social circles and actions which do not permit us to express our Christian nature, we are no longer able to act as followers of Christ, and risk losing our Christian nature. As Christians, we require social interaction, and for the lion’s share of us, the company of our fellow Christians to help affirm our identity and to allow us to practice our beliefs. Our social circle and congregations provide the most immediate opportunity for these practices, and help us to explore our identity, and our denominations provide an anchor for those of us at risk of losing ourselves in the clouds of religious thought and questioning.

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