Take me to the multiverse that doesn’t have Donald Trump

This is a guest post by Lisa Gasson-Gardner. Lisa is a PhD student at Drew University. She is writing about revelation, affect, and evangelical politics.

MaryJaneRubenstein-WorldsWithoutEnd-coverI did not watch the August 6th GOP debates (though I cannot get over this video of Trump) but I did do a search for mentions of science, particularly of climate change from the event. What came up was not claims about how God created the world and would not allow climate change to destroy the planet (or about how young the earth is or whatever), but silence. Science reporter Seth Borenstein specifically watched the debates to fact check claims about science. The fruit of his two hours of television watching? Nothing. Rather than outright antagonism against the claims of science, the GOP candidates simply avoided the topic all together. This is, of course, not to say that the individual candidates have not said some insane things about climate change. Here’s Trump saying on Twitter in 2012 that China invented climate change to make US manufacturing “non-competitive.” Trump’s comment is not about religion, but rather about production—about money. Add to this blatantly capitalistic take on climate change the fact that only two of the GOP candidates faced 13,000 evangelical Christians on July 27th at the annual convention of the Southern Baptists in Nashville, TN and it appears that the relationship between certain kinds of evangelical Christianity and the Republican party might be changing. (This is not to say there wasn’t plenty of God-talk during the debate, but see: here and here.)

Two goals of Mary Jane Rubenstein’s book Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse—both having to do with power— are relevant to the shifting relationship between Republican politics, certain kinds of fundamentalist Christianity, and science. My aim here is to draw out the political/ethical layer that is so important to Rubenstein’s work and to think about its implications for contemporary politics.

One goal of Worlds Without End (there are four stated goals) is to ask “how, why, and to whom the multiverse has become a particularly attractive hypothesis at this historical juncture” (3). A new fire has been lit in the dialogue between science and religion, explains Rubenstein, since the discovery of the cosmological constant in the past 15 years. Scientists seeking to better understand the big bang sought to determine the rate of expansion of the universe—however, unexpectedly, they discovered that the universe was not only being pulled by gravity, but also pushed by something else, a something that is popularly called “dark energy.” The measured effect of this energy is the “cosmological constant.” Then, key to the dance with religion, Rubenstein explains, “If the cosmological constant were greater than it is, it would have pushed space-time apart before planets and stars could form. If it were smaller, gravity would have drawn the early world into a fiery collapse” (16). The precision in the fine-tuning of the universe is very appealing to Christians who want to claim a certain kind of Creator God (more about precisely what kind of God in a moment) is responsible for the universe.

The introduction to Worlds Without End is subtitled “How to avoid the G-word,” a title that playfully refers to the race for science to explain away the role of a supernatural being in the creation and upkeep of the universe. This race is the most basic power struggle depicted in Rubenstein’s book: the push and pull between science and religion for control over the narrative. Whichever side can explain the whole universe can lay claim, finally, to the truth. Rubenstein explains that multiverse theories make sense of the precise tuning of the cosmological constant—if there are an infinite number of universes then every possibly value for the constant exists. Humankind just happens to live in the one that is perfectly tuned to support human life. With multiverse theories humankind is reduced neither to saying, “‘We’re here because we’re here’ nor to postulating a benevolent, omnipotent, transcendent creator who must have set everything just right so that life might emerge in the universe” (17).

Naming the kind of God that multiverse theories counter—“a benevolent, omnipotent, transcendent creator”—leads to another of Rubenstein’s goals. She marks “multiverse cosmologies as the site of a constructive reconfiguration of the boundaries between ‘science’ and ‘religion’” (3). Importantly, embedded in the possibilities that Rubenstein opens up for the relationship between science and religion there is another, stronger, claim about power—“oneness equals power” (31). That particular quote refers to “the biblical tradition” where “oneness equals power” (31). This claim about power and the biblical tradition is, of course, very relevant to the changing evangelical Christianity of the Republican Party, which has tended to be aligned with a form of evangelical Christianity that subscribes to biblical literalism.

It is the claim that “oneness equals power” that most clearly points to the political implications of Rubenstein’s work in Worlds Without End. The Creator God—“an anthropomorphic Maker, whose grandeur is apportioned to the baffling scope of his creative work”—has been and is used to shore up power to rule in the world (12). Rubenstein presents the claims of Lucretius as an (very) early thinker to reject the idea that the world was created out of nothing, to theorize the multiverse, and to equate the power of the divine with moral issues. As an example, Lucretius points to Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia as a request for good sailing weather. Rubenstein concludes, “Lucretius is not abandoning the notion of divinity as such; rather, his rejection of the world’s singularity—like his preemptive rejection of creation out of nothing—indicates that he is abandoning divinity understood as domination, as sovereignty” (52).

At this point Rubenstein’s work intersects with a whole line of political theology (which, I caution, is far from my area of expertise) that traces back to the controversial work of Carl Schmitt in Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Schmitt argues, famously, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (36). Key to political theology, according to Schmitt, is precisely the term that Rubenstein with Lucretius challenges—the sovereign. Schmitt explains that the sovereign is the person who “decides the exception” and it is the exception to the established set of rules that actually allows for the normal condition of the state (3). Can you hear the parallel between this kind of power and the Creator God who makes the universe out of nothing and precisely tunes it, allowing the world with all of its various laws and systems to unfold?

Much ink has been spilt recently in theological writing that critiques the Sovereign God (I am thinking here of radical theology from Thomas Altizer through to Clayton Crockett). However, avoiding a “benevolent, omnipotent, transcendent creator” does not, as Rubenstein clearly states, preclude the possibility of divinity and the possibility of divinity’s involvement in the universe (12). There are streams of theological thought—like process theology—that have no problem thinking differently about God and which don’t see a conflict between the sacred and the secular. It is into the multiplicity of the multiverse that Rubenstein leans in order to rethink the boundaries between science and religion.

Specifically, Rubenstein uses the multiverse to demonstrate the porousness of the boundaries between science and religion—“the purportedly inimical terms of ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are highly unstable when it comes to the multiverse” (220). Rubenstein cites John Barrow, “[Y]ou can discover whether the Universe is infinite, but the learning will take an infinite time” (212). The multiverse presses at the boundaries of what it is possible to know, requiring a kind of faith. In other words, science is held to account for the same pursuit of oneness that Rubenstein uses to challenge religion—“science becomes indistinguishable from religion precisely at the point that it thinks itself most free: in its pursuit of a purportedly objective, singular ‘truth’” (230-231). This is not to say that Rubenstein somehow denigrates the objective value and truth of science—nor does she denigrate justice-based expressions of religion that make important changes in the world. It is at the fringes of both science and religion that Rubenstein finds a blurring that can generate a changed relationship between the two fields.

Finally, Rubenstein sums up the power struggle that her book has depicted, “What we have witnessed, then, is a series of diverse negotiations of the singular and the plural—each negotiation demonstrating with some mixture of intention and accident that the world is neither one nor many, but many in its oneness or one in its manyness or many in a certain light and one in another” (228). In other words, Rubenstein lands neither on oneness nor manyness as the superior mindset; rather, the multiverse reveals the necessity of understanding how claims of oneness and multiplicity work together. Thus, relationship then between science and religion does not have to be antagonistic—there is no need to necessarily choose a side. However, the relationship Rubenstein finds between the two disciplines precludes claims to an absolute truth, presenting a problem to fundamentalist Christians who want to name a determinate meaning for claims found in the bible. Yet, interestingly, this is not the stated problem for most Republican candidates.

Ted Cruz, like Donald Trump, is a climate change denier. Despite identifying as a Southern Baptist (a famously evangelical group), Cruz’s rejection of climate change, like Trump’s, is about money. Cruz has called global warming a “trojan horse” that liberals use to get inside the economy and exert “massive government control.” Cruz’s campaign is, of course, funded by the infamous oil-wealthy Koch brothers who have poured something like $80,000,000 into science that denies climate change. Jeb Bush does not deny climate change, but takes a skeptical position—“The climate is changing, whether men are doing it or not.” Further, Bush is skeptical of taking advice about the environment from Pope Francis, explaining, “religion ought to be about making us better as a people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm” (same article).

I take two things from this brief detour into the claims made by GOP candidates about climate change. First that capital—cold hard cash—seems to be as much of a motivator of climate change denial as any religious or theological claims. Rubenstein speculates with Nietzsche that Christianity produces “modern science, in a staggering gesture of self-sabotage, as its consummation and its destruction” (234). How does capital play into this relationship? At least in the political sphere, it becomes increasingly clear that money is as important a driving force behind power as religion or science. It is possible that the sovereign God has somehow been subsumed into the modern economic system? (Several people, smarter than me, make this kind of argument: see the work of William Connolly, or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri).

This brings me to my second observation, the delineation of discourses as incompatible is still being used as a way to avoid or sublimate difficult relationships. Take, for example, Bush’s claim that religion ought to stay out of politics or the fact that several other candidates respond to questions about climate change by stating, “I am not a scientist.” Rubenstein’s unfolding of the thinning of the boundaries between science and religion in multiverse theories is illustrative of both the deep imbrication of politics, religion, and science and the reason the politicians plead the fifth when it comes to certain discourses—it is, of course, about shoring up power. If Bush (relative of one of the most evangelical presidents ever) wants to avoid the calls to deal with climate change that are made by Francis, then he pleads separation of religion and politics. If GOP candidates want to avoid angering their donors, then they remain silent about science during the debates.

Finally, of course, God was not absent from the GOP debates—only science. Most notably, the candidates were asked Chase Norton’s question—“I want to know if any of the candidates have received a word from God on what they should take care of first.” This kind of direct communication with God is a very common way of relating to God in evangelical Christianity (see T.M. Luhrman’s brilliant When God Talks Back). An intimate, even personal, God is not necessarily incompatible with the death of the transcendent Creator—but it requires a rethinking of power. Similarly a rethinking of religion, science, and politics requires a rethinking of power. The play between the one—the leaders of the US—and the many—the electorate—cannot be ruled by an amorphous economy of capital. At least no more than the play between the one and the many can be ruled by a bearded Creator God in the sky.

One thought on “Take me to the multiverse that doesn’t have Donald Trump

  1. not surprisingly God (or the idea of anything being “perfectly tuned to support human life”) never really comes up at most scientific conferences either…

    Brian Cox & Alice Roberts on the Incredible Unlikeliness of Human Existence

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