A Stone or a Kiss
I am not in the habit of looking to the domain of theoretical physics for memorable images to aid in conceptualizing the nature of faith. This is because, a) I struggle to understand what theoretical physicists are talking about 90% of the time; and, b) Because of a), I console myself with the fiction that theoretical physicists are a mostly unimaginative lot who content themselves with equations and formulas and other math-y gibberish, and aren’t capable of producing metaphors that speak to the truth of people’s lived experience. And that I wouldn’t want to know what they’re talking about anyway. The fox and the grapes of Aesop’s fable and all that.
As it happens, I recently came across upon an interview with Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli that rather inconveniently disproved all of the above. True, there were vast swaths of the discussion that mostly eluded me, but overall I found the conversation with Rovelli to be engaging and interesting and entertaining in all kinds of ways. The man is quite obviously a gifted communicator and a deep thinker. You know, for a theoretical physicist and all.
Rovelli had this striking set of metaphors for how we think about the world we live in. Is reality more like a stone? Or a kiss? We tend to conceptualize the physical world, Rovelli says, as comprised of concrete, solid, stable, unchanging objects, and we interact with it that way. This understanding governs how we approach scientific interrogation of the world. We dissect, we pull apart, we analyze the chemical composition. We weigh and we measure; we come to conclusions and we compartmentalize. We tend to imagine that we live and move and have our being in a world full of sturdy physical stuff that just is. Like stones.
But viewed over a long enough period of time, Rovelli argues that reality is defined at its most basic level by interactions between things not the things themselves. The physical stuff of the world is always changing, growing, dying, reconstituting and reconfiguring itself. We know this is true of human bodies at a cellular level. But it is true even at the subatomic level. Rovelli talked about how quantum mechanics is gradually discovering a world of interactions where the physical reality we’re trying to understand and describe actually seems to be influenced by how we measure and observe it. This seems just crazy enough to be true to me, but this was the point of the interview where my head was beginning to throb due to all the math-y gibberish.
So I thought about happier things—things that I like better than theoretical physics. Like kissing.
A kiss, Rovelli says, is not the kind of thing where we can ask, “Where will it be tomorrow?” I can do this with a stone. I can place it on my desk when I leave tonight and be reasonably certain that it will be in the same place to greet me tomorrow. But I can’t do this with a kiss. Because of course a kiss doesn’t exist tomorrow. It exists only for a moment as an interaction between two people. It might exist tomorrow. Indeed, I would be very pleased if it did in my own particular reality. But it also might not. It requires certain conditions (i.e., if I mostly behave myself, if I am reasonably attentive to my wife, if I brush and floss my teeth…) in order to be realized. A kiss doesn’t exist as a discrete object in the world “out there.” Its existence is interaction.
At any rate, this idea of reality being more like a kiss than a stone obviously has more than a few implications for how we understand God and life and faith. It seems to me that as Christians, it’s easy to fall into the temptation of treating faith like a bunch of stones. We have our doctrines, we have our histories, we have our rituals and liturgies, we have our ethical imperatives. All of these things can quite easily be seen as stones. They’re fixed, unmoving, inert. We might hold them in our hands and inspect them from time to time, but we mostly think we know what they’re made of and where they’ll be tomorrow.
But what if—what if—life with God and each other was always meant to be more like a kiss than a stone? What if we thought of faith as a performative and responsive and interactive thing, rather than a collection of stones that we obtained once upon a time? What if it was the kind of thing that we expected to change and grow over time, to be defined in and through the interaction between God and ourselves and one another? What if we understood the church in this way? What if we were able to conceptualize faith and church less as objects “out there” and more like the kinds of things whose existence was interaction?
And what if God is more like a kiss than a stone? What does it mean, after all, to say that in the beginning was a Word? A word, like a kiss, is interactive. It requires a speaker and a hearer in order to have any meaning. What do we make of the divine voice to Moses when he asks how he should respond when Pharaoh inquires who sent him: I am what I am. Or, as some scholars argue is a more accurate translation, I will be what I will be. And then there’s the Trinity. Whatever else we might say about this puzzling doctrine, the idea that God is somehow three in one implies that the very existence of God is a relationship, an interaction, something that can’t quite be pinned down, dissected, compartmentalized and placed on a shelf.
To say that faith is more like a kiss than a stone can quite easily degenerate into a kind of vapid, quasi-spiritual silliness that imagines God to be whatever we want him to be, whatever makes us feel good, whatever floats our proverbial boat, the end point of wherever our unreflective interactions end up taking us. It should (but, alas, probably doesn’t) go without saying that not all interaction proceeds in the right direction and that it is of course quite possible to interact in self-serving and destructive ways (with God or with one another). Probably among the last things that our cultural moment has need of is more sloppy poetry pretending to be sound metaphysics or theology.
In the end, though, a kiss is much more interesting and inviting than a stone. Stones are good for some things, certainly. We can use them as markers along a journey, as the ancient Israelites did. They can serve as important reminders of where we met God, of what God said, of how God led us and leads us still. We use stones in graveyards to mark and to honour the days of a human life. We need the solidity of stones at times. But we also have this persistent tendency to use stones for throwing, no matter what Jesus tells us about who gets to throw the first one. A kiss is rather more difficult to hurl in righteous anger.
Near the end of his book In the Shelter, Pádraig Ó Tuama talks about an observation made by friend who is a palliative care doctor. People who are dying, he says, “tend to say four things. They say ‘Please forgive me’; they say ‘I forgive you’; they say ‘Thank you’; and they say ‘I love you’.” Human experience does not determine ontology, of course, but what an interesting observation in light of the themes discussed above. Forgiveness. Love. Gratitude. Three things that we need the most, evidently, yet none of which can exist apart from interactions. Each one, more like a kiss than a stone.