The Francis Asbury Society

Loving and Believing

The Chemistry of Christmas

by Dr. Joe Dongell

As a junior in high school I became so fascinated with chemistry that I began my college days aiming at a career in that field. My interests were first captured by my high school chemistry teacher who regularly entertained us with shocking “chemical performances” carried out on the large black lab bench that served as his desk.

Even now I can almost see Mr. Collins pouring this beaker of red liquid into that beaker of blue liquid … only to produce (voila!) a boiling white foam … that settles into a dense rubbery blob … that fills the room with an awful, piercing, other-worldly odor! We felt like shouting for joy and groaning with agony at the same time.

Then there were the stories he would tell about things that went wrong in factories, or laboratories, or even homes because of some seemingly minor (but fateful) mishandling of chemicals. Or he would tell about the pranks carried out by Clemson University students who had access to volatile chemicals. In hushed tones he noted that even a tiny pinch of lithium flushed down the toilet could render an explosion of such force as to destroy much plumbing. (That, perhaps, was not among his wiser teaching moments!)

But there was yet another hook. Chemistry could explain thousands of curious features of everyday life. Why does iron rust? Why does ice float? Why can I dissolve more salt into warm water than into cold? Why does the bottom of a gas tank tend to rust? Armed with the knowledge of “how things work” at atomic and molecular levels, one can discern how amazingly regular and sensible physical reality actually is. Things once appearing to be mysterious can be shown to be operating according to predictable laws, no matter how surprising their physical changes might appear to our eyes.

Now if you’ve ever taken a chemistry course or even looked at the most elementary chemistry textbook, you will come away overwhelmed by the complexity of it all. Learning how to solve chemical equations, along with the math they involve, is not for the faint of heart. But beneath it all is the rather simple truth that all of physical reality has to do with relationships: relationships between this atom and that atom, between this molecule and that. However elaborate the combinations of atoms might become, and however exotic their properties might be, everything can be reduced to two questions: “What are my building blocks (i.e. atoms)?” and “How are they related to each other?”

Let’s perform a simple chemical demonstration in our minds right now, drawing only upon common, human experience. Imagine that we have two separate buckets of clean water. Into one bucket we will dump one cup of clean, white sand. Into the second bucket we will dump on cup of clean, white sugar. After stirring each bucket vigorously (for three or four minutes?), we will wait for three or four minutes, and observe.

We all know what will happen: the sugar will totally dissolve into the water and will no longer be visible. Even if we wait for an hour, or a day, or a month, the sugar will remain fully dissolved and invisible to our eyes. Unless we change the conditions significantly, the sugar remains permanently dissolved. On the other hand, the sand will settle out fairly quickly, creating a smooth and visible layer along the bottom of the bucket. The chemist has a name for each of these scenarios: the sand-and-water combination we call a mixture, while the sugar-and-water combination we call a solution.

Now I want to draw attention to the actual words I’ve used in talking about these two combinations of materials. The one combination I referred to as “sand-and-water,” while I referred to the other as “sugar-and-water.”  Notice that I used the same little word (“and”) to bind (in a linguistic way) these materials together, even though the actual chemical bond between these materials is very different.  I’ve used the “and” to cover both for a relationship of mixture and of solution.

In other words, the English word “and” is a colorless little word that leaves it up to us to figure out just what is going on (in the real world). If I declare that I’m going to the store to buy some bacon and motor oil, I’m sure you’ll conclude that I’ve run out of each, and that the two are related only in so far as I plan to purchase them on the same trip. But if I declare that I’m going to the story to buy some bacon and eggs, I’m equally sure you’ll conclude that I’m preparing a sumptuous breakfast feast, with bacon and eggs prepared and served together!

But my confidence that you will interpret my words in these ways is entirely dependent on my certainty that you already understand the typical uses of bacon, motor oil, and eggs. Armed with that knowledge, you knew that the “and” in “bacon and motor oil” was a weak bond (may we say merely a mixture?), there being little meaningful relationship between these two elements. On the other hand, your knowledge of the typical American breakfast (let us suppose) allowed you to imagine a strong bond (may we say a solution?) between the bacon and the eggs. As we all know, these really do sing together!

But that’s where the challenge of reading the Bible comes in: throughout the Bible we find hundreds of “ands” begging for more attention. But since we often are not as familiar with the elements being connected, we may miss an important strong bond at work.

For example, take what we read in 1 John 3:23: “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (rsv). Reducing it to its essential components, we now see that the command consists of two parts joined by the simple conjunction we’ve been talking about: believe and love. Now, perhaps, we may put the question in terms of chemistry. Does this combination represent a mixture, or perhaps a solution? Have we got bacon and motor oil, or bacon and eggs?

I’m guessing that you already know where I’m headed with this, and you’re right. But we must take a moment to consider carefully the wrong approach, simply because it is so common, so tempting, and so often embraced without one’s awareness. The wrong approach, as I see it, is to imagine that the business of believing (may we call this “right doctrine”?) and the business of loving (may we call this “right living”?) constitute a sand-and-water mixture. By this I mean that “doctrine” and “ethics” are viewed by many as “not very closely related,” and rather easily separated out, just as sand rather easily settles to the bottom of a bucket of water.

Christians both to the right and to the left fall prey to the mixture approach. Among conservative Christians the temptation is to value right doctrine (and the rigorous defense of it) as what supremely qualifies us for the kingdom of God. We battle for truth, and decry any erosion of the orthodox faith once delivered to the saints. But the question must be asked, “Do we love?” Are we known just as much for love as for truth? Or to use the words of scripture so often quoted by Wesley, is it clear to all that “the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5)?

On the other side, the sad project of theological liberalism attempts to build an ethic of love apart from orthodox confession (especially regarding Christology). A life of love is advised, recommended, even demanded on the basis of the teaching of a Palestinian peasant man (Jesus) who somehow had remarkable religious insights. While impressive philanthropy and generous social projects can arise from such a vision, it seems that a deeper inner transformation is often lacking.

And now to the bottom line. Believing and loving must be seen as joined together in the tightest of bonds, forming a solution in which both elements are deeply attracted to each other by their very natures. The logic of the chemistry involved (as distributed throughout 1 John) must be followed closely: when the writer mentions Jesus the Son, he is always insisting that this is the Eternal Son, the one sent from the Father … to die for us. The Father’s own love for us is then proven by the deep loss he chose to suffer for us (in the giving of his own Eternal Son). Human prophets may tell of such love, but cannot establish it as God has established it through the gift of his Son. To believe (fully and truly) in the Son, then, is to be (fully) convinced of the Father’s love for us. In this wonderful overflow of being beloved by God (and knowing it), we can freely and joyfully love others.

And so the Chemistry of Christmas fuses doctrine and ethics together, calling us not only to accept the fact of the Incarnation, but to receive the full flow of the Father’s love entailed within it as the only adequate resource for loving others according to his command. We believe in the Son…and therefore … we can love others.

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