The just-released Oppenheimer film produced by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh and others, is making quite a stir: garnering acclaim in some quarters, critique from indigenous communities in New Mexico, and ambivalence from Japanese cinema culture. Have you seen it?
I collaborated on a meditation on the historic events themselves in my book with Fr. Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Our reflection on the “atomic bonds” that create manifold connections between realms — and the ways these bonds can be compromised, even dissolved — is more timely now than ever. I wanted to share it with you here:
Not thirty minutes from where I live in Albuquerque is the National Atomic Museum. Of the four atomic bombs that were created at Los Alamos, we dropped one just south of Albuquerque on July 16, 1945. We dropped a second one on Hiroshima, and a third one on Nagasaki. The casing of the fourth one is still right here in town. That brings this whole mystery so close to home for me—literally.
Isn’t it telling, and more than interesting, that the basic building block of our entire physical universe is what we call the atom? And the atom is most simply understood as the orbiting structure of three particles—proton, electron, and neutron—in constant interplay with one another.
The further irony is that Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb,” named the final stage and site of its New Mexico detonation Trinity. He later said that although this clear choice of name was not completely conscious to him, it was probably inspired by John Donne’s metaphysical poem “Holy Sonnet #14.”
Donne’s meditation here invokes a kind of trinity—but is it the Trinity that we’ve been exploring? I’m not sure the answer is completely clear. This is a poem I find, in places, both beautiful and disturbing:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Such contrasting images! As one museum dedicated to science and art noted in their reflection piece about the Trinity test site, “Holy Sonnet #14” [begins,]
“Batter my heart, three-personed God….” In that sonnet, the speaker addresses God directly and strong paradoxical emotions surface, all in the context of an extended warlike metaphor. Coursing through the poetry is violent imagery (“batter my heart,” “overthrow me,” “break, blow, burn…”) paired with pleas to be healed and renewed (“seek to mend,” “make me new”), evoking a sense of struggle, an internal war.
When Oppenheimer was creating his bomb at Los Alamos, we were at war—as we often are. And it seems that he himself was locked in an internal battle—hoping that an instrument of death-dealing could somehow bring life; that an army, prepared to usurp towns themselves and inflict martial law on United States citizens, if necessary, could bring peace at home and abroad by their powers of annihilation.
Perhaps the most audacious contradiction of all is Oppenheimer’s embrace of a kind of shadow trinity as the very name of his test site. I cannot help but recall the dim places where Christianity, under the influence of empire, has lost its way. When not ignoring Trinity altogether, we’ve instead debased our telling of this Three-in-One as a command-and-control caricature: distinct from the biblical Trinity or mystical Trinity, this is a hierarchical delegation where a single-minded father-ruler demands that an expediently-dispatched son use immense power (or force) to batter and break humanity.
Tragically, this is the vision of God that wins out all too often. And—from abusive relationships to the creation of astonishing weapons of mass destruction—this vision has consequences.
Oppenheimer wasn’t oblivious to these consequences. It seems he feared that in breaking open the atom, they enacted an undoing or reversal of trinity, destabilizing the tripartite atom and disrupting the source code of reality. It’s no wonder that, upon witnessing its awful first blast, he immediately invoked the Hindu deity Vishnu, quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Our imaginations, applied to worlds “above” and “below,” can be used for such potent life and death. (See Proverbs 18:21.) This is part of the mystery of freedom that God grants us. This particular mystery of exploding power, as atomic scientists have told me, is not found in the protons. It’s not found in the electrons, or neutrons either.
Believe it or not, the explosive power is found in the interaction between them. It’s the essence of nuclear power, and it can change everything.
Does this put the Trinity in perspective for you? We’re not talking gobbledygook in trying to describe the Triune mystery, though you can be forgiven if you think it sounds like that, especially in my struggling formulations. Theologians and contemplatives describing the Three-in-One dance are not unlike physicists describing the mystery of atomic energy: they say it’s not only stranger than it sounds, it’s even stranger than we can normally understand.
The Perennial Tradition has often said, “As above, so below.” (The Perennial Tradition gathers traits common in the world’s wisdom lineages.) “God in his heaven” directly impacts things “here on earth below.” We see echoes of this reciprocal language even in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) If we update this language for the quantum era—moving from the “Great Chain of Being” to the “Nested Holarchy of Being,” as the philosopher Ken Wilber puts it, we can rightly speak of As within, so without.
If all reality is a holon and has a fractal character, as physicists are also telling us, then each part contains and mirrors the whole. If the cosmos as we know it originates from a “big bang”—from a “Let there be”—that means that one point just explodes with life and gives birth to the many lives.
When does this many cease to be one?
When did this one ever not contain the many?
Never! This is what the relational pattern of the universe is teaching us, from Godhead to geochemistry and everything in between.
The shape of the cosmos—quasar to quark—is triune.
How do we practice this presence—of reality? Scientists and mystics alike will tell us: Be present! Experiment! Stay curious. This is Contemplation 101. Let go of what you “think” is your intelligence center—because what you think is your intelligence cannot understand the atom, cannot understand the galaxies, and cannot understand what is birthing and animating all existence.
This momentous truth can occasionally be caught but not easily taught. We’re standing in the middle of an awesome mystery—life itself!—and the only appropriate response before this mystery is humility. If we’re resolved that this is where we want to go—into the mystery, not to hold God and reality but to let God and reality hold us—then I think religion is finally in its proper and appropriate place.
For more, please pick up a copy of The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. And download your exclusive bonus chapter here.