The Periodic Table and Christianity: Patterns in the Universe and in Human Lives
When God made the universe and the human race he used many of the same patterns for both. The physical universe in which we live came from the spiritual world in a series of steps. Using heat, pressure and a great deal of time, the angels formed the 92 naturally occurring elements crystallizing spirit into matter. They began with hydrogen, a substance so light that it rises up through the atmosphere toward the stars whenever it is left alone by itself. So close to the spirit, just barely matter, it seems to want to go home back to the spiritual world. However, hydrogen is needed here to keep the earth from becoming too hard, too dense too fast. Usually it is bound up with other elements. Water, for example is made of two atoms of hydrogen tightly hugging one atom of oxygen, which only feels complete in their embrace: H2O. Without hydrogen we would have no water, no life on earth.
Scientists over the last 200 years have identified the 92 basic elements, as well as the complex patterns found in their interactions with one another.
The result of all that research is known as the Periodic Table, an arrangement that assigns numbers one (hydrogen) through 92 (uranium) to the naturally occurring elements and reveals an amazing array of patterns. The simplest pattern shown is size and weight: during creation every element appears to have arrived out of the spiritual world bigger and heavier (and often denser) than the preceding element. This is reflected in the periodic table in the “atomic weights” attached to each element. Scientists arbitrarily assigned the first element, hydrogen, an “atomic weight” of one. Each succeeding element has been “weighed” and then assigned a number to express its own atomic weight.
These weights are measured as multiples of hydrogen’s number one. Helium is twice as heavy as hydrogen and yet will still rise up through the air because it is lighter than air. Oxygen (the 8th element) for example is 16 times heavier than hydrogen, nitrogen (the 7th element) 14 times heavier.
At first the ability to react and combine with other elements increases very quickly and each new element is very different from the last: nitrogen (7) follows carbon (6), chlorine (17) follows sulfur (16) while aluminum, silicon and phosphorus are element numbers 13, 14, 15. Each new element brings something radically new making the world much richer and far more interesting. However, as the elements become heavier, they become increasingly similar to the preceding element. For example, iron (26), cobalt (27) and nickel (28) are very similar, though not identical. They are strong, sometimes brittle, metals with atomic weights of 56, 59 and 59. Already they are approximately 59 times heavier than hydrogen.
A pattern very similar to this is seen also in human lives: as a human soul is descending into the earthly realm the first 20 or 30 years are usually very different from each other, bringing new and interesting experiences that enrich and enliven one’s biography. Often thereafter questions of professional life, domestic situation and circle of friends become so settled that, in retrospect, the years become very similar, even blending into one another. Then heaviness can set in.
In the periodic table, by the time we get to elements numbered 57 (Lanthanum) through 71 (Lutetium) we are in a world of deadly monotony.
These elements, sometimes called rare earth elements (although not all are rare) are so similar in appearance, chemistry and physical properties that they are nearly impossible to separate from one another. Hence, their discovery and identification extended well into the 20th century. It can appear as if each new element were merely a repeat of the previous. Even though the elements numbered beyond 71 occasionally display very different characteristics, for example, gold (79), mercury (80) and lead (82), which has an atomic weight of 207, nevertheless, heaviness, density and repetition are the rule.
Then something entirely new and unexpected enters the picture, an impulse that could not have been predicted from what had gone before. The last naturally occurring element, Uranium (92), 238 times heavier than hydrogen, displays best this new phenomenon. There is a natural limit to how densely matter can crystalize. When earthly matter becomes too heavy, too dense, it begins to fall apart and “dis-integrate” from within the very core of the atom, the nucleus. Atomic radiation is given off: gamma rays, alpha and beta particles.
This radiation is deadly to life. Radioactivity leads to death which is the end of the road for matter, and the death of matter means the end of earthly life.
Death is not simply the opposite of life; it is a force that destroys life. The opposite of death is resurrection, the power to wrest life from death. In the world of earthly matter there is no power to resurrect. Like matter itself that power comes from the world of spirit. But it can only come through human beings. We have the task of overcoming the death of matter. As Paul said, all creation awaits redemption; this includes the very atoms of matter.
How are we to do this? We can only begin by overcoming death in all its forms in our own lives. The same pattern seen in spirit’s descent into matter is seen in our lives. Once we have passed through the adventures and transformations of youth, we must face increasing seriousness in our lives. The heaviness of karma, the weight of our personal obligations and the dark threat of life’s dreary repetitions can depress and discourage us. We sometimes even fear that matter’s destiny could be ours: disintegration. These difficulties are the consequence of our living in a universe made of matter.
However, the advantages of living in such a universe are even greater: we are free to think, feel and act as we see fit. In this, our freedom, we can think and question; we can wake up to the gifts, abilities and powers that are ours by virtue of being human beings. Fundamentally, we can inquire as to the meaning of life, the meaning of our own personal lives. We are free to think of, and long for, the virtues and human qualities that give life meaning: goodness, beauty, courage, faithfulness, honesty, hope, integrity, persistence, forgiveness, compassion, purity, self-restrain, sacrifice and, most importantly, love, which we can learn only in freedom. Longing for these virtues with clarity, which means thinking them in full consciousness, is actually another way to describe prayer. We are praying when we deeply long to do better, to help others and to improve ourselves.
When we pray again and again, that is, repetitively, something entirely new can come into our lives that could not have been predicted from what has gone before. Christ’s strength and spiritual light will enter our souls; this is the strength to carry and transform the burdens of our lives. Christ does not free us from the weight of the world by magically lifting us out of the world of matter and back into the world of spirit. He came to earth; he took on the weight of an earthly body to bring the power of resurrection to earthly matter. Salvation is not from the weight of our burdens and the earth; Salvation is transformation of the earth through us; in doing so we ourselves are healed as the weight of our burdens becomes less and less.
God could only help by becoming a human being. That is because we human beings are the only spiritual beings possessing consciousness of self, who actually live in this world of matter; matter permeates the essence of our physical bodies. That is why the power of resurrection began in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. With Christ’ power in our souls we can, with time and prayer, overcome the death in our soul and then resurrect this world whose natural fate would otherwise be the death of matter.
The new impulse that enters our lives is not disintegration, as with matter, but integration. The dark, all too human, corners of our soul are integrated with our higher self, which is carried by Christ. His transforming light streams into our souls, and thus into our bodies, bearing our true self; that self then can truly say, “Not I, but Christ in me.” Thus integrated we become an “integer,” a wholeness possessing integrity. Together with Christ we can then help to carry and transform the weight of the world.