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The New Flatlanders

A Seeker's Guide to the Theory of Everything

Eric Middleton

In The New Flatlanders, teacher, scientist, and chaplain Eric Middleton challenges traditional ways of looking at reality by engaging readers in a "voyage of discovery starting with questions." The book engagingly begins with a discussion group embarking on an exploratory conversation about the nature of the universe and the place of human beings in it. Daunting questions emerge, such as "How can there possibly be a tear or hole in three-dimensional space? And if there is a hole, can something fall through it? Where would it fall to?" In short order, students and teacher are on a quest to develop a "working theory of everything" that takes them from stone circles to quarks, superstrings, quantum theory, the anthropic principle, evolution, consciousness, miracles, chaos, and the spiritual universe.

The key to exploring these questions is finding a language with which to talk about the awe and wonder of today's science alongside the joy of experiencing the spiritual. This is done by interweaving into the discussions the philosophy of "Flatland," a nonreligious entry point to Jesus posited by nineteenth-century clergyman and educator Edwin A. Abbott in his classic parable Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

Visit www.thenewflatlanders.com for more information.

Acknowledgments / ix

Introduction / 3

1. The Universe and Beyond: How Did It All Begin? / 7

2. Mystery, Models, and Quantum Theory / 19

3. Quarks, Superstrings, and M-branes: A Theory of Everything for the Twenty-first Century? / 30

4. What Is Reality? / 40

5. The Story of Flatland / 45

6. The Anthropic Principle / 59

7. Evolution: Where Do We Fit In? / 67

8. Consciousness and What Comes After / 81

9. Miracles and Missions / 92

10. Chaos and the Hidden Order / 104

11. But Why? The Problem of Evil / 115

12. The View from Here / 127

13. M-theory in Eleven Dimensions: The Spiritual Universe / 134

Glossary / 145

Notes / 151

Index / 161

Everyone should buy a copy of this book. . . . If you think science disproves faith, or faith can ignore science, read why you are wrong

Sam Berryprofessor of genetics, University College London

The New Flatlanders [is] a wonderful achievement. . . . I really hope it has the attention it merits as a tool for making sense of faith to young people.

Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury

A charming and provocative little book. . . . It is the Sophie's World of the religion-science field.

Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology, Claremont School of Theology

What Is Enlightenment?—Issue 39

[S]erves as an intriguing consideration of how traditional religious beliefs may not be incompatible with modern science after all—at least at the outer fringes of scientific speculation, where the known limits of empirical certainty have yet to constrain the miracles and mysteries of faith.

Tom Huston

The Scientific and Medical Network—Winter 2008

This book originated in a series of discussions between a Christian scientist teacher and some of his students about the nature of the universe and the place of human beings within it. In a question and answer format, the large themes of cosmology, physics, biology and psychology are explored and explained. The students come from a number of perspectives, ranging from the skeptical to the intuitive—hence they are more or less open to various aspects of the discussion as it unfolds. They question the author’s understanding of Jesus which he sympathetically explains. It is clear that the understanding of the students expands in the course of the book, and a parallel process would surely occur in other young people reading it. General readers will also find that the treatment helps clarify their own views. However, much of the material will be familiar to readers of this Review.

Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith—Vol. 60, No. 4

The first three chapters provide a quick overview of big-bang cosmology, quantum mechanics, standard-model particle physics, and string theory. These chapters can be read as a useful but all-too-quick tour of modern physics for the scientifically uninitiated. Their more useful function is to point out the metaphysical indeterminacy at the heart of all scientific understanding. The fourth and fifth chapters serve as a fulcrum in the discussion: here Middleton looks to Plato's allegory of the cave and Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland novella for analogies that will provide leverage for prying into the metaphysical possibilities that have opened up.

The explicitly Christian message, which first takes shape as the group discusses the Flatland story, is filled out in subsequent chapters that are organized around themes including the anthropic principle, evolution, consciousness, the question of other religions, and the problem of evil. The discussions draw frequently, and for the most part winsomely, from the Flatland analogy in order to broker a philosophical deal between different modes of understanding. A well-placed chapter on “Chaos and the Hidden Order” describes the visualization methods and graphing techniques adopted in complexity research. It is surprisingly successful in reinforcing the Flatland analogy, to the extent that Jesus can be compared with a strange attractor without the discussion jumping the tracks of orthodoxy. It refreshed me to see the gospel creatively but faithfully proclaimed in an introductory science-and-religion book.

If I find myself in such a setting again, I will suggest to my fellow seekers that we read The New Flatlanders together, and I will expect us to enjoy some long and rewarding conversations as we do. 

Matthew Walhout, Calvin College