The Radiance of a Thousand Suns

I have not yet seen the new film about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist for the Manhattan Project that developed the first atomic bomb. I did, however, see the world premiere of “Doctor Atomic” produced by the San Francisco Opera back in 2005 (libretto by Peter Sellars, music by John Adams). While not an enthusiastic fan of modern opera, this piece was gripping. Portraying a talented but deeply conflicted man, “Doctor Atomic” invites us into a space of distressing contradictions—the brilliance of human ingenuity and the terrifying brilliance of a weapon of mass destruction.  

It’s worth remembering that the site in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb was tested in July of 1945 was called “Trinity.” Oppenheimer himself chose that name for the site based on a sonnet by sixteenth-century-century poet John Donne. “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” Donne wrote, and Oppenheimer apparently imagined this line as a form of penance, remorseful for having unleashed such destructive power in the world.  

The blast and cloud from the Trinity test site, July 1945

In the opera, Oppenheimer recites Donne’s text as he waits for the bomb’s detonation. He takes Donne’s plea that God would “break, blow, and burn” as his own hope that God would cleanse him of sin, but also at the same time as a description of the terrifying power of the bomb he himself had largely made possible—a bomb to break, blow, and burn everything in its path.

Oppenheimer recalled a line from the Hindu scriptures at the precise moment of the Trinity site explosion. It was a line spoken by the god Vishnu about his power to destroy. As he described that scene in a later interview, Oppenheimer noted the reactions of those around him in the moments immediately following the detonation: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” (I highly recommend seeing and hearing Oppenheimer himself speak those lines.)  

I am reflecting on all this not only because of the new Oppenheimer film just released but also because, for many years now, I have thought about him and these intertwined strands of religious poetry nearly every summer. It just so happens that the first atomic weapon was detonated on August 6 in 1945, over Hiroshima, on the very same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration on the Christian liturgical calendar.

How can we possibly commemorate the transfigured splendor of Jesus (Luke 9), dazzling white, on a day when the skies over a Japanese city likewise sizzled with unimaginable brightness? Oppenheimer remembers thinking of still more lines from the Bhagavad Gita shortly after the Trinity test was complete: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.”  

“Transfiguration of Jesus,” Armando Alemdar Aar

These are nearly unbearable tensions: human creativity and human violence; religious poetry and military strategy; the divine glory of Beloved Jesus and the horrific “glory” of atomic fission. I confronted those tensions shortly after I became an Episcopalian, when I was eager to adopt a spiritual practice rooted in the rhythms of the church year. Realizing this confluence of dates, of Transfiguration and Hiroshima, was certainly dismaying to make back then, and yet also a vital reminder that religion and culture are actually inseparable. Keeping our religious observances somehow free from cultural “taint” is not only impossible, it’s not even desirable. Our religious faith and spiritual practice are meant to help us engage more directly and deeply with the wider society, even when—and especially when—it’s troubling.  

As Christians gather this Sunday for worship, on August 6, the lectionary will invite us once more to imagine transfigured splendor. But do what do we really wish to say about glory in a world of unrelenting violence? Surely by now something other than the triumph of the church itself, and please not yet again the “shock and awe” of military victories, nor certainly not the taming and colonizing of wild spaces on this “fragile earth, our own island home” that too often passes for human “glory.”

What if “glory” resides in a human face, with each act of compassion, at every moment of kindness offered toward a stranger, when vulnerability becomes an occasion for care, and earth itself is “crammed with heaven” and “every common bush afire with God,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote? I dare say, that would be a glory readily praised and one we could quite literally live with.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

2 thoughts on “The Radiance of a Thousand Suns”

  1. I read this piece eagerly, since I’ve spent the past several weeks pondering the connection between these two earth-shattering events. With your permission, I would like to quote a paragraph or two from this essay/sermon. I’ve been wondering, as well, about Jesus’ transfiguration and the potential transfiguration of each of his followers. The idea of glory reflecting in each of us when we walk the Way is very helpful. Thank you so much.

  2. I was trained in the empirical science of psychology in my mid-twenties, earning a Ph.D. from Princeton University in Social Psychology. As I moved through the decades of my adult life, I embraced the Methodist religion (the religion of both my parents and my grandparents). In my faith journey, a strong part of my belief is that God likes and approves of human’s questions.

    A large part of this belief structure is the conviction that God can handle all of our emotions and thoughts. If we are rageful at the world and thus at God, God can handle it. Humans often cannot handle our intense emotions or our conflicted thoughts. However, God can.

    When I said to myself over the years that God approves of human questions, I was really referring to the scientific method. God approves of the strongest human minds struggling with the hardest questions of the earth and cosmos. Personally, I believe that God wants humans to struggle with those questions, and I believe that God wants humans to struggle with these questions without resorting to having “God” be part of the answer. Inserting “God” into the scientific process can disrupt things badly. I don’t think that God approves of this type of disruption.

    God can be part of the process, but not a disruptive part of the process.

    I want to quote myself from something I wrote in 2017: “Real science is a method of asking questions. Real science always produces more questions. It does produce certainties, but only over time. Complicated issues are not simplified by science. Instead the complications of the questions address by the scientific method are reflected in the results of experiments. Complicated issues result in complicated science.” The answers produced by scientists asking questions, and attempting to shed light on those questions through the scientific method, are always complicated.

    Sometimes, we need to have simplicity. I often need simplicity, and I can find it in on Sunday mornings in my church, when the “glory” that resides in the human faces of my church community, with their acts of compassion to me as a member of their community (i.e. not a stranger.) I do my best to return the compassion and warmth.

    I have not seen the current movie about Oppenheimer. I would love to have the opportunity to see the modern opera, “Doctor Atomic,” as described by Rev. Dr. Jay. I am not an enthusiastic fan of classical opera, but have been thrilled by several modern operas, including a couple by John Adams.

    In my thoughts about the scientific method over the years, I have been thinking about my field of psychology. Psychology as a science does not produce weapons capable of dismembering, disabling, and killing hundreds of thousands of people. Over the last 30 years, the type of empirical science that I was trained in produced lots of evidence of implicit biases — which was not a concept in 1980. As obvious as the concept of implicit biases are to many of us now, it may be surprising to remember that it was not part of our mindset just a few decades ago.

    J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the more charismatic individual scientists who did leave theoretical physics for applied physics in the WWII period, and they did produce instruments of unspeakable destruction. As an intelligent, thoughtful human, he and others had a rather unfortunate understanding of their creation — while they never were Gods, they could conceive of themselves with supreme powers and, I think, it generated significant suffering for them. With the discussion that the current movie has generated, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have had our attention directed to the fact that J. Robert Oppenheimer’s younger brother, Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, was central to the founding of our current scientific museum, the Exploratorium.

    Psychology, and most fields of science, do not generate the power or destruction as that produced by the atomic bomb. The progress of most fields of science are, frankly, rather mundane. They don’t necessarily render themselves to block-buster movies, or even to modern powerful operas.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: