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.
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.”
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.