Faithful to Science

blog on science and religion



Here is my lovely sign of hope.
It will sound impossible, but bear with me.
It is everywhere, but you will not find it
by looking at any particular place.
It is far from you but also close,
as close as you are to yourself.
It is not on the map, and you will
not find it by digging, nor by sending
up balloons to assay the sky.
It is nowhere but everywhere, yet
in each place you can find the whole of it.
All this, because it is not a location
but a direction. It is not a place you
can claim but a way to look.

You must not hide your shadow behind you
but throw it down before. Then,
stay still, focus on infinity,
and look in a particular direction.
And suddenly there it is,
layer on layer in all its colours
as luminous as if it were refreshed
just that instant, replenished
again with fullness of arching light
breaking out of the water.

In certain dry seasons you will see nothing.
But by faith and reason working together,
you can reconstruct the possibility,
which will be real enough,
if once you have seen it before.


The somewhat fuzzy picture at the top of this post shows me talking to a friend at our local church, on the occasion of an event called “Instahope”, at which I was invited to present this poem (thanks to Paul Brock for the photo). Here I will unpack a little what is going on in the poem. It is deliberately written as a sort of puzzle or riddle; I hope you will read it a couple of times first, to solve the riddle without my help.


The poem makes use of some precise terminology drawn from optics. “Focusing on infinity” is the expression used for focusing an optical instrument such as a telescope or a camera, in such a way that light arriving in a parallel beam is brought to a point. It is the correct way to focus instruments such as spectrometers, and it is what your eye does naturally when you see a rainbow. The direction in which you must look is one that casts your shadow in front of you, because the Sun is behind. And rainbows are all about light traveling in a certain direction, not coming from a specific place.

There is no location here, only a direction; no place with a pot of gold, only a way of looking. The light is already there, before you brought it into focus; it is all around you. And the whole thing sounds impossible but in fact it is perfectly possible. The seeming impossibility is only when you think about it the wrong way, or don’t realize that what you are invited to see is simply not the kind of thing you had assumed. This is similar to what happens with a hologram as opposed to a photograph. If you only have one small piece of photograph, then you only have one small piece of what it shows. But if you have one small piece of a hologram, then it shows, from a certain vantage point, the whole of what the hologram shows.

The same goes for a rainbow. One of the most remarkable things is that the phenomenon can be encountered in many different places, and yet the whole of it is present at each place, because each place has all directions. This illustrates the theological idea called omnipresence. Omnipresence is not a made-up fantasy from a pre-scientific age, but a carefully honed idea that has been developed by thoughtful reflection in many parts of the world, because it is a response to a very widely felt part of human experience.

(c) The poem above is an original work by me; by posting it here I am making it freely available, but if you use it then please include the correct attribution, and a link to this site where appropriate. Here is a pdf file with the poem presented in a slightly better format.



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1 Comment

  1. That is a beautiful poem. I suspect some divine input, as it works on so many levels. The rainbow is the allegory of God’s promise to be with us always. The shadow (side) of our own nature which we all want to pretend doesn’t exist needs to be before us before we can make progress.

    I have often tried to photograph the beautiful rainbows we get here (foothills of the Malverns) but all I get is a pale imitation because the camera automatically picks out the detail in the scene, almost ignoring the subject. That reminds me how some people can see the beauty and complexity of the world yet claim it ‘made itself’. The challenge is to get them to recognise the Ineffable when it is in front of them.

    Thank you for sharing this. I have lived the truth of the last stanza yet still need to be reminded. I shall be keeping a copy of this and sharing it with those I know will appreciate it.

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