Beware the God of the Gaps
It’s said by some that we live in a de-enchanted world. From at least the days of Isaac Newton, science has peeled back the layers of reality and offered explanations for what was once believed to be the realm and work of God. What was once unexplainable now has a natural or rational explanation. The universe is governed by the laws of nature, ever evolving and developing without the apparent need for divine intervention. Newton did believe that from time to time God was needed to fine tune things, but in general, things ran rather mechanically. God might be the first cause, but now has been relegated to a distant, behind the scenes, role in the universe. If God is so distant and uninvolved, then surely we can ignore God – and we often do – even if we profess a particular faith.
The question that modern science raises for people of faith is a difficult one to answer. Whereas once many diseases or psychological conditions had spiritual explanations (divine punishment or demon possession), now we can explain them in medical terms and find solutions devised by science. Where we once believed that the earth stood at the center of the universe, with the sun, the planets, and the stars rotating around us, we now know we’re nothing but the third rock rotating around a rather small and insignificant star.
So, is there a place for God in this new age of science? There are some who answer the question by giving priority to religious explanations and downplaying science, but is this wise?
Consider for a moment the debate about climate change. Why are so many people resistant to the idea that not only are humans contributing to global warming, but that there is consensus within the scientific community concerning this theory. Why do so many people treat scientific “theories” as if they are mere conjecture or opinion? Is there a fear that if we give room to science, we might lose God? Have we bought into the premise offered by folks such as Richard Dawkins that theology is nothing more than “fairiology?” In other words, theology isn’t a real intellectual pursuit – it’s simply superstition.
As we approach the birthday of Charles Darwin (February 12) I believe it is important that people of faith address the question of whether we can continue believing in God in an age of science. If Darwin is correct, and I believe he is, that we have evolved from a common ancestor over a period of billions of years, then where does God fit? Some will answer that we must adhere to the biblical story, but is the biblical story designed to tell us scientific truth? Is that its purpose? Some will say that evolution has dangerous consequences, so it needs to be resisted. After all, didn’t Hitler believe in evolution? That people have twisted theories for their own benefit doesn’t mean that they’re not true.
If science is correct on matters such as evolution, the question facing us is this – where does God fit? In answer the question I’ve posed a warning: “Beware the God of the Gaps.” While I will affirm the premise that God is the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, I am concerned about the tendency among some of my co-religionists to use God as an explanation for the unexplainable. We call this the “God of the Gaps,” using God as a stopgap measure to explain the unexplainable. So, because we don’t know exactly how things began, except that it seems to have started with a “Big Bang,” then surely we can say that God is the “First Cause.” Once things got started, a further issue arises – how did life forms develop? Proponents of Intelligent Design suggest that God is responsible for the design of the forms that life takes, using the idea of “irreducible complexity” as proof that a designer is needed. As William Paley, an 18th century Anglican priest suggested, if you find a watch lying alongside the road, you must assume it had a creator – a watchmaker. Since nature seems to express an intelligent design, then we can assume it has a designer – a divine watchmaker. And with this assumption, we have proof for the existence of God.
The problem with Paley’s argument is that the realm of God’s activity shrinks with every scientific discovery. What we can’t explain today, could receive an explanation tomorrow. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer worried about this tendency, and in a letter written from prison to his friend and Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes that we shouldn’t use God as a
“stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then, as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Fortress Press, 2009), pp. 405-406].
Bonhoeffer wisely recommends that we seek to find God present in what we know, rather than what we don’t know. Rather than thinking of God as the divine watchmaker, we must assume that God is present in and with the development of this universe.
I’m not a scientist; I’m trained as a historian and a theologian. As a Christian who is by profession a pastor of a church, I believe in God. By faith I affirm that God is the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Having said this, I don’t expect the Bible, to which I turn for my spiritual sustenance, to offer a scientific account of reality. That’s not the purpose of the Bible. To ask it to offer such explanations is to force it to do something it’s not “designed” to do. For such explanations, I turn to science. I don’t need to force scripture and science to say the same thing. By faith, I can, however, affirm the premise that the heavens and earth, whatever the scientific explanations might be, do declare the Glory of God.
Because I am increasingly concerned about the implications for both the faith community and the world at large, I have invested myself in building bridges between the scientific and the religious. I believe there needs to be conversation, with both realms of thought learning from the other. With this in mind I have been a participant in the Evolution Weekend project from its very beginning. This weekend congregations from a variety of faith traditions from across the nation and beyond will observe this event as a way of saying no to those who would appeal to a stopgap God and to those who reject outright any place for God in the conversation. Our future as a planet depends in large part in the success of this conversation. So, won’t you join me in this observance? Let us a put an end to the “war” between religion and science so that we can live together in a more peaceful, just, and fruitful world. For me, that means that God is ever present in this process, not sitting back finished on the sixth day!
Also posted at the Troy Patch