Where is God in Nature?

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

High mountain lake in the Cascade Mountains, WA. Photograph by Gary Fugle.

INTRO BY TED: A great benefit in my line of work is meeting a lot of very thoughtful Christians who work in the sciences. This past summer at the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, I met Gary Fugle, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Butte College in California. After studying ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Davis (M.S.), and UC Santa Barbara (Ph.D.), Gary was an award-winning instructor of courses ranging from botany and zoology to human anatomy and physiology. At the same time, he’s been active in conservative evangelical churches, especially his local congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. After I heard him give a great talk, lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs—some of which he shares with us here—I asked him to write a column I could share with you.

Gary’s talk introduced me to his recent book, Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide, one of the most original contributions to the vast literature on “science and the Bible” that I have seen. For more information about the specific contents, visit his website, where you can view the table of contents and download a couple chapters. His personal story of a scientist who met Jesus as an adult is encouraging, and his vision of reality compelling. Let’s hear him tell it himself.

I’ve been an evangelical Christian for over thirty years. I am deeply connected to the Christian community and a biblical worldview. I regularly lead worship at my church. What is perhaps unexpected, though, is that I also have a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, and I’ve taught college courses with evolutionary themes for as long as I’ve been a believer.

I once embraced a fully mechanistic view of life. I still recall my well-articulated reasons for rejecting God and Christian faith. But, as I completed my graduate studies, I became increasingly dissatisfied with my atheistic reasoning and responded to God’s call on my heart.

I’ve lived for all these years in awe that God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things. Simultaneously, I am convinced that evolutionary theory provides a beautiful and useful scientific explanation for the derivation of living things on earth. This unusual journey inspired my recently released book, Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide.                                                                                                                          


Brand new spring leaves on a Pacific dogwood. These bright green structures are the primary location for photosynthesis in most plants. Photograph by Gary Fugle.


God’s Presence

God is wonderfully evident to me throughout his natural creation. On the other hand, he is not immediately apparent in the data or descriptions of my science. This is just what I expect.

Scientists have described many natural processes in great detail. Photosynthesis, for example, is a remarkable phenomenon that occurs inside plants. Without bogging down in specifics, we know that light energy is captured in specialized pigments, and this energy is directed through numerous understood steps to link carbon atoms from CO2 into the carbon backbones for all the plant’s organic molecules. The process is amazingly complicated, and awesome!   But here is the important point: God’s presence and activity are not directly evident in these scientific descriptions. Then where is God? How we answer is important, because it reveals a lot about how we will approach the topic of science and faith.

I know that God is within every part of photosynthesis. The Bible proclaims God’s continual involvement in the natural world, as the one who holds together and sustains all things in every moment.[1] Though we do not see him in a conspicuous, describable way, we know God is present and essential through the eyes of faith, as revealed in Scripture.

If we don't immediately see God as responsible for every part of photosynthesis, we take part in modern western thinking that assumes describing something in scientific terms somehow leaves less room for God. Instead, Christians may inherently praise God for the mechanisms of photosynthesis and for every valid scientific description put forth by modern scientists. For me, the goal is an ongoing rhythm of worship and mindfulness of God’s presence, not just in our personal lives and the lives of our communities, but also in the natural processes that are all around us.                                    


How wonderful it is to marvel at a newborn infant. This is my youngest daughter holding our new grandnephew.


A Harmony of Causes

Psalm 139:13 reads, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Believers respond to this expression of God’s control with wonder and comfort. At the same time, modern science can describe in increasing detail how the human form arises from the unfolding of specific genes and progresses through stages without apparent intervention by God.

These two ideas may seem in conflict. But the fact that a baby’s development can be described by natural mechanisms does not negate that God caused it to happen. They are both true! The essential implication is that God’s sovereign control and natural processes are enacted at the same time, and both are simultaneously true descriptions.

This approach to God and nature seems puzzling to our western perceptions, but there is a long, biblically-based church history of understanding that God works with the characteristics of the natural things he created and sustains.[2] 

This seeming paradox may be compared to our strange modern understanding of light energy. Some observations confirm that light behaves like a wave in a medium, while other equally valid tests show light is composed of different sized packets of energy called photons. These descriptions are contradictory from our everyday perceptions, but we are forced to acknowledge that they are simultaneously true, even as they seem to be in conflict.

Christians may even more readily accept seeming paradox when we describe the divine action of the transcendent and unfathomable God who was before all things, created everything from nothing, and knows the end from the beginning.[3] God is not part of the natural creation, as if his actions and natural phenomena are pitted against each other as alternatives. He acts from beyond the confines of our limited space-time perceptions in a way that must ultimately be puzzling to us.

God and Evolution

I approach the science of evolution in the same way as photosynthesis and embryo development. Our modern knowledge of evolutionary history is vast and complex, and evolutionary theory explains innumerable aspects of biology, from the tiniest cell structures to intertwined interactions within ecosystems. Evolution is a major unifying principle for valuable reasons 

As with other scientific topics, we may ask, “Where is God?” He is everywhere! I don’t expect to see direct evidence of God’s actions within evolutionary descriptions. And yet, I know that God is the artist of the marvelous and intricate evolutionary masterpiece painted across his natural creation.

To be sure, there are still many questions to be answered about evolution. Even so, I have seen in my 40 years of study that we have acquired ever-increasing scientific clarity, not exposed difficulties or limitations. Our general picture of ancestral relationships among organisms is routinely reinforced and extended by ongoing fossil finds and genetic studies. And our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms (the area of least certainty) has been bolstered beyond simple mutation-selection models by a flurry of new discoveries from modern genomics.[4]

The broadest conclusion is not that God is revealed in the descriptions of evolutionary science; it is that God interacts with his natural creation in such a way that he is not directly evident.


There is stunning beauty in the intricate form of these Phacelia flowers from the desert in Joshua Tree National Monument. Photograph by Gary Fugle.


 God’s Glory

At a time when so much is described using naturalistic explanations, the church is challenged with considering how we see God in the natural world. I was personally swayed from my atheistic reasoning not by scientific data, but by an overwhelming sense that mechanistic descriptions could not account for all I perceived about existence. Ultimately, this is a work of the Holy Spirit and an assent of the heart.

There are different paths to Christian faith. I was particularly struck by the awe, wonder, and beauty I experience sitting in the solitude of a high mountain lake, gazing at a colorful sunset, or pondering the delicate structure of a flower. Atheistic scientists argue that these universal emotions are solely products of a mechanistic evolutionary history.[5] I am convinced otherwise: in these responses we are sensing God’s hand in his creation.

I have long been intrigued that the Bible claims God is apparent in nature, without reference to scientific information. Romans 1:20 reads, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” For the apostle Paul, God has been evident from the very beginning by direct reflection on the natural world. And, significantly, it is God’s invisible supernatural attributes that are apparent.


The heavens declare the glory of God. An unexpected, beautiful sunset from northern California. Photograph by Gary Fugle.


Similarly, David composed Psalm 19:1–2 long ago: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” This is a non-scientific declaration that the skies speak to us of God’s character.

Reformation leader John Calvin offered this commentary: “When a man, from beholding and contemplating the heavens, has been brought to acknowledge God, he will learn also to reflect upon and to admire his wisdom and power as displayed on the face of the earth, not only in general, but even in the minutest plants.”[6] In other words, by simply pondering the heavens, our eyes may be opened to the reality of God. And it is then that we will see his hand, his presence, in all aspects of nature!

These reflections may be a reminder that a key event in perceiving God in nature is a work of the Holy Spirit, a divine communication that gives us eyes to see. Sharing the gospel of Jesus in our scientific age will always involve an invitation to accept a supernatural reality and to acknowledge that God is responsible for all that scientists study.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Fugle, Gary. "Where is God in Nature?"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 29 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 May 2017.

APA

Fugle, G. (2015, October 29). Where is God in Nature?
Retrieved May 23, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/where-is-god-in-nature

References & Credits

[1] Col 1:17; Heb 1:3; Acts 17:25; Ps 104

[2] This is the topic of divine providence; God is the first or primary cause and nature operates via secondary causes.

[3] John 1:1–3; Heb 11:3; Is 46:10

[4] e.g., Hox developmental control genes, transposons, horizontal gene transfer, abundant duplicated genes, and epigenetic regulation.

[5] As a behavioral ecologist, I understand that many behavioral features can be valuably explained as the result of adaptive selection. This does not mean all emotions can be explained this way.

[6] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, 19:1-6.

 

About the Author

Gary Fugle

Gary Fugle is Emeritus Professor of Biology from Butte College in Oroville, CA. He received his graduate degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of California, Davis (M.S.), and UC Santa Barbara (Ph.D.). He is an award-winning instructor who has taught courses spanning from botany and zoology to human anatomy and physiology. He has been simultaneously active in conservative evangelical churches, especially his local congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. Gary is also the author of Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide. His book website and blog are at garyfugle.com.

 

More posts by Gary Fugle

Comments