Note: This series is adapted from a presentation given at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN.
I’d suggest that we shouldn’t be involved in trying to squeeze our God into the gaps in scientific explanations. Some try to preserve a role for God in this way, thinking that unless we keep God involved in at least part of the day-to-day business of the natural world, we’ll wind up with Deism. The god of Deism may start things off, but then just sits back and watches the world go according to the natural laws. It seems, however, that there is only a slight difference between that god and a god who just watches the world go most of the time, but every once in a while has to step in and tinker with the natural systems a bit to make them work right… then goes back to sitting and watching during the parts of the processes we do understand. And again, as science progresses and explains more of the gaps, there will be ever more sitting and watching by such a god.
In that sense, then, science has exposed a flaw in our theology. We’ve been seduced by our lack of understanding into thinking that God is the sort of creator who designed natural systems that were incapable of being described consistently in natural terms. So we have tied the action of God to the normal operation of those systems (I’m not talking about miraculous intervention here). Instead, we should allow the success of science to correct this understanding of God. God’s interaction with and sustaining of all creation must operate at a different level than the forces of nature. This should make us consider God’s relationship to creation to be more like that of a personal agent, rather than a force of nature. Then we can talk about God’s actions in personal terms like “willing” or “governing” or even “loving”, and we don’t need to worry that a new scientific discovery will prove this wrong.
To illustrate this point, British physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne asks us to consider the kinds of explanations that could be given for why a tea kettle is boiling. The physicist might give an explanation in terms of the closed electrical circuit with such and such resistance in the heating element of the stove, and this conveys heat to the bottom of the kettle, which in turn causes the water molecules to move more rapidly within the kettle; the increasingly rapid motion of the molecules eventually becomes sufficient to push the vapor pressure of the water higher than the atmospheric pressure, and the water boils. That is a perfectly legitimate and scientifically complete explanation. We don’t have to appeal to anything supernatural to explain that process.
But we might also give an explanation for the same event on another level. For it is also a correct description of the situation to say that the kettle is boiling because I want a cup of tea! This second kind of explanation is what we might call a personal explanation. It appeals to a different sort of reality—the reality of persons—and provides an explanation in terms more appropriate to that reality. If God is a personal being as Christian creeds attest, then it is perfectly legitimate to explore that personal aspect of reality in theological terms while at the same time encouraging others to explore the level of description more appropriate to the fundamental laws and forces of nature.
Science may well be comprehensive within its domain. When speaking as scientists we need not appeal to supernatural intervention to make our equations work. But theology might persuade us that there are limits to that domain. Natural explanation does not exhaust reality. Science became so spectacularly successful by limiting itself to natural causes, but does that success mean that natural causes are all there is? Chemists might give an exhaustive analysis of the elements and properties of an oil painting, or acoustic engineers might comprehensively describe the action of sound waves in a symphony hall. But if those scientific descriptions were all that were given, we’d be missing the central point of art and music. There is something more that cannot be reduced to forces and particles in motion. There is meaning over and above the physical description.
So too with the origin of the universe. Is the Big Bang as far back as we can go with a scientific explanation? Maybe, maybe not. I see no reason to take a definitive stand on that yet. If scientists can figure out ways to push back their explanations further, we Christians remain committed to the claim that they will not have explained all of reality. They may give a more comprehensive account of one aspect of reality, but if I’m right, there is another aspect to reality. Indeed, on my view, the central meaning of reality is a personal being who loves and sustains and cannot be exhaustively described by science any more than art or music or love can be.
So perhaps we are at a kind of impasse. The atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll discusses in very clear terms in an essay he wrote for a book I edited, why we don’t need God for explanations about the universe any more. But of course he’s talking about the gaps in scientific explanations. Science appears to be able to give a complete explanation for how things work. But he acknowledges that there is a different kind of question along the lines I’ve been suggesting:
“These are very different arguments, but they all arise from a conviction that, in various contexts, it is insufficient to fully understand what happens; we must also provide an explanation for why it happens—what might be called a ‘meta-explanatory’ account. It can be difficult to respond to this kind of argument. The ultimate answer to ‘we need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be’ is essentially ‘No, we don’t.’ That is unlikely to be considered a worthwhile comeback to anyone who was persuaded by the need for a meta-explanatory understanding in the first place. It is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase ‘and that’s just how it is.’” (Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, p. 193)
So here are our options: that’s just the way it is, or God desired for things to be this way. Does the “personal explanation” reduce to the “scientific explanation”? Or are there different kinds of entities like persons and things like meaning which are incapable of being reduced to their constituent elements, and so science can’t give a comprehensive explanation for all of reality? These are two different ways of looking at the world, and I don’t think we’ll resolve which is correct through arguments.
I conclude instead with one more quotation, this time from one of my heroes from literature: Puddleglum of C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair from the Chronicles of Narnia. He’s a funny, melancholy character who helps lead the children in search of a lost Prince, and their journey takes them to a nasty, underground kingdom. There they find the prince, but see that he is under the spell of a witch. And she attempts to put them under the same spell through some incense in a fire and her soothing words that their memories of the world above and Aslan their king are just a dream of silly children. They all come to the point where that explanation does in fact seem perfectly reasonable and consistent with their experience. But then Puddleglum, in a herculean effort to break free from the spell, stamps out the fire and makes this speech to the witch queen:
“One word, Ma’am, he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
If our world is just matter in motion in the vast emptiness of space, that’s ultimately a pretty gloomy and dismal place. Maybe it’s true; again I doubt that I can prove to you otherwise. But even if it is true, I’d prefer to live my life living as much like a Narnian as I can, looking for the Overland.