Implications for Religious Belief
How are we to interpret this scientific picture in terms of religious belief. Do we need God to explain this? Very succinctly my answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need. One gets the impression from certain religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill them with God. This is the exact opposite of what human intelligence is all about. We should be seeking for the fulness of God in creation. We should not need God; we should accept him when he comes to us.
The religious believer is tempted by science to make God “explanation.” We bring God in to try to explain things that we cannot otherwise explain. “How did the universe begin?”, “How did we come to be?” and all such questions. We sort of latch onto God, especially if we do not feel that we have a good and reasonable scientific explanation. He is brought in as the Great God of the Gaps. I have never come to believe in God, nor do I think anyone has come to believe in God, by proving God’s existence through anything like a scientific process. God is not found as the conclusion of a rational process like that. I believe in God because God gave himself to me. That was not a miracle. It does make sense that there is a personal God who deals with me and loves me and who has given himself to me. I have never come to love God or God to love me because of any of these reasoning processes. I have come to love God because I have accepted the fact that he first made the move towards me.
The scientific picture traced above deals with the questions of origins, of how what we observe and experience today came to be? The question of creation, and therefore of a God Creator, responds to the question of why is there anything in existence. Creation is not one of the ways whereby things originated as opposed to other ways that can be thought of, including quantum cosmology and evolutionary biology. The claim that all things are created is a religious claim that all that exists depends for its existence on God. It says nothing scientifically of how things came to be, although beautiful stories are told in the Book of Genesis, to elaborate on the dependence of all things for their existence upon God.
Having opened the Pandora’s box of the Bible, let us elaborate a bit upon it. The Bible is a collection of writings by various authors at various epochs using various literary genres. And so it best serves reason if one speaks of a specific book rather than of the Bible in general. It is clear that the overall intention of the authors of Genesis is to evoke religious faith, an adherence to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and not to teach. There is simply no scientific teaching in Genesis. In the Judaic/Christian tradition, the roots of religious belief reach to 5,000 years before Christ with the prophet Abraham. But Modern Science cannot be dated before the 16th or 17th century, roughly from the time of Galileo and then through many others to Newton, with the discovery of the universal law of gravity, the differential calculus, etc. You may even wish to go back to the beginnings of the experimental method with Roger Bacon and others in the 13th century. But, at any rate, the modern science that speaks to religion today is born much later than the religion to which it speaks. It has to be recognized that the religious tradition is historically much longer and to a certain extent has that richness of the past that modern science does not.
It is unfortunate that, at least in America, creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaic-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor naturalism is true.
But if we confront what we know of origins scientifically with religious faith in God the Creator, in the senses described above, what results? I would claim that the detailed scientific understanding of origins has no bearing whatsoever on whether God exists or not. It has a great deal to do with my knowledge of God, should I happen to believe he exists. Let me explain.
Take two rather extreme scientific views of origins: that of Stephen Gould of an episodic, totally contingent and, therefore, non-repeatable evolutionary process as contrasted to a convergent evolutionary process such as that of Christian de Duve, in which the interplay of chance, necessity and opportunity leads inevitably to life and intelligence. In either case, it is scientifically tenable to maintain an autonomy and self-sufficiency of the natural processes in a natural world, so that recourse to God to explain the origins of all that exists, is not required. It is not a question of chance in nature, excludes God; destiny in nature requires God. In neither case is God required.
If, however, I believe in God then what nature tells me about God in one case is very different from what nature tells me about God in the other. Please note that I am not calling upon faith to adjudicate between contrasting scientific viewpoints. I do think that convergent evolution is more consistent with God’s revelation of himself in the Book of Scripture, so that, as Galileo was fond of stating, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature speak of the same God.
If we take the results of modern science seriously, it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of the scholastic philosophers. Science tells us of a God who must be very different from God as seen by the medieval philosophers and theologians. Let us ask the hard question. Could, for instance, God after a billion years in a fifteen billion year old universe have predicted that human life would come to be? Let us suppose that God possessed the theory of everything, knew all the laws of physics, all the fundamental forces. Even then could God know with certainty that human life would come to be? If we truly accept the scientific view that, in addition to necessary processes and the immense opportunities offered by the universe, there are also chance processes, then it would appear that not even God could know the outcome with certainty. God cannot know what is not knowable.
This is not to place a limitation upon God. Far from it. It reveals a God who made a universe that has within it a certain dynamism and thus participates in the very creativity of God. Such a view of creation can be found in early Christian writings, especially in those of St. Augustine in his comments on Genesis. If they respect the results of modern science, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words. Scripture is very rich in these thoughts. It presents, indeed anthropomorphically, a God who gets angry, who disciplines, a God who nurtures the universe. Theologians already possess the concept of God’s continuous creation. I think to explore modern science with this notion of continuous creation would be a very enriching experience for theologians and religious believers. God is working with the universe. The universe has a certain vitality of its own like a child does. It has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement. You discipline a child but you try to preserve and enrich the individual character of the child and its own passion for life. A parent must allow the child to grow into adulthood, to come to make its own choices, to go on its own way in life. Words which give life are richer than mere commands or information. In such wise does God deal with the universe.
These are very weak images, but how else do we talk about God. We can only come to know God by analogy. The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive analogical knowledge of God. For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God. It provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world which reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell.
Figure 1: A schematic view of the expanding universe. As the universe grew older (horizontal axis) distances among objects in the universe (vertical axis) grew larger. Key events that occurred are indicated from the formation of atoms to the death of all stars. Note that the first microscopic life forms came to be only after 12 billion years in a universe which is now 15 billion years old.
Figure 2. If we represent the evolution of the universe as a tree and we take only that part of the tree which led to human life and clean it of all the processes which did not succeed, we will inevitably see something like this. It could have been somewhat different, because there were chance processes involved. But it could not be very different because there were also necessary processes and chemical complexification channels the evolutionary process towards the human brain and, indeed, beyond.