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From Pastor Dan's Blog

A Scholar and A Sovereign

WARNING: This blog post contains more science and philosophy than I understand. I wrote it anyway.  Maybe you’ll even read it anyway.

On a recent night, I finished reading a reflective book called The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science by Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.  Good title, and almost as good as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” but I do hope Oxford soon manages to secure an endowment for a Professor for the Public Understanding of Oxford at Oxford, as well.  No one navel-gazes like academia (ever read C.S. Lewis’ nearly-insufferable That Hideous Strength?).  Prof. Du Sautoy has fun considering chaos theory, matter, quantum physics, the fate of the universe, time, consciousness, and infinity.  I rather enjoyed his overview.  For anyone, it’s good before-bed reading, because whether such topics interest or bore you, you will succeed in either being interested or sleeping, respectively.

But one journey the author is decidedly on is not named in the table of contents: that of the possible existence, or not, of God.  He states early that he is an atheist, and, chapter by chapter, finds new reasons, amidst his assessments of what science can know, why he believes God’s existence generally unnecessary.  To Professor Du Sautoy, as human beings can explain more of the natural world, there is less need for God to be suggested as an explanation.

So when he believes that the standard model of particle physics explains pretty much how things go and why, he doesn’t need God.  But a problem he is aware of, yet does not acknowledge the power of is that our current model only deals with the 5% of matter that we can detect (by means other than gravity).  That’s right, all our atoms and protons and electrons and neutrinos and wackinos[1] and Higgs bosons all come to the grand total of 5% of the stuff in the universe.  A couple weekends ago in Wilson Hall at Fermilab, about the time my daughter was way more interested in the blinky lights of the muon detector, I was reading a display that stated that roughly 95% of the universe is “dark matter” and “dark energy,” thus named because we don’t know what it is.  Gravity tells us that the 95% is there, or else our galaxy would have merry-go-rounded itself into oblivion by now, scattering its stars and systems all over the galactic local group playground.  Yet how reasonable is it to draw conclusions about the total universe of possibilities of particle interaction based on 5%?  Maybe there’s still room for God somewhere in that 95%?

And meanwhile, there is another argument from particle physics: If God is a being who interacts with the universe, there would be measurable effects in the particle realm.  Some kind of radiation, quantum unpredictability being breached somehow, or some unexplainable kick in the energy levels of quanta.  But we have observed none of these things, and so therefore God cannot be a being who interacts with the universe.

Ah, but there’s still that 95% problem.  And what if God’s past interactions with the universe are so subtle that the evidence gets subsumed or isn’t enough of a pattern to be detectable?  Or if the traces of God’s interactions are somehow hidden from us, but not actually lost?  That’s plausible, since it’s already the case that some natural information will never reach us from the depths of our expanding universe because its expansion outruns the speed of light, or because it gets sucked into a black hole (information loss in this scenario is still being debated).  Or couldn’t a sovereign Creator God also have the ability to erase physical traces if He so desired?

But now I have to be fairer to the Professor.  It’s not that he thinks everything is explained, but that, given the acceleration in human knowledge and given enough time, everything will be explained.  He notes how much we’ve learned about atoms, numbers, and biology in just the past hundred years, and projects that further unknowns will become known enough that humanity won’t need to posit impersonal nor personal mystical forces to explain the universe.

But in that case, there’s a further problem, and one related to the Professor’s field of mathematics.  Back in the mid-20th century, a mathematician named Kurt Gödel started playing around with mathematical systems, you know, just for giggles.  He learned how to code the meaning of statements into long numbers and then to work within specified mathematical rules to figure out if the statements could be proved to be true.  In math terms, he was working to prove that valid strings in an axiomatic system would always be decidable as true or false.  Instead, much to the shock of geeks everywhere, he proved the statement that not every statement that is true can be proved true using only the rules of the system.  This is called Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (there are actually a couple versions), and it’s my favorite theorem, so go on Wiki and knock yourself out.  The result is that there will always be limits on human knowledge, no matter how many systems of knowledge we build.  Oh, sure, you can either add rules to the system, or use a bigger system with more tools, but that system, too, will have limits.  In the end, it is mathematically impossible for human beings to learn everything, let alone verify everything they think they know.  Maybe there’s some room for a transcendent being after all?

Unfortunately, to this point, I’ve been meeting Professor Du Sautoy on his turf.  I’ve tried to argue that science can’t actually succeed in pushing God out of existence because science itself is revealing its own limits, which in turn leaves space for such a being as God.  If you’ve been tracking, congratulations.  But as I lengthen this paragraph with uncertain words and seemingly unnecessary clauses, perhaps you’re starting to feel a slight unease, as if there’s a trap about to be sprung.  It is now too late.

All my arguments, and in fact all Professor Du Sautoy’s arguments, have a theological problem.  It’s a doozy: he has accepted the same shallow idea of God that many of my Christian brothers and sisters have, and which underlies my responses seeking to reserve some space in the universe for God.  That’s right, some of us church-goers have an idea of God deficient enough that we share it with atheists.  To press the offense, and thus encourage all you dear readers to keep reading, I will add that at least the atheists have the intelligence to realize that said idea of God isn’t worth believing in.[2]

The idea is that “God” (in quotes because I’m naming it as a concept, not the name of a personal being) is the explanation of the things we either do not or cannot know.  Throughout history, such god(s) have felt necessary to explain physical phenomena that were beyond the human understanding of the time.  Canaanites having a hard time with thunder?  Let’s try “Ba’al” instead.  Need to settle a question of the generation and origin of the universe?  Go with male-female pairs, like in Egypt or ancient Greece.  All these theologies are connected by imagining that “God” is a “god of the gaps,” the Being who conveniently handles and is responsible for all the things beyond our human understanding and learning.  The problem Professor Du Sautoy exposes is that human learning is constantly increasing, and thus leaves less space and less need for this god.  Of course, we don’t know all that we don’t know, but we do know we know more than before, so the result is that this god keeps having to step aside for increasing human knowledge.

The other problem with this god of the gaps is that gap-ist believers can become defensive when it turns out that some area of life can be explained by something other than the constantly active direction and intervention of a supernatural intelligence (see also the religious reactions against Copernicus or Galileo, or the simplistic substitution of “providence” for “chance”[3]).  When big questions start getting non-god answers, and particularly scientific answers, gap-ists feel threatened because there’s less room for their god.  They are correct.  Gapists are playing a zero-sum game, and one which they feel they are constantly losing as human civilization gains more knowledge about how the universe works.  The god of the gaps is set up to be a disappointment.

But human knowledge is not a threat to God.  Not if, that is, God is really God.  Why would the Supreme Being be threatened by human learning about how He did what He did?  Why not see our learning as articulating what God has done, rather than a replacement for His action?  Maybe He would be honored and pleased when His creatures came to increasing appreciation for all He already done.  Maybe learning is for the sake of wonder and awe.

The big question for Christians is whether the god of the gaps is the same being as the God of the Bible.  Can the God of the Bible share space with other explanations for why things happen or why they how they are?

Right now, I happen to be reading through the “minor” prophets.  It is clear in these Bible passages that while the geo-politics of the time and the exile of the Hebrew people can be explained by the rise of powerful armies under kings from Assyria and Babylon, it is more deeply explained by the working of God, who is in charge of nations and kingdoms.  Those explanations are not mutually exclusive, and both are true within their respective level of understanding.

Or consider the death of Jesus.  Why did it happen?  At one level, it was the demand of a Jewish mob stirred up by jealous leaders to leverage political fear among Roman rulers in order to execute a man seen as threat.  At another level, it was the working of God’s adversary to eliminate God’s incarnate presence on earth by using one of Jesus’ close friends to betray Him to death.  At a third level, it was all part of God the Father’s plan to redeem the world.  All of these explanations are true.  The God-level explanation, however, has to do with sovereignty, by which God makes use of the other explanations in His own ultimate scheme.

However, so far I’ve discussed historical events rather than natural processes.  What about those?  We can look to passages Job 38-41, in which God describes Himself as not just overseeing, but continually involved in the passage of time (38:12), weather (38:22-30), star formation (38:31-33), the lives of His creatures (38:39-40:30), and the inexorable workings of justice (40:8-14; yes, the Bible views justice as part of the structure of the natural world, see also Hosea 4:1-3).  Or there’s the intriguing Psalm 104:30, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”  The verbs suggest ongoing creation.  Similarly, Isaiah 45:7-8, describes some of God’s continual working, which comes naturally to a deity over nature as well as nations.

The Bible conceives of God as so much more than a puny god of the gaps.  The sovereign God of the Bible is involved in history and, through that involvement, is teaching us how His knowledge transcends our own knowledge, rather than merely filling the spaces of our current ignorance.  The sovereign God will still be there as Creator no matter how much we learn about Creation.  The sovereign God will still be the Sustainer and Redeemer no matter how much we grow in seeing how He sustains the world and no matter what personal or global problems we may someday be able to solve.  The sovereign God wants His humans to use all the capacities of their minds to discover more of what He has been up to all this time.

Let’s recap.  As I mentioned, Professor Du Sautoy has a very weak conception of God, one which he received, it appears, from certain religious people.  From my point of view, his real issue is not the power of science, but the impotence of his idea of God.

Now we’re in position to take one more step with regard to the knowability of God.

Remember that favorite theorem of mine, Godel’s incompleteness theorem?  It’s mathematical, but it’s almost safe to extend it philosophically.  What if the nature / character of God is one of those propositions of knowledge that is undecidable as true or false within the confines of any human-based system of knowledge?

In fact, the theology of my branch of the church teaches this. That is, in translation.  I grew up understanding that there is a big difference between “general revelation” and “special revelation.”  The first refers to what can be known about God just by using our minds and examining the universe.  We might not believe what the universe is evidence of, but the truths are there all the same.  But the second, special revelation, means that there are things about God that we could never learn by ourselves.  As creatures, we’re limited, and forever incomplete in our finitude.  Yet God, on His terms, the terms of an understanding of a different order than ours, could choose to make Himself known.  The central special revelation is Jesus, who is the prime evidence that God is love.  Both the incarnation and its meaning are not knowable apart from God’s making it known.  A broader special revelation is the Bible, which is centered on Christ, and any other super-natural way that God reveals Himself.

In this way, a transcendent being can remain transcendent but also draw near.  In metaphor, who is more powerful: the rich man who never leaves his estate lest he be affected by the outside world, or the rich man who walks the slums in confidence and transformative influence?

So it is that Professor Du Sautoy needs another journey, this one to the frontier of theology.  But so do we all.  If God is God, shouldn’t God outstrip our attempts to know Him?

One of Jesus’ buddies wrote it well, John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.”


[1] Not a thing.  Yet.  Just let me at that particle accelerator, though, and when I find something, I’ll name it a wackino.

[2] Be a good sport, k?  Let’s have some intellectual fun together.

[3] In Reformed Christian circles, I hear that “we don’t believe in chance” regularly.  But what if God’s providence includes the use of chance events?  If God’s active Will is different than His passive Will, and if that passive will allows some things to be determined by chance?  That doesn’t mean it’s outside of His sovereignty, just that chance describes one of the mechanisms He built into His universe.  Providence and chance need not be exclusive to one another within the economy of God.