Is God in The Gaps?
As a parent, I am grateful for warning labels of all kinds. I appreciate having a warning when a movie has strong language, nudity, explicit sexuality, or violence. I appreciate warning labels on CDs and video games. I especially like warning labels on foods, so that I am informed of their fat and sugar content. As a parent, such labels allowed me to make choices about what my child saw, listened to, and ate. In fact, the labels worked well for me until my daughter turned 17. Then she started asserting her right to make her own choices. But still, the labels at least allowed me to have conversations with my daughter that, I hope, informed the choices she was making at the time. So, my appreciation of warning labels continues.
It occurs to me that some sermons require warning labels. This may be one of them. No, there will be no nudity or gratuitous violence. This sermon will not raise your cholesterol. But, there will be strong language. And since I don’t want to shock you, I am providing the following warning: This sermon contains the “G” word. Theological discretion is advised.
All of you know what I mean by the “G” word, right? Of course you do. Of course you do. Now that you are forewarned, I suspect that a few of you are getting ready to count how often I use the “G” word. Well, let me eliminate that potential distraction now by telling you it will appear in this sermon 74 times. I know, that’s a lot. Believe me, it’s a lot for me too. But hang in there with me. I promise we’ll get through it together and we’ll be none the worse for the wear.
I have news, brothers and sisters. God is not dead. He, She, or It, is merely in retreat. It has, however, been a decidedly long and dare we say, embarrassing retreat for God. God did have a good reign, ruling the human mind unchallenged for many millennia. That is until radical, modernist ideas, began to lay siege to the holy kingdom, and began to compete for suzerainty in human mind and heart.
God responded to this challenge from the upstart fields of science with predictably biblical anger, banning books, excommunicating their authors, imprisoning and even executing the promulgators of new and radical ideas. God did seem to hold the high ground for a good while as the battle raged, extracting confessions of heresy and profound apologies from the likes of Copernicus and Galileo, even for a while beating back the stalwart Darwin. But if I were a war correspondent, reporting on the conflict between religion and science, I would have to say that God is leaving the battlefield, bloodied, beaten, but still defiant. Hoping for a comeback, but for the moment, it seems, resigned to waging a guerilla campaign from the final bastion of the old time religion – Cobb County.
Can this truly be what God has come to? Think of what the idea of God, not the personage of God, not the anthropomorphic being of God, but the concept of God. Think of what this concept has meant in human history. Whether used for good or ill, whether to justify atrocities or to motivate human beings for the highest moral endeavors, the idea of God has moved nations and shaped the course of our history. Whether we are atheist or theist, agnostic or dogmatic, surely we must be moved by what God has come to. Whether we like Him or not, whether we think She is still relevant or not, whether we want to preserve It or vanquish It from our minds and our religion, surely – surely we cannot leave God languishing in Cobb County.
Is God in the gaps? In the spaces where the light of human reason has yet to penetrate, in the territories still unmapped by science. Is that to be God’s final abode? It would seem so. Indeed, this is familiar ground for the various deities that have sprung from human imagination. It is just that now, in modern times the gap is so much narrower.
Consider how the gap has shrunk. Once we needed God as an explanation for the existence of the universe and of life itself. We needed God to define our place in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We needed God as an explanation and a justification for good fortune and ill-fortune alike. We trusted that God would listen to our prayers and appeals, would heal our sicknesses, and would give us comfort and hope in our final hours. But no more.
Because we Unitarians have traveled so far from traditional notions about God, let me remind you what was once embodied in this concept. We can find just such a reminder in the poem “The Creation,” written by James Weldon Johnson. The poem reads like this.
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!
Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered up in a shining ball
And flung against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world; And God said: That’s good!
Then God himself stepped down
And the sun was on His right hand,
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.
Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop His hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked on His world
With all its living things
And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought: I’ll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand,
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
That’s a lovely poem, but not a word of it true. Yet it stirs the soul, doesn’t it? It captures well what we once needed God for: To explain the world’s existence, to give us an understanding of the origins of life, and to give us a central place within creation. Weldon Johnson’s poem contains every error of the religious traditions upon which it is based: an anthropomorphic God who creates men in his image (women not even getting a mention), and a creation myth that puts the earth at the center of the cosmos and exalts the human species above all others. All ideas whose time has come and gone. All anachronistic myths falling before the march of science and modernism.
And so with science, medicine, and technology ascendant, God is left sadly in the ever shrinking gaps, the ever narrowing passages where ignorance still holds sway. William Pollard, who defied the laws of probability by becoming both an Episcopal priest and a nuclear physicist, located God in, of all places, the realm of subatomic particles.
I won’t bore you with a long physics lesson; I will only briefly remind you of what you may have heard in your high school or college physics course, that the subatomic world is a highly probabilistic world. The outcome of events on such a small scale is a crap shoot. You can’t say with certainty that a subatomic particle will land here, there, or somewhere else, you can only say what the probability is of finding the particle in one location or another. This indeterminacy has nothing to do with imprecision in our measurement; it is instead inherent in subatomic particles themselves.
They are not at all like the billiard balls spinning around an atomic nucleus that is shown in old textbooks. Subatomic particles are shadowy, ghost-like objects that don’t have definite locations or even identities. Perhaps, Rev. Pollard reasoned, it is God who rolls the dice in the subatomic world. It is God who decides where a particle will pop up, God who turns probabilities into actualities.
If this is so, what a come down for God. Pollard would have us believe in a God who tinkers with particles too small for us to even see. It’s an image of God that is puny in comparison to what Weldon Johnson envisions in his poetry. If a God who rolls the earth in his hand, and who flings the stars into the sky, is incompatible with science, is the only alternative a God who plays with tiny toy marbles?
Can God Almighty have sunk this low? What a sorry state within which to find God. But I am not sure that it’s God’s fault. I’m inclined to put the blame on Her handlers. You know, if you don’t hire the right people things can get pretty messed up.
Pollard locates God among subatomic particles because the science of his day, that is the science of the 1950s, had no good explanation for the behavior of particles. And indeed, 50 years later, we still have no good explanation, no clear understanding of why particles do things that defy common sense. But is that a reason to offer God as the explanation?
The God of the gaps is a God that is only invoked to cover up naked ignorance, a God that is shoved around to account for scientifically unexplained phenomena. Albert Einstein, a man who thought a great deal about both physics and religion, objected to this notion of God, calling it both “unworthy” and “fatal.” Because, Einstein says, “a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress.”
For the same reason Einstein states, I would urge us not to leave God in the gaps, not to relegate God to the status of poster child for the ill-informed. God, in short, must be liberated from Cobb County.
I have been using the “G word” perhaps excessively, but only to drive home a point. None of this is really about God. It’s about the purpose and function of religion in an age of science. It’s about, in my opinion, the necessity of religion growing up. Growing up means giving up the illusions of yesterday and joining the modern world. Why is this so important? Because we still need religion. Indeed, our need for religion is as desperate today, cloaked as we are in all our advanced scientific knowledge, as it was yesterday when we huddled, naked and ignorant, in caves.
In his book, Why Religion Matters, the internationally renowned religious scholar Huston Smith argues passionately against the scientific world view, a view he refers to disparagingly not as science, but as scientism. Scientism, according to Smith is a world view that leaves no place for the supernatural. It accepts only the material world of matter and energy, leaving no place for spirit, soul, angels, or God. Nothing lies beyond nature and never can nature’s laws be violated. There are no miracles. There is no divine intervention. We can only gain insight into the world around us through our senses. We can only acquire real knowledge through rigorous experimentation, through the scientific method. There is no place in the human quest after truth for revelation or divine inspiration.
Huston Smith is a highly literate, well-educated man, who knows full well that there is no substitute for the knowledge we gain from science. Indeed he applauds that knowledge and admits that without it, he would not have survived his encounter with cancer long enough to write a book opposing the influence of science.
Smith is not anti-science. He just wants equal time for religion. He wants parity. He chafes at the dominance of science in our schools and universities, indeed in all places in our society where the intellect is exercised. He hopes to nudge us towards such parity by making us more aware of the limitations of science and by convincing us that we should forgive religion for its failings. Parity can be achieved, according to Smith, if we accept the dictum that science can give us major answers, but only to minor questions. Religion alone can address the major questions, but all we can reasonably expect are minor answers.
Well, with all due respect to the imminent Professor Smith, that’s just not good enough. Not for science and not for religion.
It is difficult to imagine a larger question than how the universe came to be; a question whose answer lies 15 billion years in the past. And yet that is the very question that science has come within minutes of answering. We know the story, if not back to the very moment of origin, at least back to a couple of minutes after that most seminal of events. Not only do we know the answer, we can measure to the decimal point the consequences of that answer.
The same can be said for the question of how life originated. No, science can not yet explain how the inorganic becomes organic, how chemistry transitions into life. However, just about a year ago a group of biologists were able to fashion a fully functioning virus, from scratch, using only some off-the-shelf chemicals and their knowledge of the genetic code of the virus. No, a living creature has not yet crawled out of a laboratory test tube, but science is getting awfully close to unraveling the secret of life itself.
Science, and the scientific method, have been incredibly successful and will very likely go on to still greater successes. Science has transformed the world. It has not contented itself with only minor questions, nor should it. We should expect no less from science than giving us answers to the toughest questions we can ask about nature. Not major answers to minor questions, but fully realized answers to the most fundamental questions. That is what we should demand from science.
No matter how beautiful I find the words of Weldon Johnson’s creation poem, I don’t want, nor do I need, a poet in a serious debate on the origins of the universe and of life. But that doesn’t mean that poetry is without a purpose. It doesn’t mean that religion is without a purpose; indeed, that purpose is a vital one.
If religion in the modern era has given us only minor answers, it is not, as Huston Smith suggests, because this is all we can expect from religion. It is because religion has failed to shift its attention to the right questions. In a former era, the right questions for religion were about the existence of the universe and of life. But that is no longer true. In a former era, the right questions for religion were about our place in the vastness of space and time. But, I would argue, no more.
What questions should religion focus on and what answers can we rightfully expect? What, in other words, is the function of religion in an era dominated by science? I believe there are three tasks which religion alone can perform.
First and foremost, religion in our modern era has an interpretative function. Sir Martin Rees, Royal Society Research Professor at Cambridge University and a member of the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences, has pointed out something remarkable about the universe. Regardless of whether we are looking at the smallest components of the universe or at the universe on its grandest scale, at whatever level we look, the universe appears to be constructed in such a way that it is perfectly suited to the emergence of life. Whatever fundamental property or force we look at, whether it’s the strength of the force that holds atoms together or the strength of the Big Bang itself, and everything in between, the universe is composed in such a way as to be an ideal home for life. So strong is this relationship that one can almost conclude that the emergence of life in our universe was inevitable.
What does this mean? Science, of course, has no answer. This is not a question that science can, or even would attempt to answer. Science’s success lies partly in its seeking out the right questions. This is a question for religion and not for science. Science can provide the data, the facts, the laws, the principles, but religion must find the meaning. It is to the task of interpretation that religion must turn. Not debating scientists on whether and how a Big Bang occurred, whether or how life evolved, but instead focusing on the meaning of the facts that science uncovers.
Though he sits atop a tradition of teaching that is thousands of years old, the Dalai Lama is fond of saying that if science and religion are in conflict on the facts, it is religion that must change. The Dalai Lama can say this because he knows that religion’s task in the modern era is less about discovering truth than it is about interpreting truth.
A second task for religion in the modern world is simply communication. I dare say that few people here have actually read Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. I have tried, and I don’t recommend it. The language of science is full of precision, but little poetry. The beauty and awe that Einstein saw in his mathematical modeling of physical principals is not accessible to the layperson. We are all, to some degree, illiterate when it comes to science. I can say that as a scientist myself. My training in brain science does not serve me particularly well when I try to read physics. I have read what a few physicists have written about the brain, and I can tell that they are just as illiterate about what I do, as I am about what they do. No one masters every dialect that scientists speak.
The Catholic Church was faced with a similar problem in Europe of the Middle Ages. How to communicate scripture to a vastly illiterate population? Their solution was to depict the stories of the Bible in murals, paintings, and stained glass: media that were accessible to the literate and illiterate alike, media that could make the glory of God apparent to all.
Today science needs the help of religion in communicating its truths. It doesn’t do us any good to discover the origin of the universe and of life if we can’t tell anyone about it, if we can’t get people to understand what we know, if we can’t get people excited and uplifted by the incredible story that science is putting together about who we are and where we find ourselves. Religion gets a far broader audience than science ever will. And religion is far better at communicating to that audience than science ever will be. What a waste of its unique opportunity and its unique power, if religion tells only the stories from the past.
And finally, it is the task of religion to bring our attention to that which matters most. Without religion, we are ever in danger of wrapping ourselves in the mundane and getting lost in the trivia of day to day existence. Nigeria is a long way away from here and I could easily ignore one woman who is in prison waiting to be buried up to her neck and then stoned to death for the crime of having a child out of wedlock. One hundred years is a long time into the future and I could easily ignore that human activity will obliterate half of all plant and animal species on earth during this time period. It is my religion that turns my attention to tragedy whether on the scale of one human being or millions of species.
Science has no priority other than the constant quest for truth, and that priority never changes. It is religion, and not science, from which our sense of alarm arises. It is religion, and not science, that gives us our morality and our moral indignation. It is religion, and not science, that will save us from ourselves, if indeed we are to be saved. It is religion that still possesses the greatest power to arrest and direct our attention in a world that so often numbs the senses.
We must have, and I believe we will have, great answers from religion, but only when it addresses the right questions. Are God and religion in the gaps? If so, I hope not for long. We need them to make sense of the world, to communicate new knowledge about the world, and to keep our attention from straying from that which matters. We need religion not locked in a losing debate with science, but engaged in the intricacies of life itself. Is God to be found in the gaps? I hope the answer is no. I hope the answer is that God is to be found in the trenches. Amen.
A universe of mystery stretches before us, boundless and unexplored. It will be science that builds our ship of discovery. But it will be religion that guides our voyage. As you journey towards knowledge, be ever guided by spirit. Amen.