On Christmas day, Eric Metaxas published an op-ed piece in the WSJ “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.”
The title concerned me a bit. Metaxas is a bright guy, and I was hoping the piece wouldn’t add to the mountain of poorly conceived Christian apologetics about proving God’s existence. It seems, though, this Metaxas has fallen into that very rut, and I really wish he hadn’t.
There are a lot of thoughtful Christian theologians (and others religious thinkers) and scientists out there who have thought deeply about this issue and are working hard to turn the conversation away from such an approach. High profile pieces like this one only turn the clock back.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman gives us two of the reasons for why the approach Metaxas adopts is dead in the water:
(1) Science is always changing. The science upon which things like the “fine-tuned universe” argument for God rests, which Metaxas uses, can easily change, and consequently so would the “proof” of God need to change along with it.
(2) Science and faith are two ways of knowing. God’s existence is not amenable to the scientific method.
(See also here for a rebuttal.)
I agree on both of Mitelman’s points, and I’d like to add a little bit to the second.
It strikes me that the “science proves God’s existence” argument falters on two related points.
First is the notion that our theology–specifically, our understanding of God–is our sure starting point for deliberating about the relationship between science and faith.
As I argue at some length with respect to Christianity and evolution in The Evolution of Adam, we should not assume that how we think about God is the unmovable and firm starting point for further deliberations. It may be, in fact, that pushing the boundaries of our understanding of physical reality might actually affect the kind of God we understand ourselves to be proving.
For example, Psalm 19 tell us, “The heavens are declaring the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” When this was written in Iron Age Israel, the heavenly bodies were understood as fixed by God in the heavens to run their circuits around the earth. The ancient’s looked up and praised God for ordering the cosmos.
In principle, we can utter the same note of praise today, but not in the same way. We conceive of the universe quite differently and that certainly affects how we conceive of God.
When I look up at the utterly inconceivable immense vastness of the universe, I don’t necessarily find the same comfort and confidence that the psalmist seems to. I see a cosmos that is steeped in a level of mystery that is unsettling for faith–which drives me to ask, “What kind of a God are we dealing with here?” and, not unlike the the writer of Psalm 8, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
Science doesn’t prove or disprove God. For people of faith, it does, however, stretch us beyond our familiar ways of thinking of God. How we think of God is not our unassailable starting point. It may be the very think that needs to change.
Second, and related to the first point, what stands behind the “science proves God” mindset–at least those I have come across–is the notion, however unintentional, that God is a “thing,” a “being,” that can stand under scientific scrutiny.
When you get down to it, large strands of the Christian tradition (I would say most) do not think of God as a being alongside other beings, just bigger and better–like the Greek and Roman gods were just bigger versions of humans (and with bigger hangups).
God is not a “being” whose “existence” can be pointed out here or there. God is being, the ground of being, that by which all being, all existence, is made possible.
That is the claim of the Christian faith and to fall short of that claim is to sell this God short.
Now, of course, all our language of God is metaphorical. We speak of God as a bigger version of ourselves–the Bible even speaks this way. This is a God who: sits on a throne with his feet resting on the earth; fights battles; has a thought process where he deliberates; is a “he”; a king; a parent, etc.
Our language of God is metaphorical because we are human beings and not God, and I believe by faith that God is fine with that–as long as we do not claim that our language exhausts God as being.
I don’t mean to sound unnecessarily abstract, and I’m continuing to work out in my own mind exactly how I want to express myself on this. But my basic point here is that thinking that science can prove or disprove God begins with a notion of God where our metaphors are confused for the real thing.
Both God and the Christian faith deserve better.
Bottom line, as I see it: God’s “existence” (pardon the metaphorical language) and consequently knowing this God are not proven or disproven by the amazing advances in recent generations concerning our knowledge of the physical universe–even if those advances challenge how we think of God and speak of God.
God is not at stake. Our metaphors are.