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The spiritual shortcomings of the God of the scientist turned theologian

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 3 July 2003


I recently attended a lecture entitled "Cosmic Richness" at the University of Western Australia given by John Polkinghorne, one of the Cambridge scientists who, together with Arthur Peacock, left science to study theology and become ordained Anglicans. Polkinghorne and Peacock have both won the Templeton prize for their contribution towards the science/religion debate. Apart from which, I lump them together because, it seems to me, they are broadly on about the same thing.

I must admit that I attended the lecture with some foreboding because I have in the past found the arguments put forward by these two to be unconvincing and, indeed, to threaten the very thing they are attempting to prop up: Christianity besieged by natural science.

Their arguments for the existence of God as divine agent in the world are essentially as old as the 17th C but with more sophisticated embellishments. For example, the argument from design is an old reason to believe in the existence of God as designer of the universe. This was articulated by many scientist/theologians of the 17th century but most will remember William Paley's example of finding a watch in a field and thence wondering about the watchmaker.

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This argument has now been dressed up with the aid of insights into theoretical physics and is as general as the universe being intelligible at all and as specific as the exact value of physical constants, without which there would be no universe at all, let alone one capable of giving rise to a carbon-based life form such as ours.

The inference is that the creator tinkered with the constants so that all would come out right for the human species. Such an argument is called the anthropic principle. This is a very difficult argument to deal with as it is a bit like the question "Why is there anything at all?" In other words it does not lend itself to evaluation but is simply a dead end argument that you may find convincing or not.

For all of the arguments from design there may be found arguments that point in the opposite direction, towards a cold and uncaring universe that does not know we are here. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is the event that supported the atheism of Enlightenment thinkers. Such events, together with grotesque birth deformities, spoke of natural evil and became the foundation for protest atheism. These are arguments from the human domain but the arguments from cosmology are equally convincing. If God created the universe so that human life could evolve on earth then why the vast expanses of space? Why the very large number of silent worlds? Cosmology has found that the universe is bigger than we can ever imagine and the divine purpose in creating it so large simply to foster life in such a small corner seems to be rather opaque.

The speciousness of the arguments from design are, however, not the main reason for my objection to this forced marriage between science and religion. Even if we found evidence that there is some intelligence behind the universe why would that have anything to do with Christian faith? The connection that we automatically make between such an intelligence and God the creator of the first chapters of the bible seems so obvious that we tend not question it. This is because we have neglected to deal with these texts on their own terms but have simply subsumed them into the scientific worldview. We do so despite long-standing and accepted scholarship that tells us that the concerns of the authors was theological/political and not scientific. Israel had no interest in nature as we know it and did not think causally. The creation narratives are therefore not narratives of causation but are concerned with the religion of Israel. Why do you think that the first narrative has the creation taking place in seven days? That was because Priestly writers were obsessed with the keeping of the Sabbath.

When the writer of John's gospel begins the prologue of his gospel with sayings about the Word and God and links the Word with Jesus he understands much more about the first creation story than we do when we link it with the big bang theory of the origin of the universe.

God is the one who creates with the Word; this is not a narrative of causation but of theology. Such a realisation has great consequences for how we write a theology of creation because it directs us away from nature and towards our lived experience of death. Creation is about how the Word raises us from the graves of this living death. Surely that is what the parable of the valley of dry bones is about (Ezek 37)? This is the solution to the controversy between religion and science, not speculative apologetics from the point of view of natural science.

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My point is that the God we find in the bible, the God that Moses met before the burning bush and whose name was "I am", the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of Jesus Christ, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so peculiar and so foreign to our natural theism that He cannot simply be joined with the scientist/theologians speculation about divine agency, a sort of force hiding in the shrubbery of the universe. What has this agency to do with the child in the manger, the man in despair in the garden and dying abandoned on the cross?

What happens to Christian theology when it finds its foundation in the sort of theism that comes from scientific arguments for the existence of divine agency? Karl Barth recognised that the God of natural theology is a far preferable creature than the one revealed nailed to the cross. The romantic mood will always discount the abundant examples of natural evil and concentrate on the spectacular sunset, the lovers' embrace or the child's smile. In the face of these the crucified God is bound to come off second best and be seen as a spoil-sport of the celebration of life. Likewise the God that is speculated to exist behind the fabric of the universe, especially when backed up by prestigious advocates of the dominant culture (natural science), looks a far better bet than the God revealed in the peculiar and haunting narratives of the bible. The latter is a dangerous God whose presence is fearful and life changing whereas the god of science/theology is an intellectual curiosity whose existence we can assent to but who will never call us and challenge us and dispose us.

A Christian theology that finds its foundation or warrant in the speculation of scientists is as fragile as scientific hypothesis and is apt to be insulated from the scandal that is at the center of the faith: that we see God when we look to the crucified Christ. The darkness of Good Friday, when all is emptied - particularly our religious longings, enthusiasms and projections - is smugly ameliorated by the knowledge that the God who set the constants of the universe overlooks these terrible events knowing that all will be well.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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