Thursday, May 28, 2009

God of the Gaps/Problems with Miracles

I have recently started reading Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons’. The content of this and Brown’s other books are the subject of different blog, but something on page 43 prompted me to write this blog, which has been brewing in various forms for a couple of years.
Here’s the quote from page 43:
“…all questions were once spiritual. Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called on to fill in the gaps that science did not understand. The rising and setting of the sun was once attributed to Helios and a flaming chariot. Earthquake and tidal waves were the work of Poseidon. Science has now proven those gods to be false idols. Soon all gods will be proven to be false idols.”
Dan Brown is spot on here, that science is steadily proving all gods to be false idols that do not really exist. The problem is that Dan Brown is countering a doctrine that isn’t true. It’s known as the God of the Gaps.

Taking the Christian God, the God of the Gaps theory says exactly what Dan Brown implies: there are some things that science can explain, and there are some things it can’t explain. The things we can’t explain rationally – the ‘gaps’ in our understanding – that’s where God comes in.
For example, we can’t explain how Jesus turned water into wine, so it must be ‘a God thing’.
Going back further, as Dan Brown describes, we couldn’t understand earthquakes, so people supposed they must be the gods at work. And there is the problem with the God of the Gaps theory – we can now explain earthquakes, so we are left with one less thing to attribute to God. What if we discover a mechanism by which water and wine can interchange? That ticks another phenomenon off the God list and adds it to the science list. Eventually, the God list will be empty. Error.

There are a few things to say here:
What is a better theology than God of the Gaps?
What are miracles, and do they really happen?
What should Christians do when science explains miracles like the river of blood in Exodus?

God of the Gaps
There are many problems with the God of the Gaps theory – I’ve already explained that as the gaps shrink, so does God. But more fundamentally, the God of the Gaps theory assumes that there are two explanations for phenomena – science and God – and it plays the two against each other, as if a phenomenon can only have one explanation.
Here is an example, stolen from John Polkinghorne – “why is the kettle boiling?” There are two explanations. The first explanation is “because the electrical energy in the element is being converted to heat energy in the water, which causes its temperature to rise to boiling point”. This is completely true. The second explanation is “because I want a cup of tea”. Also completely true. The first explanation provides the how of why the kettle is boiling, and the second explanation provides the why. While slightly simplistic, I find this a useful distinction of the complementarity of science and theology. Science explains how, theology explains why. Both are needed, and each complements the other.

What is a better theology than the God of the Gaps? Colossians 1: 17 is. Colossians 1:17 is one verse that refers to a better theology. It says “in him (God) all things hold together”. It’s saying that God holds everything together. He created everything, and continually maintains it. Without God, the universe would simply cease. He is continually involved in it.

God of the Gaps: God is responsible for anything that science cannot explain.
Colossians 1:17: God is responsible for everything, science explains how it works.

God is the creator, but he hasn’t finished creating – he creates new organisms every day! He doesn’t do with in a genie-esqe zap, but he is nonetheless creating things. Science explores and explains how he does this.
The God of the Gaps is a silly theory. But unfortunately many Christians seem to hold to it, especially when it comes to evolution (you should have known I would mention the E word soon!).

Obviously some Christians completely reject evolution – this isn’t about them. Some Christians, such as myself, fully accept evolution, including human evolution. But it seems to me that most Christians are somewhere in the middle – many seem to accept evolution to an extent, but not fully. Comments like this abound: “yeah, I believe in evolution, but I don’t think humans evolved like other animals – I think God made us specially”, or “I believe in most of evolution, but there are some gaps that just seem to big – God must have been involved there” (see what I did there?!), or “I’m happy with evolution, but how did life actually start in the first place – God must have given it a kick-start”, or “evolution is great, but what about the big bang – something must have started the big bang, surely – isn’t that God?”.

Do you see what’s going on here? People are accepting bits of evolution, but pointing out gaps in the scientific understanding, and putting God in there! This is God of the Gaps! What happens when science explains the origin of life (it has already dealt with human evolution and many other evolutionary ‘gaps’ such as the evolution of the eye)? That’s right – God gets squeezed out.

God doesn’t just fill in the gaps, like some sort of divine polyfiller! God is the bricks, the cement, the plaster, the polyfiller, everything!

I hate that word. Miracle. It’s caused me problems for at least two years. It’s one of those rubbish words that has a very loose definition and no-one really knows what it means. Here’s’s definition:

“an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause”

In other words, it’s something that we can’t explain, so we attribute it to God. Or, in shorthand, a Gap. A miracle is anything that happens in one of those Gaps. This is clearly not a good definition, because as the Gaps close with increased scientific understanding, events cease to be defined as miracles.

A brief scan of the bible seems to reveal that the word ‘miracle’ doesn’t appear much as a noun – it’s usually an adjective, for example ‘miraculous signs’. A sign that is miraculous. As opposed to a sign that isn’t miraculous.

A sign points to something, and it makes sense that a miraculous sign would point to God. The thing that makes it miraculous is that it inspires awe or wonder because of its unusualness, and that it points to God. Many disastrous things are unusual, but don’t inspire wonder or point to God. Miraculous signs, or miracles, do. Whether we can explain how the event occurs doesn’t matter, and shouldn’t come into the definition of a miracle. A ‘miracle’ is no less amazing and glorifying to God just because we can explain how it happens.

A brief side note on miraculous healing – sometimes amazing healings are said to be miracles. If the healing is unusual, inspires awe and wonder, and points to God, I would say it is a ‘miracle’. But remember Colossians 1:17 – God is continually involved in creation. The real miracle of healing is that the human body can heal itself. Usually this happens gradually, but sometimes it happens in an instant and we call it a miracle. The fact that the body can heal itself anyway should maybe be called a miracle.

The Colossians 1:17 thing is very important. We shouldn’t think of these miraculous signs as a Genie-God going ‘zap!’ to change something. God is already continually involved in his creation, sustaining and maintaining it.

The purpose of science is to study the natural world. Science has produced ‘theories’ and ‘laws’ to describe how the natural world works. Science describes God’s creation. Sometimes things happen that don’t fit the normal pattern – such as water turning into wine.

This raises big questions, such as:
If God is constantly maintaining creation, why are there things like earthquakes at all?
Would God really set up the natural world to follow laws and patterns and then just change things sometimes?
If God doesn’t ‘zap’ the world to change things, but is already in control of stuff, then why and how should we pray for miracles?

Question 1: Why are there natural disasters?
Answer 1: This is really a separate topic, but essentially: just because God is in control of everything doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen. Even using the Zap model, where God sometimes intervenes before sitting back for a rest, doesn’t answer this question – we could ask of the Zap model “why doesn’t God Zap to stop earthquakes happening?” The reality is that even though God is sustaining creation, creation is still broken, so natural disasters happen. This does not mean God causes natural disasters. It means that, for the moment, he allows them to happen. He could Zap them away, but then where would he stop? Should he Zap all murderers too? Thieves? Liars? It would, of course, remove free will (another debate for another time!).
Creation is broken. God still does amazing things through his creation (we’ve already mentioned healing), but the creation isn’t perfect. But one day he has promised it will be, so this isn’t a permanent state of affairs.

Question 2: Miracles break God’s neat creation ‘pattern’ – sounds like a random God, not the God of order from Genesis 1 – where’s his consistency?
Answer 2: Remember that scientific laws and theories are descriptions of how creation works. Creation is there and science describes it rather than science makes the rules and creation has to follow. Some (such as John Polkinghorne) comment on the intrinsic unpredictabilities in nature – scientific laws we use to describe the world are not infallible, and sometimes, very unusual things happen. Miracles are not a question of science, like ‘is it possible’. This is God – it’s possible! It’s a question of God’s consistency. But God is consistent as a person, not as a rule like gravity. God is not constrained by scientific laws, and even scientific laws allow room for unusual events. God continually sustains nature, mostly in a way that we can describe using science. But sometimes, more remarkable things happen.

Question 3: If God’s sustaining it all, where does that leave prayer, for example for healing?
Answer 3: Again, this is really another topic, and I’m not yet ready to write properly about prayer, but a few points can be made. Firstly, the bible clearly indicates that prayer is good and prayer works. Secondly, it is also clear that God isn’t the only power in the world, and some (NOT all) illnesses are caused by other spiritual powers (demons), so we should pray against these. Third, with healing, I’ve mentioned that the body heals itself – sometimes we just need God to speed it up a bit. Fourth, we shouldn’t pray against the facts. For example, if we see a fire engine, we shouldn’t pray ‘please don’t let the fire be at my house’, because the fire has already started (somewhere) and nothing can change that. It is better to pray for safety and lack of damage etc. The topic of prayer, including why God sometimes says no, is for another time.

Explaining miracles
I watched a TV programme a few years ago about the plagues of Egypt, explaining how each could have been caused by ‘natural’ causes. This article from The Times says a similar thing. How should Christians respond when events we think are ‘miracles’ turn out to have a normal, natural explanation.
Well firstly, we should point out the error of implying a nature vs God battle. Colossians 1: 17! God sustains it all. Whether science can explain something or not doesn’t change the fact that God is always present. ‘Miracle’ should not be defined by its lack of explainability, but by the facts that it is unusual, inspires awe and wonder, and points to God.

A few points to end with
There is no causal explanation of miracles in the bible. There is no formula, only the power of God.
In the New Testament, in addition to ‘sign’, the words ‘power’ and ‘wonder’ are used. Power – focuses on the cause (God). Wonder – focuses on the effect. Sign – focuses on the purpose.

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