Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Grand Design

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4

Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of Stephen Hawking’s new book, “The Grand Design,” is titled, “Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God.” To be fair to Mr. Garner, the title of the article was probably not his choice, and it makes the article sound more negative than it really is. His point is that one can do physics without doing theology. It is possible to construct many different theories of how the universe came to be the way it is without invoking the idea of God.

Ironically, “The Grand Design” does not have a Designer.

This, of course, is not a new thought.

What makes it noteworthy is that it appears to represent a shift for Hawking. In his “Brief History of Time,” published in 1988, Garner points out that in that book he included what science writer Timothy Ferris calls “Godmongering.” He ended the book by suggesting that a unified theory of physics could help us to “know the mind of God.”

In his most recent book, Hawking declares that his exploration of the question, “How did the universe begin?” has led him to the conclusion that the creation of our universe and others simply “does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god.”

This, however, goes beyond the assertion that one can do physics without doing theology, and makes a theological statement. And it implies at least two theological assumptions: that God is a “supernatural being,” and that God is outside of the universe. The assumption is that for God to be involved in creation this supernatural being would have to intervene from outside.

But not all theists are supernatural theists. A discipline of “natural theology” has existed for centuries. And not all theists have a concept of God as outside of the universe. One of the classical criticisms of Paul Tillich is that his theology does not adequately distinguish God and the universe.

Garner concludes his review by coming back to Timothy Ferris and what he calls his “excellent book,” “The Whole Shebang,” written in 1997:

“Religious systems are inherently conservative, science inherently progressive,” Mr. Ferris wrote. Religion and science don’t have to be hostile to each other, but we can stop setting them up on blind dates. “This may be an instance,” Mr. Ferris added, “where good walls make good neighbors.”

We can agree, I think, that science is inherently progressive. But religion is not inherently conservative. In fact, from beginning to end, the Bible is about how the people of God have continually been called to move forward. Biblical faith is, like science, inherently progressive. God called Abraham and Sarah to go “to the land that I will show you.” Moses led the People of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness. They were tempted, repeatedly, to go back, but faith called them forward. When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God, he wasn’t calling his followers to reclaim some past virtue or glory; he was calling them to join with God in creating a new future. God is always doing “a new thing,” and we are called to be “New Creations.”

For faithful Christians, scientific exploration is always an ally and never the enemy.

As the Psalmist said, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.” If we believe that this really is God’s world, then learning about it is always a good thing.

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