Better no God than a God of the gaps

Bakerloo_line_-_Waterloo_-_Mind_the_gapI didn’t realise until last week that I felt so strongly about this, but I abhor the God of the gaps. We’ve been covering it in our MSc in Science and Religion, and I was challenged as to why I feel so strongly about it. After all, it forms the basis for some important attempts to build bridges between science and religion, not least Intelligent Design (ID). I feel no reluctance in saying that I would rather renounce belief in a creator God altogether, than stake my faith in a God who only works in the gaps in our scientific understanding. To my mind, the God of the gaps idea is subtly pervasive, and it miscontrues both Christian theology, and science, all in one. Clearly, not everyone feels as strongly as me, and some are quite open to the God of the gaps idea. But for the record, this is my where the strength of my response arises…

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Is “science and religion” one thing, two things or many? And when is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet?

Jumbo jet

The Western Christian/secular view of modern science is not necessarily the norm. When is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet? This was a question that came up in our opening class of the year for our new intake MSc students in Science and Religion, discussing the views of the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

The theme of the class was the very topic of “Science and Religion” – What is it? Is there a single agreed definition, covering a suitably well-defined set of topics? Looking at some of the scholarly literature on the topic you might be forgiven for thinking that the answer should be “yes” to those questions, but I maintain that the scope of the field is much more complex, and that “no” is a much more honest answer.

Consider this (rather lengthy) quote from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his piece entitled “Islam and Science” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006, pp.73-4):

“Instead of criticizing the implicit value system inherent in modern science from the Islamic point of view, many of the champions of the blind emulation of modern science and technology claim that it is value-free…[M]odern science, like any other science, is based on a particular value system and a specific world-view rooted in specific assumptions concerning the nature of physical reality…Modern science must be studied in its philosophical foundations from the Islamic point of view, in order to reveal for Muslims exactly what the value system is upon which it is based and how this value system opposes, complements, or threatens the Islamic value system, which for Muslims, comes from God…Even a 747 Boeing jet is not global simply because it is now landing in Samoa as well as Tokyo, Beijing as well as Islamabad or Tehran. Rather, it is the result of a technology derived from a particular view of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and the environment, as well as an understanding of man himself, a view which many forces in the modern or even post-modern West are trying to globalize, by eliminating other views of the world of nature and man’s relationship to it, including of course, the Islamic one. Modern science is a direct challenge to other world-views, including the Islamic, which claims knowledge of reality based on not reason alone, but also on revelation and inspiration.”

I have put the most challenging part in bold. In class, this passage caused considerable puzzlement among some of us, while others agreed with its strong criticism of the imperialising tendencies of science. To so many of us brought up in the Western world, modern science is “value-free”; it just is, as the physical world just is. And yet, according to the above quote, science (especially in technological manifestations like the Jumbo jet), is very definitely not “value-free”. A Jumbo jet might work as well in Tokyo as it does in Tehran, but according to Nasr it carries a heavy cultural baggage along the way.

It’s a commonplace in the postmodern view to acknowledge cultural baggage, so let’s explore this a little more by asking: how important is this cultural baggage in science? Should we acknowledge our contexts and presuppositions when we come to science, in the same way we might in the humanities? Is it meaningful, for instance, to speak of a feminist physics or a Catholic chemistry? Would a Buddhist biology be different in any fundamental respect from a Belgian biology? These qualifications and questions sound absurd to some degree, especially to Western ears. But the point Nasr seems to be raising is that there are contexts in which they really matter, particularly when the science is seen to stand against a theistic view of the world.

Islam, like Christianity, teaches that nature is comprehensible by virtue of its origin from the Creator. Science has a divine underpinning in this view; it works not because nature is natural but because it is ‘creation’. If this is correct (and clearly it’s one of the most hotly debated topics around), then ‘science and religion’ as a discipline is not two distinct things (and still less is it two distinct things at war with each other), but it’s one thing – ‘religious science’, or ‘scientific religion’.

Sciences and Religions and Politics – A methodology?

 

The methodology of the science-religion dialogue as an academic subject is endlessly debated and disagreed over. It came up in a very enjoyable lunch yesterday with John Henry and John Evans, the sociologist from the University of California San Diego, who has interests in the science-religion discourse (among others). We had an extensive discussion on creationism and all kinds of Christian fundamentalism, features of Christianity which are very live on the public scene in California, but practically “underground” or invisible in the UK in comparison to the US. We noted that, while science and religion as an academic subject in the UK has tended to focus on theological and philosophical debates – and has been dominated by Richard Dawkins and New Atheism over the last decade – in the US science and religion often turns out to be a more practical subject, dominated by political issues such as education and bioethics (the US anti-abortion lobby being an excellent case in point). Continue reading

Exodus conference lectures on YouTube

I mentioned a few posts ago that I’d been invited to a superb conference on the Exodus at the University of California San Diego (Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination; 31 May – 1 June, 2013). The full talks and lectures are available on YouTube, here –

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbbCsk7MUIGeFrKlS-snrKWTT-uPs7VNO

And my talk (on the legendary volcano Thera and its possible contribution to the Exodus) is this one –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGsdkIVTrOo&list=PLbbCsk7MUIGeFrKlS-snrKWTT-uPs7VNO&index=40

Flood geology

I’ve been getting back to my roots in recent posts, with something of an emphasis on geology (I first trained as a geologist before I was distracted by the bright lights of physics during my PhD). And in the last week I’ve been reading David Montgomery’s recent book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, which offers a rather non-confrontational, but powerful, case against creationism. I must admit to particularly liking the front cover, since it shows an excellent photo of Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point, which is not only just a few miles from where I am sitting now (East Lothian), but is also perhaps the most legendary of all legendary geological sites. Montgomery demonstrates how much the development of modern geology owes to the controversies surrounding Noah’s Flood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are so accustomed to hearing of the supposed conflict between science and religion in terms of Big Bang cosmology or Darwinism that it is interesting to come across a discussion from a completely different scientific viewpoint. And Montgomery makes the point that the flood debate shows how complex science and religion are in their relationship to each other. ‘Conflict’ doesn’t do it justice. Montgomery describes his surprise at discovering that the flood controversy wasn’t played out along the conventional science vs. religion lines we’re so used to: ‘[S]cientists were as apt to be blinded by faith in conventional wisdom as Christians proved adept at reinterpreting biblical stories to account for scientific findings. The historical relationship between science and religion was far more fluid, far more cross-pollinating than I ever thought – or was taught at Sunday school or in college’ (p.xii).

As Montgomery ably demonstrates, young earth creationism is one of the most recently-evolved branches of Christianity. Claiming to represent age-old attitudes towards the Bible and the flood, creationism in fact adopts some of the geological theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relying heavily on Noah’s Flood as the main explanation for the reason the earth looks as it does today, including the entire sedimentary record and its fossils – all laid down in a matter of months by the flood waters.

This point is very familiar, of course, but Montgomery provides a novel explanation. He suggests that the reason young earth creationism was so successful in the early 1960s, and currently claims something like 50% of the American population, was that mainstream geology had reached something of an impasse, and was unable to make sense of outstanding but very basic problems, such as the shapes of the continents, or the mechanisms behind mountain formation. The development of plate tectonics over the next decade provided a unified theoretical framework capable of explaining many of these problems, but in the meantime creationism – in the guise of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris – was able to make significant headway by providing its own theoretical framework, based on Noah’s flood.

This is an attractive hypothesis, but I am not convinced that it altogether holds water. The arguments that Whitcomb and Morris considered clinchers against mainstream geology have not, by and large, been overturned by the discovery of plate tectonics; they were already wrong-headed arguments. So their criticisms of radiometric dating, or the conventional interpretation of thrust faults, for instance, were as myopic of the evidence in the 1960s, as they are now. What is perhaps different now is that the development of plate tectonics, together with a whole lot more data and evidence right across the board, means that the mainstream geological edifice is even more confident in its views that the earth is very old than it was in the 1960s. The fact that many creationist arguments continue to fly in its face is, I think, a testimony to the power of theological persuasion over geological. In particular, in the early 1960s Whitcomb and Morris’s book provided a theological focus around which diverse but conservative Christian groups could unite, in a climate of political unrest (e.g. the Cold War). It continues to provide a common focus for diverse religious believers, even to the extent that it has become an important force in global Islam today. I suspect that plate tectonics has rather little to do with it.

Exodus again

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been invited to take part in a conference on the Exodus and its relation with ancient Egypt, entitled Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination, and held at the University of California San Diego. Well I’ve just returned, and am still reflecting on a lot of what was said. It was an excellent opportunity to take stock corporately on a very active field of research which is still split by fundamental disagreements. Partly, the disagreements arose because of the wide range of disciplines represented, each with very different aims and objectives (Egyptologists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and earth scientists. I fell into the latter category, but was also slightly unusual in being a theologian). This was a major strength though, and I wonder if there has ever been a gathering of such breadth to consider the many questions involved in this pre-eminent story in Jewish and Christian religious history.

The main question, which came up again and again, was – did it really happen? And if so, how? While there were many who wanted to affirm the Exodus as an historical event to some degree (even if it only meant the minimal affirmation of acknowledging a handful of slaves escaping over the Sinai), there were many who felt that even this was going way beyond what it is possible to claim from the text. The latter felt it more appropriate to speak of the Exodus as a mythic tradition in the consciousness of Israel as a young nation.

I spoke in the ‘Science’ session, where various earth scientists presented their ideas on the possibility that the events described in the book of Exodus (especially the sea crossing) were influenced or caused by geological phenomena such as volcanoes and tsunamis. I spoke about the legendary Bronze Age volcano Thera, and the many explanations that have been constructed from it for the Exodus, the destruction of Atlantis, and many other cataclysms of the ancient world. As one of the few theologians present, I was less interested in trying to say ‘what really happened’ than in drawing out the sub texts of some of the protagonists, and trying to point out that the way we approach the historicity of the Exodus is driven by methodological and theological presuppositions.

The many lectures will be available on the internet, and the proceedings will be published online before long, and I will post details when they become available.

It was an excellent conference, and thanks are due to Tom Levy, Brad Sparks, and everyone else involved in organising and supporting it.

 

Apocalypse and Exodus

I am endlessly fascinated by the ingenious naturalistic explanations that have been provided by scientists for the big miracle stories of the Bible. Even more fascinating is the fact that biblical scholars, by and large, do not give these explanations the time of day, usually preferring to look at the stories in terms of human history and the human imagination. One of the biggest points of disagreement here is the role played by the legendary volcano Thera (modern-day Santorini), which erupted in the Bronze Age and, so it has been said endlessly, is the source for the myths of Atlantis, the story of the Exodus, and any number of other ancient cataclysms and apocalypses.

While this disagreement illustrates nicely the very different ways that different kinds of professional can approach this normative text, it also gets to the heart of the endlessly-difficult question of ‘what really happened?’ If the professionals can’t agree, then is there any hope in answering it? My answer is something of a no and a yes at the same time.

I am at a conference in San Diego at the moment – Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination – soon to give a paper on my thoughts on Thera. It’s called ‘The Thera Theories: Science and the modern reception history of the Exodus’, and here’s the abstract:

While scholars continue to debate the tortuous historical and critical questions behind the narrative of the Exodus, a steady stream of publications has been appearing at the popular level that take much of the text at face value, and insist that it is to be understood in terms of natural catastrophes. Biblical scholars and archaeologists may highlight the complex human factors behind the genesis and evolution of the Exodus traditions, but the popular interpretations focus on the natural world, painting more-or-less apocalyptic scenarios informed by scientific research into volcanoes, earthquakes, and other spectacular natural phenomena. The eruption of Thera in the seventeenth century BCE has featured heavily, not least because it can also be invoked as an explanation for the myth of Atlantis, and the demise of Minoan civilisation.

Crucial questions arise here: what does the public fascination for such explanations (in the face of scholarly caution) tell us about the modern reception of the Exodus? And to what extent is this fascination (and attendant scepticism) mirrored in the interpretations of previous ages? How important is the motif of the remarkable marvel in the cultural handling of iconic traditions?

These are far-ranging questions, and this paper will begin to answer them by focussing on the case of Thera in particular. I will present an overview of the Theran models of the Exodus, and will examine some critical and receptive responses to them, in order to assess the significance of spectacle in the memory and reception history of the Exodus.

 

 

Luke’s ascension

In celebration of Ascension Day, one of my personal favourites in the Christian calendar, here is an excerpt from a wider piece I’ve been working on, exploring the challenges from science (“Science, Scripture, and the hermeneutics of Ascension”).

In the hermeneutical exercise that we are proposing, the imagery employed is of central importance. The scriptural witnesses to the ascension of Jesus invariably couch it in spatial terms, most obviously in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:6-11), where Jesus is ‘carried up’ into heaven on a cloud. The other synoptic Gospels do not describe the ascension (except in one of the alternative endings to Mark – 16:19), and it is a moot point whether they even know of the idea as such; on the other hand, their talk of the Son of Man coming again on the clouds (e.g. Mark 13:26) is compatible with the idea that this is how he went in the first place. The idea of ascension is represented in various other places in the New Testament through talk of the final ‘leaving’, or ‘going up’ of the earthly Jesus after the resurrection (e.g. John 20:17; 1 Tim.3:16), or of his heavenly exaltation, where Jesus sits at God’s right hand (e.g. Rom.8:35; Eph.1:20; Heb.1:3; cf. Ps.110:1). Continue reading

Dark energy and the meaning of creation from ‘nothing’

400-creation-135157891I was mulling over whether to post a piece on dark energy and the idea of ‘creation from nothing’, when our colleague Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) did just that, with this insightful piece. For comparison, here is my take on the issue, as it appeared in the Diocese of Edinburgh magazine.

The idea that the universe was created ‘from nothing’ by God has long been a Christian response to sceptics. Even though science has won much of the territory over which theology once reigned supreme, theologians have been able to rest secure knowing they have the exclusive rights to ‘nothing’. Quite simply, the laws of physics can’t explain ‘nothing’ because they’re a ‘something’ in themselves: they must be created ‘from nothing’. Hence, God comes into the picture, the ultimate ‘no-thing’, and the ultimate no-fail explanation for why there’s something rather than ‘nothing’. Continue reading

Arthur Peacocke and ‘God’s Interaction in the World’

Recently in our course on Key Thinkers in Science and Religion we worked through a chapter from Arthur Peacocke’s Theology for a Scientific Age, examining how the author confronts ‘God’s Interaction with the World’: the problematic terrain classically known as divine providence. In his chapter, Peacocke begins by laying out the terms and positions that have shed the most light on the matter, moving quickly past metaphors of the guide of a hiking party and an absentee landlord in order to arrive at the more crucial sticking points of how God actually manifests in a world increasingly demystified by scientific, psychological, and sociological advancement. There is no question, he says, that providence is a central feature of scripture-based faiths (Judaism and Christianity), which have been shaped by narratival patterns of a God that continually appears and acts within the lives of faith communities. What is more questionable, however, is how reliably we are to take the testimonies of such providential workings, since it is that faith community itself—hardly an unbiased jury—that attests to God’s working. The criteria for ‘unbiasing’ instances of divine interaction must be available to even those without faith for certifying—or at least opening the possibility for—such activity. Most attempts in the past, Peacocke avers, have upheld at least one of two key presuppositions: either an understanding of the world in purely mechanistic terms, bound to the physical laws that describe and normalize it, or the dualist assumption à la Descartes that splits the world between mind and body, material and spiritual, whose integration, as in the human agent, borders on the mysterious.   Continue reading