F.A.Q.: God of the Gaps

The universe is filled with questions we haven’t answered. Some of these are mundane; others, less so. Some are matters of opinion without an objective answer. Some are disagreements over facts. Just for a sample, here are the top five unanswered questions I’ve been pondering as of late:

  1. Theodicy and the evolution of the role of Satan in evil
  2. If environmental conditions in infancy contribute to someone being a morning person or a night owl
  3. At what point in the conception/separation of the embryos of identical siblings (twins, triplets, etc.) their individual souls are embodied, because if souls are “given” at the moment of conception, that creates problems with the correlation of body and soul (I also have questions about conjoined twins)
  4. The significance of the overlap in apologetics for various monotheistic religions (specifically, “Why does the argument for the existence of my God not work for the existence of your god?”)
  5. Why does my office phone ring every time — and some days exclusively — when I leave to use the restroom?

I’m calling those “unanswered,” not “unanswerable,” for a reason. Some of those may have answers we just haven’t found yet. (If you know one of those answers — especially the last one — please let me know.)

Of course, everyone has his or her own list of unanswered questions. Some of them we’re tempted to answer like we’re in Sunday school: “Why X?” “Jesus.” And for some of those, that’s probably the only correct response. Other times, however, God becomes a cop-out response to things we don’t know. This is what we call “the God of the gaps.” There’s a gap in human knowledge, so we insert God as the answer and then use it as proof of His existence. This is what happens frequently when you hear someone say, “Only God could do that!” about a perfectly scientific question.

Let me give you an example. A rather (in)famous conservative talk show host once declared the tides could not be explained; high and low tides occurred simply because God personally made the waters move. Of course, any schoolchild can tell you tidal forces arise because of the gravitational influence of the moon (and, to a lesser extent, the sun). God isn’t needed to directly interfere with ocean levels — but He was invoked to fill a gap in knowledge. Many of these gaps seem to center on the human origins debate, but there’s another gap at the forefront these days: cosmogony, the origin of the universe.

I watched a debate last year (obligatory New Year’s reference) between a Christian apologist/philosopher of science and an atheistic cosmologist. The scientist argued either the universe is eternal without a cause or that work on quantum gravity shows something really can come from nothing and thus the universe spontaneously arose from that nothingness. Either way, he said, there was no reason to say God had to create/cause the universe; that particular gap — the origin of everything — had been filled. And without that gap, he had no use for the God of his Christian debate opponent.

There are many things wrong about a God of the gaps. First of all, there will always be fewer gaps today than there were yesterday. Human knowledge is ever expanding; we learn new things every day. Eventually we may run out of those scientific gaps; where will God live then? What will be His purpose, His power? That leads to a second thing: if God is not God in our knowledge, then He cannot be in our ignorance. There is more to the Almighty than being an acceptable way to say “I don’t know.” If the whole point of God is to explain the inexplicable, where is salvation? The cross? The resurrection? God is not your cop-out answer; He is the Redeemer of the universe. That means there is always a role for God, always a reason and necessity for His existence, no matter how many or how few gaps there are in our knowledge.

Jesus isn’t an encyclopedia. He’s the lover of your soul.

I understand the Christian temptation to plug God into the gaps, but we needn’t and we shouldn’t. What we know, not what we don’t, is enough to prove His existence. And unless we leave those gaps open to inquiry and discovery, we will stifle the growth of human knowledge. God gave us minds with the capacity and the desire to understand His creation; I suggest we use them. After all, all truth is God’s truth, and we learn about Him as we learn about the universe.

Ask unanswered questions. Seek answers. Share them with the world. Glorify God in the process.

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F.A.Q.: What about Miracles? (A Reasonable, Rational Faith Part II)

In my last post, I very briefly sketched the logical arguments in favor of the existence of God, hopefully showing Christianity (or at least a belief in God) to be logically coherent. One objection some people have at this point runs something like this: “Alright. I believe your God may exist, and it’s even possible Jesus might have lived. But what about all those miracles? Surely you can’t rationally believe such supernatural . . . whatevers . . . actually happened.”

Well, yes. Yes I can. And do. And believe they still happen today (which is in itself a highly contentious belief even within Christian circles today).

First, I want to define the word “miracle” itself. Most people understand miracles as supernatural occurrences with break or suspend the functioning of natural law. We all know dead people stay dead, for example, so for a deceased person to come back to life is a violation of natural law. You can only slice a pizza so many times before you’re giving out zero pizza, and so using a single slice of pepperoni to feed a few thousand teenagers is a violation of natural law. (I haven’t seen that one happen yet, but youth pastors around the world remain hopeful.)

But what if that’s not really all there is to it? What if, instead of breaking the law of the universe, a miracle is actually the enforcement of the law in the universe to come? Theologians talk about the in-breaking kingdom of God. Aspects of redemption are everywhere, and the Church Universal is God’s chosen vessel for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth. We see it in unconditional love, in selfless sacrifice, in the salvation of souls. By this train of thought, then, a miracle is simply God’s kingdom breaking into the world and making all things new. Miracles never affect the perfect, after all; they only make adjustments to the evils of this world. Cancer is an evil; being spontaneously made tumor-free is a great good, a sign of the redeemed world to come.

Whatever your definition of miracle, however, you’re still forced to pick a side. Will you believe in miracle claims, or will you believe such things impossible?

To understand a DISbelief in miracles, we turn back the pages of history to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought about great advances in science and philosophical thought, but with it came the underpinnings for today’s insistence upon empirical data, science as a sort of religion (scientism), and a deep skepticism concerning things which didn’t prima facie match up with what science said was true. (I’m not anti-science by any means, folks. I just don’t think it’s capable of answering every question in the history of the universe.) A philosopher named David Hume could easily be titled the Father of All Skeptics. For Hume, only our senses could be trusted; anything which lay outside of empirical data could not rightly be thought to exist. So why should we trust in something our senses haven’t registered?

Hume’s argument against miracles ran along similar lines. The overwhelming majority of people throughout history had never witnessed a miracle, he said, and so it could be rightly concluded miracles never happen. If they did, we would have seen them. But wait, his detractors said, people have seen them. Just look at all these written accounts. Impossible, replies Hume. Those accounts can’t be trusted. After all, miracles never happen because people never see them. How can you trust people who say they do?

Not exactly the soundest of arguments, is it? “Miracles don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because they don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because . . .”

Hume’s thought influenced the way we think about knowing things for centuries (including this one). Not many people still buy into his total skepticism about reality itself, but his empiricism/positivism is certainly the dominant epistemology of our popular culture here in the West. Most skeptics will say they need verifiable proof of a miracle in order to believe — and some of them go a step further, dogmatically following the “religion” of scientism, stating that even if something is verifiably scientifically inexplicable now, just wait until we know more things, and then science will definitely be able to give us an explanation. (Sounds a bit like . . . faith.)

We’ll probably never be able to convince the latter about the existence of miracles; such a paradigm/epistemology is hard to change. But for those who will believe current scientific reports concerning miracles, I invite you to consider the Roman Catholic Church — specifically the process of canonization.

Canonization is the official name for how saints are declared. To become a saint, you must meet three simple criteria: be dead, have two miracles attributed to you postmortem, and be officially named a saint by the current pope.  One miracle results in beatification (the Blessed So-and-So), and two gets sainthood (Saint That-One-Guy). In order for those miracles to be properly attributed to you, however, the Church launches an incredibly rigorous and laborious process of investigation. Medical evidence, preferably verified by multiple physicians (specialists are even better), must clearly document your condition both before and after the said miracle. You must demonstrate your prayers to the person up for sainthood which specifically requested intervention in this matter. You must have physicians swear no current medical treatment would have resulted in the change — and hopefully it will have been scientifically impossible for the change to have occurred at all. Finally, the Vatican’s teams of doctors and theologians review all the evidence and make a decision. Spoiler alert: the vast majority of miracle claims are never officially declared miracles, even if they meet all the necessary criteria. But assuming you do meet the prerequisites and you bought coffee and wine for the entire review panel and you were wearing your “I Love the Pope” t-shirt and gravity still works on penguins and a dove alit on the balcony of the chief medical officer’s hotel window at 11:38am on the previous Tuesday, you just might get yourself declared the bona fide recipient of divine intervention.

Reams and reams of medical documents, diaries, and other paperwork exists to account for thousands of miracle claims, even if they’re never officially recognized by the church. And I’m not talking “Lassie got Timmy out of the well! It’s a miracle!” kind of stuff, either. We’re talking limbs growing several inches right before your eyes. The dead being raised hours, even days after being declared dead. Tumors disappearing in minutes. Goiters fading in the presence of onlookers. People known to be blind and deaf for decades suddenly seeing and hearing. All of it having no medical or otherwise-scientific explanations whatsoever. All of them being completely impossible unless we rewrite some of the most fundamentals laws governing the behavior of the universe.

And so we have the evidence. The question is if we are willing to accept it or not.

If Hume’s legacy is the only reason to disbelieve, then there’s not a reason. If there are other reasons, then perhaps they can be revisited to see which is easier to revise, personal theories or the empirical scientific evidence of the miraculous (which, I might add, either meets or exceeds the requirements of most other accepted empirical data, right down to being repeatable in the cases of known faith healers/evangelists). Of course, not everyone will change his or her worldview to allow miracles, data or not. And not everyone will believe such a thing to even be possible. At the very least, however, it shouldn’t be thought illogical or superstitious or downright silly to believe God still directly intervenes in the lives of human beings. Once we agree to that, then we can talk specifics with each other without condescension and arrogance.

For a much fuller treatment of the question and numerous personal testimonies of miracle claims, I highly, highly recommend Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts by Dr. Craig Keener, available here.