Beware the God of the Gaps

With Evolution Weekend coming up this weekend, it's time for a reflection on the implications for faith and science of embracing a "God of the Gaps."


            It’s said by some that we live in a de-enchanted world.  From at least the days of Isaac Newton, science has peeled back the layers of reality and offered explanations for what was once believed to be the realm and work of God.  What was once unexplainable now has a natural or rational explanation.  The universe is governed by the laws of nature, ever evolving and developing without the apparent need for divine intervention.  Newton did believe that from time to time God was needed to fine tune things, but in general, things ran rather mechanically.  God might be the first cause, but now has been relegated to a distant, behind the scenes, role in the universe.  If God is so distant and uninvolved, then surely we can ignore God – and we often do – even if we profess a particular faith.    

The question that modern science raises for people of faith is a difficult one to answer.  Whereas once many diseases or psychological conditions had spiritual explanations (divine punishment or demon possession), now we can explain them in medical terms and find solutions devised by science.  Where we once believed that the earth stood at the center of the universe, with the sun, the planets, and the stars rotating around us, we now know we’re nothing but the third rock rotating around a rather small and insignificant star.

So, is there a place for God in this new age of science?  There are some who answer the question by giving priority to religious explanations and downplaying science, but is this wise?     

            Consider for a moment the debate about climate change.  Why are so many people resistant to the idea that not only are humans contributing to global warming, but that there is consensus within the scientific community concerning this theory.  Why do so many people treat scientific “theories” as if they are mere conjecture or opinion?  Is there a fear that if we give room to science, we might lose God?  Have we bought into the premise offered by folks such as Richard Dawkins that theology is nothing more than “fairiology?”  In other words, theology isn’t a real intellectual pursuit – it’s simply superstition.

            As we approach the birthday of Charles Darwin (February 12) I believe it is important that people of faith address the question of whether we can continue believing in God in an age of science.  If Darwin is correct, and I believe he is, that we have evolved from a common ancestor over a period of billions of years, then where does God fit?  Some will answer that we must adhere to the biblical story, but is the biblical story designed to tell us scientific truth?  Is that its purpose?  Some will say that evolution has dangerous consequences, so it needs to be resisted.  After all, didn’t Hitler believe in evolution?  That people have twisted theories for their own benefit doesn’t mean that they’re not true.              

            If science is correct on matters such as evolution, the question facing us is this – where does God fit?  In answer the question I’ve posed a warning:  “Beware the God of the Gaps.”  While I will affirm the premise that God is the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, I am concerned about the tendency among some of my co-religionists to use God as an explanation for the unexplainable.  We call this the “God of the Gaps,” using God as a stopgap measure to explain the unexplainable.  So, because we don’t know exactly how things began, except that it seems to have started with a “Big Bang,” then surely we can say that God is the “First Cause.”  Once things got started, a further issue arises – how did life forms develop?  Proponents of Intelligent Design suggest that God is responsible for the design of the forms that life takes, using the idea of “irreducible complexity” as proof that a designer is needed.  As William Paley, an 18th century Anglican priest suggested, if you find a watch lying alongside the road, you must assume it had a creator – a watchmaker.  Since nature seems to express an intelligent design, then we can assume it has a designer – a divine watchmaker.  And with this assumption, we have proof for the existence of God.  

    The problem with Paley’s argument is that the realm of God’s activity shrinks with every scientific discovery.  What we can’t explain today, could receive an explanation tomorrow.   Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer worried about this tendency, and in a letter written from prison to his friend and Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes that we shouldn’t use God as a

“stopgap for the incompleteness of our knowledge, because then, as is objectively inevitable—when the boundaries of knowledge are pushed ever further, God too is pushed further away and thus is ever on the retreat.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Fortress Press, 2009), pp. 405-406].

Bonhoeffer wisely recommends that we seek to find God present in what we know, rather than what we don’t know.  Rather than thinking of God as the divine watchmaker, we must assume that God is present in and with the development of this universe.

            I’m not a scientist; I’m trained as a historian and a theologian.  As a Christian who is by profession a pastor of a church, I believe in God.  By faith I affirm that God is the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.  Having said this, I don’t expect the Bible, to which I turn for my spiritual sustenance, to offer a scientific account of reality.  That’s not the purpose of the Bible.  To ask it to offer such explanations is to force it to do something it’s not “designed” to do.  For such explanations, I turn to science.  I don’t need to force scripture and science to say the same thing.  By faith, I can, however, affirm the premise that the heavens and earth, whatever the scientific explanations might be, do declare the Glory of God. 

            Because I am increasingly concerned about the implications for both the faith community and the world at large, I have invested myself in building bridges between the scientific and the religious.  I believe there needs to be conversation, with both realms of thought learning from the other.  With this in mind I have been a participant in the Evolution Weekend project from its very beginning.  This weekend congregations from a variety of faith traditions from across the nation and beyond will observe this event as a way of saying no to those who would appeal to a stopgap God and to those who reject outright any place for God in the conversation.  Our future as a planet depends in large part in the success of this conversation.  So, won’t you join me in this observance?  Let us a put an end to the “war” between religion and science so that we can live together in a more peaceful, just, and fruitful world.  For me, that means that God is ever present in this process, not sitting back finished on the sixth day! 

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Dale Murrish February 08, 2013 at 10:41 PM
Historic Christianity agrees with you that God is involved in sustaining His creation, not the watchmaker theory of Deism. As we have gained a better understanding of secondary causes through the work of Christians like Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, George Washington Carver and other scientists created in the image of God, the tendency is to forget that He is the first cause. The realm of God’s activity does not have to shrink with each new discovery; we can choose to be amazed at His creativity instead of jaded by understanding the details of it. A more positive view of the other two theistic alternatives is presented here: http://troy.patch.com/blog_posts/origins-of-life-four-major-views However old one believes the earth to be, a major weakness of theistic evolution is it contradicts the Bible’s entire theme of a good world gone bad, with our Creator providing a way for people to be redeemed from their rebellion. This began in Genesis 3:15 with the proto-evangel and His covering their sin with an animal skin and continues throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Dale Murrish February 08, 2013 at 10:42 PM
No historical event in the Bible has ever been disproven by the scientific method or archaeology, and many New Testament miracles were attested to by skeptical eyewitnesses. Anthropology: the descendents of Isaac and Ishmael are still fighting each other in the Middle East. It does not talk much about science, but where the Bible speaks on any subject it speaks the truth. It gives good principles for living, and we should start out assuming it is true. It should be read in context, understanding the original audience and the literary style it was written in. We should assume that our understanding is incomplete before ignoring the parts we don’t like. People used to believe in a flat earth or a geocentric universe. The government-established church misinterpreted the Bible, which does not teach this; it persecuted the Christian astronomer Copernicus because he proved the earth orbited around the sun.
Dale Murrish February 08, 2013 at 10:43 PM
I’ll be celebrating the birthday of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 during this 150th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg, the turning point in the Civil War. Lincoln’s principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those in the American Declaration of Independence, do a lot more good for the world than Darwin’s theory of macroevolution has done. Darwin’s theory is interesting and provides lively debate, but has not been proven and does not really improve society. Darwinian “survival of the fittest” thinking has caused some to inflict great harm on their fellow human beings. Just curious if Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared your theistic evolution theology. We know he opposed atheistic evolution, which may have spawned the racist thinking of the Nazis he opposed and ultimately was executed by. I’m guessing that like most pastors and theologians today and in past centuries Bonhoeffer held a view of origins that agrees with the Bible.
Wiley Coyote February 08, 2013 at 11:06 PM
Dale, why do some people have dark skin, red hair, blonde hair, white skin, etc.? If we all came from one common ancestor and evolution doesn't exist, why are we all externally different? To say that no historical event in the bible has been disproved is blissful ignorance. Start with page one.
Bob Cornwall February 08, 2013 at 11:38 PM
Dale, It is unfortunate that you have taken your clues from the Metaxas book, which seeks to portray Bonhoeffer in a way that is foreign to Bonhoeffer's personality. He wasn't a conservative evangelical and didn't read the bible literally. He read it theologically. His problem with Rudolph Bultmann, who was known for demythologizing the Bible, had nothing to do with things like inerrancy or whether Genesis is historical, but that Bultmann thought you could separate the mythological from God. For Bonhoeffer, trying to separate out the myth left the gospel rather barren. Here is what Bonhoeffer writes in a letter dated June 8, 1944: "My view, however, is that the full content, including the 'mythological' concepts, must remain -- the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself! -- but these concepts must now be interpreted in a way that does not make religion the condition for faith." (Letters and Papers from Prison, DBW, p. 430).
Dale Murrish February 09, 2013 at 01:07 PM
What if Adam and Eve were the first interracial marriage, and Noah and his wife were too? Moses was criticized for his black wife, and Ruth, a Moabite woman, is one of four women who are specifically mentioned in the lineage of Jesus. So the Bible condemns racism implicitly as well as explicitly in the New Testament. Simple genetics can explain the beautiful variety of skin and hair colors we have on this good earth God has created, if you have eyes to see it.
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 01:22 PM
Did you just coequal someone who understands Dawin with Nazi's? Thats pretty awful. Yeah, and what did greatly advancing scientific understanding that revolutionived the fields of medicine and biology (even if some people misused them) ever do for humankind?
Dale Murrish February 09, 2013 at 01:22 PM
Bonhoeffer may not have been a conservative evangelical, but he was no theological liberal. He respected all views, though he disagreed strongly with some of them. On a one-year visit to New York City, he was so disappointed with the shallow thought in the liberal American churches near where he was staying, that he went to Harlem to worship at a black church where the Gospel was preached. You're much better read on Bonhoeffer than me, quoting freely from letters he wrote from prison to a friend that he probably never intended to publish. When I get time to read some of his works it will be "The Cost of Discipleship" or "Life Together." I have a full time engineering job and must choose carefully the non-fiction books I read. I've only read one 400+ page biography, mostly for the history of Germany in that era. Did Bonhoeffer have an opinion on the earth's origin's? Was it theistic evolution like yours or did it agree with traditional interpretations of the Bible?
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 01:23 PM
Um...Dale, scientific theories (such as gravity) are never proven. That isn't how science works. Science does not pretend to have all the answers. Theories are supported by varying degrees of objective reproducible evidence. Some theorues don't have a lot of support; others are so well supported that to deny them is to deny reality. For example, we can describe many things about gravity although we don't know everything about it. There is overwhelming evidence supporting the theory of evolution and nothing close to any sort if dissension about it among serious scientists. I really wish you would stop deliberately misstating the truth about this in order to try and make a point. You are promoting ignorance. Do scientists profess to know everything? Never. Only that which can be supported by evidence, and it has to be a lot of really really good evidence for a scientific theory to become accepted. If you want to say "I believe <insert here> because I think the Bible tells me so" go right ahead, I have no problem with that. When you state things as if evolution is not supported by massive and overwhelming objectively collected observations, you are being dishonest. It simply isn't true. It also weakens your argument. And by the way there are a whole load of scientists who were not Christians that also made enormous contributions to what we know.
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 01:26 PM
Dale do Catholics have a traditional interepretation of the Bible? I'm pretty sure they aren't into a young earth or rejection of Darwin's theory (or other well established science).
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 01:45 PM
Here's a great example: the Bose-Einstein Condensate. Two geniuses working together theorize a new state a matter using mostly their brains, math, and what had previously been observed. This was mostly a really interesting theory that did not have a lot support except for math. Well, a couple of years ago the technology became available to produce make one (if it existed) and it has been done. It went from being basically a really neat idea that might be true, to something you can actually see. That is how scientific theories work. I can't beleive I'm giving science lessons to someone who has 2 engineering degrees. I'm pretty sure you have take a lot of science to get degrees like that. Weren't you paying attention Dale? It concerns me because I am an owner of a GM product, and I would like to think the minds that produced it are well versed in science, especially basic stuff like the scientific method which I remember from Junior High.
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 01:49 PM
In case you didn't know Bose-Einstin were Hindu-Jewish respectively.
Bob Cornwall February 09, 2013 at 05:07 PM
Dale, What Bonhoeffer means by theological liberal and what you mean by it aren't the same thing. Although Bonhoeffer critiqued the theology he found at Union Seminary, he didn't find conservative evangelicals appealing. As for whether he was a theistic evolutionist, my sense is that he was, though he doesn't focus on scientific theory. Instead, he sought to address theological issues. If you read Bonhoeffer's works in total, I expect you would conclude he was on the left side of the ledger, not the right side. He was not a traditionalist. Cost of Discipleship and Life Together are important works, but they are practical/spiritual in nature. They do not reflect his full theology. Remember this as well, when he wrote those two works, he was in his late 20s, the Letters and Papers from Prison, represent his most mature thought. Metaxas has tried to discount these works, but they represent where Bonhoeffer was heading. And yes, I'm widely read in Bonhoeffer, so I do have a good sense of where he is coming from. If you want to understand Bonhoeffer, then read Bethge, his closest friend.
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 05:17 PM
Sorry about the bad typing today.
John David February 09, 2013 at 06:35 PM
Daffy, The Catholic view on evolution is somewhat like Pastor Cornwall's, from this particular blog. Catholic teaching does not support "Intelligent Design" or "Creationism". It is not in conflict with science, does not teach specifics regarding origin, creation or evolution, is cautious (as Catholic teachings frequently are) respecting the involvement of God in creation, but the teachings are open to scientific discoveries about the mechanisms of creation, including evolution. Regarding evolution, Pope John Paul II held that evolution is more than a hypothesis: "Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical (Pius XII's 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis), new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory." As far as a "traditional interpretation of the Bible", the Catholic interpretations are complex and not so literal as fundamentalist/evangelical Protestantism, certainly as promulgated by the Vatican.
Bob Cornwall February 09, 2013 at 06:38 PM
John David's description of Catholic thinking on evolution is spot on -- and is extremely similar to my own -- and I would venture to say similar to Bonhoeffer's.
Daffy Noodnicks February 09, 2013 at 06:40 PM
Thanks John David. That's kind of what I thought. I appreciate the details. In my understanding Catholicism is "traditional". Perhaps as traditional as it gets.
Dale Murrish February 10, 2013 at 02:39 AM
Thanks for the feedback. I'll keep the Cost of Discipleship and LIfe Together on my bucket list and look forward to speaking a little German with Bonhoeffer in heaven. His pursuit of Christian ethics in turbulent times and his change from a pacifist to actively resisting Hitler is admirable. I'm working my way through a good theology book by A.W. Tozer: "The Knowledge of the Holy." He laments the low view of God in the past fifty years and quotes hymnwriters Wesley, Watts and Faber, and other Protestant and Catholic theologians. The book was written in 1961; I wonder what Tozer would think now.
Dale Murrish February 10, 2013 at 02:52 AM
Evangelical and most other Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are agreed on the basics of the Christian faith and mean the same thing when they say the historic Apostles and Nicene Creeds. How the earth was created (good earth gone bad with original sin which caused the first death, not through evolution) is important for the reasons I stated but not central to the basic Christian faith. Belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the sinless life and substitutionary atonement of Jesus the Messiah, His miracles as recorded in the New Testament and His bodily resurrection are. These are hills to die on for the Christian.
Daffy Noodnicks February 10, 2013 at 04:11 AM
The theory of evolution which you belittled using false information says nothing about "the first death".
Wiley Coyote February 10, 2013 at 11:20 PM
No, Dale, it's evolution. People in northern and southern or equatorial climes evolved differently per their environments, hunting and gathering habits, food sources and temperatures. I have a suggestion: Go back to school and take a physical anthropology course or two. Learn something. Really, Adam and Eve were the first interracial marriage? Man you can spin and twist with the best. What a crock you are. You're the bible student...Eve was formed by Adam's rib, remember. What a purveyor of tripe you are.


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