Exorcizing the God of the Gaps

The rise of modern science created a problem for Christian theology. If God is not scientifically needed to explain why water freezes at 32°F or why the stars come out at night, if the universe is just a self-powered machine that can be intelligibly apprehended as a nexus of causes and effects, then does that not mean that God is utterly unnecessary? Perhaps the deistic deity of Voltaire, who creates the universe and sets everything in motion, is all that is required—and even he may seem superfluous.

Yet why did the practical atheism of modern science (i.e., the methodological exclusion of divinity from scientific hypothesis and investigation) generate such concern and upset? It’s almost as if the catholic doctrines of divine transcendence and creation got forgotten somewhere along the way. The Church should have taken the lead in telling the scientists of the world “Don’t treat Almighty God as a finite thing. He is not an inhabitant of the universe. He should not be invoked to scientifically explain regularly occurring phenomena. You are confusing uncreated being and created being, primary causality and secondary causality.” But it appears that the Church did not do so, and as a result Deism and eventually atheism were born. David Hart’s analysis of the emergence of Deism well states the problem:

The dissolution of the geocentric cosmos, with its shimmering meridians and radiant crystal vaults and imperishable splendors, may have been an imaginative bereavement for Western humanity, but it was a loss easily compensated for by the magnificence of the new picture of the heavens. Far more significant in the long run was the disappearance of this older, metaphysically richer, immeasurably more mysterious, and far more spiritually inviting understanding of transcendent reality. In the age of the mechanical philosophy, in which all of nature could be viewed as a boundless collection of brute events, God soon came to be seen as merely the largest brute event of all. Thus in the modern period the argument between theism and atheism largely became no more than a tension between two different effectively atheist visions of existence. As a struggle between those who believed in this god of the machine and those who did not, it was a struggle waged for possession of an already godless universe. The rise and fall of Deism was an episode not so much within religious or metaphysical thinking as within the history of modern cosmology; apart from a few of its ethical appurtenances, the entire movement was chiefly an exercise in defective physics. The god of Deist thought was not the fullness of being, of whom the world was a wholly dependent manifestation, but was merely part of a larger reality that included both him and his handiwork; and he was related to that handiwork only extrinsically, as one object to another. The cosmos did not live and move and have its being in him; he lived and moved and had his being in it, as a discrete entity among other entities, a separate and definite thing, a mere paltry Supreme being. And inasmuch as his role was only that of the first efficient cause within a continuous series of efficient causes, it required only the development of physical and cosmological theories that had no obvious need of “that hypothesis” (as Laplace put it) to conjure him away. (The Experience of God, pp. 61-62)

The problem lies in the confusion of ontology and cosmology, of not properly distinguishing between creatio ex nihilo and the beginning of the universe. This confusion may be found, for example, in Robert Jastrow’s interpretation of the Big Bang theory. According to the theory our present universe began approximately 13.798 billion years ago as an infinitely dense singularity, which then rapidly expanded and eventually became the universe that we know today. Jastrow boldly identifies the Big Bang moment with God’s divine act of creation. Acknowledging the inability of science to explain the original singularity and the reason for its expansion, Jastrow writes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason,” he writes, “the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries” (God and the Astronomers, p. 107).

Precisely at this point Jastrow blunders. The Big Bang theory addresses the beginning of the universe as it is presently ordered. It does not assume, as Diogenes Allen points out, “that there was nothing before that small, dense mass” (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, p. 47). The theory simply takes us back in history as far as we can see. Perhaps our universe was preceded by a different universe that had collapsed into a black hole, thus providing the singularity from which our universe emerged. Perhaps it’s all explained by the theory of the multiverse. We do not know and perhaps can never know. But our ignorance does not authorize us to identify the Big Bang with the eternal event of God speaking the world into being (Gen 1). That would be to fall back into a God of the gaps. As Allen warns, “Whenever we are at the boundaries of scientific knowledge, there is the danger of turning God into a creature by inserting the Deity into a scientific account” (p. 47).

God is the transcendent, infinite, unconditioned, absolute source of all existence. He is not a demiurge. He is not an engineer who has brought all the parts together to form an autonomous, self-powered machine.  He is not an entity that we plug into the gaps in our knowledge of the world.  He is the Creator.

(Go to “It’s ‘Nothing’ All the Way Down”)

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10 Responses to Exorcizing the God of the Gaps

  1. Well-stated. The “God of the gaps” argument is essentially advocating on behalf of deism which reduces God to a material state.

    By the way, if you want to give hell to a bunch of people’s brains, bring up creation ex-nihilo and ask how this is possible given this means that God cannot even “speak” the world into existence (bartering this would be creating the world out of sound). 😀

    I did that in my historical perspectives on philosophy and religion class this year and one of the girls in the class, who preferred rationalism over mysticism went bonkers trying to understand it. There was an Islamic student in the class as well who was trying to understand it as a “Now that you mention it…” sort of reaction.

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  2. Reblogged this on Teilhard de Chardin and commented:
    I have written extensively on the intersection of Science and Faith and the reasons why it is important for Christians to have an understanding of basic science so they can help correct the many misconceptions that non-Christians (and unfortunately many fundamentalist Christians) have about the symbiotic relationship between faith and science. This article by Fr. Aidan (Alvin) Kimel, an Orthodox priest, is excellent.

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  3. opreach says:

    Greetings, I read this on William Ockham’s blog. It is excellent. Thank you, Fr. Aidan! And thank you, William, for reblogging it. I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. I will be sharing this with many of the sisters. Pat

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  4. I think our use of the word “creator” is also limited. Even referring to God as “he” or “she” is also limited.

    I AM (Exodus 3: 14) comes the closest in describing the being/force/whatever that brought the universe and everything in it into existence.

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  5. An excellent article, indeed, Fr. Aidan Kimel! Thank you for sharing such quality blog posts! I especially enjoy your blog posts that treats the science, faith, and philosophy interaction, and this article is of the highest caliber! I look forward to the continuation of this series and to other similar articles!

    I shared your article in a few groups on Facebook, one of the groups being, “A History of the Interaction of Philosophy, Religion, and Science”, of which I am administrator. Indeed, inclusion of David Hart’s analysis of the problem, which explains the emergence of deism, is very important to understand, and would hope that atheists would consider this, because it seems that not many are aware of this. Thank you again, Fr. Kimel!

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  6. Mark Chenoweth says:

    I appreciate this article, though I’m not sure I entirely agree. I think I have more hope for the cosmological argument than you do. I suppose I’m not ENTIRELY averse to the intelligent design movement either, I think Behe has some good points. I think it runs into way more problems philosophically than it does scientifically. Would you say the same thing about the argument from fine tuning? I think it would be much harder to identify it as a “God of the gaps” argument.

    Also, does Hart comment on what he thinks of Plantinga’s work at all? I heard that Plantinga is one of the analytical philosophers that Hart has some respect for.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, thanks for your comment.

      I believe that when we properly understand the creatio ex nihilo and what it implies for our understanding of both God and creation, then the intelligent design position becomes untenable. Let me quote Herbert McCabe:

      If God is the cause of everything, there is nothing that he is alongside. Obviously God makes no difference to the universe; I mean by this that we do not appeal specifically to God to explain why the universe is this way rather than that, for this we need only appeal to explanations within the universe. For this reason there can, it seems to me, be no feature of the universe which indicates it is God-made. What God accounts for is that the universe is there rather than nothing. … Whatever God is, he is not a member of everything, not an inhabitant of the universe, not a thing of a kind of thing. (God Matters, p. 6)

      Regarding the cosmological argument: I think it all depends on whose formulation one is appealing to. Whose formulation is your favorite?

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  7. Mark Chenoweth says:

    Hmm…I think I was just thinking of what William Lane Craig’s response would be. He’s definitely promoted the Kalam Cosmological Argument in recent years. I think he makes a good philosophical case for it, and he would probably respond to this by citing the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, which I don’t understand. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-bgv-theorem

    All that being said, while I think the Kalam argument ultimately is more plausible than its denial, it seems like it takes pages and pages and pages of crazy science and philosophy for it to get a fair chance.

    I think the Leibniz’s is MUCH, MUCH easier to make a case for. I’m actually doing an apologetics class for high schoolers at church and I don’t think I’m going to cover any version of the cosmological argument, because there’s too many holes you can poke in it.

    I did just go over the fine tuning argument, a combination of William Lane Craig’s and Robin Collin’s version of it and it went over really well. http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Fine-tuning/ft.htm

    I like that Collins makes the argument ASSUMING a multiverse. I hope you talk about fine tuning sometime in this series? John Breck actually mention it here. http://johnrbreck.com/god-in-a-quantum-world

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Mark, I probably will not be getting around to the cosmological argument, which only really interests me if it is understood as a way to confront and “see” the radical contingency of the universe. You may find of interest this article by Edward Fesser: “So You Think You Understand the Cosmological Argument.” And I most certainly will not be saying anything about the multiverse, about which my understanding is restricted to Star Trek episodes. 🙂

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