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.