If I want to understand why my closet door becomes difficult to open and close when it gets cold or how it is that a plant can convert light energy into chemical energy, I call a scientist. I do not open up my Bible to look for an answer. I do not email my parish priest. This fact alone distinguishes me and you from pre-modern humanity. We now understand the universe as a network of material causality, structured by the impact of material objects upon each other, like billiard balls crashing against one another on a pool table. This is not, of course, how scientists think of the world. They have moved beyond the 17th century notion of nature as machine. Just ask a physicist about subatomic particles and quantum mechanics. We poor laymen have yet to catch up with the physicists and perhaps never will. But we are all moderns in that we no longer look to a supernatural being to explain why things happen. We have no need for that hypothesis, as Pierre-Simon LaPlace told Napoleon.
If science can explain, at least potentially, all that happens in the physical universe, does this mean that we may now jettison God? Many have jumped to this conclusion, including the famous physicist Stephen Hawking. In his best-selling book A Brief History of Time, Hawking proposes that if one day scientists are able to provide a unified field theory that would comprehend the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, then the existence of God becomes irrelevant: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” Hawking concludes his book with this paragraph:
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God. [emphasis mine]
I read A Brief History of Time within a year or so after it was published. I still remember my initial reaction to the passages quoted above: “Hawking doesn’t understand the Christian God at all. He’s resurrecting the watchmaker of deism.” The English cosmologist is convinced that once we fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the world, then the existence of God becomes unnecessary. As Carl Sagan observed in his introduction to the first edition, there will be left “nothing for a Creator to do.” Not only will we know why everything in the world happens as it does, continues Hawking, we will also know “why it is that we and the universe exist.” We will know the mind of God. Science becomes religion and physicists its great high priests.
Hawking’s claim is stunning. One does not expect an intellect of the first rank to make this kind of metaphysical blunder. He has reduced the Deity to an agent existing on the same plane as the world. Clearly he has never read Thomas Aquinas. Given such an understanding, it makes perfect sense to eliminate a Creator from our equations. Time to give the divine watchmaker a retirement timepiece and send him on a well-deserved holiday in the south of France.
Diogenes Allen accurately diagnoses Hawking’s blunder—a confusion of transcendent and creaturely causality:
According to the Christian doctrine of creation, the creation of the universe is not an event in the past which is over and done with, so that once the universe is created, it runs on its own without the need for any divine activity. God’s creative agency is continuous. The view of nature as self-sufficient, once it is created, a view that was held by many intellectuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is not the Christian view of creation. Our sciences take the existence of the world for granted and study the relations between its members. Should we seek to given an account of the relations between A, B, and C, we might find that C regularly results from the Actions of A and B. It would be correct to say that A and B cause C. But it is perfectly compatible with this to say that C is caused by God, because for A and B and C to exist and to be causally related, God’s creative agency must be operating. The scientific account of their relations simply takes their existence and nature for granted. Divine creative activity and a complete scientific account of the relations between the members of the universe are compatible.… God’s creative activity in sustaining the universe is precisely the same at the present moment as it is at every moment of the universe’s existence. According to the Christian doctrine of creation, whatever exists, whenever it exists owes its existence to the continuing creative activity of God. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 46, 48)
While it may seem to Hawking that every time science solves one of the mysteries of nature the explanatory function of divinity diminishes, this is to misunderstand what it means for God to be transcendent Creator and what it means for the world to contingently exist. “The nature of God’s creative activity,” explains Allen, “is a mystery now just as it was from the very earliest days of modern science and will remain so. This is because none of the kinds of causality which exist between members of the universe, such as sexual generation, mechanical impact, chemical reactions, or transformation of energy from one form to another, is the creative relation between God and the entire universe” (p. 48).
Perhaps one day scientists will discover the holy grail of unified field theory. On that day Christians will rejoice and praise the divine Creator who has brought into being a cosmos of captivating intelligibility and enchanting beauty. Yet on that day the mind of God will remain as unfathomable as it always has been and always shall be, unto the ages of ages. Amen.
(27 January 2014; rev.)