On God and Science

It happens frequently to me that a word will pop up again and again in my life over the course of a week or month and right now that word is cosmology. One of the realities of being a human is that what we think about one area of life influences how we approach other aspects of reality. What we believe about God influences how we see physical world, and the scientific lens we use affects our understanding of God. If you, like myself, believe God created the world then such thinking is logical and necessary; because we will discover God through the world, and discover more of the world based on our understanding of God. One of the areas that I see this play out practically is in cosmology (the study of the origin and development of the universe); and while this might seem like a heady or esoteric theme it does have at least one practical implication.

I forget exactly how I discovered the name John Polkinghorne, but reading his works has changed my approach to God. Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne was an Anglican priest and physicist and is well worth spending time reading (I recommend starting here), and through him I discovered the world of quantum physics. Now, I do not have much of a grasp on the this field, but what I do understand has begun to shape my picture of reality. As I have read into quantum physics my picture of the nature of God has changed (and I think for the better), and I am growing to be more at home with the Bible and how God relates to the cosmos.

I grew up in a very Newtonian mindset, the world was composed of small pieces of matter called atoms and laws governed how these combined and moved. I think this mindset lends itself very nicely to the implicit deism of modern American Christianity. God “created” the cosmos but is distinct and other from creation in all ways, inviolable laws govern creation and must be obeyed, and miracles are spontaneous events, few and far between, which erupt into and violate the normal system. In their own way each of these statements is true, but what happens when we adopt such a mindset is that begin to compartmentalized God. In our day and age such thinking is for those who have explained everything and created cause and effect systems of which God is a piece. But that is not a Biblical understanding of God. When we stay in this Newtonian understanding of the world we are going to have a simplistic world which can be explained with or without God. A world where God has finished creation and is now simply looking on, and a world where miracles are the exception rather than the rule. There are benefits to this concept– seeing an orderly world is far better in some ways than the random magic of earlier pagan ideas. But over all this concept fails me because God becomes an outsider in creation and the world is fixed and deterministic.

After wading into the waters of modern quantum physics and cosmology, I have seen a world that is far less “created” and far more “creative”. As I read about how natural forces behave differently at the subatomic level and I begin to see God’s Eternal Laws differently. These laws are still in place and provide boundaries for human behavior but their nature and purpose take on a slightly different meaning. Scientists often talk about how subatomic particles have potential but are in flux, and I see this as a reminder that God’s creating presence is still active. God has not finished creating a static universe containing all that ever will be, rather God is constantly working in the universe. And as Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne expressed (though I do not understand it as well as he did) the reality that information added to an event can change the outcome, what we talk of as miracles become much more real and a natural part of the system.

I am not saying modern science has proven God, far from it, inevitably science will change and if I am too wedded to current scientific ideas I will be left behind. Rather, I am pointing out how our picture of the world colors the lens through which we see God. Sometimes I need to be reminded that God works in ordered systems, like Galileo who observed the night sky. But on the whole that is too small a picture; and recognizing what the world is, and in a sense is becoming, opens the door for me to see a much larger God who is creating a rich and robust world. Reading about the world, through a scientist’s eyes, has opened new lens for me to appreciate God. Early Christian scientists (or Natural Theologians) took this approach to the world; understanding creation will point us toward the mind of the creator. The trouble I had and I think the trap many Christians fall into is that we stop with what is easy to grasp and what makes sense. We like our simplistic model of the universe because that makes God easier to understand. God ceases to be a dynamic and real person larger than the cosmos, because we have comprehended the rules of the cosmos and the only area in which creation is bigger than us is physical mass. We gain a measure of control over God and the world, what happened for me is a richer and wilder picture of creation, and thus a bigger picture of God.

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