Friday, July 6, 2007

God the "Cosmic Magician"

I think that points of intersection and overlap between science and theology can be fascinating. So a recent posting over at Salon.com caught my eye. It's an interview with physicist Paul Davies who, the article says, claims that human beings are "not the result of a cosmic accident, but of laws of the universe that grant our lives meaning and purpose."

The overall thrust of this interview is consistent with what Davies writes in his book The Mind of God (1992): " ... the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here."

Before anyone gets excited that a scientist thinks that physics provides a warrant for biblical theism, think again. Davies is not coming anywhere near endorsing anything like the biblical conception of a creator God. For example, in response to the Salon.com interviewer's statement, "You want to stay away from God," he says:

I want to stay away from a pre-existing cosmic magician who is there within time, for all eternity, and then brings the universe into being as part of a preconceived plan. I think that's just a naive, silly idea that doesn't fit the leanings of most theologians these days and doesn't fit the scientific facts. I don't want that. That's a horrible idea. But I see no reason why there can't be a teleological component in the evolution of the universe, which includes things like meaning and purpose. So instead of appealing to something outside the universe -- a completely unexplained being -- I'm talking about something that emerges within the universe. It's a more natural view. We're trying to construct a picture of the universe which is based thoroughly on science but where there is still room for something like meaning and purpose. So people can see their own individual lives as part of a grand cosmic scheme that has some meaning to it. We're not just, as Steven Weinberg would say, pointless accidents in a universe that has no meaning or purpose. I think we can do better than that.

It's refreshing to hear a scientist affirm meaning and purpose in the universe, rather than reducing everything to random matter in motion. It would be interesting to hear him go into much greater depth about what exactly he means by "meaning and purpose."

I also think that Davies is right that "most theologians" don't think of God as "a pre-existing cosmic magician." I think he's right that such a conception of God might very well be "a naive, silly idea." Perhaps even "a horrible idea." And likely one that reduces God to the utility value of providing a neat, tidy explanation for things we otherwise don't understand - or understand poorly.

But I also don't think that a biblical understanding of God requires anyone to buy into a "cosmic magician" conception of God in the first place.

On this point, Reformed theologian Shirley Guthrie puts us on firm ground in his book Christian Doctrine (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994):

The Christian doctrine of creation does not begin with an analysis of creation itself and try to deduce from it what the Creator is like. It begins with what scripture tells us about who the Creator God is and tries to understand the created world in light of that (p. 147).

In other words, if you start in the wrong place, you end up with a form of theism that doesn't look anything like the God revealed in the Bible and confessed by the historic creeds.

In his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), Roman Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson makes a similar point about the first article of the Nicene Creed:

The creed's most radical and important profession comes right at the beginning: "We believe in one God." It is the root out of which all the rest grows. Without it, nothing more can be said. 
We mean the God of whom we learn in Scripture, the Living God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we begin to try to understand what the creed affirms about God, we should be aware that neither the biblical nor the creedal language about God is fully adequate to the mystery of which they speak. They speak truly but not fully. All language about God reaches into a mystery it cannot grasp or comprehend (pp. 65-66).

As language that speaks "truly but not fully," scripture and the creed point to the mystery of a God that transcends the "naive, silly idea[s]" of human beings. There's no basis for comparing God as "a pre-existing cosmic magician" with the Living God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So without special revelation, perhaps religious naturalism is as far as science alone can take us.

You can read the interview with Paul Davies here.

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