Why I believe in God (2): the bankruptcy of the alternatives
As I mentioned in my last posting, Saint Paul’s statement that every human being is by nature aware of God’s eternal power and godhead is an entirely apt description of my own experience. Many others, however, will emphatically deny that it is an apt description of theirs. There is no seed of religion, they say, in their hearts, or any sense of accountability to a deity; and in any case, ‘We don’t need him: the idea of a creator is superfluous. There are perfectly valid alternatives.’
But when I began to reflect on these alternatives, they seemed to me utterly bankrupt.
One very basic definition of God is that he or it is whoever or whatever accounts for the existence of the universe, and on this the Christian faith is clear. The universe was created by God, the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth. This, too, I have believed since childhood; and not only had he made it, but he had filled it with millions of life-forms. Later on, inevitably, I encountered alternative explanations for the existence of the world, and for a while they shook me. But what struck me was, first, how limited the alternatives were; and, secondly, how unconvincing. They are represented by many -isms, but in the last analysis there is but one basic question, What was there before there was a world? And to that question there are only three possible answers.
First, before there was a world there was Nothing. Before there was Anything there was Nothing. The nothing-ness of this Nothing must be taken with absolute seriousness. There was no matter, no mass, no energy, no light, no gravity, no electro-magnetic field, no protein, no amino acid: nothing but nothing, and surely the ancients spoke truth when they said, ‘Out of nothing, nothing comes’ (Ex nihilo nihil fit). There was no one to make anything, and nothing to make it with: nothing, in terms of the Big Bang Theory, to bang; and no one to press the button. A mind seeking understanding cannot rest here.
The second possibility is that before there was a universe, and even before there was light, there was some form of self-existent matter, untouched and un-programmed by mind, and somehow containing in itself everything that was needed to produce the world as we know it today, although only after endless accidents and countless billions of years. On the most plausible form of this theory, this mass exploded, and the rest is, quite literally, history: the fall-out from the mindless explosion of inanimate matter, dispersing its detritus ever further away from its point of origin. Every physical object in the universe, no matter how complex or how beautiful, is a by-product of this accident; so, too, is every life-form; and so, too, is the human species. Our brains are no more than part of the debris; our imaginations, our consciences, our sense of beauty, our outburst of moral outrage, are only biochemical precipitates. And our flights of intellect fare no better. The theories of Darwin and Einstein, the PhD of Richard Dawkins, the dramas of Shakespeare, the art of Da Vinci, the symphonies of Mozart, the poetry of Sorley MacLean, are all part of the debris, as is the fact that we enjoy them and the fact that we know that we enjoy them and the fact that we are aware of ourselves enjoying them. We, with all our hopes and fears, our loves and hates, our guilt and our grievings, and our occasional moments of genius, are no more than episodes in the history of star-dust.
The mind that seeks to understand can find no rest here. It would be the end of our law-courts, our academies, our art galleries and even of our demos.
In the Beginning, God
But there remains a third possibility: ‘In the Beginning, God’ (Genesis 1.1). These are, surely, the greatest opening words in human literature. But what do they mean?
First, that in the Beginning, before ever there was a world, there was Life. Life itself never began to be, it was never created and it never evolved from inanimate matter. It was there from all eternity in the person of the Living God, and this is why we live in a world which not only teems with material objects such as the stars, but which also teems with myriad forms of life, ranging from the cactus to the rose, and from the mollusc to man. Life gave life, and this same Life is also the source of all the energy systems with which the world is blessed. The force of gravity, solar energy, nuclear power, electro-magnetism, all derive their energy from the eternal power of the Living God.
Secondly, in the Beginning there was Love; and, like Life, this Love never had a beginning. It is, says the Apostle John, what God is (1 John 4:8), and since he never had a beginning, Love never had a beginning.
But how, we may ask, could this be, before there was a universe to love? Was God not then a great eternal, self-contained Solitary, better described in such abstract terms as ‘the Ground of Being’ ‘the Transcendent’ than as a Heavenly Father? But this is to ignore the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Father was never without the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that relationship was from eternity one of love, sharing and mutual delight. They spoke, they cooperated, and each rejoiced in the other, recognising that none was greater and none was lesser, but that each shared in all the fulness of God.
In this Love, God was happy, and precisely because he was Love he wished to communicate Life to other forms of existence; and not only so, but to create other intelligent beings, made in his own image, with whom he could share his own eternal life, and who might share in the happiness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This was why, in one of the boldest moves in the history of Christian theology, Jonathan Edwards repeatedly argued that happiness was the chief end of creation. It was in sharing his happiness with his creatures that God would find ultimate satisfaction. From this point of view, we would be fully warranted in arguing that in the Beginning there was Happiness, and that the concern to widen its circle was thegreat motive behind God’s work of creation (and also, of course, his work of redemption).
Thirdly, in the Beginning there was Word (Logos). This is why in the very first chapter of Genesis we repeatedly read that ‘God said’. But this was not the beginning of divine speech. God and his Son were communicating with each other from all eternity. Indeed, his Son was such a perfect self-expression of the Father that the Son himself can be called God’s ‘Word’ (Jn. 1:1, 14). Such language all too quickly leads us to the limits of our understanding, partly because it combines the abstract notion of ‘word’ with the warm notion of ‘son’; and partly because it portrays the Logos not only as both the speaker and the word spoken, but because it also portrays him as the One spoken about.
What we can grasp, however, is that before ever there was a world there was Reason and Intelligence, not as abstracts, but as qualities of the living and loving Eternal Creator. Not only was there life, then, but it was intelligent life: life of which we have to say that it was linked to the most sublime logic and to the most brilliant powers of imagination. This eternal living and loving Intelligence explains why we and the world are here: ‘In wisdom hast thou made them all,’ cries the Psalmist. Here in this living and loving eternal intelligence are the conceptual powers and the strategic foresight to deliver what Matter by itself could never deliver; and to impose on Matter whatever form God chose.
He speaks, and it is done
But beside this, lies another wonder: this Living and Loving Intelligence did not need another intermediary agency to give effect to its will. This Wisdom speaks, and when he speaks his speech has the power of omnipotence. When he speaks, it is done. This is the invisible reality behind the great astrophysical, geophysical and biophysical processes which gave our world its current form and filled it with life. Sun, moon and stars; the great oceans and the towering mountain ranges; the bee and the buffalo: all were conceived in the divine mind and brought into being by his mere word.
At first sight it seems odd that a word should have such power. How can anyone speak something into being? At the most mundane level, however, there is an analogy here with the power of human oratory: a power which throughout history has both raised up and pulled down the world’s mightiest empires. But the greatest demonstration of the power of word appeared in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son. He spoke, and the wind and the sea obeyed him (Mk. 4:35 - 41). He spoke, and the dead rose (Jn. 11:43). He spoke, and the lame walked (Jn. 5:8). Sometimes, the very thought, unspoken, was enough, as when he turned water into wine (Jn. 2:6 – 10), fed 5000 on five loaves and two fish (Jn. 6:5 – 14), or healed a centurion’s servant without even seeing the man (Mt. 8:5 – 13) or asking his name
We live in a world where things make sense
From Genesis to Revelation, then, God gives effect to his will by speaking his mind; and precisely because the universe was made by the divine Word it bears witness everywhere to the fact that it is the product of a living Intelligence. This, and this alone, can explain why we find ourselves living in a world that is cognitively friendly: a world where things make sense, and which reveals its secrets to the enquiring human mind. Wherever we look, we find laws and we find order and we find mathematical precision and we find the most remarkable balance of forces; when we can’t find it, we go looking for it; and when we do find it, we turn it to our technical advantage.
Then, at the other end of the scale, we learn that the air we breathe, the water we drink and the chairs we sit on are made up of trillions of tiny atoms attracting and repelling each other with bewildering complexity, but with a no less bewildering precision; and then the researchers tell us that even within the atom the force of gravity operates, and every atom is in effect a whole system within a system. Minuscule though it is, every particle not only contains its own secrets, but is willing to reveal them to us if we are prepared to look and listen. And when we turn our eyes to the biosphere, to the flora and fauna all around us, we find that despite the vast variety of life-forms, they all have one thing in common: DNA, which both provides the building -blocks of life and also distinguishes life from life. Here again we find both order and complexity, and variety without randomness; and here again we find the same willingness to yield up secrets.
It is far beyond me to give any account of the wonders of astro-physics, nuclear physics or micro-biology; and, sadly, those who are able to describe them too often attribute them to Nothing or to Blind Chance or to Pure Accident; or, in the interests of persuasive rhetoric, to Nature. But it is hard to see how Nature can account for itself. Ever since Charles Darwin began to use the term beguilingly, Mother Nature and Dame Nature have taken the place of the Baals and Asherahs of the ancient fertility cults. To the modern western mind, mountains and rhinos are far more interesting than their Creator, yet, however maternal and sagacious we make Nature out to be, ‘She’ has no agency. After all, as John C. Lennox points out, ‘Nature’ is no more than a name for ‘every physical thing there is’ (God’s Undertaker, p. 28); and it is hard to accept the hypothesis that ‘every physical thing there is’ owes its existence to ‘every physical thing there is.’ How did everything know where everything else should go?
The human genome: extraordinary complexity
We live, then, in an intricately ordered world. But beside this lies another wonder: the wonder that a species exists which is able to trace that order. At one level, of course, we are ourselves part of that order, our lives conforming to complex physical, chemical and biological laws; and underlying these lives and these laws is a mind-blowing arrangement of DNA molecules, genes and chromosomes, building up eventually to the greatest wonder of all: the human genome (the complete set of genes).
Even more remarkable than the genome, however, is that we (the royal ‘We’ of collective racial pride) have been able to map it. (The ‘We’ is important. It is not as if the genome had mapped itself. We are always more than our DNA, and have to insist that it was people, not nucleic acid, who mapped the genome of our species). Not only has God created a cosmos, a thing of beauty and order as distinct from a pile of debris: he has placed within it a creature who, like himself, is a living intelligence possessed of the curiosity, imagination, powers of observation and mathematical skills which have enabled us to explore and describe the mysteries of light, of the atom, of the microbe and of the outer reaches of space (while learning at the same time that space has no boundaries). It is hard to decide which is the greater achievement of the divine Word: to create a universe or to form a creature capable of understanding it.
Still, geniuses though we are as compared to the chimpanzee and the ape, our knowledge is always partial. This is obviously true of the individual. The dream of Renaissance Man that he could know all that is known has long since been shattered. The language of the modern research micro-biologist needs to be translated into ‘plain English’ before it can be understood by the modern research nuclear physicist; and even if we were to pool all the collective knowledge of the race we would still be faced with mystery. The Unified Field continues to elude us; all our theories leave loose ends; and even those of which we are most confident are always open to revision and falsification (just ask Aristotle or Isaac Newton). The principle of semper reformanda is as applicable to science as it is to theology. Indeed, it is only by confronting ‘modern science’ with the organised scepticism of the refereed journals that science can make any advance. And when we add to these limitations the abhorrent uses to which we have so often put our scientific discoveries, we quickly realise that while we wonder at the intellectual prowess of our species we must also recognise that we have stamped our depravity on even the greatest scientific achievements. Far from beating our swords into ploughshares, we have beaten our most brilliant insights into weapons of mass destruction. But this takes nothing away from the fact that God, the eternal Living Intelligence, has left his footprints on the physical universe.