Thursday, 8 February 2007

God of the gaps

It is not an uncommon accusation that the ancients ascribed to the gods aspects of the world that were not comprehensible to them. We now have more knowledge about many things. It is claimed, therefore, that the need for a God to explain these phenomena has become increasingly unnecessary, and by implication we will come to a stage in knowledge that everything will be completely explainable without the need to reference God.

I don't deny that religions of the past may have worshipped a being and ascribed to him characteristics that we could interpret as a god-of-the-gaps mentality, perhaps more so in animistic cultures, but it not the case that this accusation is true within Christianity.

It is incorrect to accuse the ancients of ignorance. While our current knowledge may be vast, it is because of our ability to store knowledge and hence build so easily on previous findings. The ancients did this to a small degree, they had their libraries, but lack of technology limited this. Despite the lack of knowledge storage, they were not ignorant.

Take the virgin birth for example. While the ancients may not have understood sperm production or follicular development, they knew how to make babies. Women do not procreate asexually. Everyone knew this. So the claim of a virgin birth is not based on lack of knowledge of the physiology of fertilization. How could it be? If the ancients were unfamiliar with the concept that coitus causes children, what miracle would need explaining? Why would Joseph seek to divorce Mary? My argument here does not prove the virgin birth, rather it shows why an explanation was given in Luke.

So what about the weather? There are plenty of scriptural passages that describe a divine meteorologist. Can it be said that the weather was not understood in those times and now it is and God was the explanation for the gap in man's knowledge previously?

These passages need to be reviewed as to what they are actually implying. Not all the passages are addressing the same issue. If it can be shown that the ancients did understand a certain phenomenon, then ascribing it to God cannot be due to their ignorance. There must be some other explanation. If I understand how a television works, but see God as involved in some aspect of broadcasting, it is likely because of the circumstances of the event that I make this claim, not my ignorance of the matter.

In the plagues of Egypt we see several events that relate to "natural" phenomena. But there is no indication that the phenomena were not understood. Gnats, flies, frogs and hail are all events the Egyptians and Hebrews were familiar with. The divine aspect of the plagues was twofold:
  1. They were more extreme than previously seen, on a scale that, at least in some circumstances, doesn't seem naturally possible.
  2. They were directed in time and place.
Looking at the second: they were announced in advance; they arrived when predicted; they went when it was specified; they discriminated between the Egyptians and the Hebrews. If I state that a tornado will appear on a certain day outside tornado season, strike a certain city on an exact day at an exact time, and damage one half of a particular street and miss another, it says something. It does not matter if I understand tornadoes. In fact the less I know about tornadoes the more it says. And if I do this repeatedly for different phenomena it says even more.

So what about situations that discuss natural phenomena in general principles (Job 38; Psa 18:15; 77:16-19; 104; Isa 29:6). Several verses are similar to what has already been discussed. There is also an affirmation that God is in control of the universe. We can see this if we compare it to military behaviour in scripture. The ancients understood wars. They knew about political aspirations and the desire for property, power and glory. They knew that these things had their origin in the will of man. Nevertheless scripture also talks about God being in control of the nations (Jer 5:15). It is saying that despite man's best intrigues, God is ultimately in control. The opinion is that God can override human plans and do his willing. This does not mean that the writer doesn't understand military tactics in human terms and so ascribes it to God; it means that God has the ability to put human plans to his own purpose. The same thinking can be applied to natural phenomenon. Solomon described plenty of natural processes (1Ki 4:33). God doesn't need to be seen as an explanation to stop inquiry, rather he is the ultimate explanation and he retains ultimate control.

How else did the scientific revolution begin with Christians. They didn't refuse to ask questions and invoke God to the ones that were asked. Rather it was their belief in the trustworthiness of God and the order of his universe that led them to think that the answers they sought would be meaningful. God is not capricious.

What about the book of Job? God ascribes knowledge and power to himself that Job lacks.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:/
"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?/
..."Has the rain a father,/
or who has begotten the drops of dew?/
From whose womb did the ice come forth,/
and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?/
..."Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?/
Do you observe the calving of the does?/
Can you number the months that they fulfill,/
and do you know the time when they give birth,/
when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,/
and are delivered of their young? (Job 38:1-2, 28-29; 39:1-3 ESV)
God answered Job by showing up Job's ignorance and lack of power. Is this an example of God making himself a God of the gaps? Was God saying that these things are not understandable but that he does them all? Now that we know the answers to some of the questions God asked Job does this diminish our need for God as an explanation of these phenomena? By no means. The point was that Job didn't know everything and that God did. All God did was point out areas where Job lacked knowledge. Job understood what God was saying and repented. He acknowledged that God knew a lot more than him and that God knew what he was doing. If God spoke to us in the same way today he would use things about the world we are currently ignorant of. We could investigate those areas and come to an understanding, but doing that would miss the point: God knows so much more than us.

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