God is a Mystery, not an Explanation (From the Archives)

The world we live in is full of mysteries. When we envisage the self-replicating molecules that drive life on this planet, we wonder how they could have arisen, and we seek explanations. Likewise with the very fact than anything exists at all, we wonder why there is something rather than nothing.

To say “God did it” is not an explanation. To suggest that an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient being is somehow self explanatory and a way to eliminate mystery is misguided. This doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate to talk about God when talking about these mysteries. But God is part of the mystery, and to speak of God is to affirm that beyond these tangible mysteries we perceive there are even greater mysteries regarding which we may not even yet be asking the right questions yet.

You might ask whether or not God was in fact an “explanation” for the ancient Hebrew authors who wrote the Biblical creation stories. To answer that question, we must put ancient Hebrew thought in its context in time and space. Although the Hebrew word olam has evolved to mean ‘universe’ or ‘world’, in the Biblical world it still had a meaning more akin to ‘age’. There was no single word that referred to everything that exists, because existence was not generally thought of in unitary fashion. The sun, the moon, the earth were, in the wider context, all separate divine entities. In this context, in which other peoples were talking about “deities” in the plural, the Hebrews began to use the plural as an abstract singular noun (as was done in Semitic languages) to refer to “the deity” in the singular. This was an affirmation that all these divine realities (what we would refer to as impersonal “forces of nature”) were in fact united in a single “being” that encompassed all of them and of whom all of them were an expression. So, in a sense, all that we mean by “universe” really was encompassed within the Hebrew term elohim, the deity. While I would not go so far as to argue that the ancient Hebrew authors were advocates of panentheism, their worldview can be plotted on a trajectory moving in that direction.

That we are dealing with a trajectory and not an end point is important to note. Some Biblical authors still thought of God fighting with the sea monster to create, as was the norm in the wider Mesopotamian context. The furthest that the Israelites got was to think of all the deities – the storm god, the heavens and mother earth all wrapped into one God in the singular who is responsible for all the things these diverse deities were thought to do – fertility of womb and of soil, creation of life, blessing of households, and so on. But there is still much of the assumptions of pre-scientific polytheism in such a view of God, and it still attributes a personal purpose to forces of nature, to weather, to earthquakes, and so on.

Without the Hebrews’ insights into the unity of these divine/natural forces, the rise of modern science might never have been possible. The challenge to the theologian in the modern scientific age is to find ways of embracing science, one of Abraham’s children every much as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and to find the next spot we can affirm on the trajectory of mystery that begins, but by no means ends, with the writings of the Biblical authors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    I think so many of the incomprehensible views held by biblical literalists (fundamentalists) stems from trying to translate the bible as though its authors were writing directly to us in the 21st century. It’s a great point that you make that ancient languages may have shifted meanings over the centuries, thanks to translators who were trying to modernize the ancient authors’ thought processes. Thus the meaning of terms evolves over generations into something that the original authors never meant. In at least one passage in Genesis, one of the original meanings may have slipped through: “Let us create man in our image.” That is obviously plural, so they obviously thought in terms of gods and not God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    I think so many of the incomprehensible views held by biblical literalists (fundamentalists) stems from trying to translate the bible as though its authors were writing directly to us in the 21st century. It’s a great point that you make that ancient languages may have shifted meanings over the centuries, thanks to translators who were trying to modernize the ancient authors’ thought processes. Thus the meaning of terms evolves over generations into something that the original authors never meant. In at least one passage in Genesis, one of the original meanings may have slipped through: “Let us create man in our image.” That is obviously plural, so they obviously thought in terms of gods and not God.

  • John

    I don’t think “mystery” and “explanation” are mutually exclusive. Most explanations lead to further questions, are not ultimately explanatory, etc.

  • John

    I don’t think “mystery” and “explanation” are mutually exclusive. Most explanations lead to further questions, are not ultimately explanatory, etc.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    A point nicely illustrated by this recent cartoon by David Hayward.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    A point nicely illustrated by this recent cartoon by David Hayward.

  • John

    I like the cartoon and I’d say it could be applied to the laws of physics as well, which are the scientific explanation for everything.

  • John

    I like the cartoon and I’d say it could be applied to the laws of physics as well, which are the scientific explanation for everything.

  • AaronRoss

    Actually, to say “God did it” is an explanation,   You just don’t like the explanation, since you prefer to claim “mindless processess did it”.

  • AaronRoss

    Actually, to say “God did it” is an explanation,   You just don’t like the explanation, since you prefer to claim “mindless processess did it”.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @AaronRoss, actually in some instances I do indeed prefer an explanation in terms of mindless processes. When a serious genetic defect is explicable in those terms, insisting that one must also talk of some inscrutable divine plan behind the tragic course of events seems to unnecessarily complicate matters.

    But in terms of an ultimate explanation for why something exists rather than nothing, I don’t think that either “God” or “mindless processes” is an intellectually satisfying explanation, since it is just another layer of something the existence of which is simply posited and not explained.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @AaronRoss, actually in some instances I do indeed prefer an explanation in terms of mindless processes. When a serious genetic defect is explicable in those terms, insisting that one must also talk of some inscrutable divine plan behind the tragic course of events seems to unnecessarily complicate matters.

    But in terms of an ultimate explanation for why something exists rather than nothing, I don’t think that either “God” or “mindless processes” is an intellectually satisfying explanation, since it is just another layer of something the existence of which is simply posited and not explained.

  • John

    James – can you name an explanation that isn’t “just another layer of something the existence of which is simply posited and not explained.”?

  • John

    James – can you name an explanation that isn’t “just another layer of something the existence of which is simply posited and not explained.”?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    No, and really that is my point. If we use language about God as an indication of the ultimate mystery, a symbol of the point beyond which we cannot experiment or reason, that is one thing. But when God is treated as though God were an explanation, then it becomes precisely just another layer of things which, however much it accounts for, calls out for us to dig deeper and offer an explanation for that as well.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    No, and really that is my point. If we use language about God as an indication of the ultimate mystery, a symbol of the point beyond which we cannot experiment or reason, that is one thing. But when God is treated as though God were an explanation, then it becomes precisely just another layer of things which, however much it accounts for, calls out for us to dig deeper and offer an explanation for that as well.

  • John

    James – or it could be the case that the ultimate explanation of existence, does not itself have an explanation, or its explanation is somehow rooted in itself. Indeed, it would seem that things would have to be this way in order to avoid an infinite regress of explanations.

  • John

    James – or it could be the case that the ultimate explanation of existence, does not itself have an explanation, or its explanation is somehow rooted in itself. Indeed, it would seem that things would have to be this way in order to avoid an infinite regress of explanations.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Certainly, but very often we choose a point at which to stop the regression which is arguably somewhat arbitrary. Why a multiverse rather than a universe-production mechanism? Why a supreme creator of our universe as opposed a supreme creator of the somewhat less adept creator of our universe? In fact, all of those options and more have been proposed. But once we are in the realm of metaphysics,, it seems that we run out of clear data that can guide us regarding when, if at all, it is appropriate to stop regressing and say we have reached the ultimate explanation.

    • AaronRoss

      You either don’t realize the first cause argument or you are misrepresenting it.

      Without the eternally existent creator, there is no point to stop your regression which, as you admit, is arbitrary.

      And irrational, since the universe has not been here forever.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Certainly, but very often we choose a point at which to stop the regression which is arguably somewhat arbitrary. Why a multiverse rather than a universe-production mechanism? Why a supreme creator of our universe as opposed a supreme creator of the somewhat less adept creator of our universe? In fact, all of those options and more have been proposed. But once we are in the realm of metaphysics,, it seems that we run out of clear data that can guide us regarding when, if at all, it is appropriate to stop regressing and say we have reached the ultimate explanation.

  • John

    But stopping points for explanations, even if they are arbitrary, do not render the explanations on which we stop non-explanations or even bad explanations. You might argue that said stopping point is not necessarily *the* ultimate explanation (I think there are good reasons to disagree with you), but it doesn’t mean it is not an explanation.

  • John

    But stopping points for explanations, even if they are arbitrary, do not render the explanations on which we stop non-explanations or even bad explanations. You might argue that said stopping point is not necessarily *the* ultimate explanation (I think there are good reasons to disagree with you), but it doesn’t mean it is not an explanation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Well, I think that generally when people appeal to God as an explanation, it is often an additional explanation alongside others that are perfectly satisfactory in their own right. Now, I will be the first to say that multiple levels and types of explanations aree fine and appropriate – my finger movements as I write this being a good example, muscle motions but also intent to communicate.

    I’m not sure whether we actually disagree, or whether I am being too narrow in my use of “explanation” here. There are some things which we can account for completely on a scientific level but which move us, strike us as beautiful, and engage us on a different level. I see God as relating to our experience in that way – not as the ultimate scientific reason for all things that happen, but as the depth, beauty and significance of things that are, on the level of physics or chemistry or biology, may have perfectly satisfactory explanations in those terms.

    Does that make sense? Do you disagree?

    • John

      I’m not sure how many people, other than Creationists, see God as a *scientific* explanation. God, as an explanation for various aspects of existence, is mainly put forth by philosophers (e.g. Richard Swinburne) and some analytic theologians (e.g. Keith Ward). We use personal (and non-scientific) explanations all the time such as the example of your intent to write. With a broader interpretation of explanation, I don’t see a problem with God as explanation. Supposing some form of methodological naturalism is properly assumed in science, I would agree that God is not a properly scientific explanation. But there indeed *are*  scientific explanations (e.g. physical laws), considered by many to be ultimate, that are themselves simply posited and not explained.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Well, I think that generally when people appeal to God as an explanation, it is often an additional explanation alongside others that are perfectly satisfactory in their own right. Now, I will be the first to say that multiple levels and types of explanations aree fine and appropriate – my finger movements as I write this being a good example, muscle motions but also intent to communicate.

    I’m not sure whether we actually disagree, or whether I am being too narrow in my use of “explanation” here. There are some things which we can account for completely on a scientific level but which move us, strike us as beautiful, and engage us on a different level. I see God as relating to our experience in that way – not as the ultimate scientific reason for all things that happen, but as the depth, beauty and significance of things that are, on the level of physics or chemistry or biology, may have perfectly satisfactory explanations in those terms.

    Does that make sense? Do you disagree?

    • John

      I’m not sure how many people, other than Creationists, see God as a *scientific* explanation. God, as an explanation for various aspects of existence, is mainly put forth by philosophers (e.g. Richard Swinburne) and some analytic theologians (e.g. Keith Ward). We use personal (and non-scientific) explanations all the time such as the example of your intent to write. With a broader interpretation of explanation, I don’t see a problem with God as explanation. Supposing some form of methodological naturalism is properly assumed in science, I would agree that God is not a properly scientific explanation. But there indeed *are*  scientific explanations (e.g. physical laws), considered by many to be ultimate, that are themselves simply posited and not explained.

  • http://lowerwisdom.com JS Allen

    I would argue that God was never an explanation.  The Bible doesn’t read at all like we would expect if it were intended to capture explanations about natural phenomena.

    The ancient Hebrews obviously knew a lot about animal husbandry, agricultural science, weather cycles, astronomy, and so on — but none of that information is stored in the Bible.  So we should conclude that the Bible isn’t where they kept their information about the natural world.  The book of Enoch is the exception that proves the rule.

    BTW, I thought that God did wrestle with the sea monster to create the world?  Why would we say that’s wrong?  It’s as good a metaphor for what we understand about science as any.

    • John

      When considering whether or not God can serve as an explanation of any or all phenomena today, I’m not sure it matters whether or not some ancient Hebrews viewed God as an explanation. If the Bible isn’t determinative for modern science, it isn’t determinative for modern epistemology either.

      • http://lowerwisdom.com JS Allen

        Of course it matters.  If the Bible was never written as a science book in the first place, you can cut short all of the tedious prattle about whether or not it remains a good science book.  IMO, asking whether or not God is an explanation for things today is a lot like asking whether or not the Sphinx is still a good laxative in our modern age.

        • John

          It just does not follow that, because the Bible is not a science book, God cannot serve as an explanation for any/all phenomenal.

          • http://lowerwisdom.com JS Allen

            Oh, I see what you mean.  I agree.

    • AaronRoss

      I would argue that relying on mindless processes is never really an explanation.

      After all, such a position is unfalsifiable, and hence not scientific, since No Proof would ever be sufficient to refute the ultimiate retreat to “mindlessprocessesdidit”.

      Morever, the argument that “mindlessprocessedidit” has not been demonstrated in regards to either the origin of the universe or of life…even attempts to create life require intelligent direction.

  • http://lowerwisdom.com JS Allen

    I would argue that God was never an explanation.  The Bible doesn’t read at all like we would expect if it were intended to capture explanations about natural phenomena.

    The ancient Hebrews obviously knew a lot about animal husbandry, agricultural science, weather cycles, astronomy, and so on — but none of that information is stored in the Bible.  So we should conclude that the Bible isn’t where they kept their information about the natural world.  The book of Enoch is the exception that proves the rule.

    BTW, I thought that God did wrestle with the sea monster to create the world?  Why would we say that’s wrong?  It’s as good a metaphor for what we understand about science as any.

  • http://lowerwisdom.com JSA

    I would argue that God was never an explanation.  The Bible doesn’t read at all like we would expect if it were intended to capture explanations about natural phenomena.

    The ancient Hebrews obviously knew a lot about animal husbandry, agricultural science, weather cycles, astronomy, and so on — but none of that information is stored in the Bible.  So we should conclude that the Bible isn’t where they kept their information about the natural world.  The book of Enoch is the exception that proves the rule.

    BTW, I thought that God did wrestle with the sea monster to create the world?  Why would we say that’s wrong?  It’s as good a metaphor for what we understand about science as any.

    • John

      When considering whether or not God can serve as an explanation of any or all phenomena today, I’m not sure it matters whether or not some ancient Hebrews viewed God as an explanation. If the Bible isn’t determinative for modern science, it isn’t determinative for modern epistemology either.

      • http://lowerwisdom.com JSA

        Of course it matters.  If the Bible was never written as a science book in the first place, you can cut short all of the tedious prattle about whether or not it remains a good science book.  IMO, asking whether or not God is an explanation for things today is a lot like asking whether or not the Sphinx is still a good laxative in our modern age.

        • John

          It just does not follow that, because the Bible is not a science book, God cannot serve as an explanation for any/all phenomenal.

          • http://lowerwisdom.com JSA

            Oh, I see what you mean.  I agree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    Of course, you eliminate an infinite regress if you accept the notion that the universe is cyclical. Unfortunately, that theory has pretty much been dispelled what with dark energy and all. My personal preference is that we are the result of the collision of membranes in an infinite and eternal multiverse in which an infinite number of universes exist. In such a situation there would be no need to resort to the anthropic principle to explain why the constants of nature are just right. There would necessarily be an infinite number of “just right” universes, and we’re in one of them.

    • John

      Really though – you could explain and predict anything with such a multiverse, so it destroys the foundations of all inductive knowledge, and thus science itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    Of course, you eliminate an infinite regress if you accept the notion that the universe is cyclical. Unfortunately, that theory has pretty much been dispelled what with dark energy and all. My personal preference is that we are the result of the collision of membranes in an infinite and eternal multiverse in which an infinite number of universes exist. In such a situation there would be no need to resort to the anthropic principle to explain why the constants of nature are just right. There would necessarily be an infinite number of “just right” universes, and we’re in one of them.

    • John

      Really though – you could explain and predict anything with such a multiverse, so it destroys the foundations of all inductive knowledge, and thus science itself.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @b006227f6b21e493ec4f02ee8dff01a5:disqus , I’m not at all opposed to a first cause sort of argument. I think the tenor of my post is that, if we posit a transcendent first cause of all else that exists, we are in the realm of “explanation” only in the rather trivial sense that we are arguing that there must be a first cause, not in the sense that we can make sense of why that first cause exists, or grasp the reality of the first cause with our human minds or describe with our words. 

  • http://lowerwisdom.com JS Allen

    Right, positing that there *is* a cause is not the same as offering an explanation.  It’s like saying “it happened because it happened”. It’s an asserted tautology.

    @b006227f6b21e493ec4f02ee8dff01a5:disqus BTW, I think that “Mindless Process” can be very elegant in explanations.  I wrote about this in “Ride the Leviathan“.

  • Paul D.

    I don’t think we even have logical grounds to assert that beyond the space-time boundaries of our universe, causality the way we understands it exists. If there was no “before”, then there need be no “cause”, and even conceptualizing existence outside of the space-time continuum, which probably extends no further back than the Big Bang, might not be possible for our minds. “God did it” is an assertion given in answer to a question we haven’t even figured out how to ask yet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    I think one of the more interesting discovery’s I made about the Bible, is after discrediting it as a inerrant guide to life, i became fascinated by the sophistication it does have. I think you are right on James about Elohim, the plural singular. I think it reflects a very sophisticated notion of the high God as somehow incorporating the rest to he pantheon. I think we see that in Egyptian ideas about Amun and in Hindu ideas about Brahmans relation to other gods. I see it, but to a much lesser degree in the stories about Marduk as well.

    I have said before that I think God is the answer to the question, why do we exist?, and I think the Biblical writers were coming to that same equation. I don’t see this as much with “J”‘s YHWH, but “P”‘s creation seems to place god as the prime mover of the chaos that existed before time. And I wonder if the meaning of “E”‘s IAM WHO? I AM, seem to be a deep pun on a being who is uncreated and uncaused, like Paul D’s ” I don’t think we even have logical grounds to assert that beyond the space-time boundaries of our universe, causality the way we understands it exists.”. Not that Biblical writers understood physics, but they simply played a reduction game until they found the one irreducible thing they could imagine, the basic property of existence. if you don’t have that, what else is there to discuss? I find it interesting this same idea was hit on as far abroad as Egypt and India independently.


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