The Mystery of Creation (RJS)

hst_pillars_m16 croppedThe heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world. (Ps 9:1-4)

How did God create the heavens and the earth?

This becomes a conundrum in many discussions of science and Christian faith. It is viewed as a problem to be solved. The more that we learn about science, the smaller the available space for the active creative power of God.  Either natural processes or God.  The next couple of chapters of Ron Highfield’s book The Faithful Creator address the question of how God created. Highfield’s view of the nature of God shapes this discussion (see the previous post A Philosopher’s God? for more details).

When we think about God as creator several competing ideas come to mind. On of the first involves an understanding of God’s act of creation. According to Highfield it is important to discipline our thinking and our language here to be careful not to attribute human characteristics to God.  “The differences between the divine act of creating and the human act of making are so profound that we must conclude that they are no merely quantitatively different but qualitatively of a different kind.” (p. 78)  The most significant point is that the act of creating cannot come from any idea of anything outside of God and it cannot be dependent on nondivine means.  Creation from nothing is important because without God’s act of creating there would be nothing. The act of creating cannot change God and it must produce exactly what God intends and do so perfectly.

It should be clear from the previous post that I am not comfortable with some aspects of this way of talking about God, but it leads Highfield to a significant conclusion, and one I agree with completely. How God creates – the connection between the mind of God and the motions and structures of creation – remains, and must remain a mystery. This is not something that human mind can comprehend. We err when we use human notions of creating and laws of physics constrain God’s act.There is an intrinsic mystery in creation that falls out of our realm of experience and understanding.

This mystery goes beyond the initial act of creation and includes God’s action and interaction with the created world even today. It is a mistake to think of God’s action in terms of ordinary cause and effect.

Polkinghorne dsHighfield uses John Polkinghorne as a counter example of someone he believes tied too closely to modern science and human rationality in his explanations.  From having read much of Polkinghorne’s work there is no doubt but that Polkinghorne and Highfield disagree rather significantly on many points,  particularly on the “openness” of creation and the possibility that God could limit himself to grant freedom to his creation (Highfield digs into this a bit in this section as well).   On the issue of the act or how of creation, however, it is not clear to me that the differences are as large as Highfield seems to think.

Polkinghorne often points to chaotic dynamics (nonlinear systems exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions) and quantum uncertainty as places that provide an openness in creation for God’s active presence, in answer to prayer for example, but in other cases as well. He repeats this idea in many of his books – I have Belief in God in an Age of Science, Quarks, Chaos and Christianity, and Theology in the Context of Science on my shelf, all of which touch on it in one fashion or another. Highfield summarizes:

In many essays and books Polkinghorne participates in the search for phases in the world processes, at the quantum level or at the initial conditions of chaotic systems, where God could determine a system with input of information rather than energy.  In analogy to human freedom in relation to bodily motion, he argues that God uses (or it is conceivable that God uses) “the inherent incompleteness” and the “resultant flexibilities” in physical processes to act in particular ways in the world. We could conceive of God’s “interaction with creation … purely in the form of active information.” Polkinghorne admits that the term “active information” (mind or form?) is rather vague but argues that it may escape the requirement of true passive information, such as that stored on a computer hard drive or in a DNA molecule, that it requires energy for the process of transference from one medium to another. (p. 90)

And a bit further down:

But does Polkinghorne’s theory of the “how” of divine action really set theology on a better rational foundation than Farrer’s theory of double agency? At best his theory shows the physical world’s receptivity to information at certain levels. But he does not explain how information can be communicated from the divine mind to the physical world, which is the very question that drives the quest. His vague notion of “active information” gets us no closer. Despite the sophistication of the physical theories he invokes and the resulting impression of profound insight, our understanding of the how of divine action never gets beyond the analogy of human action. And we don’t need to know anything about quantum physics or chaos theory to experience our own free action. (p. 91)

Highfield is right that Polkinghorne doesn’t explain the how of divine action.  But I don’t believe that that is the question Polkinghorne is addressing. The how of divine action in the world is mysterious.  Polkinghornes rumination on “active information” is an indication of this. He agrees with Highfield that the natural analogies in human experience don’t work. Even an analogy to the human mind fails because the human mind is intrinsically embodied. A mind can be destroyed by damaging the brain, memories can be faked, hallucinations occur, and the connection between mind and action can be severed through physical injury. God’s action in the world isn’t through physical means (no energy required). Like Highfield who calls God “pure act,” Polkinghorne invokes “active information” as the form of God’s interaction with the world. For both this is a mystery.

It is also important to realize that the thinking that Polkinghorne responds to isn’t that of the theist who accepts the idea of an active God. Rather it is the scientific mind set that leaves no room for the active involvement of God. Material determinism is far more prevalent, at least in our circles, than Highfield admits. The experience of our own free action is frequently argued to be an illusion. I’ve written about this in the past (see in particular the posts Is Free Will Anti-Science?, Investigating the Unnatural – Is Science the Religion of the 21st Century?, and Free Will is an Illusion?).  The scientific approach to knowledge and knowing, the underpinning principles of much of the present academic exercise, is that natural events are explicable by natural processes and by discoverable laws of nature. Alan Lightman, a physicist and novelist refers to this as the Central Doctrine of Science: “All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.” A corollary is that all events are natural. There is no openness for true freedom. When Polkinghorne points to chaos and quantum uncertainty he is pointing to an intrinsic openness that keeps the scientist from closing the door on divine action and perhaps on human free action as well. The scientist may not need the hypothesis of God, but he can’t eliminate it either.

Finally, it seems to Highfield that “the quest to find an open place where God can act presupposes that God’s ability to act is conditioned by creation’s laws. ” (p. 91)  I don’t think Polkinghorne falls into this trap, but there is an important point here. Many do fall for this in one way or another. We must not limit God’s ability to act to gaps in scientific knowledge – whether arising from intrinsic openness or current ignorance. God is not a scientific explanation of creation, and nothing we learn from the scientific investigation of creation – whether cosmology, evolution, embryology, or meteorology – removes God from the picture.

Is there any value in thinking too much about “how” God created the world?

Is God’s action as creator, as well as his current active involvement in the world, a scientific question?

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