The Heart Of The Matter: What Does God Do?

I’ve been reading several books on evolution, intelligent design, and related subjects, as I seek to decide on representative readings to assign for my religion and science course this Fall. It seems to me that the differences between many viewpoints centers around the question of what God does.

Naturalistic explanations of various things in the world around us have always challenged religious beliefs. The monotheistic God of the Abrahamic traditions continues to have adherents precisely because of the flexibility and all-encompassing character of this concept of God. While Zeus’ thunderbolts are now the domain of meteorology rather than metaphysics, the God who is responsible for everything does not disappear so easily. Yet the question must be asked by any religious believer: if you believe in God, what do you envisage God doing, and how?

For Michael Behe, the answer must be that God at least does certain things that set in motion the subsequent evolutionary processes. If everything from the start of the universe can be explained in natural terms, then the concept of God becomes irrelevant and obsolete. For this reason, he spends his most recent book looking for The Edge of Evolution. That he is involved in the unceremonious and begrudging retreat of the God of the gaps further and further into the distant past, and thus further and further away from us, seems not to bother him. Nor does the moral objection to Intelligent Design, which has existed since before Darwin, to which he responds dismissively by stating that “Revulsion is not a scientific argument” (p.239). This is certainly true, but neither is the desire to find something for God to do in the world, in contrast to other things that God doesn’t do. Having opened the door to the possibility of design, and thus the inclusion and integration of metaphysics, philosophy and theology into history, Behe then balks at either providing an answer to this moral objection or drawing the apparent implication that the designer is either malevolent or inept.

Much more helpful is Francis Ayala’s book Darwin’s Gift To Science and Religion, which is appreciative of arguments such as those of Paley, even when disagreeing with his conclusions. Paley, after all, was working with the best scientific knowledge available in his time. Paley was also an opponent of slavery, which Ayala helpfully notes – it is easy to regard those whose views we disagree with as foolish, particularly authors in the past, and so it is helpful to be reminded of other aspects of their life and work, to remind us to be appreciative of their place in our intellectual history, as well as of the fact that no one alive today will not seem as off target as Paley to some future author writing with the benefit of centuries of hindsight.

Ayala takes completely seriously the evidence for evolution, and the fact that, now that we have DNA evidence, there really is no more doubt about common ancestry and evolution than about the criminals we put away on the basis of the same sorts of forensic evidence. Even Behe acknowledges as much.

The reason why Ayala is able to embrace not just the current state of scientific knowledge, but science as a way of knowing, is that he is able to regard statements about God and statements about the natural world as complementary. The danger here, of course, is that such language can become at best superfluous and at worst meaningless. All our language about God is metaphorical. But we still need at least some clarity if we wish to speak about events in the world, even or perhaps especially those that have natural explanations, as simultaneously ‘acts of God’. Does this mean that we really see them as willed expressions of a personal deity, or as sacramental events that, even without outside tinkering, disclose transcendent aspects of the nature of reality to us?

One thing is fairly certain. If one lives in North America, Western Europe or Australia, and in a number of other places as well, there is no use deceiving oneself about the character of one’s theology. Just as there is no one in any of these places who believes in Zeus in the way that the Ancient Greeks did, so too there is no one who believes in God in precisely the same way that the early Christians did. Our worldview has changed, and attempting to will oneself into an outmoded view of the universe “by faith”, even if it were possible (which it isn’t), still would not be the same thing as taking that view of the universe for granted.

What is the fundamental difference between the various approaches to theology and to the intersection of religion and science today? The question of what (if anything) God does, and by what means. Answers to such questions will by definition involve metaphor – the challenge is to find metaphors that do justice to our deepest religious experiences and insights in a way that also does justice to not just the present state of our scientific knowledge, but the fact that science’s track record suggests that natural explanations of things currently unexplained will one day be forthcoming.

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  • I would think that reading on the question of what God does should include something on the plausibility of miracles in general. This seems to be the greatest watershed issue on the differing religious approaches to science. There is a wide gulf between someone who insists that no miracles have ever occurred in the history of the universe and a person who believes that a few miracles have occurred, some of which had something to do with human origins. The rift between someone who believes in a few miracles and someone who believes that the world was created 6 days before the first human being was created is comparatively much smaller.As you say, the all-encompassing character of the god of Christian monotheism can accommodate any data that naturalism can. In fact, a person could theoretically believe that God made the universe yesterday with its apparent history built into every place that might reflect such a history, including our own memories. This hypothesis wouldn’t be anti-scientific, because it pertains to questions that are outside of the questions that naturalistic science can address. The arguments people would have to make against it would be entirely in the abstract realms of philosophy and theology. On the other hand, the only silver bullet that would slay both Behe’s view and that of young-earth creationists (and that of our hypothetical yesterday-creationists) would be a convincing argument against the plausibility of any miracles. So tackling those kinds of abstractions by addressing the question of miracles might be helpful.

  • What do you envision God doing?What a phenomenal question!!! Of course, having never had the luxury of any religious course that wasn’t centered on the “God did it, that settles it” mentality, I can honestly say not many of the fundamentalist persuasion ponder this very question too often. After all, to them, God is there to meet their needs, to answer their prayers, and to overall make sure they get saved. I don’t think too many of them even try to marry the concept of scientific evidence versus “Genesis says seven days! Ha!” (although I have known a very minor few…)I know one circle of “logic” employed by most fundies I’ve had the “privilege” of knowing has been the hilarious attempt to actually twist scientific evidence to “explain” how OT God did some of the “miracles” he has been purported to have done–such as the parting of the Red Sea. Fundie books and Web sites are filled with scientific jargon as to how their god could have done this thing employing natural laws–thereby negating not only the “miraculous” part of the miracle, but obviously negating their need for faith in an all-powerful deity that needs to use natural laws to do his miracles…So I think that some Christians, while having attempted to use science (albeit twistedly) to actually explain miracles, the very fact that they have attempted to do so points to not only a weakness of the argument of such (i.e., that they do have an explanation), but explaining miracles ultimately is a negation of the faith one is to hold in the deity to be all-powerful…(I feel as though I am making sense, but I also feel like I missed a certain key point in this argument…)Regardless, I’ll be looking up these books you mentioned, and good luck with coming up with the reading list. (If it isn’t too much to ask, would you mind posting a list of the books you finally settle on so that those of us who wish to can find them on our own to read? I’m always inetersted in finding new things to read in regards to these topics… Thanks!)

  • John

    Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.Please find a completely different understanding of Real God as Radiant Conscious Light. Plus an Illuminated Understanding of the origins & consequences of the science versus exoteric religion culture wars.1.

  • Jonh, dude, you are seriously smoking too much of the happy smoke, or the most whacked out person I’ve ever seen on the Internet (and I’ve seen some doozies!)Are you seriously saying that you subscribe to “Every one, or every “thing”, that exists is not ever in a position separate from its own existence. Therefore, it cannot inspect, or objectively “know”, its own existence (itself), or the existence (itself) of any one or any “thing” else.?And you also believe: “Indeed, This “One” cannot even be doubted, since even doubt is the contemplation of What Is (or of Existence Itself), via the Mystery (or contemplation) of the existence of things, and beings, and conditions, and thoughts, and doubt itself.”?So if you can’t think about it, will never understand it, but you also can’t doubt it or even objectively or rationally think about, what are left with, John?HINT: Absolutely nothing.

  • “What does God do?” Makes stuff exist, I suppose.Some of my thoughts about divine activity can be found here and here and here and here.