Back in 2007 I wrote this review of God’s Universe by Owen Gingerich (for those who may have wondered from the title how on God’s green Earth I hoped to review the entirety of God’s universe). I highly recommend the book. For such a tiny book (121 page that are each about half the size of an average-sized book), it covers a remarkable amount that is of significant, discussing both the history and philosophy of the interaction between religion and science. Among the most helpful topics are the quotes from many famous scientists and the discussion of the many issues related to speaking about “design” in both the natural sciences and in theology (the latter is, as it turns out, no less problematic than the former).
William Paley famously argued that if one finds a stone one will not react as though encountering something “contrived”, but if one finds a watch one will. This analogy is problematic if for no other reason than that one presumes Paley believed that God had indeed made the stones, but he did not make watches. And in spite of their intricate features, whether a carrot or even a person really resembles something a human being would contrive is unclear: watches are not found in nature, but carrots and people are. They were, as it were, already here when we got here.
If one thinks of a scientific analysis of a nail embedded in a plank of wood, one could imagine religious scientists searching for signs of intelligent design by suggesting that one look for characteristics of the metal that could not occur naturally, for laws of physics that were broken in the process of embedding, and so on. As it turns out, the scientists might find nothing on these levels that suggests design: the evidence of design is found in the configuration and the signs of action of human beings. But here once again we also see how the analogy becomes problematic. Do we really know how a divine designer would work? Would laws of physics be violated? Would we even know what configurations demonstrate contrivance? From the perspective of faith, a universe that can follow its own logic and “natural laws” and produce living and thinking beings like us is no less awe-inspiring that the universe about which people in the past thought about God as “tinkering” with the universe and making things “with his hands”, as it were.
Our expanded knowledge of the universe has a dramatic theological impact that most of us who are religious believers have been influenced by and yet with which many still wrestle. The universe is far vaster than any Biblical author imagined. To speak of God as higher than the highest heaven (if anyone wishes to use that metaphor) is to make God larger than such language indicated a few thousand years ago, and it may be that such language (as in the praise song that goes “God of wonders beyond our galaxy”) situates God (whether intending to or not) much further away than in the past. The truth is that we simply cannot think of God in precisely the ways our distant ancestors do. Although I could argue this as a “should” of intellectual and logical obligation, it really is in many respects a simple statement of fact: no one in the modern world really manages to think of God in precisely the way pre-modern people did. Yet some of us struggle to cling to antiquated language, as though it were the language that mattered rather than the transcendant reality that the language points to.
This process is a Biblical one. Although the early Hebrew writers whose works are in the Bible thought of a underworld below and heavens above, by the time of the New Testament the Ptolemaic worldview was around and authors mention multiple heavens, with forces of darkness and dominion located in the heavenly places. Worldview shifts have always taken place, and later writers update their metaphors in light of such revised understandings. And so it is that those who cling strictly to Biblical language are in fact ignoring the Biblical approach to dealing with changes in worldview. The Bible itself would lead us to accept the new worldview and either adapt our metaphors or find new ones that are more appropriate. That is what the Biblical authors themselves did, after all.