The “God of the Gaps”: Right Use, Wrong Use
One recurring theme here and in other evangelical engagements with science is the idea of the “God of the gaps.” I’m not sure who coined the phrase; I’ve heard it attributed to Bonhoeffer (from Letters and Papers from Prison), but I don’t remember him specifically using that phrase. He certainly criticized the idea of a “deus ex machine” brought in to fill the gaps—holes in the natural order science cannot (so far) explain.
Generally speaking, “God of the gaps” is used by theologians to describe the use of God to explain the otherwise unexplainable in the natural order. One notable trend in modern, Western culture has been the gradual but steady closing of the gaps by science. The legitimate fear of many theologians is that insofar as people base their belief in God on such gaps, their belief in God will have less and less warrant. Eventually, possibly, so it is said, all the gaps will be closed so that God has no “job,” so to speak.
I would like to suggest that there are really two uses of the God of the gaps idea. One is wrong and one is right—from a biblical, evangelical theological perspective.
The wrong use is to make alleged gaps in the natural order the foundation of Christian belief in God. The problem here isn’t only that as the gaps are closed by science belief in God will have less foundation. It is also that true Christianity is not and never has been based only the rational necessity of God. As German theologian Eberhard Jüngel says in God as the Mystery of the World, God is (for Christians) “more than necessary.” By “necessary” he means “to explain the world and general human experience.” As Jüngel and his former colleague Jürgen Moltmann (both taught at Tübingen) both never tired of saying, Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics.
Another problem with the God of the gaps idea is that it objectifies God; it treats God as a thing more than as a person. As Emil Brunner always said, our knowledge of God is through I-Thou encounter, not finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object; the God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never object (in the sense of being “thingy”—a force or power or principle that can be manipulated).
All these are good reasons to avoid the wrong use of the God of the gaps idea. However, this is not the only use of it.
From a Christian life and world perspective there are gaps in reality unexplainable by science alone. One is the Christian’s I-Thou encounter with God! Another is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Another is why some things are objectively wrong in a sense more than “so decided by us.” I would argue that another is why we are here. Not how did we come to be here, but why are we here? Science cannot explain any of those parts of reality as understood through a classical Christian lens.
So what is the “use” of this God of the gaps idea? I would argue it is not to attempt to put Christianity (or religion) on a par with science in terms of “explaining things” so that skeptics must believe what we believe (or be fools). It is rather to explain to our own and inquiring and open minds the objective basis of these realities.
Now, does that make God an “object?” Not necessarily, although that is always a danger vigilantly to be avoided. That God exists objectively and not as a “necessary idea” or the “whence of our spiritual life” or “human self-transcendence” (etc.) is essential to Christianity.
In this second use of the God of the gaps idea there is no intention of encroaching on science’s territory insofar as science stays to its limits. A thoughtful, reflective Christian believes that there may come a day when science explains everything in the natural order. All the gaps there are then closed. Insofar as God’s very existence has been based on those gaps, God will be out of a job. Oh, except—the one “big gap” of (not in) the natural order will remain—why there is a natural order at all! Science cannot in principle address that issue. That is a metaphysical question and every knowledgeable, reflective person knows that. Much of the conflict between science and religion could dissolve if both religious people and scientists would stick to their boundaries. Still, using God as an explanation for why there is a natural order (rather than nothing or something else) does not amount to “Christian knowledge of God” by itself. And it’s not a sound beginning point or foundation for Christianity because it is always possible for a reasonable person to simply say “There is no reason or explanation for the natural order; it is ultimate.” Of course, as Hans Küng has shown in Does God Exist? An Answer for Today, that leads logically to nihilism. Still, a person may reasonably choose nihilism.
All of these realities are unexplainable by science—from a Christian perspective. Science can try to explain them, but, from a Christian perspective, it never can precisely because they are supernatural (above the natural order as studied and explained by science). Our job as Christian intellectuals is not to defeat science or show why science does not explain “parts” of the natural order. Our job as Christian intellectuals is to affirm and embrace legitimate science (that stays within its limits) while pushing back against metaphysicians pretending to speak as scientists to “explain” what science cannot in principle explain.
Now, right here is where many people stumble because of a category confusion. They think that all religious talk about what science cannot explain is falling into the wrong God of the gaps mentality and into anti-science mentality. And they think that all talk of “the supernatural” excludes God from the natural order in deist fashion. Neither of those is necessary. One can value science while at the same time insisting it stay within its limits. One can affirm God as the author and immanent sustainer of the natural order while speaking of God’s activity “from outside” (a spatial metaphor) the natural order. The category confusion I speak of is that between speaking of what science cannot explain in principle and what science has not yet explained. There is a difference. In the right use of the God of the gaps one does not appeal to what science has not yet explained but could one day explain. There, instead, one appeals to what lies outside of science’s purview.
Science’s purview is natural cause and effect relationships that can be mathematically described and expressed. If a person chooses to believe that’s all there is (naturalism), no Christian can give a reason why he or she cannot do so without being a fool. All we can do with such a person is witness and ask questions that deal with meanings and values (which I would argue cannot be explained scientifically). However, if the person rejects objective (not humanly invented) meanings and values and if the person rejects my witness, there is nothing I can point to and say “There is God’s work! Believe or remain a fool!” That’s why we speak of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit and surrender to God’s will as necessary for true belief in the true God—the God we worship as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ultimately Jesus.