Saturday, March 06, 2010

I am getting ready for tomorrow and thought I would take a break to post the second in the Lenten series I called the Question of God.  I hope you are having a good weekend.

2.  The Question of God: The Evidence of the Cosmos

Last week, we saw that the question of whether there is a God, or not, is a real one in the society in which we live.  We noted that there were, in this world, problems with the idea of ‘proof’ and that this applied to everything, not just to God.  Nevertheless, we concluded, belief in God still needed to be rational.  There should be evidence for believing.  We are now going to think about some of the evidence for God as well as some of the objections to it.  Time, sadly, prevents us devoting as much attention to it as we should.  We can, at least, make a start.

October 23, 1996 was a special anniversary.  On that day, the world was 6,000 years old.  At least, it would have been if you accepted Archbishop Ussher’s dating of creation.  Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) calculated that, according to the Bible, the world was created in the year 4004BC.  Bishop John Lightfoot (1602-1675) further refined it to 9.00am on October 23.  While people would not necessarily have gone along with that precise dating, there was a time when most would have accepted the basic point, namely, that it was God who had created the heavens and earth.

Then came Charles Darwin (1809-1882).  Suddenly, God did not seem necessary anymore.  We arrived here not by the supernatural, creative act of God, but by the natural, selective process of evolution.  Human beings were not the result of the plan of God, but an accident of nature.  This was excellent news for those who wanted to get rid of God.  At last, they had an alternative explanation for the origins of life.  No more did we have to resort to God to explain where we came from.  Goodbye, God.

Except that God has not quite gone away.  Indeed, the very persistence of faith in God is itself evidence for God.  Despite all that the 20th century has thrown at him, God is still here and still very much on the agenda.  But we will return to this.  Those who want to argue for chance, and chance alone, have not had things all their own way.  Firstly, not everyone is completely happy with the theory of evolution.  This is not to say that I am siding with those who still stick to a belief in six day creation.  I simply note a fact.  Secondly, and more importantly, even if right, evolution only describes a process.  It still begs the question of whether it was a chance or purely natural process.  As a method, it is fine, but did it simply happen, or was there a mind behind it?  Evolution as a theory cannot answer that.

Many of us think that rather than undermining belief in God, the descriptions that scientists themselves give us of the evolutionary process seem rather to reinforce such a belief.  Indeed, have you noticed the way some people talk about evolution?  They set out to describe what they believe to be a natural process and end up attributing to evolution intelligent, thinking characteristics.  They will talk about evolution doing this or that, deciding and determining this or that, so that evolution starts to sound, not so much like a process, but more like a person. 
Now, of course, they do not intend to do this, and would be horrified to know that this is what they are doing.  However, when faced with the fact of the natural order, is it the case, perhaps, that we are compelled by the evidence to think that it could only have got here if there had been a thinking, intelligent mind behind it.  A mind which decided and determined that this is how it should turn out.  And if the natural world as we see it compels us to think and talk like this, could it be because that is precisely how it is?  Is it that in the very evolutionary process we see the work of God? 

This seems to be a good point to introduce Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Aquinas lived long before evolution as an idea was ever thought of.  He went to the University of Naples, and, while there, in 1244, at the age of 19, joined the relatively new Order of Preachers, the Dominican friars.  His family wanted him to become a Benedictine, and kidnapped him, locking him in the family castle for a year.  He got his way, and continued his studies at Paris and Cologne.  In 1252, he returned to lecture in Paris, thereafter lecturing at Paris and in Italy.  In 1323, he was made a saint.  In time, he came to be hailed as the Common Doctor of the Catholic Church and as the Angelic Doctor. 

One of the greatest philosophers and theologians ever, Aquinas wanted to demonstrate that the Christian faith was in every way a rational faith and belief in God thoroughly reasonable.  Aquinas defined five ways by which we could know there was a God.  Behind each of them is the idea that the world itself reveals God as its creator.  If you read a book, look at a picture, listen to a piece of music, you can often immediately tell who its author, painter, or composer is simply from the style.  Aquinas’ five ways have been subject to many criticisms.  Certainly the way he expressed his arguments reflects the language and thinking of his day, just as the way we express ourselves reflects the age we are living in.  His basic point is, though, a good one.  When we examine the cosmos, and ask how it got here and how it got to being the way it is, is not the most reasonable explanation not that it just did, but because someone wanted it to and purposed that it should?

Aquinas, in his fifth way, also pointed to the nature of the cosmos.  It is extremely intricate and ordered.  If we were talking about anything else, we would say it is well designed.  But does not design suggest a designer? William Paley (1743-1805) taking up the argument used the example of a watch.  If someone was to find a watch, even if they had never seen a watch before, would not they know, simply from examining it, that it could not have just got like that by chance, but must have been made by someone.  The complexity of the design argues for a designer.  If we can see it with a watch, why not with the cosmos which shows even more evidence of design?

That Aquinas was right to argue like this receives support from the Bible itself.  St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, writes of human beings:
‘For what can be known about God is plain to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.’ (1:20)

All this proves nothing.  If you want to persist in believing that the universe just happened and that we are a result of chance or purely natural processes, then you are perfectly entitled to do so, that is one interpretation of the evidence.  However, I would like to ask you to consider whether, in all honesty, it is the most reasonable one. 

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