Discover more from Folie de Dieu
The God of the gaps or the God who makes the grass grow?
Modern science doesn't replace God; it points to him.
In the Bible, God is presented as being directly responsable for all kinds of natural phenomena. Consider the praise the psalmist gives him in Psalm 147 for the way he takes care of his creation:
He covers the heavens with clouds; he prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry. [...] He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow. -Psalm 147:8-9, 15-18
God himself claims similar things in Job 38-39, and Jesus also affirms that his Father is the one who feeds the birds and clothes the grass (Mt 6:26, 30). The biblical God is one who is constantly involved in maintaining and taking care of the world he has created.
But in the 21st century, we don’t believe that God does that anymore.
Armed with modern science, we are inclined to think that we know that rain and snow are a function of humidity and temperature and pressure in the atmosphere, that grass grows because of nutrients in the soil and the light of the sun, and that birds don’t need feeding because they feed themselves. Once upon a time we put the label “God” on all these mysteries because we didn’t know how things work. Now that we do know, we can safely dispense with primitive ideas about God making rain or causing the sun to rise. That is to say, God is a God of the gaps, the explanation we appeal to when we don’t have a natural one. And as science continuously closes the gaps, the place for God gets ever smaller.
Of course none of that is true.
God is not the God of the gaps. And science, rather than explaining away God, has opened a marvelous window for us to see in ever greater detail what it is that God does every day to govern and take care of his creation. Consider the example of gravity. All of us are familiar with gravity as being responsable for keeping planets in their orbits and bringing apples down on the heads of pondering physicists. We learn an equation in school that tells us that the force of gravity between two objects is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. With what we know about gravity we can predict the motion of all the bodies in the solar system, place satellites in precise orbits, and send men to the moon. We know a lot about gravity.
Great, so what is it?
What is gravity? We talk about it all the time, but gravity is not a “thing” that we can study directly. We can’t put it under a microscope or dissect it. What we call gravity is just a name for an observation about the way objects move. We see that objects tend to move towards each other, and we’ve noticed that there’s a consistent pattern in how fast they accelerate based on their mass and the distance between them. But as for why they move that way - what actually pulls objects together - there’s no explanation for that. Gravity doesn’t make anybody do anything; it’s just a name for what objects already do.
That’s where the biblical God comes in - not to explain what we don’t know, but to explain what we do know. In Genesis 1, we see the origin of our universe described as an act of creation by God who brings things into existence and then arranges them in an orderly fashion. Night and day are made to alternate, each with the heavenly bodies particular to it. Land and sea are separated and given set boundaries. Plants and animals appropriate to each habitat are created to fill them. And everything proceeds from the command of God: “And God said…” Why does the earth orbit the sun and spin on its axis to create a succession of day and night? Because God commanded it to be so in Genesis 1:4-5 and 1:14-18, and his command governs the movement of sun, earth and moon to this day.
The science of gravity doesn’t replace the command of God, it merely details some of the content of God’s command. God’s government of the universe is not haphazard and arbitrary, but orderly and regular. The way he decrees objects to move does not change from day to day, and so we can study those movements and arrive at an equation that details the precise acceleration that God’s command decrees between two objects with mass.
Again, this is not filling in gaps in our knowledge of gravity, but explaining why there’s a regular order for science to discover in the first place. If tomorrow we learned something new - for instance that gravity works through some kind of particle (a gravitron!), that wouldn’t change anything about God’s decree. We would just know that God’s decree of gravitational motion is worked out through gravitrons. Why do gravitrons do what they do? To carry out God’s decree!
We think that as modern people we don’t believe anymore in a God who makes the snow to fall or the grass to grow. But in fact our very sophisticated modern perspective on nature depends on that very thing. God’s decree is why there are natural laws that we can discover through science. What’s more, the fact that natural laws proceed from the mind of God explains why these laws are comprehensible to our minds. This Christian understanding of a universe ruled by the decree of a rational mind lies at the origin of science, and this understanding of the universe still stands behind all our science whether we recognize it or not. Our God is not the God of the gaps but the God through whom and to whom are all things and in whom all things hold together (Col 1:16-17).
Of course thanks to Einstein it turns out to be more complicated than that, but those wrinkles don’t have an impact on my point, and the newtonian equation is already pushing my luck in terms of making this article unnecessarily technical…