Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Science and God: considering Stephen Hawking

The following is from a recent Books & Culture article on the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. The article as a whole seeks to introduce people to the man while commenting on his understanding of God and religion. I recommend the article, particularly if you want a brief overview of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time. At the end of the article, though, author Karl Giberson comments on Hawking’s “theology.”

The main critiques are that Hawking has no understanding of Christian theology, and that if he did, he wouldn’t confuse science and theology the way that he does. The Christian doctrine of creation is not in competition with the scientific explanation for the origin of the cosmos. The fact that Hawking gets this wrong only reinforces the mistaken views of the creationists. The difference is that Hawking is simply naive, while the creationists are intentional about equating science and theology. All of this just makes it harder for intelligent Christians to articulate the truth of the doctrine of creation. Here is what Giberson writes:

[Stephen] Hawking's theological naïveté is almost funny. He appears not to know that the heart of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation is that the world derives its being from God, not that God "started" the world, like some kid building a model airplane. Everyone from Augustine and Aquinas to Barth and Pannenberg has addressed this important distinction. The suggestion that a physical theory ruling out a well-defined "beginning" to the universe removes God from creation is the sort of simplistic misunderstanding that might be tolerated in philosophy students' first term papers, but certainly not their second.

And what of Hawking's claim that knowledge of the profoundly misnamed "Theory of Everything" would be like entering into the mind of God? Really? Is this what God thinks about? What God is this? Is there actually a church somewhere that puts equations on a big screen and invites worshippers to view them as a prelude to worship? Is this the same God whose existence Hawking disproved a few pages earlier?

All this would indeed be humorous if it were not in a book that has sold ten million copies. Hawking has done a great disservice to those purchasers of his book who have actually read it. He has misled them about the religious implications of science and the apparent motivations of scientists; he has made bogus claims about theology; he has juxtaposed science and theology as if they compete to explain the same things. Hawking's enthusiasm about doing away with God does not reflect the views of the scientific community, where there is widespread belief in God, and widespread disinterest in using science against religion.

Hawking is a major public intellectual, a leading scientist with a flair for popular exposition and a platform from which to explain science to an educated populace. He and his scientific allies—Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Peter Atkins, the late Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Pinker and so on—shape public perceptions of science through their popular presentations, in books, articles, and public appearances. Their collective message—drilled home in many different ways—is that science is hostile to religion, scientists don't believe in God, and science competes with religion to explain natural phenomena.

None of these statements is true.

[Books & Culture]


Aric Clark said...


I for one have read 2 of Hawkings books and really enjoyed them. He has a way of making complex things comprehensible and enjoyable. At the time I read A Brief History of time I did not think his treatment of God was simplistic. He seemed to leave ample room for mystery, and never answered his own questions. This reviewer has a certain point, though.

However, I think the article goes a bit too far in defending Christian Theology from science. While the distinction between Creation as issuance of being and God starting the world may be obvious to the writer, it is far from obvious to most people in the church. Even in Seminary and in speaking with doctoral students it isn't so clear cut. To most people creation seems to have something to do with BOTH the beginning and the maintenance of the Cosmos. Hawking's mistake is no naive gaffe, but a fair representation of what most Christians actually believe about creation.

Furthermore, the Church HAS frequently reacted as though science and religion could not co-exist. Many now would like to claim there is no competition, but Christianity DID serve an etiological role for centuries that it is now forsaking. That many theologians (including me) would like to say that the etiological role of theology wasn't central and thus we can safely maintain faith while abandoning former understandings doesn't negate the fact that science has altered how we think.

I think the writer of this article does a disservice to Hawking and to creationists and the like by pretending there is no conflict. There is a conflict. It's important. Do I believe it can be resolved in a way which makes both science and theology richer? Yes, but that doesn't mean that the rub isn't real.

Steve Martin said...

Hi David,
Very interesting review. A key point is:
The suggestion that a physical theory ruling out a well-defined "beginning" to the universe removes God from creation is the sort of simplistic misunderstanding that might be tolerated in philosophy students' first term papers, but certainly not their second.
This is something that needs to be highlighted in the science/faith discussion - creation is not primarily about beginnings. Although I am impressed by the fine-tuning of the universe proposal (the strongest - maybe only strong - argument coming out of ID) and the correlation of “The Big Bang” of science with “creation ex nihilo”, I am not putting my “faith” in the Big Bang. If, as Polkinghorne states in “Science and Christian Belief”, we find out that “universes can be born out of a quantum vacuum” or that “we cannot determine a boundary of the beginning” (pages 73-75), this will not change our theology of creation, and nor should it shake our faith. It will be simply one more interesting intellectual challenge. I also believe the bible supports "creation ex nihilo" (a radical departure from Mesopotamian theology that I covered in my most recent post). However, I acknowledge that even this can be debated. If we want to highlight a historic beginning we should point to the resurrection, not the Big Bang - what a like to call "A much bigger Big Bang".

merlin wood said...

If T.S. Eliot was alive today I feal sure he would not support the intelligent design of Creationists.

So, for one thing, his poem The Four Quartets showed that he believed in rebirth rather than Heaven and Hell.

I've concluded from the available natural evidence that you can still belive in the Big Bang and conclude that a cause needs to act in addition to the forces that is god-like in some respects. Although this is not like the god in any religion.

Micah Tillman said...

I'd argue that most Christians have no idea what the difference between "deriving being from" and "being started by" is.

And I know of no such distinction in Scripture.

What, then, is the justification for saying that "God is the source of being, not the starter of the Universe" is the "Christian" doctrine of Creation?

It sounds good to me, I'd just like to know who gets to decide how we should apply the label "Christian" to a doctrine.

D.W. Congdon said...


You raise some interesting points. I'm not following your point about the "etiological role of theology." What are you referring to? Etiological in what way?

What exactly is the conflict? I think it's far too simplistic for you to say that "science" conflicts with Christian theology. What kind of science? Which scientific views? Is the Big Bang as problematic as string theory? Is Newtonian science as problematic as Einstein's theory of relativity? I think you need to explain your position quite a bit further, and more concretely.

D.W. Congdon said...


The basis for the distinction between God being the source or basis of creation's existence and God being the beginning of creation's existence is rooted in Christian tradition. Why not the latter? Quite simply, the doctrine of providence.

If God is simply the "beginning" of the cosmos, then God is not the one who guides, accompanies, and perfects creation. Such a God is more like a Deistic deity, distant from creation and without any relationship to the world. Christianity confesses that without God's providential guidance and care of the cosmos, we would all cease to exist. The world is wholly dependent upon God for its continued existence. This is a central tenet of any Christian doctrine of creation. One of many verses used to support this is Col. 1:17: "He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

Does this help? Basically, we have to remember that the doctrine of creation includes the doctrine of providence, and the two necessarily go together. We might also include a doctrine of the covenant, which demonstrates the intimate relation between God and humanity, in which God commits Godself to the world. This prevents any notion of God as somehow unrelated to the world.

The problem with almost any scientific view of God is that such a view tends to turn God into an abstract deity. Christian faith confesses a God who is concretely related to the cosmos. As Paul writes in Romans, "For from him and through him and to him are all things" (Rom. 11:36).

John Meunier said...

So is the distinction that Christian doctrine says God is both the starter and the continuing source?

Or is the idea of starter a problem because it suggests a division? The universe is this thing other than God that he wound up or assembled one day.

D.W. Congdon said...

Let's be clear: We have to affirm that God made the world out of nothing (ex nihilo), and thus that creation has its beginning in God. We also cannot affirm that the cosmos is "part" of God or "in" God. Pantheism and panentheism are not live options for us. But just because we affirm that God is the beginning of creation does not mean that creation is not wholly and utterly dependent upon God for its continued existence. That is, creation is never independent from God, even though there is a clear ontological divide between God and creation. So we have to have a division between Creator and creation on an ontological level but in a providential-covenantal level -- i.e., in terms of God's continuing gracious provision for the existence of the world.

Aric Clark said...


What I'm saying is that the Christianity HAS historically served the role that science has pretty much completely taken over now, which is providing the popular understanding for how the universe works and how things came to be. We now look to scientists to explain things like disease, the planets, even the beginning and end of the universe, whereas formerly those were things that people expected to get from the Church. For many many people in our world today they still exist somewhere in between the pre-modern and the modern worldview. They expect demons and sin to explain illnesses or strange behavior, but are also beginning to realize that medicine and psychology offer powerful alternative explanations.

My point is that the doctrine of creation as this reviewer presented it is a rather contemporary (post-Bultmann) demythologized version of the doctrine of creation. I agree with what he is saying, but I think he too glibly passes over the fact that a majority of Christians throughout history have actually believed in a concrete beginning of time happening exactly as described in Genesis 1, a real garden of eden and a literal Adam and Eve. It is thus not honest to say that science has not dramatically and irrevocably challenged and altered our theological conceptions of creation. Yes, the medieval scholars and patristics would also have asserted that Creation isn't a one-time even, but an ongoing maintenance by God of all that exists. Nevertheless the church has always given Galileo's and Copernicus' a hard time because there is a genuine threat there.

We are in the strange position today, that before the 19th century was never the case, that we can explain the existence of everything in a very satisfactory manner without recourse to God. Theology is completely unnecessary for "etiology" anymore - that is explaining why things are the way they are. But Theology was once the queen of the sciences - the primary way anyone attempted to explain anything! This is a big big change and it has to do with science posing a real and substantial challenge to the worldview of the church.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I wouldn't put Hawking and Dawkins in the same class. Hawking is an agnostic (and I think many of his doubts about God come from simplistic Christian descriptions of God's goodness and power contrasted with his own severe handicaps), but Dawkins is an angry atheist who believes that religion is an evil force in the world.

And D.W., although I, personally, affirm creatio ex nihilo (I think it is taught in Colossians and implied in the prologue to John's Gospel), many theologians do not. Genesis 1 and many other creation passages merely affirm creation out of chaos.