Monday, November 2, 2015

God of the Gaps

When I look at history, I notice that religious people go through waves of polarization with culture. Now, I do not necessarily have a problem with Christian culture going against the grain. After all, we do live in an upside down kingdom and the ways that the world devalues and destroys should indeed be contrasted by how the church values and builds up. However, I see this polarization happening in a different way, and it is far less appealing. In fact, it is troublesome. 

The church has trended towards two things. At times, we have denied scientific and social advancement because it does not appear to line up with Scripture. There are even those that tend to hijack poor science and loose history to try and validate Scripture in some form of weak apologetics. Others have appealed to what men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Bube, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Coulson, and Henry Drummond call the "God of the Gaps" - which can be defined as primarily invoking God in the mysteries of the universe. Isaac Newton helped explain many things about how the world operates, but when he was at the edges of where his equations could go, he said that perhaps it is there that God steps in. We do this a lot, as we come across something that is hard to explain and say - "That's got to be God." In days past, we accredited everything good and bad to God in one way or another. Ancient societies have had numerous ideas about how gods were involved in the world (to the point of natural occurrences being considered the direct result of gods and their shenanigans). Even Jesus runs into this when he is asked whether it was the parents or the man who sinned so that the man was born blind (John 9:2). However, now we can explain weather anomalies and blindness, so our language has changed and we have moved away from using language about God. 

Now, there are a great number of mysteries in the world and I by no means want to take away the awe that is due them as it concerns God. However, one thing I know is that if we try to put God in the gaps of our understanding, we will be sorely disappointed. As humankind progresses and our knowledge of the world increases, those gaps will become smaller and the mysteries will shrink. Such will happen to your idea of God if that's where you put him. After that, you might even be forced to deny what the scholastics of this world discover. Granted, a healthy skepticism is not a bad thing, since surely we are finite beings with a limited understanding.  

I do not think that either of these things are the way we should look at the world. Something we must understand about the world is that we make sense of it and create meaning through language. We discussed this above. Whenever something happens in the world, we try to make sense of it and give it meaning through our language - for better or for worse. We make meaning out of death with our language we give either in affirmation or denial of afterlife. We give people that we may never have met before special significance and meaning by applying the term "family" to them. Words like friend and loved one give significance to our relationship with certain people. All meaning is done in language. 

For this reason, we sometimes are not able to judge the work of the people who have been considered world-shakers until after their death, whether in theology, philosophy, or any other thing. These people would use language or another communicative medium like art to communicate a rather novel idea. Only after our society has advanced and we have used language to create more meaning does their work begin to be utilizable for us, and we realize that they were geniuses.     

This is where things get tricky - what can we say about God and it be accurate? We use the term "he" to refer to God for the most part in Judeo-Christian realms (at least for the sake of simplicity), but does God have gender? "He" carries a good deal of meaning in our culture, meaning that doesn't even span the entire region. What it means to be "he" is likely very different in Oklahoma than in Oregon. Even asking if God has gender is to put this omnipresent being in a very earthly box. Theology (God Talk) is always a step behind, simply because we are trying to use finite, human language to describe a very infinite, non-human God. 

Jesus illustrates this struggle because one of his favorite phrases is - "The kingdom of heaven is like..." and then proceeds to use parable and metaphor to speak to truths about God. We know that we aren't supposed to take those stories as absolutely literal, but rather they teach us truths about other things. John gets super crazy in the language he uses to describe his visions because how on earth are you supposed to put such grand visions of God into earthly words? We know that much of Revelation is not to be taken literally, but rather it is written to speak truth about God and how he ultimately wins. 

We run into this kind of problem when we read Genesis. When the book was written, humans simply did not have the language to describe the scientific processes behind the beginning of the world. In fact, the language is that of narrative rather than description. It tells a truth about God and his creation, but that does not mean that every detail of the story is true in and of itself. The point of Genesis is not to teach you what scientific processes the world was made through, but rather that God created, and considered it good. 

We run into this problem later when we are trying to translate scripture from an ancient language to our own. Ask someone who speaks another language and has immersed themselves in that culture and they will tell you that translating a concept or idea that they have made meaning of through a word in their language might not easily translate to our own language. They literally created meaning in their own language that might not exist in our language. Example. We translate the word φίλος (philos) as "friend" in James 2:23, but the ancient idea behind that concept is rooted deep in their social context of patronage. It denotes a business-type relationship where one party takes care of the other party's needs completely in exchange for dedication of some sort. That's not really the meaning that our word "friend" carries. It gets even trickier though, because just because a word might mean one thing in one place of scripture, that does not mean that it means the exact same thing in another place in scripture. Each book, each author, and really every different story carries its own context and give meaning to the words there. 

So what kind of take-away do we have from this? Well, firstly, it is important for us to realize that due diligence is necessary in our study of Scripture if we wish to apply it well. The phrase "well, what that means to me..." should slowly be replaced with the process of truly trying to understand what things meant to their original audience and then seeing how that might then be applied to us in our own context. Whenever you pull a classic "what does everyone's version say" with a particular passage, take note of the differences and realize that it's not all about synonym usage. Take this seriously. When something doesn't make sense, dig deep! When you've just assumed something makes sense or that you understood it, however, this thing is being questioned by society or the church, dig deep! Truly, there are parts of Scripture that simply won't carry the exact same meaning to us as it did to the audience it was written to. That doesn't mean it's not beneficial to us in one way or another, but reading material written to Israelites in exile simply won't mean the same thing to us today. We will indeed create some of our own meaning, and such is a very tricky process that should involve diligent study and faithful community.

Secondly though, I hope we can all move away from the polarizing effects of either an "anti-science" or a "God of the Gaps" stance. And here is how I think we can do that.

Perhaps we can start to view God as the God of everything. Not simply the unexplained phenomena in this world, but rather every single thing. When we ask if this is a physical, worldly process or a spiritual, Godly process - our answer can be yes. It's both. Rain isn't God crying and sneezes aren't demons trying to be released (yes, that was an actual thought), but they are both God. Let me illustrate. Throughout the OT and NT, God is shown as speaking to people through dreams and visions. This was one way that he condescended himself to humans. The fact that God was willing to lower himself to use human language is incredible, even if that language can never truly capture who God is. In our modern understanding of neurobiology, we have discovered that we owe our dreams at least in some capacity to N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (N,N-DMT) that is released from the pituitary gland (as far as my study has shown). It's a hallucinogenic drug that causes us to not really be able to distinguish reality from fantasy, even if our dreams are sometimes incredibly odd and illogical. What's fascinating though is that this chemical gives us potential for incredible creativity, connectedness, and spiritual experience. Now, I could spend a good long while talking about this (ask me about it sometime), but for now, simply understand that we have possibly quantified what is going on when authors experienced these dreams and visions. However,
 many friends and mentors of mine have privileged me with testimony of absolutely phenomenal consequences of their dreams. This shouldn't sound too crazy. We get a thought or a feeling that ends up having life altering consequences for either ourselves or others, and those of us who are people of faith know that it was something spiritual. We can maybe begin to explain what is going on with them, but we cannot quantify why that something happens. Essentially, the gaps of our understanding have been closed to a point and we can explain the "what" of spiritual experiences with help from neuroscience, but that doesn't mean that there is not a "why" as well. Science answers how and what, but faith begins to try and answer who and why. I personally have found great spiritual gain in engaging in things like meditation, as it allows me to physiologically fuel my God-given creativity.

Can everything in this world likely be explained at least in some capacity by scientific explanation? Probably. That doesn't mean that we will, because we are finite, but they probably indeed can. Does that mean that God is not involved? Absolutely not. When Jesus healed the sick, we could probably look at any one of those people and explain what healing processes took place. However, that doesn't explain why. Jesus being the Son of God explains that. 

When sickness happens to people and natural disasters occur, did someone sin or was that a natural and scientific process? Yes. Sin happened a long time ago and ever since, we've been living in a fallen world where bad things happen. It is at once completely physical, explainable, and unbiased as to who it affects while still being completely spiritual and ultimately redeemable. 

Perhaps the way to view the world is not by choosing a number on a scale of 1-10 that ranges from "completely physical to completely spiritual" but rather saying that all things are explained by both 1 and 10. This puts God not in the gaps, but rather over all.

Let us not polarize ourselves from the world, but let us engage it in meaningful ways. We may not be "of the world," but we should not become some sort of evangelical ghetto because of that. We are "in the world" and figuring out how to make that work can help us make the most impact we can. 

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