The discovery of gravitational waves last week has been hailed as the beginning of a new era in astrophysics. These vibrations in space-time, which vindicate Einstein’s theory of gravity one hundred years after he first proposed it, allow us to “hear” the cosmos as well as see it. (Want to know more? Here’s a great introduction.)
Scientifically speaking, gravitational waves are a whole new way of experiencing our universe — who knows what we’ll discover now that we can listen AND see? And I’m a Christian as well as an astronomer, so I can’t help but consider what it means for my faith when the frontiers of science are advanced in such a fundamental way.
Many Christians find this advance threatening. They reason as follows: If science is explaining more and more of the world, then there is less and less room in the picture for God. Creationism is the most well-known example of this logic. A creationist finds the theory of evolution insidious because, to their way of thinking, if we accept the idea that life emerged from the primordial soup and evolved into humans, how can we claim to be created by a divine Maker?
This type of reasoning crops up so often that we’ve given it a nickname — the “God of the gaps.” For Christians, the problem with “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning is that it pits science and faith against one another. If we accept the premise that the Bible’s claims ought to be weighed against scientific theories, then we inevitably have to choose one and discard the other. As scientific discoveries occur and “gaps” in our scientific knowledge shrink, we need less and less the idea of God to explain the physical world. In a faith-against-science battle, faith is at a disadvantage — for the simple reason that science is very good at explaining things we see around us.
It’s no surprise, then, that pointing to “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning is a favorite tactic for Richard Dawkins and others critics of Christianity. Conversely, Christian scholars recognize that a picture like the one I’ve just described is not a very robust theology.
Both camps seem to consider untenable any philosophy that relies on our lack of knowledge to make space for God.
But I think the God of the gaps is getting a bad rap.
Don’t get me wrong: God is never useful as scientific theory. But that’s OK, because thinking of God this way misses the point. The whole notion of a God of the gaps hinges on a philosophical picture in which science has an end point; so, when we discover gravitational waves, or find a new prime number, or make strides toward curing chronic disease, we get closer to the “end” of science.
This is a pretty impoverished notion of what science is, and I have yet to meet a scientist who thinks this way. Science is about the process of asking questions. The attempt to answer our questions about how things work leads to a deeper understanding of the world around us, but it always raises more questions. Science is a human response to the unknown — so as long as there are humans to ask questions, there will never be an end to science.
By the same token, we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the unknown — the gaps in our knowledge of the divine — as a way toward understanding God. In faith as well as in science, asking questions when faced with mystery is human nature. It’s naive to think that we have the capacity to diminish God’s power, love, or scope of action simply by asking questions. In fact, I submit that a questioning spirit ought to play an important role in the faith life of a Christian. Far from discouraging inquiry, the Bible urges it: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt. 7:7-8]
Our questions take different forms. We may use our faculty of reasoning to probe the physical universe God has created; we may challenge God for answers in times of pain and grief; we may read Scripture and ask what it means for our lives. Of course, nowhere are we guaranteed concrete answers. There is an Orthodox Christian saying (whose origin I’ve not been able to track down) that says, “God is unknowable, but you have to know him to know that.” More often than not, God does not give complete answers, but instead responds with more questions.
The Book of Job is a deep exploration of this questioning dynamic. When Job challenges God, demanding an explanation for his afflictions, his friends each offer different reasoning. When God replies, he sweeps aside their answers as simplistic, and responds instead by interrogating Job, “I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” [Job 38:3-4].
The creation narrative that follows, in the form of questions directed to Job, is one of the most breathtaking passages in Scripture. When God has concluded, Job doesn’t really have an answer to the original question — Why am I afflicted? — but he has a new and deeper understanding of God.
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” [Job 42:5]
We had seen the universe with the seeing of the eye, but now our ears hear it. Gravitational waves raise more questions than they answer, but their discovery gives us a profound way of understanding the cosmos that we didn’t have before. If we fear the gaps in our knowledge, we hold back from asking the questions that lead to discoveries like this, and we miss out on the opportunity to know God a little better through creation.