by Brian Knowles
ast night my wife and I watched a charming little movie called “Wide Awake.” It was about a ten-year old Catholic boy who was on a mission to find, and talk to, God. He was very concerned about the state of his beloved grandfather who had recently passed away. He just wanted to talk to God about him and get some reassurance.
Being a logical-minded little boy, he thought about who would most likely be in contact with God. To his way of thinking, the more religious someone appeared to be, the more likely they were to be in touch with the Deity. He tried the school nuns, a visiting cardinal, and even the pope himself. No satisfaction.
He tried other religions too. Nothing seemed to work. He kept looking for some sign that God was responding to him. Despite his best efforts, he detected no divine feedback. He was on the brink of giving up on God and becoming an atheist like his best friend, when that friend, home alone, had an epileptic attack. Our seeker, being driven home by his mother, who was a nurse, felt led to stop by his friend’s house. He asked his mother to stop and she complied. The boy entered the house and found his friend lying in epileptic shock on the floor. He ran out and called in his mother who ran in and helped the downed friend. The friend, a self-professed atheist, came to believe that it must’ve been God who had sent his best friend to rescue him just in the nick of time. The idea that God might be around after all began to assert itself in both boys.
Then one day something happened that changed everything. A small blond boy who seemed not to be part of the student body, but who was dressed in the school uniform, walked up to our boy-on-a-mission and said, “Your grandfather is alright” or words to that effect. It was exactly what our hero wanted to hear. When he turned around, the boy who had brought him this good news had disappeared. The implication was: the boy was an angel sent to reassure our seeker.
What’s the point of this beautiful little story? For me, it is that we are more likely to find God in our experience than in religion.
The Christian Agnostic
Back in the 70’s I read what at the time turned out to be a disturbing book: The Christian Agnostic by Leslie D. Weatherhead, a British church pastor. It was disturbing then, comforting today. The reason it was disturbing when I first read it is because it shook the foundations of my belief system. It was one of those frighteningly honest books that stirs one to think twice about things normally taken for granted. After reading that book, I became convinced that I couldn’t prove the existence of God to anyone, including myself. It’s simply not do-able. I can reason about the existence of God in the most compelling possible ways, but I can’t produce God through reason. I can’t capture him in a lab and study him. God is simply beyond the grasp of science or reason. More disturbingly, He’s also often beyond the reach of religion.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that there is far more evidence that God exists than that he doesn’t. I also believe that in our time God is revealing more of himself as our knowledge of His Creation expands. We are seeing, for the first time, just how intelligent God must be; how vast is His power; and how wonderful it is to live on this tiny blue incubator planet tucked away on the edges of the Milky Way.
Convinced by Specious Arguments
I realize that my personal belief system in the 70’s was embarrassingly simplistic and founded more upon the authority of a domineering church leader than on what I actually knew, and could prove, to be true. I had been convinced by a set of specious arguments that God must exist, that the Bible must be His Word, and that there were no errors whatsoever in its original texts. I also believed that I knew the essential truth about doctrine, and that what I knew distinguished the true Church from the myriad counterfeits that were “out there.” I felt secure hunkered down in the midst of the tightly circled wagons of dogmatism.
Weatherhead’s writings, along with those of others, blew much of that certainty out of the water. I began to see that many of my beliefs were hanging by skyhooks. I realized that I was standing on shifting epistemological sand. Like the little boy in the movie, I didn’t want arguments about God, I wanted God himself – and I couldn’t find him in the hierarchy of the Church of which I was then a minister. I couldn’t find him in the buildings, in the church college campus, in the church’s literature or in its meager liturgy. I didn’t find him in the feasts (Leviticus 23) my family and I attended for so many years.
Instead, I found religion – a poor substitute for God. I found words -- torrents, avalanches, and tsunamis of words. The words were often shouted with great thunderous authority. But when the noise was over, they fell lifelessly to the ground. People went to their cars and drove home, often feeling worse than when they’d arrived at services. It isn’t mere words that we need. It isn’t religious authoritarianism that we need. Nor is it mindless rote liturgy. All the driving to and from services, the standing up, sitting down, singing, and canned public prayers often yield precious little spiritual substance. Like the boy in the movie, what we really want and need is God Himself. Ultimately, the questing boy found God in his, and his friend’s, experiences.
Three Ways of Knowing
Leslie Weatherhead, in his book, cited an observation by the 12th century English philosopher, Roger Bacon: “Of the three ways of acquiring knowledge – authority, reasoning and experience, only the last is effective” (ibid. p. 79).
Authority can tell us what is true in its estimation. It can even insist that we accept and believe it. It can seek to coerce us into doing so; but if that “truth” is not verified in our experience, it will soon dissipate.
We can reason about God until we get a mental hernia, and all reasoning eventually rings hollow if we cannot take the leap into an experience of faith. Writes Weatherhead: “He [the reader] must pursue the way of argument as far as it can take him, and then make a leap of faith in the direction of the trend of the evidence, acting as though it were sound. Reason will take us so far on firm ground. But then there must be a leap in the same direction…Faith is not a leap in the dark, or, as the schoolboy said, ‘believing what you know to be untrue,’ or treading a road that is contrary to reason and superstitiously running in another direction. It is taking the road of evidence as far as it will go and then, with the energy provided by meditating on the character of God as Christ revealed him, making a leap of faith, only to land in a conviction as strong as proof can supply” (The Christian Agnostic, p. 79, author’s emphasis).
When I first read those words, they were disturbing. Today they are comforting in their honesty. They ring true in my experience. For many years, I have been feeding on a thought originally offered by Stephen J. Gould: “Science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature” (Scientific American, July, 1992). Gould was right. Science cannot put us in touch with God, but I believe it points the way to him (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). For me, the more I know about the universe and my immediate reality, the more I know about God. I’m convinced that God is giving us a broader and deeper revelation of himself through the discoveries of science. The challenge is to reconcile that revelation with the written one upon which we have so long exclusively relied.
Automobiles and the Universe
While thinking about this article the other day, it occurred to me that an automobile could be analogous to the universe. Years ago, when I was a small boy, my father bought his first car, a 1947 Austin. Dad was an engineer with an insatiable curiosity about how things worked. He laid out a large tarp in the driveway, and proceeded to take his new car completely apart and lay out all of its parts on the tarp. He checked everything out and put it all back together again. He now knew exactly how his new auto worked, where all of its parts belonged, and what they did. By such close scrutiny, my father came to understand that his vehicle was a manufactured product, designed to work a certain way. Yet, in examining this product, he did not find its maker. Its maker was outside the product – off in England somewhere. It was evident from a close view of the product itself that it was a designed, manufactured automobile. It could not have designed or assembled itself. It worked because it was designed to work.
Leslie Weatherhead says in his book: “For myself, the old argument which seeks to prove God’s existence from design, if differently stated, is still convincing…it demands more of credulity to imagine that the universe was all a huge accident than to believe in the operation of a mind” (ibid. p. 79). My sentiments exactly; when I examine the universe – especially these days – I find it ever easier to take that leap of faith to the idea that it’s all a masterpiece of intelligence and creation. My father could not imagine his Austin just happening into existence in his driveway. He knew who had designed and manufactured it, and how it worked. If something went wrong, he knew how to fix it.
My leap of faith is not random, haphazard or arbitrary – I believe it is a leap in the direction of the evidence. The things that we are learning about this vast and ancient Creation continue to convince me that it is not just something that happened on its own, but that it was deliberately brought into being and configured in an engineered way.
The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, once said, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe – the starry heavens about me and the moral law within me.”
The Science of God
In his book The Science of God, physicist Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jew, writes: “If the energy of the big bang were different by one part out of
there would be no life anywhere in our universe. The universe is tuned for life from its inception. Genesis agrees: when life first appears on the third day, the word creation does not appear. We are merely told ‘The earth brought forth’ life. Earth had within it the necessary properties for life to flourish (p. 5).”
If I counted accurately, there should be 120 zeroes following the number 10 above. That’s 10 to the 120th power. Schroeder then quotes Michael Turner, an astrophysicist from the University of Chicago who says: “the precision is as if one could throw a dart across the entire universe and hit a bullseye one millimeter in diameter on the other side.”
I am no longer capable of examining what we have been learning about cosmology, and about the human entity, and not taking the leap of faith to the idea of God. For me, God must exist. That is the direction in which all of the evidence overwhelmingly points. As the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the works of his hands (Psalm 19:1).”
Gerald Schroeder also cites the conclusions of Roger Penrose, a professor of mathematics at Oxford: “Penrose finds the laws of nature tuned for life. This balance of nature’s laws is so perfect and so unlikely to have occurred by chance that he avers an intelligent ‘Creator’ must have chosen them” (Schroeder, p. 21).
Schroeder then quotes a physicist: “It is as if we were written into the equations of the universe at its inception or in the words of physicist Paul Davies, ‘built into the scheme of things in a very basic way’” (ibid. p. 21).
I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a theologian or a scholar; just a Christian trying to find the reality of God in a universe of calculated wonder. I haven’t found much of God in my explorations of religion. Like the little boy in the movie, I attended Catholic boy’s schools for two years and I didn’t find him there. In fact, if you look at the world of organized religion today, you may run into all kinds of things that are contrary to God: party spirit; ruthless politics; hatred; pedophilia; torture; murder; greed; moral compromise; competition, religious empire-building and a myriad of abuses of money, power and authority. The world seems to be influencing the Church far more than the Church is influencing the world these days. Instead of being a moral force, much of it is a moral farce. Apart from perhaps a brief period during the original apostolic era, when it has it ever been any other way? Even then, there was conflict and controversy.
It seems to me that a lot of basic assumptions about Christianity need rethinking in our time. What does it really mean to be a Christian in the modern world? Is the Church morally and intellectually bankrupt? Does it have anything to say to modern man? Has it lost its Gospel? Has the Church devolved into a mere collection of politicized organizations that view their own numerical and financial growth as the criterion for spiritual success?
More importantly, where is the connection between the Church and God? Where are the people who talk to God and who hear from him? Where in the Body is Christ giving specific and concrete direction? Like the little boy in the movie, are we looking for God in all the wrong places? Have we failed to hear and heed the still small voice in our own experience?
Was the apostle Paul not right when he said of God to the Athenian philosophers: “…he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
If God is that close, why are we shouting into the universe, “Where are you God?” Why do we look into the stars for their creator when he lives within us? “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (I John 4:13).
Jesus said, “Seek and you shall find.” As the little boy in the movie found out, it’s a matter of knowing where to look.