God is not some old man in the sky with a long white beard

Sometimes people are saying that God is out there. I was looking around attentively all day but I didn’t find anybody there. I saw neither angels nor God. — Gherman Titov (1935-2000), astronaut

As promised, here is another post wherein I illustrate some of the ways my scientific training influences my faith and interpretation of the bible. In the previous post, I discussed space-time and what I think are the implications for freewill. Today, I would like to talk about how science impacts my (necessarily limited) understanding of who God is and the concept of heaven.

Before delving into it, I have a brief note on my choice of title: I do not know a single Christian who believes God is some old man with a long white beard or that he should be found somewhere floating in space as the above quote suggests… As far as I can tell, this is a straw man (also see my previous post on other related logical fallacies) used mainly by non-believers. Maybe it has to do with famous artwork such as the one in the featured image (this painting is the “Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel)?

Ok, let’s get started. If God created the universe (space, time and matter) from nothing as the bible suggests (see my previous post), then He is not “of” the universe. That is, God is not made of the stuff of the universe: atoms, normal matter (baryons), or even dark matter or dark energy.

The image of God

A sceptic once asked me what God “looks” like to me. I was puzzled, was he referring to Michelangelo’s painting or was I meant to provide some profound explanation? This question is much more complicated than it sounds. I do sometimes wonder what Jesus meant by: “you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (John 14:8-10) or about what it means for humans to be made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27)?

There is much mind-blowing science, from physics to biology, involved in our ability to see. We see objects because they reflect light in our direction. Light is both particle and wave (notice the word “and” rather than “or”, light is really both). For this argument, light is most helpfully understood as made-up of tiny particles, we call those photons. When photons hit objects, some of them bounce off. The photons that bounce off objects can reach our eyes. Our brain interprets the frequency of those photons as colours and, for each eye, seamlessly computes where they came from to translate this information into a three-dimensional picture. All these processes involve matter, stuff, the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, etc… however as we said before, if God created these and established the laws of nature, and if He is not made of stuff, how can we be made in His image?

I am no theologian, but when saying humans are made in God’s image, I do not think Genesis is talking about an image in the scientific sense, i.e. involving photons as above, or our good looks. Rather, I think this passage points to a deeper truth: an image that isn’t seen by our eyes. The concept of the “soul” comes to mind. In other words, the image of God in which we are made must transcend this universe. I think here His image is the bit of the divine in each of us.

Mind the gap

Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it.Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Since God is not part of the universe, He is not some yet-to-be-understood scientific process, physical force or theory such as dark matter or dark energy. Thus, God cannot really be god of the gaps (in its simplest form): only allowed in science’s yet-to-be-explained bag of oddities. A creator God would not be threatened by scientific inquiry and our attempts to figure out how the universe works. In fact, the God of the bible delights in human inquiry.

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. — Proverbs 4:7

A bit on heaven

And what of heaven? Is it a “real” place in this universe? Well, I don’t know, but consider this. The tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) tells a story of a time when all humans spoke one language. Wanting to be like God, people began to build a tall tower to reach to heaven. They wanted to look down on everyone else and be like God. The story says that God was angry at their attempt and to stop their progress, He confused their languages. This made cooperation impossible and stalled the project.

After reading the story of the tower of Babel, my 5-year old asked me “where is heaven?” Great question… I replied with a question of my own: “do you think people in the story could have built a tower tall enough to reach heaven? Is heaven in the sky?” She joyfully laughed at the idea. It was obvious to her that “no! Space is in the sky”!

While the story of the tower of Babel may not be historical or scientific fact, I do think it is useful for teaching basic Christian principles. While being made in the image of God confers all humans a degree of divinity/worth, the story of the tower of Babel also highlights that nobody is “better” than everyone else in the eyes of the Creator. It also emphasises that we are not to think of ourselves as gods.

He/she/they?

When referring to God, I (like most) typically use the pronoun “He”, although I do not think God is actually a gendered being. Both men and women were created in God’s image: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Gender is something biologically useful to humans (and other life-forms) for our survival as a species. I don’t personally see how/why God needs to be gendered… I do not think this is a crucial aspect of faith.

My point is…

My point is not that God is not a man, or that he isn’t to be found somewhere up in the sky, though those are true

My point for the last 2 posts is that everyone has a worldview, a lens through which they see the world. Science and faith both form part of my worldview. It is inevitable that my scientific training will influence my faith. I recognise that it is also inevitable that my faith will influence my perspective as a scientist.

Consider the following unfortunately worded and contradictory positions:

Finally, from what we now know about the cosmos, to think that all this was created for just one species among the tens of millions of species who live on one planet circling one of a couple of hundred billion stars that are located in one galaxy among hundreds of billions of galaxies, all of which are in one universe among perhaps an infinite number of universes all nestled within a grand cosmic multiverse, is provincially insular and anthropocentrically blinkered. Which is more likely? That the universe was designed just for us, or that we see the universe as having been designed just for us? ― Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design

It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job. —
Richard Swinburne, philosopher, Oxford University

As a theist, I am quite agnostic to the proposition of a multiverse and indeed open to the idea, which is currently untestable. What I observe is that people’s diverging positions about theism do not amount to their intelligence, education or their understanding of science, but to their worldview. I would argue that it is beneficial to science as a whole when people from differing backgrounds/worldviews come together to tackle scientific questions because they see the problem through a wider range of angles. To maximise the benefits of diversity, we must learn to value other perspectives instead of demonising or diminishing those who think differently.

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www.carofoster.com

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