Big Bang or Big God

I’ve been reading about origins lately. I am not a scientist, but I’ve been reading and listening to scientists promote their favorite theories on how we all got here. This topic has attracted unscalable mountains of attention over the years from minds far sharper than mine, but I think there are one or two lines I’d like to add to the fray here. 

It occurs to me that this is one of a very few unique issues that generates livid debate because it intersects both faith and science. For the most part, religion and science get along very well. I don’t have to disbelieve in God to dissect a frog. Indeed, some of the greatest scientific minds, both in our day and those bygone, were theists: Newton, Kepler, Boyle, Einstein, Collins, McGrath. But theorizing about the beginning of the universe is not the same as dissecting frogs. Because it reaches beyond the observable, and because it posits theories about philosophical questions, origin science invites contradiction like no other strain of research. 

Scientific theories about the origin of all things must, by definition, reach beyond the observable — indeed, beyond science itself — to something outside our experience. The materialist would say that our origin is only beyond us because our progress hasn’t led us to the needed tools to discover it. The philosopher would say that origins lie outside our discovery precisely because they are origins. But it doesn’t matter who is right. The fact, quantifiable by the number zero, is that we know nothing about our origins. None of us were there. None of us know. All of us are guessing. Some of us use logic to guess. Some use faith. And some use scientific method. But none of these structures yields proof. Only guesses. And all of these guesses depend on the trustworthiness of the tool used to reach them, be it faith, philosophy, or scientific theory. 

My daughter is in fifth grade. Recently, she reported a conversation with one of her friends in which she was told, “I don’t believe that God made people. I believe in science.” Unfortunately, the false dichotomy of faith and science has trickled all the way down to our elementary students. The truth is, one can both believe in God and practice science. Tellingly, my daughter’s friend attached the word “believe” to her scientific thought, which is also a practice that has trickled down from adults. One can certainly believe in science, but to believe in science is to misuse it. The goal of science is not greater faith in itself. Faith in the unseen is faith, regardless of whether the unseen object of faith is a big bang or a big God. 

Einstein himself said, “You can speak of the ethical foundations of science, but you cannot speak of the scientific foundations of ethics.” To do so — to insist that science, which exists to inform the physical, also explains the spiritual — is infatuation. It’s like the fan who insists that his favorite baseball player must also be good at golf, or his favorite movie star must be a kind and generous person. 

In his new book Miracles, Eric Metaxas confronts the increasingly common assertion that faith is “antiscientific.” 

If someone says that it is “antiscience” to speculate as Antony Flew and John Lennox and more and more are doing, it is like a baker insisting that everything in the world outside his bakery is “antibaking.” He may feel that way, but it’s a bizarre claim … There are many important things beyond the scope of science. Asking why the universe exists or asking what is the meaning of life—or simply loving our children—are beyond that scope, but profoundly worthy activities nonetheless. When did scientists come to play the sour role of sneering at anything beyond the sphere of their chosen field?

Philosophers tell us that all religion, indeed all philosophy, seeks to answer three questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? And what happens next? Origins is one of the most important and vexing categories of thought that humankind has ever pondered. When scientific work extends to the realm of philosophy, its practitioners shouldn’t be surprised when the faithful want to weigh in. 

Personally, I’m not convinced in either a young earth or an old one. I’m willing to learn all I can from science and willing to trust in a God beyond science for those things I can’t know. At the crossroads of faith and science, I think we would all be well-served to extend the same courtesies.