“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Thus read the opening words of the Bible in Genesis 1.1. But Professor Stephen Hawking’s latest research has led him to the conclusion that ‘the universe can and will create itself from nothing’ by ‘spontaneous creation’, and thus there is no need to find a place for God in the creation of the universe.
Professor Hawking raises an important question. Is it essential to our faith to find a place for God in the physical creation of the universe? If our image of God is of a pre-existent being endowed with all the human qualities of thought and action writ supernaturally large, then inevitably God must have done something to kick it all off. And if scientists talk about the Big Bang or evolution, then obviously God must have set everything up for the Big Bang to take place.
Never have I heard a public debate between religion and science where the theologians have questioned the image of God as a pre-existent supernatural being. The image may be nuanced as intelligent design or in some other way, but always the assumption that “God” had a hand in the physical creation of the universe is the position to be defended. Always the religion vs science debate is predicated and critiqued on that premise. And always it goes nowhere.
Now I want you to notice that I am using two words very carefully. I am talking about the physical creation of the universe – the planets, earth, sea and sky and all the physical aspects of life around us. And I am talking about our images of God: no human image, words or pictures can ever capture the fullness of God’s mystery. The traditional image of God is long-established but is nonetheless an image of God, not the inexpressible reality. There are other equally worthy images that don’t land is into the ongoing debate with science which comes when we adhere literally to the traditional image.
In my view, questions to do with the origins and development of the material world, its, are essentially scientific ones. I’m interested in the Big Bang, in evolution and whatever else scientists may discover about the physical origins and evolution of Planet Earth.
But faith is about something else. Faith offers wisdom as to how we understand the world in which we live, our relationships with God, with each other and with the earth. To read the Genesis account of creation as science is a category mistake, and one which sets up an unnecessary conflict between religion and science.
And yet there is no shortage of defenders of the position that God had a hand in the physical creation of the universe. Today in some quarters there is a renewed emphasis on Genesis as providing a scientific and historical account of Creation. This leads in turn to the relentless attacks by Richard Dawkins on religion. Dawkins ignores contemporary theology, but nonetheless has a legitimate target in the promoters of creationism as a scientific theory.
We need to think of Genesis in a different way. The world in which the biblical writers lived was one where it was natural to think of a heavenly realm inhabited by gods, or God, who created and controlled the earth and all forms of life. God was conceived anthropomorphically so that all the attributes of human thinking and action were ascribed on a much larger scale to God.
But is this the only image for the 21st century? There are other concepts of God, equally biblical, such as God as love, or God as spirit, that remain at the heart of religion. My own faith and experience of God has these features:
· A sense of being part of something bigger than myself, an otherness that transcends human experience but yet holds all humanity and all creation in an inseparable unity. Here is mystery, something in the face of which we stand in awe, and an antidote to any tendency to self-centred arrogance. Psalm 8 captures it in the words ‘O Lord, our governor, how wonderful is your name in all the earth; … who are we that you are mindful of us?’ This is not humanism.
· A sense that life and creation is a gift, unmerited goodness and grace, and that all life is to be treasured and sustained.
· I experience the divine mystery as love, and we are called as disciples to express that love through acts of compassion, in reconciliation, in working for justice and peace, and in caring for all people and the earth itself.
· The nature of the mystery, which we name as God, is expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, whom we name Son of God insofar as God’s nature is seen perfectly in him.
· A sense of connectedness to God and all life so that even in the darkest of times we are never alone. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, and this sense sustains us in distress, and guides us in every choice we make.
Now you will notice that I continue to use the word “God” as though God is a person, and here there is a paradox for me. My experience of God through prayer and worship, in all the encounters of daily life and in my contemplation of creation, is intensely personal, and yet the image of God as a person is not one I find helpful. In prayer and worship I use personal language about God, because my experience of God is personal, intimate and warm. God is not some cold intellectual or philosophical concept. God is mystery, yet a warm and loving mystery which embraces each one of us.
I imagine many of us would experience God in the way I have outlined – a mystery of love expressed fully in the person of Jesus Christ. But our creeds, our liturgies, our images of God are all at best inadequate human attempts to express the mystery. They are pointers to God, like road signs pointing to a city, but they cannot capture the fullness of God, any more than a road sign can be confused with the city to which it points.
The image of God as pre-existent being is traditional and widespread. Yet there are other images, such as the Celtic images of God as spirit, as love, as life, flowing through all life and creation, which do not require a place for God in the physical creation of the universe. One treads carefully where images of God are concerned. No image can be right or wrong. We must each find an image of God that works for us and best expresses our experience of God.
All civilizations have their stories of origin. Maori have the story of Rangi and Papa. We have the Genesis story. Neither should be seen as scientific accounts of how the world was made. But each story is rich in meaning as to the spiritual dimensions of life, and to how people relate to God, to each other and to the earth.
For myself I am happy to leave it to the scientists to explore how the universe began. Religion has a different task, and that is to help us experience the divine mystery that lies at the heart of life, and to experience and pass on the love of God which was seen so completely in the life, death and rising again of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a complementary task to that of science. We should never allow science and religion to be at loggerheads. Our faith points us to a God whose life-giving spirit flows through all life, including science.