False Trust

The spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God begins this way: “The first time I saw Brother Lawrence he told me...[that] one winter day he noticed a tree stripped of its leaves and reflected that before long leaves would appear anew, then flowers, and then the fruit, and that this consideration gave him so striking an idea of the providence and might of God that it had never since been effaced from his soul; that this idea had abstracted him altogether from the world and kindled in him so great a love for God that he was not able to say if it had increased during the forty-odd years which had since passed.”

I think this image of a providential God is what some supporters of intelligent design (ID) believe is being taken from them by proponents of the theory of evolution. And in fact there are some Darwinists who do believe that what appears, to believers, to be beautiful and charged with God’s glory is in fact meaningless, has no purpose, and reflects nothing but an indifferent universe. The fact that all proponents of evolution-including believers-point to the central role of chance and randomness in the process of natural selection has led some, including Pope Benedict, to deny that the universe is the product of “unguided” chance or randomness.

There is a kind of culture war behind much of this discussion, and some of those on both sides are less rigorous and less consistent than they believe they are. Take, for example, those people whose defense of evolution insists that the major defect of ID is that it cannot be falsified, a hallmark of science. That is to say, it makes an appeal that puts it beyond the possibility of either proof or disproof.

This is indeed true of ID; it is also true of string theory, a cluster of proposals made by some physicists to explain anomalies and questions that hang over the current attempts to explain how our universe came to be what it is. (It is true that string theory would be falsifiable if we had the equipment to do it; so it is theoretically if not practically falsifiable, and this is not true of ID.) Falsifiability also does not apply to singularities, those things that happen only once-the Big Bang, for example. It can’t be duplicated in a lab, but a preponderance of evidence points to the probability of its truth; and the idea was at first resisted by some scientists, notably the mathematician and astronomer Fred Hoyle, who coined the term “big bang” as a mockery of an explanation that seemed too biblical to be true.

Proponents of ID may be inclined to view what seem to be inconsistencies here as encouraging signs. Mocked now, they may yet triumph. I am sure that they are wrong about this. The problem with ID is not that its proponents believe that God created the universe-I believe that too. The problem (apart from the intellectually decent objection about falsifiability) is that there is an idea of God enshrined in ID, one that can be shown to be silly, if not false.

Let’s stop there. Any idea of God-as designer, clever engineer, master playwright-is idolatrous. God’s unknowability and unattainability are essential to our relationship to God, and to any understanding of that relationship-which should never be mistaken for an understanding of God. We assume too much in believing that the order we encounter (above the subatomic level, anyway) is a sign of God’s clever planning. The God Who Is can be found in the orderly details, and in randomness, if God really exists. And if God does not exist, he cannot be found in the details, or in randomness.

Chance and randomness have been equated with meaninglessness and purposelessness. But in a universe created by God, chance and randomness have meaning, simply because they are; in a universe without God, they would have none, and any apparent order in such a universe would also be without meaning. One of the contributions of modern aesthetics, with its appreciation of randomness (in the music of John Cage and the painting of Jackson Pollock, among many examples), is to see that randomness can be beautiful and fruitful. This modern aesthetic, like so many past historic settings-for example the baroque period, in which there was a baroque mathematics as well as baroque music-may be something theology really needs to regard seriously. It is the duty of a traditional religion to cherish its past understandings as it moves into new ones; so it is understandable and right for Christians to appreciate the elements of Neo-Platonism and Stoicism in the fathers of the church, the scholastic thought of the late Middle Ages, and the wrestling with rationalism that has taken us through the Enlightenment to the present. But it is our responsibility now to do more than cling. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”

Science cannot touch that thatness; and it isn’t a failing of science, because that is not what science is about. This is a perception one either has or does not have. I have never seen anyone argued toward it or away from it very successfully, but that it can be encountered, even very directly, is undeniable. The nonbeliever will argue that this is a trick of the mind, a fantasy, an encounter with illusion. And perhaps, on the side of those who still look for proofs of the existence of God, there are some attempts to speak of God’s being that can show at least that it is not unreasonable to think that God may be real. But that is about as far as such arguments can go. It is more likely that one is a believer, or is not, because belief squares with one’s experience, and this can at some moments be incandescent and wonderful. I offer two such insights, one from the fifteenth century. Julian of Norwich places her vision of the whole of creation, vulnerable and completely contingent, within the context of Christ’s suffering:

At the same time as I saw this sight of the head bleeding, our good Lord showed us a spiritual sight of his familiar love....And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.

And this, from Robert Fitzgerald (The Third Kind of Knowledge, 1993):

Beginning in boyhood, on a Sunday walk in winter, I had had to distinguish between ordinary experience, including that of the senses, mind, and imagination-almost all, in short-and extraordinary experience, a kind that was rare, unwilled, sui generis, and superior. It came without any particular warning or preparation. It was as though everything waked up, as though everything drugged into somnolence by its own memory of being itself suddenly lost that memory and merely incredibly existed.

Wittgenstein would understand. So would John of the Cross.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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