Mind the gaps

Illumination from the Codex Aemilianensis, 992. In the tenth century we had no reason to suspect Adam and Eve had not been actual people. Now we do. Image source: University of Florida

God lives in the gaps. And the gaps must be getting downright cozy for God.

The God of the gaps fallacy runs deep. It really does. The idea goes like this: If something can be explained naturally by science, then God is unnecessary, at least in that particular corner of the universe. So the further and deeper science reaches, the smaller and less relevant God becomes.

Put another way: There is a single explanatory space, and that space is entirely filled with the natural and the supernatural. These two do not overlap; where there is a natural explanation there is no supernatural one. Where there is a supernatural explanation there is no natural one.

[Here’s a related question for further amusement: Is God best understood as an explanatory principle? No more than air is best understood as an explanatory principle, we say.]

This basic fallacy animates New Atheism; it animates young-Earth creationism; it animates old-Earth creationism; it animates intelligent design; and it animates virtually all discussion about science and religion I come across in the popular press. I think it’s safe to say that some version of this fallacy exists in the minds of virtually all Americans. Can’t say much for our neighbors north and south and across the big ponds.

I have just read the cover story of June’s Christianity Today. The front of the magazine reads: “The Search for the Historical Adam: The State of the Debate.” I must be living under a rock, because I didn’t know there was a debate. Then again, I don’t read CT very often.

The gist of the article is that, now that the data from the Human Genome Project are available for crunching, the historical Adam is in big trouble. The wiggle room for a factual First Couple is pretty much gone. Drawing on Francis Collins‘s and Karl Giberson‘s recent book, The Language of Science and Faith, the piece states that the authors

reported that… anatomically modern humans emerged from primate ancestors perhaps 100,000 years ago — long before the apparent Genesis time frame — and originated with a population that numbered something like 10,000, not two individuals. Instead of the traditional belief in the specially created man and woman of Eden who were biologically different from all other creatures, Collins mused, might Genesis be presenting “a poetic and powerful allegory” about God endowing humanity with a spiritual and moral nature? “Both options are intellectually tenable,” he concluded.

What is interesting about this is that “the center of the evolution debate has shifted from asking whether we came from earlier animals to whether we could have come from one man and one woman.” The gap, it does shrink, and its God shrinks right along with it: Okay, so maybe Adam and Eve were not hand-made directly by God out of clay, but maybe the human race descended from two particularly “advanced” (for lack of a better term) primates. So there was an Adam and Eve, and they looked and smelled a lot like their cousins, but they were somehow less ape-y and more human-y. Just enough so that they knew to stay well away from the other, lesser, creatures, and inbreed.

Is this how the article goes, or am I misreading it?

It hardly matters. The point is clear: As science progresses, we shift our religious stories just enough so they remain consistent with science while retaining some trace of literalness. The assumption is clear: Science, with its emphasis on facts, calls the shots. There is no truth but the factual worth talking about. Stories of themselves are devalued. At what cost?

There are other gap-shrinking ideas being cooked up by those who wish to maintain the historicity of Genesis. The article quotes one John Collins (no relation to Francis), an Old Testament scholar at Covenant Theological Seminary, as going beyond the above scenario to something else again: a primitive “royal couple”:

[John] Collins comments that if Adam and Eve lacked “an actual existence we nullify so many things in the Bible it results in a different story.” To him, the pivotal point is that “however God produced the bodies of the first human beings, it wasn’t a purely natural process.” If genetics eventually forces reconsideration, Collins remarks, he could perhaps reconceive of Adam and Eve as “the king and queen of a larger population” and thereby preserve Genesis’ historicity.

Witness the incredible vanishing Adam Gap. Witness the incredible shrinking God.

[This is in accord with a plain reading of Genesis?]

Irony 101, Lesson 8: Of all the people in the world, should not we Christians be those most comfortable with the coincidence of the natural and supernatural? Of God working in the world, through the world? And here we are, insisting that God would never create us out of “natural processes,” as if we know what that phrase even means.

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There are 7 Comments to "Mind the gaps"

  • […] More from Icerocket blogs: Mind the gaps […]

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    • Mickey says:

      Thanks for the post Paul. The perpetual problem in this debate, IMHO, is that misguided pseudo-scientists sometimes try to extrapolate “meaning” (or the lack thereof) from natural “facts,” while misguided religionists try to extrapolate natural “facts” (or argue the lack thereof) from ancient literature about “meaning.” Thanks for your willingness to stand in the middle. and call both sides of fundamentalism to account.

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      • Tom Harkins says:

        Mickey, to me the interesting part of your comment is that the “ancient literature” (read, biblical scripture) was “about ‘meaning'” rather than “facts.” It may well be that the primary purpose and point of scripture is to convey spiritual truths. But it does so in a historical context. In fact, divorcing the “meaning” from the historical context too severely does damage to the “meaning” at some point. As I pointed out on Rev. Brent White’s post, while I am not totally averse to the idea that biblical writers could have used myths to make points if that is what they wanted to do, I wonder why they gave such substantial “historical details” in their writings. Place, time, who begat whom, how many years transpired, tracing the begats down from Adam to Abraham to David to Jesus, etc. The Hebrew scriptures often get so specific as to give the day of the month, time of the day, part of the city, etc. In other words, there has to be some other reason for not taking the Hebrew scripture writers as intending to give literal history and “facts” besides “how the accounts read.” I submit that is largely due to not believing in miracles, and a perhaps “undue reverence” to present-day scientific theories. Since I have no trouble with either miracles or believing scientists can make mistakes (especially given their “only natural” frame of reference, on the part of many), I take the accounts as true (not to say “infallible”; even contemporary reporters or historians may get a fact wrong here or there).

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        • Mickey says:

          Tom,
          Yes, it appears that we approach this particular collection of literature with different hermeneutical perspectives.
          Best wishes,
          Mickey

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  • Tom Harkins says:

    Coincidentally, Paul, in the August issue of CT which just came out, it has several letters to the editor about the “genome” article you reference, including this one by yours truly:

    “Skirting Adam due to ‘genome’ evidence actually solves nothing. What about Noah? If the Flood is true, then all subsequent humanity descended from one man and his sons and their wives.

    “How far are we willing to go in denying Old Testament events and express New Testament references to them? Jesus himself said, ‘As it was in the days of Noah . . ..’ Are we going to say he was ‘tied to the [erroneous] views of his day’ as well, just like Paul?”

    Of course, my point does not go very far with those who doubt the Flood as well–except, I submit, it should be of some concern to those who “go with Jesus” that he actually thought there were “days of Noah,” with the conduct of the citizenry being as that described in Genesis. Which was the major point of my letter.

    On your broader point, I certainly don’t think there is any “God of the gaps.” The entire universe is “held together” by God, through whatever mechanisms or rules it may operate. However, this does not dispel the issue of whether the biblical references to acts of God are true or not. As to that, none of us, of course, has actually “seen” the history of mankind–we all proceed by “faith” to the extent that we are believing in things we have not seen, whether theists or atheists. So, we must make deductions backwards from things we can see. What gets lost in that analysis, though, is that the Bible is one “datum” that we do see, which we can (and should) take into account as we “deduce backwards.” The Bible is a pretty phenomenal piece of work, and is stated to be based on “eye-witness accounts” as to a ton of what it says. I choose to take those claims seriously.

    Ultimately, my deductions backwards also take into account the fact that the “scientists” keep “changing their stories” over time, though keeping the same “theme” that “evolution explains all visible natural phenomena.” Such as, the just-reported demise of one of the all-time favorite “intermediates,” as set out in the July 28 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “One of the world’s most famous fossil creatures, widely considered the earliest known bird, is getting a rude present on the 150th birthday of its discovery: A new analysis suggests that it isn’t a bird as all. Chinese scientists are proposing a change to the evolutionary family tree that boots Archaeopteryx off the ‘bird’ branch and onto a closely related branch of birdlike dinosaurs.”

    So, the Bible is constructed in such a way as persuades me it is a message from God, albeit mediated through men. Whereas, the “scientists” are just men plain-and-simple, entirely capable of error, as has been widely demonstrated over the years. And the “data” before us are capable of being read in different ways depending on the assumptions one brings to the table in analyzing it. What “pair of glasses” you have on, if you will. I admit to wearing the “God as revealed in the Bible” glasses.

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  • […] am writing about this because it’s another God-of-the-gaps thing (see my last post): Human goodness is due to God or it’s due to biology. If a certain — IMO weak — […]

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  • Udaybhanu Chitrakar says:

    God of the gaps

    I will begin this article with two postulates:
    1) God has created this universe,
    2) He has brought man in this universe with some purpose.
    I am not claiming here that these two postulates are true, or that I can prove them to be true. But I want to show here that if these two postulates are true, then God will always be the God of the gaps. Anyone who will be reading this article should not forget that there is an “if” clause in the last sentence.
    Now I will begin with the supposition that God has created this universe. If God has created this universe, then He could have created it in four different ways:
    1) He created it in such a way that there was no necessity for Him to intervene in it after creation,
    2) After creation He intervened in it, but these interventions were a bare minimum, that is, He intervened only when these were absolutely necessary. In order to clarify my point here, I will say that He intervened only when He found that without His intervention the universe would come to a standstill,
    3) He created the universe in such a way that in order to keep it going He had to make very frequent interventions in it,
    4) God’s total intervention after creation.
    If it was the purpose of God to keep mankind crippled in every possible way, then He would have adopted either the third or the fourth way while creating the universe. This is because in these two cases man, in spite of his having sufficient intelligence and reasoning power, will fail to unveil the secrets of nature, because in almost every phenomenon of nature that he will decide to study he will ultimately find that there always remains an unknown factor, for which he will have no explanation. For him the book of nature will thus remain closed forever. But if it were God’s purpose that man be master of His creation, then it is quite natural for Him that He would try to keep the book of nature as much open to him as possible, so that with the little intelligence he has been endowed with man will be able to decipher the language of nature, and with that acquired knowledge he will also be able to improve the material conditions of his life. In that case God will try to adopt the policy of maximum withdrawal from His creation. He will create the universe in such a way that without His intervention the created world will be able to unfold itself. However that does not mean that He will never intervene. He will definitely intervene when without His intervention the created world would become stagnant. In such a scenario man will be able to give an explanation of almost all physical events in scientific language. But in those cases where God has actually intervened, he will fail to do so.
    So I think there is no reason for us to be ashamed of the “God of the gaps” hypothesis. Yes, if God has created the universe, and if God’s purpose was that man be master of His creation, then He would try to keep as little gap in His creation as possible. But the minimum gap that would be ultimately left can never be bridged by any sort of scientific explanation. God will also reside in that gap. Why should we be ashamed of that?
    The whole matter can be seen from another angle. Those who strongly believe that God has created this universe also believe that He has created it alone. Now is it believable that a God, who is capable of creating such a vast universe alone, is not capable enough to keep a proof of His existence in the created world? So I think it is more reasonable to believe that while creating the universe God has also kept a proof of His existence in something created. This proof is open to us all, but we have not found it, because we have not searched for it. So even if it is the case that God has never intervened in the created world after its creation, still then there will be a gap in this natural world, purposefully left by God, for which science will find no explanation. This will be the ultimate gap that can only be filled up by invoking God.
    Therefore, I can conclude this article in this way: If God created this universe, and if God wanted man to be the master of His creation, then God would willingly choose to be “God of the gaps”.
    A theistic God will always prefer to be the God of the gaps.

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