The Meaning of It All (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 27)

NOTE: This is part 27 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

Behind every argument over facts or science or philosophy or comparative religion is another, deeper question. Take creation, for example. We can know, about as surely as we can know anything, that there is a creator, simply by virtue of the fact that there is a creation. At times science has tried to say that the universe has emerged from nothing, but that is manifestly absurd. All arguments about Genesis 1 and literalism and time frames and processes aside—everything about the known, physical universe tells us that it can’t have created itself, nor is time sufficient to have done the job without any materials or forces at play to begin with.

(There’s an old story about a scientist who tells God that he’s not so hot; after all, man can create life in a test tube now. So God says that he and the man will have a competition: they will each create a living being. God and the man kneel down and start to gather up dirt to form into a body, but God stops the man and said, “Hey, get your own dirt.”)

Twenty-three hundred years ago, Aristotle recognized this basic philosophical idea. He referred to the beginner of the universe as the “Unmoved Mover” or the “First Cause.” St. Thomas Aquinas, in his thirteenth-century treatise Summa Theologica, formulated the concept like this:

In the world, we can see that things are caused. But it is not possible for something to be the cause of itself because this would entail that it exists prior to itself, which is a contradiction. If that by which it is caused is itself caused, then it too must have a cause. But this cannot be an infinitely long chain, so, there must be a cause which is not itself caused by anything further. This everyone understands to be God.

In his book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, Dallas Willard asks us to picture the universe as a line of dominos stretching as far as we can see in either direction. In one direction every domino has fallen; in the other they are still standing. In front of you, one domino is knocking the next one over. The theological (and scientific) question is, What made the first domino fall?

Fundamentally, there must be a god, with “god” very loosely defined as something outside of the universe that caused the universe. We know this because there is a universe. We are here. To use Willard’s image, the dominos are falling. There is a you and there is a me; there is a sky and an earth and stars and physical laws and forces and life.

It is nonsense to say nothing knocked the first domino down, that there was nothing there and nothing happened. It can’t simply be an infinite line with no beginning, because if it were, no domino would fall. The fact that something is happening now, something is here now, means something began to happen in the past. This universe as we know it is not capable of producing itself. Therefore “God,” whoever or whatever “God” is, does exist and has acted in history to produce the universe in which we live.

We don’t know, on this basis alone, anything much about what this God is like. We don’t necessarily know if he is a “he” or an “it” or anything like that. We don’t know how “he” created or why, or if questions like how and why or words like “created” even apply to the kind of thing this First Cause is. I think it’s reasonable to believe that a God capable of causing a complex creation like this one is highly intelligent and intentional as well as powerful and transcendent (i.e., existing outside of this universe), but you might argue that he (or it) is simply powerful and transcendent—some kind of strong causative force outside of the known universe and not governed by its laws, but also without intentionality or personality or will. Many have argued as much.

It’s true that science can’t see God. It can’t measure him or detect him. But this proves nothing about the existence of God one way or the other, because science is an approach for measuring and describing the physical world, and if God exists, he must by nature be outside of the physical world. I can’t see in the dark; that doesn’t mean the world ceases to exist when the lights go out. It just means my eyes aren’t constructed to see without light.

In the same way, science is not capable of “seeing” anything outside of the physical world. Science is an approach to the physical world that allows us to quantify, measure, and describe objects within the physical universe. Anything that is outside of the physical universe is, by nature, not visible to science and not measurable by scientific means.

And interestingly, even before there was such a thing as science as we know it now, the Bible insisted that God was outside of the physical universe—that he was “holy,” set apart, entirely Other. “I AM THAT I AM,” God says when asked his name.

The Bible (unlike some other major religions) has always insisted that the God who created the universe is also unlike the universe; he is not made of stuff that science can see. And rather obviously, if science can’t see God, then it shouldn’t be any surprise when scientists say they don’t see him. We should in fact expect that. So although it’s a commonly held idea these days that science has somehow disproven God, if we’re honest we have to confess that’s impossible. Science cannot disprove the existence of God. If God exists, he is outside of science’s field of vision.

But let’s say we accept all of that as true. Let’s say we embrace the idea that God is real, and that we can know that based on the existence of the universe. That does not answer all our questions—far from it. It may even raise more. Many people today, even in the West, have fully accepted the idea that a god or gods must exist. They have grasped this idea that the realm of spirit is real—so we have the New Age movement, or the vague idea that all religions lead to the same place, or the popular notion of being spiritual but not religious.

Many people speak of the universe as though it is God—as though it is somehow guiding or helping or defining them. In my opinion, all this points to the inability of science to tell us what we really want, and need, to know.

In a very real sense, the idea of God as creator doesn’t mean anything to us, it says nothing to assuage our real doubts and answer our real questions, until a relational dimension enters the picture. It doesn’t mean anything until the day we hear a voice in creation calling our names. It may even make us angry to know that someone or something created us, if, for example, we reject ourselves or feel bitter about our lives.

It doesn’t mean anything to be told that God has created us until we learn to see creation, and even ourselves, our own inner being and makeup, as a gift to us from someone who cares. The songwriter Andrew Peterson asks, “Don’t you want to thank someone?”

We aren’t lost, and angry, and feeling the frustrations of John in prison because we’re not sure whether maple trees sprang from intention or by accident. We’re feeling all these things because we’re not sure whether the will behind the universe is good; because we don’t know if he sees us; because we’re not sure if we want him to.

If science cannot see God because God is outside of and “other than” the universe and therefore is not detectable by physical means, we might rightly wonder if that means we are cut off from knowledge of God. After all, we are physical beings with physical senses. We are made of scientific stuff. But that isn’t all we’re made of.

We do in fact operate, every day, in a realm that science can’t see or measure. We are tangible and physical, but we are also intangible and spiritual. For human beings, most of life is lived on the inside. We imagine. We make. We intend. We think. We will. We choose. We act. We know, and we are known. We love, and we are loved. We are something of an anomaly in the world. We are a puzzle that science is still trying hard to understand. And we are equipped to know God, to hear him, to love him, and to trust.

Or at least, that is what the Bible claims.

To be continued …


This is Part 185 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash




One response to “The Meaning of It All (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 27)”

  1. […] Part 185: The Meaning of It All (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 27) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

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