The God of the gaps?

One of the less successful Christian responses to the progress of human knowledge was to claim that there would always be aspects of life, the universe and everything which could never be explained by human discovery and that God would always be needed to explain these gaps in human knowledge.

Alister McGrath in his 2007 book ‘The Dawkins Delusion’ notes:

“At certain points, William Paley’s famous Natural Theology (1801) uses arguments along these lines. It was argued that God requires to be proposed in order to deal with these gaps in scientific understanding. It was a foolish move, and was increasingly abandoned in the twentieth century.”

Writing while in a Nazi prison in 1944 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained the problem with the “God of the Gaps” concept.

“How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p310,  Letters and Papers from Prison

It is a peculiarly modern mind set which views material things or events as either the product of natural events or of the supernatural. The two possible explanations are seen as mutually exclusive, it’s one or the other. If a phenomenon is perceived by human analysis to have a cause and effect explanation, then to modern ways of thinking, that’s all there is. There is no need for anything else outside the natural systems observed. The supernatural (by which we essentially mean God) is therefore squeezed into the ever decreasing areas which defy human explanation.
However Bonhoeffer, in the final sentence of the extract above hinted at the Biblical explanation for the relationship between the natural and supernatural, and it does not suffer from the ‘shrinking God’ problem. Consider Psa 104:27-30:

“These [animals, trees etc] all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

Psalm 104:27-30

Here the normal, every day occurrences of life, birth, death and animal day to day sustenance and survival are attributed to God. Even though they are unremarkable commonplace events, God was seen as part of them in some way. The same attitude is seen in Acts 17:28 when Paul quotes the poet Epimenedes to make his point about the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being”.  Similarly, the aspects of nature pointed out to Job in chapters 38 and 39 and the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 6:26-30 both illustrate the same view of God’s all-pervading connection with the natural world.

So to use the analogy proposed by John Walton in his book “The Lost World of Genesis One”, we should not think of the relationship between God and the natural as a pie, with the God-slice always decreasing as natural explanations are found. Rather we could think of it as a victoria sponge cake, with the natural world as the bottom layer and the top layer as God’s involvement, interfacing with the natural layer at all points. The integration of God with his creation is thus understood to be at such an intimate and universal level that we can have only the slightest comprehension of it. God is not the God of the gaps, he is the God of the whole show!

However, exploring these ideas is not just idle thought experiments. There are real, daily practical implications attached to perceiving the Divine involvement in life in this way.  Jesus gives this perspective in two passages from the Gospels:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Matthew 5:44-45

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”

Luke 6:35

Here again the every day, perfectly normal and natural sunrise and rainfall is attributed to God. But the point here is that God, in sustaining a world which indiscriminately supplies these daily benefits to many who give him nothing in return, is a behaviour model for those who would try to reflect ‘his image’.