Last night I sat in the evening church service and listened to our new preacher, Gordon Dabbs, instead of what I usually do which is going to help out at Kid Zone (Children’s Bible Hour). First of all, let me say that I really love Gordon – he’s great. He knows his stuff, he speaks the truth without hindrance, and he’s not afraid to metaphysically slap you in the face with scripture (many times as believers, we need a ‘wake up call’) and yet can do it without the proverbial sting. He’s doing a fantastic job and has really stepped into the position with grace and ease.
So I’m sitting about 6 pews back from the front, listening to him talk about why it’s rational to believe in God and that many renowned scientists think the universe is too complex to have just come about that way but that there is a designer behind it. This post will be my reflections about his sermon – the thoughts running through my mind during and after (which if we were in a Jewish setting, I would have just stood up and said right there (and I was tempted to do so), but since we weren’t I had to keep my mouth shut and reserve my thoughts for my blog). (Disclaimer: If you read this post, please read through everything or you might come away with the impression that I’m attacking Gordon’s sermon. I’m not attacking Gordon or his sermon. Far from it, I thought it was encouraging, well said, and got people to think about things that perhaps they might not have beforehand).
Ever since learning about the Hebrew context of scripture (sad that I had to learn about that 20 years into my life, isn’t it?) I’ve had an issue with trying to prove the existence of God. Before you jump at me, allow me to explain. I come from an academic background with (I would say) a high degree of knowledge in the area of proving God’s existence. Every scholar Gordon mentioned last night, I knew who that was because I’d read their major works. During college I took two classes where I was forced to read alot of this stuff. The first was Dr. Jim Baird’s “Christian Evidences” class, a topic Dr. Baird specializes in (and even wrote his dissertation on the subject – at Oxford no less). That class was really great as we covered all the classical arguments for why it’s more probable that God exists than not. We even read works by several opponents such as Richard Dawkins. Dr. Baird did a great job of showing us the arguments and how they were broken and then how to respond to that. Then he made us do some responding to engage those critical thinking skills. It was a very good class. The second class I took on the subject was “The Scientific Christian” taught dually by Dr. Jim Baird and Dr. Leonerd Feurhelm (PhD in physics and a J.D. (law school graduate) – brilliant man) and addressed the question “The Bible says one thing, science seems to say another…how do you reconcile the two?” aka: “How can I be a serious scientist and still believe in God?”. This class was like a graduate-level class and really assumed you’d already taken Christian Evidences because they went into light-speed the first day and covered some very high-level and difficult material ranging from particle physics to the meta-structure of science itself. Readings were on average over 100 pages a week from dissertation-level materials and there was a quiz every week on the reading – I could not be lazy in that class. It was really insane trying to keep up with all of that and still get the rest of my coursework done (because I took this class “for fun”, even though I didn’t need it). Since everyone came to class prepared (or risk failing), we had amazing discussions in this class, but I’ll reserve those for another blog post perhaps. So that’s my academic background on the subject of existentialism, the free will debate, intelligent design, and the many arguments like Anthropic Principle and the Ontological Argument. I’ve read all the major stuff up to 2004, and I’ve tried to at least read summaries of new papers and whatnot posted since then. It’s a subject of incredible interest to me and one that I also struggle with immensely. I don’t have Gordon’s background in it, but I’d say I’m alot more educated on the subject than 99% of the people that were there last night. I don’t say this to boast, for as I’ll show later, I don’t consider it anything to boast about, but rather I say it so you know I’m not just pretending to be knowledgeable.
Now onto Gordon’s sermon. He used the Teleological Arugment which is the classic watch argument refitted into a more modern example using an iPhone – you can’t expect to put a bunch of parts into a box and shake them up and then out pops a watch (or, an iPhone). In the same way, the universe could not have simply exploded and out popped the earth and everything in it (over time, of course), because entropy sends all things into a state of chaos, not more order. That merely posits that our universe is too complex to not have a designer, but that is defeated when you apply the same logic to the designer: it is obviously complex enough to design something as complex as our universe and therefore must have a designer itself. On and on it goes. Anyway, one thing he spent a good deal of time talking about is the Anthropic Principle (he didn’t call it that, but that’s what it is) which states that because the Universe is so finely tuned for human life there must have been someone that designed it. The nuclear strong and weak forces are exactly right to allow for complex molecules, the electromagnetic force is perfectly right to allow for gravity that lets electrons even orbit atoms, etc. There are just too many variables that are exactly right to deny a designer. Gordon’s key words were something akin to “the chances of human life just occurring are nearly impossible.” Note the word “nearly.” The skeptic in me only wanted to jump up and say “The chances are astronomical, but the very fact that we’re hear only proves that we won the cosmic lottery. According to our atheist friends, our universe just happened to get it all right and there’s an infinite number of universe that didn’t.” Unfortunately, the weakness of the Anthropic Principle is that in the infinite universes theory (the dominant of today), it hardly matters that the chances are ridiculous. It happened, so we must have “lucked out.” Now, I happen to think that the Anthropic Principle is a great thing, but it doesn’t lead you to God necessarily and here we see the problem with trying to prove God exists: you can’t (something Gordon also mentioned, by the way).
And not that showing these statistics is wrong, but it doesn’t lead the previously uninformed churchgoer any closer to faith. Filling someone’s head with statistical data and facts doesn’t impact the heart – it’s only information. It’s good information, it’s true information, but it’s just…information. You don’t have to do anything with it. And so I watched my own faith and my roommate’s faith not get stronger, but get shakier as we took these classes in telling ourselves that it was possible to prove God and if we could just do that then we’d have to believe and there wouldn’t be any more of this doubt we kept having. Wow, were we ever wrong. That proof for God always seemed like it was just over the next horizon, the next class lecture, the next reading assignment, the next paper we had to write, etc. But it wasn’t, and it left me frustrated and angry. My roommate said once (either right after or during Scientific Christian) “God exists, but I just don’t know if He cares about me.“ And the result, I think, of this kind of study is the intellectual Christian who has his faith in his head, and not his heart – at least, that’s the way it was for me. I knew about God, but I didn’t know God, and there’s a huge difference between the two.
The Jewish approach is what really brought me back full circle to where I started after all my study, reading, and writing. Here’s a retelling of a story Ray Vander Laan told at a Focus on the Family seminar about his experience in a Jewish graduate theology class, a story which I found particularly profound considering the academic background I have:
My first class, the prof walked in, the Rabbi (it was all men, cause in the rabbinic tradition it’s all men) walked in and of course everbody stands up. The Rabbi is here! The first thing he did was he looked around and he pointed to a guy and went “You! Recite Genesis!” and I’m thinking “Oh my goodness, if he looks my way, I’m gonna feint and someone’s gonna have to carry me out!” The man said “In the beginning God-” “STOP! Recite it again!” “In the beginning God-” “STOP! Again!” Seven times the rabbi had him do it, and then he said, “If you don’t believe that, there’s the door, because the rest of the book isn’t going to make any sense!” And it dawned on me, we westerners want proof for the existence of God but you can’t prove God – that’s the whole nature of God – of course He exists! And there are all kinds of evidences which can strengthen our faith – praise God for them – but God says “Believe in me by FAITH.” Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing – you believe first and then you can see Him. By the way, I had tried to two other graduate schools, one was called Princeton and the other Yale, both I sat in some classes and in every stinking class the prof spent most of the class I was sitting in questioning whether the Bible was really true or not. And I went to this Jewish university where they didn’t even believe Jesus was the Messiah and they started with the assumption on the first day that God exists. Move on.
And when I heard that the first time as a senior in college, a year after taking these Christian evidences classes, it blew me away. I realized that perhaps we have taken the wrong approach by trying to prove God’s existence. And suddenly, my doubts vanished and I was left with an affirming idea that God exists, something all my studies could not give me. And now, ironically enough, I had come back to where I started. Turns out the Apostle Paul had it right all along:
“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-24, NIV)
Greeks look for wisdom, or if I may substitute in there two suitable words, ‘westerners’ and ‘proof’. Westerners look for proof, but God has made foolish the proof of this world because the world with it’s proofs and science does not believe in God. And God has made them foolish in this way: what will save those who believe is that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, something you can’t prove at all!
So now you might be wondering, “Okay, James, you said at the beginning that you weren’t attacking Gordon’s sermon, but it sure sounds like it. What is it you mean? Sum it up for us.” Here’s the heart of the matter: I think proofs for the existence of God are good and can even be strengthening to your faith, but don’t START there! (And I’m not saying that Gordon said to start there) If you start there, you will have nothing in the end because every proof can be broken and explained away – if that were not the case there would be no atheists. Instead, START with the existence of God and move on from there, for as David wrote long ago:
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” (Psalm 14:1)
Peace to you,