Published on October 17th, 2009 | by Harmonist staff7
What’s Wrong with “God-of-the-Gaps” Theology?
By Randal Rauser
There are few topics as fiercely debated in the science/religion dialogue as the so-called “God-of-the-gaps”. This phrase refers to the tendency to invoke God’s action in the world wherever our attempts at a natural explanation seem to fail. The ongoing furor over intelligent design, with its apparently gap-friendly concepts like “irreducible complexity” and “directed contingency” has only added more fuel to this often fiery debate.
According to the critics of the God-of-the-gaps approach, one of the problems is that it seems to limit God’s action to what we don’t know. And this implies that once we do come to understand how something occurs naturally, this excludes a supernatural dimension. As one can imagine, the God-of-the-gaps method spells trouble for theology. The problem is simple: since our scientific understanding keeps expanding, the putative areas in which God can be viewed as active in the world keeps shrinking. Thus it would seem that in principle the growth of science could lead to the complete exclusion of God’s action from the world. The dilemma was well stated decades ago by theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
It has again brought home to me quite clearly 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.
On this point I agree with Bonhoeffer. To locate God’s action in gaps of our understanding is bad theology.
But God-of-the-gaps theology is not only mistaken because it tends to shrink the conceptual space in which God can act. In addition, I believe it depends on the flawed assumption that a natural explanation for a given phenomenon excludes the need for a supernatural explanation. It shall be my task here to argue why this assumption is flawed.
In order to make my argument I’ll develop a little thought experiment. Imagine that in twenty years meteorology has made extraordinary advances in understanding weather systems. Indeed weather prediction is so improved that the meteorologist can make completely accurate weather forecasts a day in advance. (Yes, I know this contradicts current chaos theory.) These predictions are so detailed that a forecast can accurately predict the exact place that every rain drop, snowflake, or hail pellet will hit the ground over the next 24 hours.
Now the forecast for tomorrow comes in and alas, cumulus thunderheads are on their way promising a violent thunderstorm. With the forecast comes a complete description of staggering complexity projecting the point at which each golf ball sized hail pellet over the forecast area will hit the earth.
Since my birthday is tomorrow and I am planning a backyard party, I take special note of the forecast over my house. With that in mind I go to weather.com, type in the coordinates for my house, and in moments I receive my own personal and completely accurate forecast. With relief I see that no hail pellets will hit the tent or stage. However I then discover with considerable amazement, that a couple dozen large hail pellets will hit my lawn in such a way that they will perfectly spell out “Happy Birthday Randal!” As predicted, the storm rolls in the next day on schedule. Then as the band plays the hail hurtles down from the sky as if on cue and spells out “Happy Birthday Randal!” in front of my shocked guests.
One can imagine the amazed guests saying things like “How extraordinary!” and “It’s a miracle!” And those would indeed be natural responses. So then imagine one party guest, a skeptical curmudgeon, objecting that there is nothing miraculous about the event at all. According to this fellow, since scientific laws predicted with accuracy the exact position of the hail falling, we must chalk up the “birthday greeting” to mere chance.
I suspect that such a response would convince few if any other guests. Most of us would recognize that, natural scientific explanation or not, something else was going on here. Indeed, it would seem most reasonable to conclude that a higher intelligence, perhaps even God, was acting precisely through the supple operation of the laws of nature to wish me a happy birthday.
Admittedly the story is fanciful, but that is beside the point. To sum up the central lesson, even if we have a complete scientific prediction and explanation in advance of a given phenomenon, that need not undermine the conclusion that God is also specially active in that event. God, it would seem, is to be found acting as much in what we do know as in what we do not.
Randal Rauser is associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Canada and was granted Taylor’s first annual teaching award for Outstanding Service to Students in 2005.