General · Language

No God, no gaps

When I was in grad school studying theology, philosophy, psychology and physics, naturalism was a term that I had to be careful using. There’s a long history of knocks on that term. I still remember the tone of the philosophy department that was my academic base for awhile. When I started talking about an essentially naturalistic approach to some philosophical problems, the venerable chair of the department calmly noted that we cannot know reality — we can only speak of knowing phenomena. Coming from a science background (and with a degree in theology), it took me awhile to really grasp that tradition — phenomenology. More than just the classic question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The impact of a long history of that view in Western thought (epistemology).

And in Western thought there was another relevant debate regarding knowledge, namely, “God of the gaps.”

“God of the gaps” is a term used to describe observations of theological perspectives in which gaps in scientific knowledge are taken to be evidence or proof of God’s existence. The term was invented by Christian theologians not to discredit theism but rather to point out the fallacy of relying on teleological arguments for God’s existence. Some use the phrase as a criticism of theological positions, to mean that God is used as a spurious explanation for anything not currently explained by science.”

Western ontology had long entangled religion with theism; and theism had incorporated views of cosmology, some dating back to ancient times, from early Greek philosophers. Modern science had pushed back on outdated cosmology convincingly. But science could not answer many other questions, address certain “gaps” in our knowledge. There still was a place for a cosmic telos, albeit at the atomic level (Whitehead). Or something that physics and chemistry will never explain.

The modern Protestant theologians that I studied were outright apologists. Some were influenced by the philosophical writings of Whitehead, for example. Even the “God is dead” movement. Remember the April 8, 1966, cover of Time magazine? The debate was transformed from the existence of God to the reality of God — that is, the experience of the divine, the power of faith, rather than from a position of ignorance. (Another example, the theology of Teilhard de Chardin.)

But there’s still “wiggle room” for some in the debate about the fine-tuned universe or anthropic principle. That strikes me as another form of deism, which is not what I recall professors and students in seminary were basing their faith on (even years after that Time magazine article).