What If Creationists and Atheists Are Both Wrong?

What if the way you’ve been thinking about God is all wrong?  If so, you’re in good company: according to Ric Machuga, both creationists and atheists also tend to think about God incorrectly, and both groups have been thinking about God incorrectly in the same way.

Dr. Machuga is professor of philosophy at Butte College in Northern California, and the author of Three Theological Mistakes: How to Correct Enlightenment Assumptions about God, Miracles, and Free Will.  In a recent article in Books and Culture, he argues that both creationists and atheists often make the same mistake when thinking about God.  (The article is behind a paywall; I subscribe to the print journal.)

Is God Like a Divine Watchmaker?

Does God exist?  Creationists say yes, and atheists say no.  However, we need to more specifically define what we mean by “exist:”

[Medieval philosphers] Moses Maimonides (Jewish), Thomas Aquinas (Christian), and Ibn Rushd (Muslim) all understood that ‘existence’ was not a simple Yes/No matter.  While God certainly ‘exists,’ they all insisted that God’s ‘existence’ was fundamentally unlike everything else’s ‘existence.'”

Creationists, Atheists, and Even Isaac Newtown….

In our scientific culture, we tend to think of God as a divine craftsman, a heavenly watchmaker who made the universe and set it ticking.  Creationists fight hard to defend the idea of God as divine craftsman (using Genesis 1-2), while atheists fight hard to discredit the idea of God as divine craftsman (using biology, cosmology, and paleontology).  But what if God isn’t like a watchmaker at all?

The watchmaker's bench

Professor Machuga points out that thinking about God as the ultimate craftsman is a logical mistake.

Watchmakers and watches both exist.  And though they are very different in many ways–watchmakers are conscious, intentional agents; watches are not–their ‘thingness’ is precisely the same.  Contrast this with the difference between Shakespeare and Hamlet.  While both the author and his character ‘exist,’ they certainly don’t exist in the same way.  Shakespeare existed as a human being.  Hamlet only ‘exists’ as the fictional character created by Shakespeare.  Yet, the difference between Shakespeare’s existence and Hamlet’s existence is far less than the difference between God’s existence and everything else” [emphasis mine].

Isaac Newton thought that the physical laws he uncovered were “not only consistent with the existence of a supernatural Craftsman, but that they required such a God.”  Unfortunately, Newton, for all his brilliance, made a mistake in thinking about God:

Of course, in one sense, Newton knew that God and his creation ‘existed’ in different ways.  Breadth, height, and weight are common to all material objects, whereas God is a pure spirit with neither breadth, height, nor weight.  Nevertheless, to speak of a ‘very skilled mechanic’ [Newton’s phrase] intervening to prevent planetary chaos presupposes that God and the planets exist in the same way and in the same universe” [italics in the original].

But, God and the universe do NOT exist in the same way.  God is not a just divine craftsman, and thinking of God in that way points us in the wrong direction.  A better direction is to think of God as a divine playwright, because God’s reality is utterly distinct from the reality of the universe he created.  If this distinction seems confusing, just think about Shakespeare:

Because Shakespeare is not contiguous with the world of his creature, he can have a reality, endurance, stability, and ‘otherness’ that far exceeds Hamlet’s.  Without Shakespeare, Hamlet is literally nothing.  But without Hamlet, Shakespeare is still something, even if his glory is slightly diminished.”

God Isn’t a Divine Watchmaker, but a Divine Playwright

God is not simply the largest, greatest, and strongest part of our reality; God is another reality, distinct from us.  God is not a divine watchmaker who sets the universe ticking; God is a divine playwright who wills us into existence from his imagination.

We Can’t Prove or Find God, Unless….

This means that the only evidence for God that can be found in our universe is evidence that God deliberately places here.  It means that we shouldn’t expect to be able to prove God’s existence any more than Hamlet could prove the existence of Shakespeare.  It means that unless God shows up, we can never ever find him.

And it means that the Incarnation changes everything.

Quick Thoughts on Genesis 1 (& the Best Visual Interpretation I’ve Seen)

How things begin matters.  We see God’s intention for creation from the beginning: an integrated whole, in which all the parts are good and all the parts fit together to give glory to God.  The Hebrew word for this is shalom: peace, wholeness, harmony.

I love this visual interpretation of Genesis 1 [www.minimumbible.com]


The Song of Creation

One other quick thought on Genesis 1.  The author talks of days and nights from the very beginning, but the sun and the moon aren’t created until the fourth day.  Ancient peoples were more connected to sun and moon than we are, now that we have electricity and night doesn’t mean dark.  Ancient peoples certainly knew that the sun and the moon are required for there to be “days” and “nights.”

Here’s the point: Genesis 1 is a beautiful theological treatise on creation, and for me, I don’t see it contradicting physics and cosmology; I see physics and cosmology providing the fine details and Genesis 1 the broad strokes.


P.S. The Best Visual Interpretation of the Bible I’ve Ever Seen

I’ve written previously about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and shared some of my reservations about the final 15 disappointing minutes of the movie.  But this scene in which Noah retells the Genesis story of Creation and Fall is the best visual interpretation of scripture I’ve ever seen (although the image from The Minimum Bible project I included above is pretty good, too):

P.P.S. Join Us!

Folks in my church are reading through Genesis as part of our 2015 Bible reading plan.  We’d love to have you join us and make it a part of your #First15.


Can Science and Faith be Reconciled? [part 1 of 3]

I’ve been interested recently in some of the questions that 21st century Americans have about the Christian faith.  One question that comes up frequently is, “Can science and faith be reconciled?”

In researching this question, I’ve discovered three main answers.

Option 1:
No, because science and faith are and have been at war.

This option is widely-held among modern people.  But there is one problem with it: it is historically false.

Without the Church, No Science


Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918) was one of the co-founders of Cornell University.  In 1896 he published a  2 volume work called A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, which put forward the idea that the Christian faith was responsible for interfering and holding back scientific achievement.  White’s work was extremely influential in the first part of the 20th century, and his argument did much to convince many that faith and science were at war, despite the obvious problems with his argument.

The first problem with claiming that science and faith are at war is that, as many historians now argue, the culture of Christianity was directly responsible for the development of science in the West.  Christians believe in a rational God who created the universe according to rational principles, a belief that is necessary to science.  Rather than being antagonistic to science, the Christian faith allowed it to flourish.  The greatest universities of the first 17 centuries of the last 2 millennia were virtually all developed by the Church to be places where faith could seek understanding, and most of the greatest scientific minds up until the Enlightenment were devout Christians.

Second, A.D. White had an obvious bias against orthodox Christianity.  For some reason, modern people, so quick (and rightly so) to be skeptical of many authoritative claims accept as gospel the claims of those who are obviously biased against the Church; many of us accept those arguments unthinkingly.  In a culture that values science (as ours does), you can greatly undermine the faith by claiming the Church is anti-science, and A.D. White and many people have successfully done so.  It says a lot about our modern anti-Church bias that we are eager to embrace any arguments that make the Church look badly.


But What About Galileo?
“That sounds great,” some readers are thinking, “but what about Galileo?”


The Galileo episode is not one that makes the Church look very good and I wish the Church had been wiser.  However, I’ve learned some interesting facts about Galileo.

First, the episode was less about science versus faith but more (in David Bentley Hart’s phrase) about what happens when two men of “titanic egos” clash.  The two men were Galileo Galilei and Pope Urban VIII.  They had once been friends, but Galileo had deliberately insulted the Pope and his holiness was miffed.  The whole sorry affair was, in some ways, a big personality conflict.

Second, the Galileo episode took place within the context of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman catholic Counter-Reformation.  It was a climate in which Rome was eager to maintain whatever control it could.  Provoked by Galileo, Rome wanted to be sure that the arrogant scientist knew his place.

The facts above don’t explain away the church’s foolishness in the Galileo episode, but they do help show it’s not quite as bad as the pop culture version of the story goes.  Plus, when speaking of  Christianity, it’s important for us to have a little humility and remember that the Church has been in existence for 2,000 years.  Yes, there have been times in the last 2,000 years when Christians have seemed to be deliberately anti-intellectual and reactionary, but those times are, by far, the exceptions rather than the norm.

Put simply, Option 1 doesn’t work because it’s historically false: the Church is not and has never been at war with Science.

To be continued in Part 2….