Imagine an expanding universe 15 billion years old, emerging from a point where "time began"; a world of relativity where space and time are paradoxical but spacetime may be just there; a quantum world where things just happen and nature as a mechanical clock is overturned; a thermodynamic world where entropy reigns but order and novelty emerge spontaneously out of disorder and chaos. These and other windows on the universe derived from contemporary physics and cosmology hint at the profound beauty, mystery and enticement of our universe and beckon us to explore the latest results of research science.
At the same time, many people today - and I am one of them - are deeply committed to the religious traditions of the West, with their theological understandings of the universe as the creation of a loving and gracious God revealed through Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Still others draw on Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American religion, and other rich traditions to speak theologically about human life, the natural world, and the divine. Can these two sources of knowledge and meaning - science and religion - be brought together into a process of creative mutual interaction, in which each voice is respected and the wisdom of each shared fruitfully by the other? Or are science and religion irrevocably in conflict, or perhaps merely irrelevant to each other?
In recent years, an increasing number of scientists, theologians, clergy, and the lay public have challenged both the voices for conflict and for irrelevancy. Instead, they are developing a new approach which fosters dialogue and genuine interaction. In the process, a growing body of literature at both research and semi-popular levels is now available for all who wish to join in. The purpose of this brief essay is to point out some of the key topics of conversation, to suggest where the frontiers of research currently lie, and to invite others to enter into the process. My perspective on this rich and diverse process is that of a Protestant theologian with a doctorate in solid state physics. For the past two decades I have been teaching on the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and directing the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences affiliated with the GTU. Though I can only speak from this perspective, I hope it will succeed in suggesting at least something of the richness and challenge of this exciting interaction, and in the process will stimulate many others to join in!
In these topics I will offer a brief overview of the key issues in physics and cosmology. Ill also cover the theologies of creation and providence, and suggest ways in which they can be put into dialogue and interaction with aspects of Big Bang cosmology and quantum mechanics. Ill close with highlights of other key areas.
Two major paradigms emerged out of classical mechanics during the first decades of the twentieth century: special relativity (1905) and quantum mechanics (1900 - 1930). When applied to the physics of gravity, special relativity led to general relativity (1915), and, this in turn, led to Big Bang cosmology. Meanwhile quantum mechanics, when united with special relativity (1930), produced relativistic quantum mechanics / quantum field theory, and eventually to particle physics, in which electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force were unified (e.g., the electroweak force), and these unified with the strong nuclear force (fundamental particle physics) (1940's - present).
Quantum corrections to the early universe led to inflationary Big Bang cosmology (1970's-present). Current research areas include attempts a superunification of all of physics, including gravity, in terms of quantum gravity and its application to cosmology. Meanwhile, classical thermodynamics, developed in the 19th century, led to non-linear, non-equilibrium thermodynamics and its application to systems showing the spontaneous emergence of order from chaos (1960's - present).
Special relativity is one of the two cornerstones of twentieth century physics (the other is quantum mechanics). It makes a fundamental break with Newtonian mechanics, drastically changing our conceptions of the physics of space, time and their relation. It was published in 1905 by Einstein as a complete theory (compare this with the complex development of quantum mechanics by dozens of physicists over a thirty year span, 1900-1930).
According to special relativity, the three-dimensional space of our ordinary experience (x, y, z) and time, say as measured by a watch, are combined into a single four-dimensional system called "spacetime". In three dimensions, we measure the distance r between points by the usual Pythagorean measure: x2 + y2 + z2 = r2. In spacetime, we measure the "interval" or four-dimensional "distance" t between points: c2t2 - ( x2 + y2 + z2 ) = c2t2. The minus sign in this equation is of critical importance, for it leads to the so-called "spacetime paradoxes" such as the twin paradox, length contraction, time dilation, and so on. These paradoxes, in turn, expose the "relativity" of separate space or time measurements, but they point to an underlying "absolute" or unchanging property of spacetime: the invariance of the spacetime interval. According to Einstein and others relativity "spatializes time", making our experience of the passage and flow of time an illusion. This view is often called the "block universe" view. Other scholars, though, argue instead that relativity "temporalizes space" and is entirely consistent with a "flowing time" view of the world as given in ordinary human experience.
Other results include the equivalence of mass m and energy e, given by the famous expression, E = mc2. This does not mean that matter is reduced to energy but that mass and energy are interchangeable properties of matter. Another result is that no energy or information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light, c, approximately 30,000,000,000 cm/sec. This leads to the "light-cone" structure surrounding each event O in spacetime. Events in the past which can influence event O lie inside what is called the past lightcone of O. Events which O can influence in the future lie inside what is called the future lightcone of O. Events which can neither influence O nor be influenced by O lie outside the lightcone at O, and are referred to as lying in the "elsewhen" of O. The elsewhen is like the present in ordinary experience, except it is `thick', being a volume of spacetime, not a surface. Each observer moving through O singles out a different slice or surface through the elsewhen and considers this to be his or her present. The present is ambiguously defined in relativity; its meaning depends on the relative motion of the observer. Physicists use the term "locality" to refer to all events which fall within the past or future lightcone of E: a non-local interaction, or superluminal interaction, would be one transmitted faster than light, contradicting all available data to date. Another way to say this is that the order of events in the past and future light cones of O is the same regardless of the motion of an observer with respect to the event O. The order of events in the elsewhen of O is entirely dependent on the motion of the observer moving through O. Physicists say that relativity preserves causality in that events which are causally related according to one observer are causally related according to all, and events which are not causally related to one observer are acausal to all.
In 1915, Einstein published the general theory of relativity. This is a theory of gravity which is consistent with special relativity. In it, matter and spacetime are interrelated physical phenomena. Matter moves along curved paths due to the curvature of spacetime. At the same time, spacetime is curved because of the presence and distribution of matter. Hence the theory is highly non-linear and interactive. Though it is incorporates special relativity, it assumes causal determinism: the present state determines the future state completely with no room for intrinsic chance (as in quantum physics). Thus it is philosophically classical regarding determinism / mechanism, but relativistic regarding spacetime.
The simplest solutions to general relativity are for a single, point mass and for a uniform distribution of point masses. These lead to a variety of "black holes" solutions and include the classic tests of general relativity (e.g., the deflection of starlight by the sun and the shift in the perihelion of Mercury). Astronomers still debate the existence of black holes, but evidence mounts in their support. Another simple solution leads to Big Bang cosmology in its most basic form, where the point masses in the theory represent clusters of galaxies. This works because astronomers since the early 1920's have discovered that galactic clusters are in fact distributed evenly (homogeneously and isotopically) throughout the visible universe. Moreover the theory predicts that spacetime is either shaped like an expanding ball (the "closed" model) or like a flat or saddle-shaped surface (the "open" models). In the closed model, the universe will recollapse to zero size some 100 - 200 billion years form now. In the open models the universe expands and cools forever. The closed model has a finite size; in the open models, the universe is already infinite in size and still expands! In both cases, spacetime expands from an initial point called the Big Bang in which the size of the model is arbitrarily small, and the density and temperature of the matter soars to infinity. This strange event lies about 15 billion years in the past and is labeled the beginning of time, or "t=0". In the 1960's, it was shown that if the universe obeys certain conditions, the point t=0 is unavoidable, calling it an "essential singularity." Still it is a highly curious feature of science to predicate of the universe a beginning, an event which is the cause of future events, but not the effect of previous causes.
A second curious feature of Big Bang cosmology involves what is often called the "Anthropic Principle" (AP). The AP starts with the observation that the evolution of life in the universe is very closely connected with certain highly exact global properties of the universe as a whole. Certainly scientists believe that some form of life would arise by biological evolution given the right planetary conditions. But since the mid 1970's, it has become increasingly clear - and increasingly astonishing - that had the universe as a whole been slightly different, those "right planetary conditions" could never have arisen in the first place! They focus their argument on the initial conditions of the universe and the laws of nature, including the precise values of the natural constants such as Plancks constant and the speed of light. Variations of even one part per million or less would have produced a universe in which the development of galaxies, stars, planets, organic molecules, and so on, would have been highly unlikely, even impossible. Why then is the universe seemingly fine-tuned for the eventual evolution of life?
Big Bang cosmology includes additional challenges: why is there as much matter and antimatter in the universe, why is the universe at t=0 homogeneous and isotropic (the boundary question), why is the universe flat or only slightly open, etc. Recent work has modified Big Bang cosmology to address these and other challenges. Most scientists now believe that the very early universe expanded incredibly rapidly in what is called "inflation" and then settled down into the standard rate of expansion as described by the standard Big Bang model. According to the inflationary (or "hot") Big Bang models, we cannot be certain whether the universe began at a t=0-like event or whether it emerged out of a prior megauniverse, inflating a tiny part of this pervious, perhaps eternal, superspace. Moreover, inflation may produce a vast number of distinct domains each of which is like a universe of its own, each with different values of the natural constants, and so on. Could this account for the questions of fine-tuning raised by the AP?
Moreover, the very early universe, being nearly zero in size, requires a quantum mechanical treatment and a theory of quantum gravity to replace general. Hawking, Penrose, Valenkin, Isham, and others have speculated that in such a model there would be no initial singularity (no "t=0"). Moreover, just as special relativity brought time and space together into spacetime, so the combination of general relativity and quantum gravity could further reduce the distinctiveness of time over against space in these models of quantum gravity.
The second fundamental break with classical physics after general relativity came gradually over a thirty year period (1900-1930) with the development of quantum mechanics by dozens of physicists including Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and so on. Quantum phenomenon display: wave and particle properties as in the famous "two-slit experiment", leading Niels Bohr to talk about "wave/particle duality"; discrete transitions (`jumps'R, `tunneling') between separate states; spontaneous, random occurrences (though statistically law-abiding); and the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which uncertainties occur in "conjugate" variables, such as position and momentum.
Accordingly, quantum mechanics is subject to competing interpretations - none of which can be overruled by known data to date. The Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr stressed the epistemic limitations of quantum physics. Here one is forced to use contradictory models, such as waves and particles, to refer to the same phenomena in order to explain all of its aspects. Others argued for an ontological interpretation of quantum mechanics, arguing that quantum unpredictability points to a fundamental indeterminism in reality. Werner Heisenberg argued this way: the chance aspects of quantum phenomena are due to an ontological property, indeterminism, which holds at the quantum level in the world. Albert Einstein and later David Bohm also opted for an ontological interpretation, but they sided with determinism, hoping that the statistical character of quantum data could be explained by as yet unknown causal factors ("hidden variables") or by a revised view of matter itself. Eugene Wigner and others have suggested that it is mind acting on matter that accounts for quantum phenomena. Everett-Graham-Wheeler adopt a "many worlds" view, in which with every quantum phenomenon, the universe splits into all possible states, and every possible outcome occurs in a distinct but unobservable universe. Astonishingly, over 60 years have passed since quantum mechanics was completed and we still cannot decide between these interpretations based on physical data!
Classical thermodynamics is characterized by two laws: first, the conservation of energy and secondly, the non-decrease of entropy in closed systems isolated from their environment. Examples include gas in a balloon, liquid cooling in a container, wood burning in a stove. Since all such phenomena moved from states of low to states of high entropy and were said to be irreversible, thermodynamics seemed to point to an "arrow of time" contrary to classical mechanics, for which all phenomena are reversible in time.
By the end of the nineteenth century, it had been shown that classical thermodynamics could be reduced to classical mechanics via statistical mechanics. To do so one treats solids, liquids and gases as composed of atoms, and regards bulk properties such as pressure, temperature and volume as arising from the motion of atoms. Since the motion of atoms obeyed classical mechanics, thermodynamic properties could be shown to be `epiphenomena, i.e., rooted in the underlying atomic motion. The reduction of classical thermodynamics also explained the apparent arrow of time as resulting from a system going from a complex, highly organized state, to a simple, disorganized state. Once again, fundamental physics was without an arrow of time.
During the twentieth century, non-linear, non-equilibrium systems were studied. These open systems exchange matter and/or energy with their larger environment, and in doing so, they can move from a less ordered to a more ordered state. The process decreases their entropy without violating the Second Law, since the total entropy of the system plus its environment increases in accordance with the Second Law. This phenomena is frequently called "order out of chaos" and such systems are called "dissipative systems." Does this reintroduce an arrow of time? It does phenomenologically, but whether it does so at a fundamental level is still an open question, since the underlying laws governing the atoms of these systems reflect temporal reversibility.
Recently there has been extensive study of systems obeying classical physics (e.g.., mechanics, meteorology, hydrodynamics, animal populations, etc.) and called chaotic, complex and self-organizing systems. These systems display an incredible sensitivity to their environment, epitomized in the famous "butterfly" effect where a small perturbation in, say, Nairobi effects the weather some weeks later in, say, Kyoto. Even in the simplest cases, chaotic systems appear entirely random even though they are governed by a deterministic equation. "Chaotic randomness" is thus a combination of phenomenologically random data governed by an entirely deterministic equation. On the one hand, it allows us to increasingly bring into the deterministic framework of classical science broad areas of phenomena which seemed to resist such inclusion. On the other hand, it represents a limit to the complete testability of the classical paradigm. This is because the practical limitations on predictability means we cannot rule out the possibility that certain macroscopic phenomena may in fact be genuinely random (not in fact governed by a deterministic equation). Meanwhile, chaos, self-organization and complexity theory help to explain how biological complexity arose in conformity with thermodynamics, and they give tacit support to the hope of some scholars that nature at the macroscipic level may in fact be ontologically open.
In our culture, most people assume that science and theology must either be in outright conflict or they must occupy two separate worlds.
According to the conflict model, science proves atheism and disproves belief in the God of the Bible. Many Christians accept this view of science and, as a consequence, respond to it by attacking science - or at least that part of science which is most often claimed to lead to atheism, namely the neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution by variation and natural selection. They often attempt to replace this atheistic science with an alternative, namely creation science, or with arguments about intelligent design. Unfortunately in the process they have tacitly accepted the claim that science does indeed prove atheism, and it is this claim, and not science itself, which deserves to be their real target. For over a century, theological scholarship in the United States, England and Europe has shown science to be highly compatible with Christian faith. This fact exposes as fraudulent the claim that Darwinian evolution necessarily forces one to be an atheist, and it invites all Christians to offer their own creative interpretation of Gods ongoing action as Creator of the universe in light of the findings of science.
Alternatively, many scientists and theologians have attempted to settle the matter by accepting both evolution and Christianity. They claim that science and theology are about totally separate domains of knowledge and practice. Both the methods and the claims of these fields are entirely separable, and that to relate them is to misunderstand and even distort them. For example, science and religion are as different as fact versus value, how versus why, reason versus faith, nature versus God, etc. In recent decades, however, the arguments given in support of this kind of rigid compartmentalization have begun to fail for several reasons:
Is there a third option for relating theological and scientific claims? I believe through mutual, creative interaction both fields can flourish not only by their own, independent standards and criteria but through the new results which can only come through an interaction which respects the integrity of both sides. The process will involve rethinking theological doctrine in light of current science and analyzing scientific theories for inherent philosophical and theological elements.
I believe theologians should be open to a kind of empirical testing or "confirmation" of their work in light of scientific theories and discoveries. This process will allow science to play a fruitful role in shaping, trimming, checking and inspiring the ongoing process of theological research. Here philosophy can act as a much-needed bridge between the fields, so that theological terms can be related to scientific ones and thereby brought into critical interaction with scientific knowledge. For scientists the process will involve an inspection of how the working assumptions in science, whose roots lie in philosophy and theology, actually affect explicit scientific theories and their interpretation of data, and how changes in these assumptions might creatively advance science if their suggestions are tested through the rigors of the scientific, empirical method. The value to both sides will be to find the process creative and stimulating without either side attempting to negate the integrity or flatly reject the claims of the other. Conflicts may arise over specific issues, but the basic process will be one of healthy, mutual interaction. The new approach is nicely summarized by Pope John Paul II: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish."
Creation theology is certainly evident in Scripture, although the doctrine of creation was developed in the early centuries of the church.
A sweeping theme of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the God who redeems Israel is the Creator of the universe. Theologies of creation are found in both the older Yahwist stories of Eden (Gen. 2:4b-25) and the lofty Priestly version involving the entire Biblical cosmology (Gen. 1:1-2:4a). Following the Flood a mythological catastrophe of cosmic proportions in the Priestly narrative (Gen. 7:11) a new covenant is made which includes all life, not just humanity (Gen. 9:9-17). This covenant is reflected in the prophets (cf. Hosea 2: 16-23) and taken up into the vision of "a new heaven and a new earth" (Isaiah 66: 17-25). Indeed the creation of the universe by the God of Israel is a theme running throughout the Hebrew testament, as Proverbs 8 so movingly portrays.
In the New Testament, Christ is seen as the new creation, the Word of God by which all things were made (John 1:1-3) and through whom the old has passed away (2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus teaches in parables drawn from nature, and his power as Messiah is evidenced in healing and nature miracles. The Resurrection of Christ is significant not only for humans but for all creation groaning in travail (Rom. 8:18-25). Finally, the parousia will bring about a "new heaven and a new earth" as promised to the prophets (2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21:1-4).
During the early history of the church, theologians fashioned a doctrine of creation using Biblical, philosophical, theological and liturgical tools. Actually the doctrine includes two related strands: creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) and creatio continua (continuing creation).
Creatio ex nihilo stands for the radical contingency of all that is, the complete dependence of all beings on a transcendent God as the sole source of their existence. God's creative act is totally free; matter, space, time and even the laws of nature emerge out of God's unconditional choice. In this sense, `creation out of nothing' really means `not created out of anything prior.' Creatio ex nihilo also implies that God transcends the world. This means that the world is neither God nor a part of God's being. Yet being God's creation the world is not purposeless but filled with beauty and meaning and redeemed by God's saving love.
Along with the deeper philosophical sense of ontological dependence, creation has also been taken to entail a sort of religious historical cosmology. Genesis 1:1 in particular was frequently regarded literally as referring to the creation of the world at a finite time in the past. St. Thomas, for example, argued that philosophy could demonstrate the contingency of the world but not its age; only by revelation could Christians know that the age of the world is finite. These questions continue into twentieth century theology.
Christian theologians also want to lift up God's ongoing action in the world in terms of creatio continua. As immanent to the world, God acts continuously to create and sustain the world now and in the future. The creation tradition rejects a deism in which God's only creative act was at the beginning of a static, deterministic world, or even a more sophisticated theology of creation which still views all of the universe in terms of a single and unmodulated creative act. Instead reality is seen as incomplete and the future unpredictable; the world is in a process of becoming and the future is open to God's particular, saving and transforming acts. Ultimately God's faithfulness will bring all of reality to a just fulfillment at the end of the age.
Together creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua form complementary modes of interpreting the central theological insight that God the Creator is both transcendent to and immanent in all of creation.
How best might we relate cosmology and theology? Many today urge that we take the beginning of the universe at "t=0" as direct support of the creation of the world as described in the Bible. This sort of position has surfaced to a varying degree by groups otherwise differing widely: evangelical and conservative Christians, religiously open scientists and educators, various denominational leaders and church spokespersons, main-line theologians, and so on. It is similar to the "conflict" model in that it assumes there can be a direct link between a specific scientific theory, like cosmology or evolution, and a specific theological view, such as belief or unbelief in God the Creator.
Unlike the conflict model, the direct support model has some attractive features. Clearly there is something religiously evocative about the idea that the universe may have had a beginning according to science. If we start with faith in God as the Creator of the universe, we can greet the beginning of the universe with a profound sense of recognition: the universe, like, us, had a beginning, and it too may have an end.
My concern, however, is not with the way in which science can give language to piety but with the way in which scientific results might be taken as the basis for faith. This concern is fed from a number of sources. First of all the doctrine of creation should not be truncated to a single claim, namely that creation had a beginning. Instead creation ex nihilo includes the continuing existence of the universe and the laws of nature, as we have already seen. Hence it is fair to search for new meaning for theology in the context of science, but we should not reduce theology to a single scientific argument.
I am also concerned about theology being vulnerable to the changing fortunes of scientific theories. We must recognize that the meaning of "t=0" is highly contextualized by the assumptions and limitations of Big Bang theory. Many of these are changing as we learn more about the physical evolution of the universe and as we move beyond the theory of general relativity into quantum gravity. So, given that all scientific theories eventually get replaced, which features of the current theory should we take as telling us something of lasting truth about the universe, and which features will be abandoned by future theories? In particular, will the "t=0" feature of Big Bang models recur in successor cosmological theories, such as those of quantum gravity? But a more serious concern is for the proper basis for faith. I would be very cautious about making science the starting point (i.e., the foundation) for theology, as the history of deism underscores. Instead results from cosmology can count as a form of theological evidence, but only with a much more complex and carefully delineated understanding of what evidence means and how it helps articulate and apply, but not prove, a theory. Of course, some scholars, with these or other concerns, have taken more of a "two worlds" approach, seeing little substantive relation between cosmology and theology on the issue of t=0. As I have indicated above, I think this approach, though valuable in its refusal to opt for conflict, may keep these fields far more separated than is warranted - or helpful - today. Instead I would opt for the interaction model.
Instead of the direct support approach, I suggest we try out the interaction model to the question of "t=0" in cosmology. The interaction model will depend on our finding an appropriate way to relate results between theology and science without tying them too closely together. This can be done in a number of ways. Here I will suggest we use the philosophical idea of contingency, namely that the universe need not exist as such, the laws of nature need not be what they are, and so on.
In cosmology a particularly lucid example of the contingency of the universe is its temporal finitude the age of the universe as depicted by the Big Bang model. We also interpret contingency as finitude theologically. In the doctrine of creation "out of nothing" (creatio ex nihilo) it is held that all created being is finite; only God is infinite. One form of creaturely finitude - though not the only form - is the finite age of the world. In this way we can relate the theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo via the philosophical bridge of contingency as finitude to empirical claims about the universe having a finite age, marked with the limit condition "t=0" in standard Big Bang models. In this sense, the theological claim about divine creation as entailing the contingency of the world is apparently confirmed by the empirical evidence for the beginning of the universe in the Big Bang model. Hence, if we believe, for theological reasons, that God created the universe, then t=0 in Big Bang cosmology gives strong confirmation of that belief. If we were to use a legal metaphor for the evidence given to theology by cosmology, we could say that t=0 functions as a character witness, but not as an eyewitness, to belief in divine creation.
We also want to explore the lessons for creation theology as science changes. Big Bang cosmology is currently being modified by the introduction of quantum physics, as we have already seen. Though highly speculative, the Hawking/Hartle model of the "quantum creation of the universe" is an example of the kind of challenge presented by quantum cosmology to the relation between theology and cosmology. If there is not "t=0" in the Hawking/Hartle model, does this disprove the theological claim that the universe is created? Actually the interaction method produces a more nuanced result than this. Recall that, according the Hawking, the universe has a finite past but no past singularity at "t=0;" the universe is temporally past finite but unbounded. If we had too narrowly reduced the theological meaning of creation to the occurrence of "t=0" in standard cosmology we might well have a problem here! (Certainly not the problem Carl Sagan tries to raise in his Preface to Hawking's book - namely that there is nothing left for God to do. Deism like this is not even remotely presupposed by those theologians who do take t=0 as direct evidence for God. For them, as for all contemporary theology in one way or another, God acts everywhere in the universe, and not just at its beginning.) Yet if we kept the two worlds separate, we would have nothing to learn either.
But the interaction model provides a surprising new result: The move from the Big Bang to Hawking's model changes the empirical meaning of the philosophical category of finitude; it does not render it meaningless. With Hawking/Hartle the universe is still temporally finite (in the past) but it does not have an initial singularity. Hence the shift in models changes the form of consonance between theology and science from one of bounded temporal past finitude (found with the Big Bang model) to one of unbounded temporal past finitude (found in the Hawking proposal). Thus, as we theologize about creatio ex nihilo we should separate out the element of past temporal finitude from the additional issue of the boundedness of the past. What the Hawking proposal teaches us is that in principle one need not have a bounded finite past to have a finite past. This result stands whether or not Hawking's proposal lasts scientifically.
Hence we have learned something of great value theologically: creaturely finitude, a fundamental category of the ex nihilo tradition, need not entail boundedness. What we have learned from quantum cosmology is that we can claim that creation is temporally finite without necessarily claiming that creation had a beginning. Thus our theological claim can entail more than merely ontological finitude (the limitation that a "two worlds" approach would defend) since it also includes temporal finitude; yet it need not go so far as to identify temporal finitude with a cosmic beginning, let alone look to such a cosmic beginning as the foundation for faith in God. I believe this is a tremendously important point for a Christian doctrine of creation, a point won only by our willingness to interact with research science and let it challenge our earlier theological views.
What might the scientist find of value in the interaction with theology about t=0 and the creation of the universe? For one thing, support for the recognition that questions about the beginning of the universe are truly profound and transcend a narrow technical response, such as shifting from Big Bang to quantum gravity. Instead every response proffered, whether by Einstein, Hawking, or others, will involve not only mathematical formulae and empirical data but subtle philosophical ideas about space, time, matter and causality. When questions like t=0 arise in theories like Big Bang cosmology drive scientists to seek alternative theories like quantum cosmology, they may well address them but the underlying philosophical ideas, far from being eradicated, will reemerge in new and distinctive patterns and which will lead to further questions. The responses brought to the table by research scientists will reflect, either explicitly or implicitly, their own philosophical and theological views, and this is both healthy and inevitable in the process of research science. What may prove additionally useful in the process is the possibility that recognizing these ideas for what they are and discussing them openly might actually facilitate the process of scientific discovery.
A great deal of attention have recently been given the so-called "Anthropic Principle" (AP). As we have seen already, had the universe as a whole been slightly different, the evolution of life never have arisen in the first place! But does the apparent "fine-tuning" of our universe mean that we can invoke a divine Designer of the universe as a whole as the best explanation, or can the fine-tuning more aptly be explained away scientifically?
For most scientists, then answer is simple: given inflationary Big Bang cosmology or perhaps quantum cosmology, there may well be many universes ("many worlds") with varying values of the natural constants, even many of the laws of nature. If this is so, we simply exist in the one which is consistent with the eventual evolution of life. On the other hand, some writers favor a design argument, arguing that ours is the only universe and its fine-tuning must be explained by appeal to God. They see the appeal to inflation or quantum cosmology as dubious since these theories, especially quantum cosmology, are speculative and difficult to test empirically. Thus for cosmologist George Ellis and theologian Nancey Murphy, the fact that creatures capable of moral agency such as us have evolved in the universe is evidence that God designed the universe with the intention to create creatures capable of virtue, compassion, and self-surrendering love. They have thus made a major contribution to the Anthropic Principle in their recent work on the "moral universe".
I appreciate the intention of arguments like these, for they help us reconnect our human lives with the overall character of the universe itself. Rather than see life in the universe as meaningless and tragic, they suggest that life is a key to the meaning of the universe, and they shed light on fundamental Christian convictions about the love of God who creates and redeems the world. Still I am hesitant to push the argument too far towards a design argument for the existence of God. To me it seems that both sides on this particular debate are precariously balanced and open to rapid shifts in science, philosophy and theology.
For example, even if one starts with inflation to explain the variation in the natural constants, a theist can still counter that God designed the entire set of universes, or the laws of nature which govern them all, etc. On the other hand let us suppose that ours is the only universe. If one already believes in the Biblical God, the close fit between the universe and the conditions for the evolution of life illuminate ones understanding of God as the Creator ex nihilo of this universe.
However, if one attempts to start with the fine-tuning of the universe and use it as a basis for an argument that God exists, it raises several profound theological tangles - most of which trace back to the Enlightenment critiques of religion such as David Hume and apply to the intelligent design arguments others are seeking to construct in the context of biological evolution. For example, it clearly begs the question whether the `Designer' one gets is what one wants: the Biblical God. In general, however, I am very dubiousabout turning to scientific data, instead of religious experience, tradition, and scripture, for primary theological evidence for God.
Finally, like the "direct support" argument about t=0, a too heavy reliance on the AP would seem to me to be basing a specific theological claim (the existence of God as designer) on a particular `fact' of science (the apparently fine-tuned features of the universe).
Should we therefore abandon the Anthropic Principle as irrelevant to theology and withdraw into a "two worlds" position? I dont believe we need to take this option, either. Instead I suggest we reject both options: design and many world. Instead, I believe we can learn a great deal theologically if we start with belief in God the Creator and let the cosmological fine-tuning shape our theological language about God as Creator of both the world as a whole and all its parts. To see this, let us focus on one of the natural constants, Planck's constant, and study its relation to both the parts, and the whole structure, of the universe.
Planck's constant is linked intimately to each part of the universe through which life evolved. Quantum physics plays an essential role in genetic variation which in turn drives biological evolution. If the numerical value of Planck's constant were slightly different, life could not have arisen via evolution on a planet like ours. Thus Planck's constant is linked to the phenomenon of life and sentience; it is thus a part of the contingency of the biological processes of a universe that is filled with life and a sign of life's dependence on the God who creates life through biological evolution, including therein the role of quantum physics.
Planck's constant also contributes to the overall, physical character of the universe as a whole. During the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang the universe was governed by a single fundamental interaction; the very early universe, being microscopic, was a quantum phenomenon. Had the value of Planck's constant been different than it is, the universe may never have produced the right astrophysical and geological conditions for biological life to ever get started. Without this value the physical preconditions for evolution - cosmological production of helium, generation of galaxies, stars, and planets, etc. - might never have occurred. In this way the value of Planck's constant is essential to the global, physical character of the universe.
Hence it may be, as Wolfhart Pannenberg asserts, that "the universe as a whole and in all its parts is contingent." But what we have discovered through science is that these two philosophically distinct types of contingency are mutually constrained empirically by the role Planck's constant plays in each domain. Indeed Planck's constant, the common factor between the contingency of the whole and the contingency of the parts, connects them in a way which we could not have learned from pure philosophical speculation. Thus to use the philosophical tool of contingency properly in theology we must turn to science.
Our theological lesson must be this: when we speak of the contingency of the world as part of what a theology of creation entails, we must understand that the contingency of the universe as a whole is intimately connected with the contingency of the universe at each step in the process of evolution. It is not that the whole determines the parts or vice versa; rather the whole and the parts are co-determined by a single contingent fact, the value of Planck's constant. It is here that we can more correctly locate the effect of God's free, creative act.
If it is the case that the contingency of the universe as a whole is directly tied to the contingency of the universe in each part and process, then God's action in creating the universe through each process is related to God's action in shaping the universe as a whole; i.e., creatio ex nihilo is closely related to creatio continua. In essence, the action through which God creates the universe entails a dialectic of freedom and constraint. There is a contingent, free element in nature, represented here by the value of Planck's constant and the laws which contain it; they could have been other than what they are. Yet this value determines much of both the global and the microscopic features of nature. This means that if we talk about God's action in creating the world and human life in the context of the natural sciences we should speak about a single free divine creation (the creation of the value of Planck's constant) out of which emerged much of the physical character of the universe at large as well as the much of the biological character of evolution in time.
Granted that God might well be said to freely choose the values of the fundamental constants, including Planck's constant. Within this choice, however, the die is cast: God cannot independently choose the role for quantum physics at both the cosmic and the microscopic scales. God's freedom in choosing ex nihilo the value of Planck's constant and the laws in which it occurs has effects both globally and locally, shaping the meaning of God's continuing creation throughout the domain of the cosmos.
God's choice of Planck's constant both allows for the open character of the universe through which God can continually act (creatio continua) and conditions the kind of universe to be one which requires billions of years of evolutionary struggle, suffering, and slow emergence before producing sentience and spirit. (This would seem to offer new connections between creation and redemption, even touching on the theological problems of evil and theodicy.)
Thus even from this simple, preliminary example I believe we can see that science both gives meaning to, and critically shapes the meaning of, theological reflection on core assertions of Christian faith, without pre-preempting their legitimate bases in the religious experiences of the worshiping community.
It is not that the Anthropic Principle really serves as a basis for a design argument or proof of the existence of God, nor that it necessarily leads to a many-worlds argument that ignores religion. Rather what I believe we have learned is that as we think theologically about the universe and the emergence of life within it, science contributes a vital clue about the relationship between what otherwise seemed like very different domains of divine creativity: the vision of God framing the universe as a whole and the hand of God articulating its every inner fiber. If science can thus help us theologize more faithfully and with new insight, it surely deserves our growing attention.
How might we relate current scientific theory to the theology of continuous creation and special providence, in which God is seen as acting in all the events of the world, in both nature and human history. Can that be reconciled with a scientific account of the universe without having to think that God must break the laws of nature which God creates and upholds in order to bring something genuinely new and decisive about?
The notion of Gods acting in the world is central to the biblical witness. From the call of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt to the birth, ministry, death and raising of Jesus and the founding of the church at Pentecost, God is represented as making new things happen. Through these "mighty acts," God creates and saves. Belief in divine providence continued relatively intact, though deployed, not unproblemmatically , in many and varied forms, throughout the Patristic period, the Middle Ages, and well into the Protestant Reformation. Questions about human freedom and the reality of evil were seen more as problems requiring serious theological attention than as reasons for abandoning belief in Gods universal agency.
The rise of modern science in the seventeenth century and Enlightenment philosophy in the eighteenth, however, led many to reject the traditional view of providence. Newtonian mechanics depicted a causally closed universe with little, if any, room for Gods special action in specific events - and then only by intervention. A century later, Pierre Simon Laplace combined the determinism of Newtons equations with epistemological and metaphysical reductionism to portray all of nature as an impersonal mechanism. David Hume challenged the arguments for God as first cause and as designer. In response, Immanuel Kant constructed a new metaphysical system in which religion lies not in our knowing (the activity of pure reason) but in our sense of moral obligation (the activity of practical reason). The effect was to separate the domains of science and religion into "two worlds", and this position is still with us in the twentieth century as weve already seen.
Protestant theology in the first half of the twentieth century was largely shaped by Karl Barth who attempted to circumvent the Kantian split by holding fast to the objective action of God in creating and redeeming the world. The `God who acts continued as a hallmark of the ensuing "biblical theology" movement in the 1940s and 1950s. But to many theologians today, Barthian neo-orthodoxy and the biblical theology movement did not finally succeed in overcoming the "two worlds" problem or in producing a credible account of divine action. Contemporary Roman Catholic thought, still largely tied to a Thomistic metaphysics, has encountered different but equally challenging problems in dealing with objective special providence.
And so we find ourselves at the heart of the problem. Given the scientific account of a closed, mechanical universe, and the reductionistic philosophy which often accompanies it, it seems as though there are but two options: either God must intervene in order to act objectively in special events by breaking or suspending the laws of nature, the "conservative" approach, or else God only acts uniformly in all events to sustain them in existence, the "liberal" approach. Is any other option possible?
I believe we can construct a new view of special providence which holds both that God acts in the world objectively, and yet that such action is not by intervening in or suspending the laws of nature. I call this idea "non-interventionist objective special divine action". Much of the current discussion in the field of theology and science regarding divine action now turns on this possibility. The approach which I will take depends on recent developments in both philosophy and science. I cannot explore the philosophical arguments here, since that would take us considerably afield in this short article. I will, however, suggest how quantum mechanics contributes to the approach by changing our views of causality in nature. There are even some very remarkable implications for the creation / evolution debate which I will hint at here.
In the mid 1980s, I began to explore the implications of quantum physics, and particularly Bells theorem, for the doctrines of creation and providence. "From a theological perspective we can add to the view that God creates the universe through chance and law the claim that the order God is creating is in some sense the order of quantum chaos. Rather than saying the God creates order in place of (i.e., out of) chaos, from a quantum perspective we could say that one way God creates order is through creating the properties of chaos." This is continuous creation indeed!
It is precisely this classical world in which God can act (without intervening) in specific events, if we recognize that the classical world is not an irreducible given but a result of the quantum world. Thus the laws which describe the classical world are approximations to the laws of quantum mechanics which describe how the classical world, with its Newtonian regularity, arises directly out of the quantum world, with its two kinds of statistics. If I adopt the interpretation that these quantum statistics reflect ontological indeterminism, then I may argue that God can act together with nature to bring about all events at the quantum level, and that these events give rise to the classical world.
What about a specific event in the classical world, one which would fall under the category of objective non-interventionist divine action? Here the response is that God acts in a particular quantum event which has the potential for a macroscopic effect within the ongoing macroscopic world. God acts in all quantum events, but in some cases the effect `matter in the classical world more than others. It turns out that there is a tremendously important case in which this kind of understanding of non-interventionist objective special providence is of critical importance, and it is precisely where the critics of Christianity have been the most vocal: neo-Darwinian evolution!
If the thesis is sustained, it can turn defeat into victory. One of the key reasons for the rejection of Christianity by its highly vocal critics is the charge that genetic variation is `blind and thus an anethma to Gods purposes. My argument reinterprets genetic variation as essential for a non-interventionist special divine action in nature; God acts in evolution precisely because of and within genetic variation. Moreover, it undermines the declared reason for scientific creationism, since there is now no reason to seek to replace "atheistic" science by what is in reality religious pseudo-science. Instead we can give a robust Christian interpretation of science, showing that it is not science per se but its atheistic interpretation that is the real challenge for Christians. This move would also enable us theologically to extend the domain of Gods special providence beyond human history to include the biosphere out of whose several billion years of evolution we have emerged.
A number of important challenges and criticisms arise immediately, and must be met fairly. Here I can only cite them briefly:
The most prominent issue that theologians have addressed regarding special relativity is that of God's relation to time, or what is usually called the question of time and eternity. Is God totally separate from the flow of time, the divine eternity a timeless universal present, or is God both eternal and yet intimately involved in the world and, in specific, in our experience of the passage of time? This is a particularly important theological concern today because many contemporary scholars emphasize the idea that God experiences the events in the world as they actually happen to us, and responds in time to our prayers and hopes. Granted that we may, if we chose, still affirm the divine eternity to be either beyond time, as in classical theology, or at least beyond the flowing character of time, in which past and future are inaccessible as in our ordinary experience of time. But can God as eternal also experience and respond to our lives in times flow?
This issue is particularly important in view of the enormous suffering of people this century, tragically underscored by the Holocaust and other human atrocities, and of the environment, marred by the ravages of human sinful behavior. Theologians are increasingly arguing that the suffering of humanity and the environment is taken up into the divine life and experience, and that only thereby can it be transformed and redeemed. The suffering of God with the world, as compared with a more traditional notion of Gods being unaffected by the world, is thus a key theme in contemporary theology, especially among contemporary Trinitarian theologians.
Some theologies, notably process theology, go even further and argue that both divine and creaturely reality is essentially temporal, that we live in a world of becoming in which constant and enduring things are a construct of what is actually a series of pointlike, momentary and fleeting events. For these theologies, the reality of time for the divine life is fundamental. Thus both the notion of Gods temporal experience of and interaction with the world and of our ordinary human experience of flowing time are basic to many theological approaches today.
The question is whether these views of time are compatible with physics and cosmology. Special relativity is often the key focus of this question, and the answer is surprisingly mixed. The block universe interpretation seems highly compatible with the classical view of eternity as the absence of change, the simultaneous presence to God of all moments and events in the history of the universe, but is the antithesis of the theologies which insist on the temporality of both human and divine life.
On the other hand, the flowing time view of the world is nicely compatible with the belief that God as eternal nevertheless experiences the world in time, hears prayer and acts in the world in the present moment. But does it so emphasize the fleeting character of time, the goneness of the past and the maybeneverness of the future, that the Lordship of God over all times, and the everlasting faithfulness of Gods promises to redeem the world, are undercut? And which interpretation of special relativity is more plausible to scientists and other scholars? This has been the subject of intense scholarship over the past decades, and interestingly, it remains one of the key questions at the frontiers of the philosophy of physics.
I believe the challenge is to incorporate insights from both sides here into a richer synthesis. Surely God's eternity is the source of the time we experience, and thus God is capable of experiencing the world in its flowing present. Yet God's eternity eternally transcends its relations to creation and thus to flowing time, and offers a depth of time which unifies and completes all that remains broken and unfinished in our lives. Perhaps the ambiguous status of time in special relativity - block universe vs. flowing time - is a reflection, however poorly, of what in the divine eternity as the source of time is an inward differentiation and complexity of God's temporality, where alpha and omega merge together in the single divine presence.
In traditional Christian theology, suffering and death are the result of human sin stemming from the Fall conceived of as an actual historical event. Though "death" often meant both biological death and spiritual death, the reality of suffering, disease, and death in non-human nature was understood as the consequence of human disobedience to God and the expulsion of humankind from the idyllic life once theirs in the Garden of Eden.
With the rise of Biblical critical scholarship over the past two centuries, and along with it the development of modern science, including geology as well as biology, the historicity of the Fall has been largely abandoned by wide sections of the Christian tradition. The Genesis narrative remains crucially important as focusing our attention on the reality of sin, both the sins of individual people and of social and political institutions, and on the reality of the consequences of sin in terms of the destruction we bring about on humanity and the environment. But as an explanation of the historical origins of sin, the Fall narrative is of much less help. How then do we account for the inevitable and universal fact of human sinfulness?
One approach is to see sinfulness and the capacity to do evil as something which arose sui generis with the evolution of humanity as a distortion of those aspects which distinguish homo sapiens in the context of other early hominids. These include language, imagination, tool making, and all the other aspects related to the phenomena of self-consciousness and moral judgment. Another approach is to embed these aspects of humanity in a long evolutionary pattern of emerging capacities, and to talk about at least a prefiguring of them in earlier mammalian species as well as in other contemporary species, such as dolphins and chimps. But is it appropriate and even sensible to use terms like morality and evil outside the context of human behavior?
While the debate continues among sociobiologists, anthropologists, and so on, some see even physics as having at least a limited bearing on the subject. Clearly the underlying physical characteristics of what we call sinful and evil acts involve dissipation, decay, violence, and so on, and thus entropy. It is then possible to ask whether the laws of thermodynamics are in some way a precondition for the possibility of the slow evolution of those capacities which, at least in humanity, emerge as full-blown sinfulness. Entropy in particular seems to play an ambiguous, multivalent role here.
For example, not only are dissipation, decay, and death processes marked by an increase in entropy. Even the production of order and complexity, of biological novelty, beauty, "design," requires an overall increase in entropy in their underlying physical systems. So we can formulate the question in this way: if God created the universe for the evolution of life and of creatures like us capable of entering into covenant with God, was it necessary to include the laws of thermodynamics in the process? If Murphy and Ellis can talk about a "moral universe", must we also talk about a "thermodynamic universe" in which sin and consequently redemption are included as well? Or does sin remain something both entirely unique to humanity and without any precedent whatsoever, and the pre-human world one of amoral innocence?
Increasingly today, scientists are interested in connecting their research with their understanding and experience of spirituality. For many, doing science is in itself a spiritual experience of uncovering mysteries about the universe. For others, doing science requires an ethical commitment, and this commitment is grounded in and is a form of spirituality. Still others view nature as one form of divine revelation, and the book of nature discloses intimations of Gods purpose in creating the universe and thus enhances our understanding of the purpose of life in the universe.
To some, the laws of nature reveal something about the mind of God, and the history of the cosmos which unfolds on the basis of these laws are evidence of the ongoing activity of God. Science leads some scientists to God as the ultimate reality and source of all that is. To others, scientific knowledge brings fresh insight into the vast wisdom held withing the various religious traditions of the world, and the impetus for scientific pursuit is received from their personal religious convictions. In these and many other ways, scientists are increasingly willing to describe their practice of science and the knowledge gained from scientific discoveries as directly relevant to spirituality both as our thirst and search for God and as Gods gracious offer to encounter us. This new field of science and spirituality promises to be of tremendous value as more and more scientists from the plurality of humanitys religious traditions join in the process of connecting their scientific research and their faith and lived religious experience.