Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stephen Hawking's recent quotes on religion

In a recent interview for ABC's World News, Diane Sawyer asked Stephen Hawking what his thoughts were on science and religion. Here is how he responded. (Note: the transcript given in the article is, in my opinion, very poor and has a faulty interpretation; I will copy what I think Hawking actually said, given that he probably meant to say something coherent.)

"One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God," Hawking told Sawyer. "They mean a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible."

"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

Statements like these make it difficult to live in the intersection of science and Christianity. I want to take Hawking seriously--he is a brilliant man. I have occasionally found that Christians are tempted to apply a passage like 1 Cor 1:18-25 by dismissing the religious opinions of brilliant people. This seems to me wholly inappropriate for two reasons. One is textual: the whole letter of 1 Corinthians is designed to humble the proud church that Paul is addressing, and thus I find it quite plausible that Paul is not making so much a triumphalist statement against the enemies of the church so much as he is giving the Corinthians a little perspective on their own limited knowledge. The second is just the golden rule: we need to treat all people as we want to be treated, and we all want our ideas on religion to be taken seriously.

So how do I take Hawking seriously? I am amazed by Hawking's life and work, and at the risk of sounding cheesy I really do think he is a testament to the power of the human spirit. But I'm not going to take his words lying down. Probably these short statements made in an interview don't fully express Hawking's views, but he did make them, and I think it's fair to respond to them critically.

The two statements quoted above are fascinating to me because of the way in which they are meant to apply to all religion. Consider the first statement, against the idea of a personal relationship with God. Faithful members of some religions, even theistic ones, might be puzzled or even taken aback at this concept being applied to them. Surely Islam, for instance, does not take God to be literally personal. Even some Christian traditions take the utter transcendence of God more seriously than the personal nature of God.

Or consider the second statement, against religious authority. That comment certainly applies well to, say, Islam or Roman Catholicism. But consider the myriad Protestant denominations in Christendom; in what sense are they authoritarian? Consider especially the Emergent Church movement, in which even the authority of Scripture is a rather nuanced idea (and I'm probably being generous).

Hawking's statements only make sense on TV because Christianity has left cultural residue everywhere in the Western world. Thus everyone, no matter how little he understands of Christianity, has a vague sense that Christians believe in a personal God, and that they derive their beliefs about the universe from some source of authority, whether it be Scripture or tradition. It's hard to imagine such statements on religion being made in a place where Christianity is not the dominant religion.

That's not to say I know exactly why these statements make sense to Hawking. Everyone has some experience with religion, and our opinions are shaped by that experience. It is a very common experience for scientific people to be frustrated by a lack of skepticism among religious people. It is also very common for scientists to have quite profound feelings about the vastness and beauty of the universe, which doesn't always seem to be the focus of religious faith. I suspect these are the experiences behind Hawking's statements, though I can't be sure how these experiences took shape.

How do we move forward, out of broad misunderstandings of one another and into a world where the intersection of science and religion is not only possible, but in fact thrives? In my estimation, it will be uncomfortable for everyone. It will take some serious thought and discussion about big issues that are outside most people's area of expertise. Pastors and theologians need to think about science, and scientists need to think about theology and religion. The principle of charity should rule this discussion; we need to assume that all of us deserve to be taken seriously.

Here are some ideas which, in my opinion, get the conversation moving forward in the right direction. In response to the first complaint that Hawking has, let us admit that Christianity often downplays the utter transcendence of God. In light of this fact, here are some things for Christians to think about:

Christian evangelicals have tended to focus on a personal faith in God as the whole of salvation. As a result, our worship often tends to repeat nothing but thankfulness for the personal things God has given us, like forgiveness and guidance and friendship (which are not bad in themselves); the space in which we choose to worship often does not lift up the minds of worshipers to the majesty of God; and as a result, our worship and our lives most often fail to communicate to the world any consistent statement of God's transcendence. What would it look like if we, as N. T. Wright suggests, start believing that salvation is about what God is doing in the world, rather than primarily about how we develop a personal relationship with Him? What if we directed our creativity and our worship toward magnifying the incomprehensibility of God? This might require a massive shift both theologically and liturgically, but it's a shift I believe is necessary, if we are truly concerned with upholding the truth about God.

But even if I admit that Christianity has often failed in this regard, I also think that Hawking, like so many modern people, fails to take grace seriously. The message of Christianity is not that God's entire reason for making the universe was to have a personal relationship with human beings. Rather, it is that God, who created the entire universe, before whom even the stars are counted as nothing, is gracious enough to love human beings. The force of this point perhaps would be clearer if Christians communicated God's transcendence more effectively; but even so, modern people seem sadly resistant to the concept of grace, of any sort of bridge between utter transcendence and intimate love.

Now in response to the second complaint that Hawking has, I do not deny that authority has been used and abused throughout the ages. It seems like a lot of the time it has been for theological reasons; when much is apparently at stake, up to and including salvation, then much is required, even harsh things, to stop heresy. Personally, I often wonder if this is a theological weakness that we have. Why are we always erring on the harsh side of God's promises? Why not instead err on the side of God's grace, and refrain from casting out, separating from, or even killing (!) heretics?

For Protestants, I think we ought to think critically about this doctrine of Sola Scriptura which we have sought to uphold since the Reformation. We need to think about it epistemologically. How do we gain knowledge of God from the Scriptures? Is the correct interpretation clear to any faithful reader of the text? Evidently not, unless you're willing to dismiss all interpreters other than you as unfaithful. So how can Scripture be authoritative? These are not trivial issues. "The Bible says it, I believe, that settles it" is not a sufficient epistemology for faithful Christians devoted to seeking truth in God.

I do ultimately believe in authority, the kind exemplified by Jesus in the gospels. "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves." (Luke 22:25-6) And I don't believe that science is not based on authority. In a positive sense, I think science demonstrates that authority can be earned, rather than arbitrarily lorded over people. Scientists are credible sources of knowledge because they have devoted themselves to understanding the world around us. In a negative sense, however, or simply as a matter of caution, I think we ought to recognize that scientists are humans who hold a somewhat privileged place in society; it is wise to be skeptical of such people, because power corrupts even those who attained it by the right means.

I don't say this is a very thorough discussion of the relevant issues concerning the intersection of science and Christianity. But someone needs to stimulate a reasonable discussion. I believe quite strongly in the ideals upheld by both Christians and scientists. I do believe in the powers of reason and logic, and I believe they are God-given. I do believe we should be critical of authority and always carry a healthy dose of skepticism, but this does not hinder my faith; rather, it enhances it. Why must skepticism and faith always been seen as opposites? As long as these are held to be opposites, so will Christianity and science be held to be at war. And I'm not sure who I would want to win.

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