By Amanda Alexander
While going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), I learned that a very acceptable Catholic answer to a difficult question is, “It’s a mystery!” How does transubstantiation work? It’s a mystery! How did the Virgin Mary actually conceive Jesus? It’s a mystery! How is God three separate persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but one substance? It’s a mystery!
A similar move is sometimes made by those eager to show that there is no conflict between faith and science. At the point at which we reach the limits of our ability to offer a scientific explanation, some folks will say something like, “That just goes to show that God did it! It shows that God has to exist!” For example, some of us might be tempted to respond to the question, “What caused the Big Bang?” with an enthusiastic shout, “God did! It proves that God exists!”
This method of plugging God into the gaps in our scientific knowledge is known as the “God of the gaps” approach. And it is both scientifically and theologically problematic. On the one hand, it fails to respect the role of reason and the pursuit of scientific inquiry. On the other hand, it gets what we mean when we say “God” wrong.
For the sake of illustration, let’s stick with the example of the Big Bang. Most of us are aware that, using incredibly complex calculations, scientists can figuratively rewind the history of the universe, peering back through billions of years of expansion, until they arrive at an initial moment when the entire universe was compressed into a single, incredibly dense and hot bundle of energy. The Big Bang refers to the explosion of this tiny point of dense, hot energy, an explosion whose effects are still seen today as the universe continues to expand and galaxies move away from each other. (Fun fact: one of the first versions of the Big Bang Theory was initially proposed by a Belgian Catholic priest and theoretical physicist, George Lemaître, in 1931.)
The question naturally arises, what happened before that initial explosion of energy, before the Big Bang? Where did it come from? What caused the universe to suddenly and explosively expand outward? The believing mind naturally wants to respond, “God must have triggered it!” But scientific minds take a different approach. Steven Hawking, for example, noted that, since the Big Bang marks the beginning of the universe and the beginning of time, “asking what came before ... is meaningless ... because there is no notion of time available to refer to.” He quips, “it would be like asking what lies south of the South Pole.” Others have proposed that, at some point, the universe’s expansion will slow and then reverse until the whole thing collapses in on itself. This collapse, the “Big Crunch,” then triggers another Big Bang. Theoretically, the universe could be forever expanding and collapsing. There is no scientific need to postulate a God to get things going.
Theologically, it’s a mistake to try to use something like the Big Bang theory to prove the existence of God. Indeed, John Paul II warned the faithful against trying to give a scientific proof for the existence of God, saying “to desire a scientific proof of God would be equivalent to lowering God to the level of the beings of our world, and we would therefore be mistaken methodologically in regard to what God is” (General Audience, July 10, 1985).
Those familiar with Aquinas’s “five ways” for demonstrating the existence of God might be saying, “Wait! Isn’t this exactly what Aquinas did?” Indeed, in the first way, Aquinas argues that nothing can be put into motion unless it is first moved by another. In the second way, he claims that nothing can be the efficient cause of itself; all things must be caused by something prior to them. Aquinas then shows that there cannot be an infinite chain of movers and causes: there must be a first. This first mover or efficient cause we call God.
The problem is not with Aquinas’s logic, but with the assumptions we bring to his arguments. Often, we read Aquinas’s demonstrations for the existence of God through the lens of Newton’s first law of motion: objects at rest stay at rest unless they are moved by another. What we fail to realize is that we are working with one narrow sense of cause and effect, while Aquinas was actually thinking about four different types of causality: formal, material, efficient and final. Aquinas’s five ways do not answer the question, “what was the first in the chain of causes.” Rather, they offer an answer to the question, “what is the cause of there being a cause at all?” In other words, what is the source of the causality itself? What created the causal relationships that exist between created things in the first place and what continues to sustain them? The answer to those questions is a mystery! The answer is God!
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.