Is “God” Invulnerable?

It would certainly seem so….

The New Oxonian

Is “God” Invulnerable?

by rjosephhoffmann

Paul Tillich died while I was still in high school. But the embers of his theological revolution–equivalent in theology to Bultmann’s in biblical studies–were still warm by the time I got to Harvard Divinity School, where he taught from 1955 to 1962. I read him assiduously, ran yellow highlighters dry illuminating “key” passages, and wrote the word “Yes!” in the margins more often than Molly Bloom gasps it in the last chapter of Ulysses.

It isn’t that I now regard Tillich as less profound  than I did three decades ago.  It’s that I now realize he was methadone for religion- recoverers. His key works–The Religious Situation The Shaking of the Foundations, the multipart, unbearably dense Systematic Theology (especially disliked in Britain when it appeared), and Dynamics of Faith–reveal a soul committed to taking the sting out of what many theologians before Tillich called “the modern situation.”

The modern…

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9 thoughts on “Is “God” Invulnerable?

  1. The vulnerability lies in our understanding and perhaps science will show that God is indeed invulnerable.
    Up until the mid sixties it was believed that our Universe was all there was. It had always existed so there was no need for a creator God. All that there was could be observed, if not now then later, and that clearly left no room for God. With that kind of understanding, God was indeed vulnerable. This was a WYSIWYG Universe, God could not be seen, God was absent, ergo, no God.

    Then in the mid sixties the evidence arrived in the form of measurements of the cosmic microwave background. They confirmed Fr. Georges Lemaitre’s theory of the primeval atom, first postulated in 1927. The Universe had a beginning and a creator God was suddenly a real possibility. But with that discovery came something else even more profound. This was the realization that the instant of the Big Bang was an absolute information horizon. We cannot detect, measure or observe anything before our Big Bang or outside our universe.

    Now we are in the situation where the Universe has a beginning and where science cannot see everything or explain everything. There are real boundaries to scientific enquiry that we cannot cross.

    That suddenly makes God seem much less vulnerable.

    Of course science cannot let matters rest there so we have fanciful hypotheses about multiple universes created out of pure nothingness. Now here is the amazing thing. We cannot ever, even in principle, test these hypotheses.
    It seems that science has invaded that last bastion of religion and resorted to faith. Welcome on board.

    • I think it is worth elaborating on my tongue in cheek comment ‘It seems that science has invaded that last bastion of religion and resorted to faith. Welcome on board‘.

      Scientific knowledge can be likened to a large, irregularly shaped cloud. The edges of the cloud are the present boundaries to knowledge. The edges of the cloud are ill defined because there is some uncertainty at the boundaries to our knowledge. We extend scientific knowledge by speculating about what might be found beyond the boundaries to our knowledge and then finding ways to verify our speculations.

      So speculation about things beyond the boundaries of our knowledge is all part of good science and is a necessary prelude to empirical science. What is not good science is to authoritatively claim the truth of these speculations as Hawking does in The Grand Design. It is atrocious science to make the same authoritative claims about things that cannot, even in principle, be verified. And it is abominable science to advance these same, unverifiable claims, in support of a biased metaphysical agenda.

      The most interesting example of how speculation can lead to genuine advances was that made by Fr. Georges Lemaitre(and Friedman). In 1927, using Einstein’s famous equations, he concluded that the Universe began in a ‘primeval atom’, what we today call the Big Bang. His hypothesis was greeted with disbelief and Einstein famously commented, ‘no, not this, this is the creation!’. He went on to say ‘your mathematics is excellent but your physics is abominable’.

      It took a long time for Lemaitre’s hypothesis to gain any support and it was only finally accepted some 40 years later when the definitive evidence came in(microwave background radiation). This is how it should be. Speculative hypotheses must be treated as tentative statements of what might just possibly be true and there should not be an eager rush to accept them as good science merely because they support our metaphysical prejudices. Doing so is a perverse form of ‘faith’. Today’s prominent atheists seem blind to the astonishing irony of their behaviour.

  2. This is an essay that well repays the effort of reading and re-reading. I think it is easily one of your best essays and perfectly diagnoses the religious angst so prevalent today. The loud mouthed Johnny-come-latelies, like Dawkins, have tacked themselves onto the tail end of this phenomenon, claiming the credit but the real work was done much earlier by real thinkers. Dawkins work, like that of the rest of New Atheism, is an exercise in religious resentment, not an exercise in understanding. You have contributed the intellectual understanding that Dawkins so clearly lacks.

    This does not mean I agree with your conclusions. Your writing mirrors all the doubts that I experienced but finally I resolved them, coming to a very different conclusion. Explaining why would require a longer essay and I could not express it as elegantly as you do.

    I think your essay is important enough for me to recommend it to my fellow theists for serious study.

  3. Peter

    We can test hypotheses about whether there may have been universes before our own; Roger Penrose and his colleague V.G. Gurzadyan set out how we might do so at:

    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1011.3706v1.pdf

    This is not, of course, proof that there were universes before our own, but we continue to study our universe for evidence to support, or refute, that hypothesis. Of course, it would be a tad embarrassing if the Hindu model turned out to be pretty spot on, but we can always console ourselves with the reflection that any culture which develops really big numbers has a head start on those of us still treading the ‘1, 2, many’ route…

    • Stevie, I am sure you know that considerable controversy attended the release of that paper. The consensus seems to be that Penrose has failed to show the existence of preceding universes. See Sean Carroll’s analysis

      Work is also being done to look for evidence of multiple universes, which so far have failed to yield results. See this posting by Sean Carroll.

      I would love to see an empirical demonstration of something created from pure nothingness. After all, it is claimed that this process is continually happening on an astonishing scale. See Alex Vilenkin for a very readable discussion of the multiverse hypothesis – Many Worlds in One.

      It was Penrose himself who explained why we cannot see before our universe. See this excerpt by Penrose The Big Bang is required to have an astonishingly low entropy of one part in 10^10^123(That is more than all the particles in our Universe!). No information can be transmitted with such a vanishingly small entropy. This is why the Big Bang is an information horizon.

      it would be a tad embarrassing if the Hindu model turned out to be pretty spot on
      Embarrassing for who and why? Is this relevant to my comment?

      …we can always console ourselves with the reflection that any culture which develops really big numbers has a head start on those of us still treading the ’1, 2, many’ route…
      Would you like to explain? What is the relevance to my comment?

  4. Peter

    I think it would help if you responded to what I actually wrote, rather than creating straw men to demolish.

    You claimed that it is impossible for scientists to find methods of investigating anything other than our own universe post Big Bang; you are wrong. You are relying on Stephen Hawkings’ claim that this was the case; he has conceded that he was wrong. You cite Penrose, who once agreed with Stephen Hawkings, without noting that he has changed his mind; I think the essential problem for you is that you perceive science as providing absolute truths, which, once recognised, are fixed in stone. Scientists change their minds in much the same way and for much the same reasons that historians do; they encounter evidence.

    There is a very big difference between investigating a hypothesis using the methods of science and proving that a hypothesis is right/wrong; you appear not to be able distinguish that difference. If you reread what I actually wrote it may finally become apparent to you.

    I do, however, concede that I was wrong to make a joke about the history of mathematics to someone who has no knowledge of the history of mathematics; I shall strive to avoid doing so in future…

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