I watched the 2014 movie, The Theory of Everything, last night. The movie is about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his relationship with his wife (later ex-wife, but still friend), Jane. It starts from the time when he was a college student and met Jane at a party.
A subject that recurs in the film is religion. Stephen Hawking was an atheist, whereas Jane was a believer in God who attended the Church of England. The film goes into the intersections between Hawking’s theories (if I am using that term correctly, for I am not a scientist) and the question of whether God exists.
According to the movie, Hawking was seeking an equation that would explain everything, thereby supplanting the role that God fills in many people’s minds. At first, Hawking proposed that the universe had a beginning and came out of a black hole. Some believed that this was consistent with theism (a belief in God), for many theists posit that the universe had a beginning and thus needed a creator. Later, Hawking would shift to saying that the universe had no boundaries and no beginning. In an interesting scene, Hawking and Jane are explaining Hawking’s work to their theistic friend Jonathan (whom Jane would later marry). Jane is using a vegetable analogy and is saying that, if everything is carrots, then one can logically conclude that the universe had a beginning, but, when you incorporate peas into the equation, that bet is off! Hawking says that God throws dice and does not let us know where the dice are! Later in the movie, Hawking writes about knowing the mind of God, and Jane then has some hope that Hawking has become open to theism.
At the end of the movie, Hawking is asked before an auditorium if there is a philosophy of life that helps him, considering that he is an atheist. Hawking replies that, whatever our limitations, we can still find something to succeed at, and that, when there is life, there is hope.
I suppose that, as a theist (albeit not the most philosophically sophisticated theist), I could say that I believe in God, regardless of what Stephen Hawking has said. After all, there are plenty of intelligent scientists and philosophers who believe in God, plus Hawking’s own scenarios have changed over time, it appears to me. The Hawking character in the movie last night was saying that the universe had a beginning, but remember that quote of Hawking in the God’s Not Dead movie in which Hawking said that the universe created itself? I could ask why anything Hawking says should challenge my faith, when he appears to change his mind. I could ask that, and yet I should do so with humility. Hawking is talking about concepts that are way over my head, and that I only can understand on an elementary level, if even that! Plus, even when Hawking was wrong, he still had justifications for his positions. In the movie, Hawking tells Jonathan that physics is not about “belief.” That does not imply infallibility, but it does imply having justifications for his position. Even if Hawking was wrong, he was a lot better in his wrong stance than many of us are when we are right.
I was thinking of the question of why I am a theist. I thought of a passage that was in Ahiqar, which may date to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C.E. Ahiqar 160/69 states (in J.M. Lindenberger’s translation): “[If] a man is [not] under the care of the gods, then how can he guard himself against his inner wickedness?” Personally-speaking, I depend on God to keep my inner wickedness in check. Now, being a theist does not mean that one will be perfect. In the movie, Jane was a theist, yet she was attracted to Jonathan, while she was married to Stephen; that is understandable and human. And, conversely, a person can be moral without believing in God. For me, though, I like the idea of having a God to turn to for love and support when I am struggling against my own wickedness, and I find that placing myself within a cosmic context of God’s love for me and God’s plan to redeem me and the world can give me the strength to have appropriate or healthy attitudes. Having some philosophy to help one through life can be helpful: even Hawking in the movie had one.
While I was watching the movie, I was reading Joel Kraemer’s biography of the twelfth century Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides. Maimonides was asking how we can arrive at the point where we love God. Different people would give different answers to this: an evangelical Christian, for example, might say that we love God when we realize that God loved us, enough to send his Son to die for us. Maimonides, however, said that we come to love God as we contemplate creation, and see God’s wisdom therein.
I am not a science person. I remember an atheist-turned-Christian who was criticizing an atheist article that I posted, an article that said that string theory shows that we do not need God to explain how the universe came to be. This commenter was questioning that idea, based on what we know and do not know about string theory, but he also said that he wishes that atheists and Christians would step back and appreciate the universe, rather than fighting about it and using it to buttress their agendas. Part of me identified with what he was saying, but part of me did not. Why should I care about what the universe is like, I wondered, if it is not part of a story about God’s love and how I can arrive at a state of spiritual health and fulfillment? There are black holes out there in the universe—-so what? That probably sounds a bit narcissistic on my part, and maybe it is.
As I think some more, I wonder if learning about the universe can somehow enhance my wonder and appreciation of the universe, and even God. I am not talking about looking to the universe for proof or evidence that God exists—-resting my faith on the universe having a beginning, or being fine-tuned for life on earth. I am talking more about appreciating the universe for what it is, and allowing that enhance my sense of wonder, and maybe even teach me about God. There are a lot of mysterious things out there in the universe, and scientists are continually adjusting things that they think they know as they learn that there is more to the story. Hawking in the movie said that God throws dice, and we do not know where the dice are. A number of theists may think that theistic belief is buttressed more by a Newtonian model—-one in which the universe is fairly orderly and predictable. “Where does that order come from? It must come from God,” they say, and they believe that the order of the universe attests to the orderly wisdom that God has. They may have a point, and yet could not the unpredictability and disorder in the universe teach us something about God? Those things could teach us about God’s mystery, God’s depth, and the importance of humility.
I recently watched a speech by Rob Bell, a pastor. It was part of his “Everything Is Spiritual” Tour. Bell was talking about science. He referred to quarks disappearing and reappearing unpredictably and without any explanation, and how there are scientists who say that the universe has eleven dimensions. I thought that Bell was jumping to conclusions, in important areas. He was trying to argue that the quarks’ disappearance and reappearance show that there is a personality behind the universe, and, while I am intrigued by his claim that there are scientists who believe that the universe has a personality, I do not think that is a necessary conclusion. I was especially turned off when, near the end of the message, Bell was saying that atheists do not disbelieve in God for intellectual reasons, but for spiritual reasons: that they are rejecting God, when God’s existence should be obvious to them. I hate hearing this from conservative pastors, and I hate hearing it from Rob Bell. (And, yes, Paul’s statement to that effect in Romans 1 turns me off, too.) Such an approach does not seek to understand where atheists come from or acknowledge that they may have valid reasons for their conclusions, but it puts them down and judges them. Still, I did appreciate a number of things that Rob Bell was saying: the universe is more mysterious and larger than many of us might assume, and that insight perhaps can influence how we approach God, or Christianity.