Recently I was given a book written by Frederick Buechner that contained a sermon I remembered hearing him preach at Phillips Exeter Academy when he was school minister there in the 1960s. Were it not for the fact that daily chapel and Sunday services were mandatory at Exeter, I am sure I would have missed hearing it. As Buechner makes clear in the forward to his sermon collection, he found his congregation of “captive listeners” to be a tough audience, which I suspect may have hastened his decision to leave the pulpit to become a full-time writer. Knowing that he was not exactly preaching to the choir, Buechner deliberately pitched his sermons to people who might otherwise never darken the door of a church.
The sermon I remembered from so long ago started off with a question that was probably on the minds of most people in the pews, assuming they thought about religious matters at all: If God really exists, why doesn’t he just show himself? Buechner then wondered what would happen if God demonstrated his existence in some dramatic and irrefutable way, such as spelling out a message in the stars. Short term, this might provoke varying amounts of hope, terror or regret, depending upon one’s previous views on the subject of God, not to mention a good measure of astonishment from preachers and theologians who discovered they had been right after all. Long term, Buechner doubted that turning the night sky into a billboard for God would make much difference in the grand scheme of things, unless God’s existence made some tangible difference in people’s lives down below.
Trying to establish the existence or nature of God by contemplating his creation has been a favorite pastime of philosophers and theologians since at least the time of Plato. The Roman orator Cicero believed divinity could be discerned in “the principle of reason that pervades the whole of nature.” So-called arguments from design frequently resort to analogies involving human artifacts that require intelligence to produce. Cicero noted that a sundial or a water clock told time by design, not by chance. He asked, “How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including those artifacts themselves and their artificers?” The 19th-century naturalist and theologian William Paley followed similar reasoning when he famously argued that just as a watch requires a watchmaker, so does an even more intricate living artifact, such as the human eye, require its own artificer.
Paley was among the last generation of scientists who were predisposed to believe the “book of nature” could be read alongside the Bible for evidence of God’s presence in the world. Soon enough, Darwin picked up on Paley’s watchmaker argument to demonstrate how the blind process of natural selection might explain an organ as complex as the human eye. Scientists increasingly came to view God as a kind of cosmic fudge factor that was invoked when no one could come up with a better answer – or worse, when none was needed at all.
A group of theologians once asked the British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane what he inferred about the mind of God from his Creation. Haldane, described as one of the “great rascals of science,” replied that God appeared to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Haldane was referring to the fact there are some 350,000 different kinds of beetles in the world, or about 40% of the known insect species in his day. Haldane was an avowed atheist, but his quip points up one of the pitfalls of arriving at any understanding of God based on reverse engineering. Never mind the odd proliferation of beetles -- what are we to conclude from the decay, disorder and unremitting violence that also pervade nature?
Still, nature does have characteristics that are hard to square with the purely random action of physical laws. Physicists have noted with varying degrees of puzzlement that the universe appears to have been engineered within very narrow tolerances to create conditions supporting life. We need look no further than the Big Bang itself, which kicked the whole thing off. Had the force of the initial blast been even slightly weaker or slightly stronger, the universe would have quickly collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. And that’s just for starters. It turns out many of the fundamental physical parameters of the universe had to have been calibrated just so even for atoms to exist, never mind intelligent observers who wonder how they emerged from the cosmic soup. Was all this just a huge coincidence, no matter how astronomical the odds, or was the universe somehow fine-tuned for our benefit?
The theoretical physicist John Wheeler, who coined the term “black holes” to describe gravitationally collapsed of stars, was among those who believed the improbable alignment of cosmic factors necessary to produce life was no mere coincidence. Just as an act of observation is required in quantum theory to bring subatomic particles into existence, Wheeler reasoned the same must be true for the universe as a whole. The entire purpose of existence then is to bring into being the observers who are needed to bring the universe itself fully into being though the act of observation.
The more conventional view, of course, is that life merely adapted to the physical laws of the universe as it found them through natural selection, and not the other way around. Whatever higher purpose one cares to read into the workings of the universe, critics argue, the fact remains that the universe as we find it is perfectly consistent with what we would expect if it served no purpose at all. Which brings us back to the question Frederick Buechner posed in his sermon from long ago: If God exists, why doesn’t he just spell it out for us? The problem, as Buechner suggested, is that we may be looking to the heavens rather than closer to earth for an answer. My own view is that the message, if there is one, won’t be found in the stars but in ourselves.
Frederick Buechner, “Message in the Stars,” from Secrets in the Dark
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods