Friday, January 22, 2010

God of the Gaps

A few years ago I went home to Meridian for the funeral of my friend, Brad Morse. He was my same age and, outside my family, I'd probably spent more time playing tennis with him than anyone (which is saying something). He'd been murdered in cold blood by a shot to the head from a stranger who stole his car.

I remember his father speaking at the funeral about the claims of many that it was "his time" and that God had "called him back," and basically crediting his son's demise to God. The father pushed back and said it wasn't "his time" and that the murder was wrong. My bias is that I agree with him.

I think a lot of people believe in a God of the Gaps (AGOG, I'll call him).

In ages past and in some cultures today, AGOG gets the credit for everything not yet explained. Bad harvest? Must've offended AGOG. You got pregnant? AGOG smiled on you. You won in war? AGOG must be on your side. There's a wondrous diversity of life, and all creatures are adapted to their habitat? Must be AGOG's work. Your mom died? Must be AGOG's doing. Especially on the life and death front, AGOG gets the credit. The less explainable the phenomenon, the more AGOG gets credited with its occurrence.

Then materialism happens (the idea that there's a natural explanation for everything). You push a ball and it rolls across the floor? Everyone can explain that- it's momentum. Let go of a pen and it falls to the floor? Gravity. Marvelous wonders in the sky? Phases of stars. Poor harvest? Insufficient soil nitrogen. Won a war? Your guns were bigger. Someone is sick? Germ theory. You got pregnant? Fertile womb and high sperm count. Who needs AGOG when science can explain all these phenomenon?

A miracle is nothing more than a phenomenon you don't understand- yet. Consider these lyrics:
"I was sitting on a southbound plane,
I was buried in a magazine
When the man in the next seat over
Wanted to talk to me
He talked about the universe,
He talked about Saturn's rings
He said, "I might be an atheist,
Except for just one thing:

"It passes all my understanding
How it all worked out just right
The distance that we live from the sun,
The stars that shine at night
We may prove that it was just an accident
But how did it begin?
It passes all my understanding"

This lovely song talks about the development of this man's faith. However, his faith is in AGOG- as soon as he figures out a reasonable explanation for how it began, he's back to his atheism. The question isn't whether the not-yet-explained is likely to be satisfactorily explained by scientific advancement in the near future or not- the question is the more close-to-home-hitting question of the nature of your faith and belief in God. Is God or your faith in Him diminished by the advancement of scientific understanding? It shouldn't be. Otherwise, that god and/or your faith will expand or contract as a consequence of the explainability of phenomena you observe. There are many mysteries still, such as how to resurrect, and what exactly life and death are, and how to create a spirit from intelligence, or how to breathe life into Adam- but there are answers to these questions- natural ones. "All difficulties are but easy when they are known." (Act 4, scene 2, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure) If you knew the secret and had the skill, there's little doubt but that you could restore life to someone or create Adam from the dust of the earth. (see Spencer W. Kimball, “Our Great Potential,” Ensign, May 1977, 49, paragraph 3- other examples include producing a spirit and organizing matter.) These answers' discovery does not and cannot diminish God. Were it not so, He would be a God of darkness, one whose necessary incentive would be to hide truth from you and to hold back the revelation of mysteries in order to preserve the information asymmetry requisite to his power advantage. Ours is a god who, on the other hand, seeks to edify and enlighten and perfect and exalt and teach us to become like him and share in his light. It is better to base one's belief in God on revelation and other more sure principles than substantively on the not-yet-explained.  I like Lincoln Cannon's description: "Arrogance is not in attempting the good old fashioned work that leads to desired results. Rather, arrogance is in the passive thought that your God will save you despite your efforts.
The God in which I put my faith would have us share in that glory (Romans 8: 17), speaks according to our language (D&C 1: 24-28), reasons among us according to our understanding (D&C 50: 10-12), withholds no knowledge (D&C 121: 26-33), and invites us to greater works (John 14: 12)."

As a sidenote, I'd say the true god works by natural means somewhere between 99 and 100% of the time- and more likely the latter. Sorry, AGOG- I don't endorse you.

Credit goes to Kenneth Miller in "Finding Darwin's God" for dawning this idea in my mind. 

Postlude on AGOG's brother, AGOTI (A God Of The Improbable)
Oftentimes I observe improbable events ascribed to God.  Three examples:
1) "The motorcycle slid right underneath the semi-truck: two feet more and I would have been crushed. God saved me." -Trevor
2)  "I was desperate that day and stopped at the Cougareat. I've sat there a hundred times and no one's ever sat by me. Jennifer sat by me and listened to me and told me to call the BYU Continuing Ed. department- and now I finally have a job- thank you, God." - Sarah
3)   "Genesis 30: 22 ¶ And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.
  23 And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach."

In testimony meetings or otherwise, it is the improbability of the event that evidences God's work. I see a few problems with using the improbability as God's signature. 1) Low probability events happen normally, though at a low level- thus, each year, though small, there are a certain quantity of motorcyclists who are saved in a collision by sliding underneath the semi.  Is there a way to distinguish the normal from the intervention?  2) When low probability events fail to happen, do they indicate God's failure to intervene?  Say Trevor's motorcyclist buddy was killed in the same crash because he missed the narrow safe zone under the semi- is this higher probability event evidence of the absence of God's intervention?  3) Is God prohibited from blessing people on a large scale?  If an event because popularly accessible, is it no longer Him because it's no longer improbable?  Fertility doctors can fairly routinely "open wombs" now, making infertility reversal much more common than it was in Rachel's day.  Presuming the general mercy and goodness of infertility reversal, why not attribute the skill of fertility doctors/drugs to God despite how common the "miracle" now is?  4) Are improbable events always evidence of God?  Sarah's department was the only one on campus in 10 years to fire a new hire a week after intake.  Nathan comes across an obscure website with a rarely read anti-Mormon article, which leads him to lose his testimony.  Was that improbable event God's doing?

Thus, it seems most likely that God's hand is in all things, both probable and improbable, and He is responsible for all good things, whereas the devil or men are responsible for the bad things.  (D&C 59:21, Moroni 7: 15-19)  God's signature is better evidenced by the test described in Moroni 7 than the improbability of an occurrence.  Go join your bro, AGOTI. 


  1. Great thought! Gods ways are higher than unless we really come to know Him, we won't be able to discern which events stem from his influence and which are a result of other people or the natural elements.

    Even so, anyone can tell when something just doesn't feel right like the death of a murdered friend or brother.

  2. So about every time I think I have a great thought, I subsequently realize there's a whole school of thought out there already purporting the tenet I just posited or discovered. (examples: [this and preceding and succeeding posts], [a Socratic idea I came across in my law and lit class a couple weeks ago, plus I seem to remember the same construct in Lewis's Mere Christianity], and [which I largely argue against]). Sigh. At least my mind is bettered by the ideas, even if the world is no stranger to them.

    The Hummingbird

    I sat alone in the corner of my yard
    Filled with a thousand thoughts
    Very loud within me
    Turmoil and longing
    Assertion and hesitation
    Insight and confusion
    Logic and emotion

    It seemed at times as if I had all the answers
    At others as if I had none of them
    It all seemed to come to me
    A particular insight that was mine alone
    I wanted to share it
    Then it all seemed to go away
    In the separateness of being

    They were things I could not explain to anyone
    They were an internal song
    That I could never make anyone else understand
    No matter what I said or did
    No matter to whom
    That was the logic of it
    The essential things were separate, ultimately

    Yet I was inexplicably happy
    Everything was all right
    I did not care what logic told me
    There was a wonderful song in my heart
    It filled me to the brim
    Though no one else heard it
    Nor would ever hear it

    That’s when I saw him on his flight
    Tiny creature, assertive
    Flying from flower to flower
    His wings invincible if only in rapidity
    And that’s when I realized it
    The song that I heard was coming from him
    Not me

    It had been so faint
    So nagging
    So brave, but pianissimo
    So beautiful, sotto voce
    A place within my own heart
    That came from him
    The hummingbird

    So are all our inmost thoughts
    And deepest feelings
    The songs of hummingbirds

    --Rex Rawlinson

  3. I have been reading through all your posts hoping to see one where you try to support the foundation of your beliefs. I've always agreed with the God of (shrinking and disappearing) Gaps idea. From my current (open to change) point of view, isn't belief in the Book of Mormon and any other core LDS premise still just filling in a gap with a claim of divine miracles?

    (E.g. "The way the story has been told to me, and without looking at any further historical research into the situation, I don't see how J.S. could have written such a neat book and gotten so many people to join a Church he founded (gap). Must be God.")

  4. I think that while people may misunderstand the miracle of the Book of Mormon as from a god of the gaps, it appears to me to be as natural as it can be. What more natural way is there for God to communicate with humans than through direct visitation (the First Vision), or sending messengers or writings? I think the claim that some being, or beings, with more capabilities than humans had in the 1800s, assisted Joseph Smith in bringing forth the Book of Mormon is hard to refute. Accepting that doesn't require a person to believe in a god of the gaps, just a God with abilities we don't yet understand fully.

  5. Interesting as always.

    I agree that blindly attributing all happenings or 'gaps' to God seems inaccurate. However, I think there are many times that God IS in the inexplicable gaps, whether or not we can correctly discern which is the case.

    I also wonder if there is another scenario happening, especially during difficult or negative situations. Perhaps at these times we feel God supporting and helping us through a dark situation, but confuse the feelings of His presence and comfort as his signature on the deed rather than is His reassurance that He can help us to recover/make the best of all misfortune.

    Then again, God might cause certain things to happen that seem unfair to mortals, but that are perfectly good, kind, and just through the eyes of an immortal, omniscient being. His ways aren't our ways and we can't always comprehend all that He comprehends.

    As for me, I think that when something beautiful or wonderful happens, whether it be miraculously coincidental or explicable by science, I don't want to worry about the correct attributing of the thing to God or AGOG. I plan to allow myself to enjoy and be amazed by the many wonders in life and attribute my thanks to the goodness of God as the root provider (whether direct or indirect) of all my help, joy, and opportunities. I may refrain from always attributing to Him the evils that hit, but I'll be sure to point out all the help that was provided afterward.

  6. It is so interesting to read this dialogue over four years later, when I now identify as a nontheist. Some of the reasons I choose that identity are articulated, by me, in this post- but I resisted what now seems the most parsimonious explanation.


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