Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Speaking of God

"The theologian Paul Tillich once observed that among scientists only physicists seem capable of using the word 'God' without embarrassment."

I quote the physicist Steven Weinberg, from his Dreams of a Final Theory. Of course, as a robust atheist, Weinberg has little use of the G-word. But we know what Tillich meant. Indeed, he need not have added he qualifier "among scientists". Physicists concern themselves with such things as why the laws of nature are what they are and not something else, why is there something rather than nothing, how the universe began, and so on. If any questions force us to look into the abyss of mystery, it is these, and if anyone has a right to invoke the word God, it should be the folks who ask and try to answer the big, big questions. More so, say, than you or I, who might say, "Thank God, I found my car keys."

But, of course, it turns out to be the other way around. One seldom hears first-rate physicists invoking God. Yes, Stephen Hawking once famously spoke of a final theory as "knowing the mind of God," but he was being metaphorical. He certainly didn't mean meeting up with the fellow who listens to prayers and helps find the keys. Why, after all, should physicists who wrestle with the big questions invoke God? To say "God did it" puts them out of a job.

No, it is rather those of us who go through life with lost car keys (and lost dear ones) who are most apt to invoke God as an explanation or a source of solace. That is to say, it is those of us who are most deeply mired in the ordinary who are most apt to invoke the extraordinary -- those of us who are up to our necks in the natural who are most likely to invoke the supernatural.

When we identify God with the commonplace ("A fine, soft day, thanks be to God."), whatever transcendent usefulness the word might have gets lost in the ordinary. Wouldn't it be better to reserve the word for that which is beyond our knowing, the deep unspeakable mystery that lies at the heart of all things? When someone tells me they have a personal relationship with God, I'm always tempted to say, "And while you have his ear, can you ask him why there is something rather than nothing, and how the universe began."

This is more or less what I meant by the title of my book When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy. Get rid of that personable fellow who helps us find the lost car keys -- who cossets the good and smites the wicked -- and we begin to become aware that the entire universe is shot through with an ineffable (and perhaps unknowable) grandeur that is alone worthy of that ancient word God.