Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed
asks, “Why would God design a world where he needed to tinker constantly to make things work?” OK, JC, I’ll take you up on that. The same blog post suggests that the idea of intelligent design hasn’t stood up “well to the test” of science.
In my line of work, we get JC’s question about “tinkering” or “interfering” all the time. Doesn’t it blow a huge hole in the idea of a Designer at work shaping nature if this Designer feels the need to interfere so frequently with the products of his creativity — whether to perform a miracle like splitting the Red Sea, or to shape, somehow, a species?
In his book Finding Darwin’s God, Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller asks sarcastically,
Is the designer being deceptive? Is there a reason why he can’t get it right the first time? Is the designer, despite all his powers, a slow learner? He must be clever enough to design an African elephant, but apparently not so clever that he can do it the first time.
It’s like a car that needs to go into the shop all the time. We assume it was poorly designed.
The question asked by Jesus Creed and Kenneth Miller is fair. I posed it myself in an earlier entry about miracles
. What positive good is served by God’s having set nature up this way? The ancient tradition that explains the Hebrew Bible has an answer.
In a nutshell, God is exemplifying his own freedom as a moral example to us. The idea is wrapped up with the Hebrew word “kodesh” or holy.
This peculiarity of nature was not discovered recently. Almost a thousand years ago, in the classic work of moral reflection Duties of the Heart, the Spanish sage Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda explained the verse in Psalms (135:6): “Whatever God willed, He did — in heaven and on earth.”
Rabbeinu Bachya, as he’s called, emphasized the importance of reflecting on the signs of God’s wisdom in nature.
Creation, he writes, was not all through one law. If it had been, that would have left a deceptive impression: “When a thing always acts in a certain way, this indicates that its actions are not the expression of its own will but only of the nature imposed upon it; that there is some force that compels it to act in this fashion….One who acts out of free will, however, acts in various ways at various times.”
God wished to “indicate His oneness and free will in all His actions.” So he “created diverse things, according to the dictates and timing of his wisdom” (Gate of Reflection, Chapter 2). A creation that was entirely ruled by law, smoothly and gradually building up complexity, would have precluded this. It would have seemed that this natural law was the source of “creativity,” rather than God’s being so.
Instead, the Designer’s work went forward in fits and starts, with relatively sudden bursts and radiations of creativity — “tinkering.” Paleontology shows exactly this pattern in the fossil record.
God sought to model freedom of will for us. So Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, writing at the same time Darwin’s Descent of Man
was published, explains a verse in the song the Jews sang at the splitting of the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt — the very event that got us onto the discussion of miracles
in the first place.
“Who is like unto Thee, O God, amongst the gods! Who like Thee is uniquely powerful in holiness! Feared in psalms, accomplishing miracles!” (Exodus 15:11).
To be holy doesn’t mean to be pious. In a human, holiness “is the highest possible degree of moral freedom, in which the will to morality has no longer any resistance to overcome, but is absolutely ready to carry out the will of God.”
As the verse from Exodus says, God in his own supreme freedom and independence is differentiated from false “gods” — “all other powers and forces that are deified by men,” forces, as those in nature, to which men ascribe supreme power. God alone performs “miracles” or “wonders” (in Hebrew, feleh), actions that occur “purely and absolutely by the free and untrammeled will of the doer, independent of, and mostly in contrast to, the existing laws of Nature.”
God’s first “wonder” was the creation of those laws themselves. His “further interference” with them “remains a feleh, a wonder,” even if we don’t recognize it as such.
In an etymological note that confirms this, Hirsch points out that feleh is also the Hebrew word for a vow (Numbers 6:2), an act in which a person takes on himself an obligation independently of moral law.
Why does God act this way, causing confusion among the Kenneth Millers of this world? The purpose is all for us, that we should be “holy,” recognizing our moral freedom from nature: “Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).
The lesson couldn’t be more relevant today when a staple of secular culture is the dogma that we’re all in the grip of our nature. As we are told about homosexuality, for example, gays can’t help but act on their particular sexual impulse. It’s their nature and acting on it is irresistible to them. Therefore government needs to create new legal institutions to validate their lifestyle. Hence, same-sex marriage.
This is not me trying to “read into” ancient texts to suit my views on political issues of the moment. It’s right in the classical sources themselves.
But the importance here goes far beyond politics. We all are tempted by the excuse of “nature” — “I can’t do it.” “It’s not in my power.” “It’s my nature!” Holiness — of which I would hardly claim to be an exemplar, but the points still stands — means saying no to nature and yes to God.