I. Awestruck Wonder
Last week a Darkwood Brew viewer from Louisiana who has had a hard time finding a church sent me a Facebook message asking what the “fear of the Lord” meant in the Bible. The kind of god who would take pleasure in our fear didn’t fit her image or experience of a loving God of grace and mercy. I responded that it’s often most accurate to translate the “fear” of God in the Bible as “awestruck wonder.” Awestruck wonder in the biblical sense is the kind that inspires humility. It makes us feel very small, but only through being connected to something very great. In this sense, the “fear” or “awestruck wonder” of God redefines what it means to be “small” in the first place.
A few minutes after I responded to the viewer from Louisiana, another viewer posted the following article on my Facebook page:
When I read facts like these, I am often struck with wonder. When I read that I can only hear or see 1% of what’s possible, I am reminded that there is far more to the world than meets the eye, and that as full of an experience of the world as I think I’m having, I’m only sampling a fraction of what’s right in front of me. What would it be like to see 2% of the electromagnetic spectrum, or 10%? Or imagine if you could hear 20% more of the music at a concert. Depending on the quality of the music, this could be either horrible or really amazing!
I wonder if our awareness of God works like this. How much awareness of the Divine do we have compared to what actually surrounds us at any given moment? Let’s say the average person is capable of just 1% of the potential awareness of God and that 99% of this potential is lost on us, at least most of the time. I suspect that something like this ratio is actually the case. Perhaps what separates the spiritual giants among us from the rest is that they are attuned to maybe 2-3% of the potential awareness of God. To have 2-3% awareness would be double or triple the average, yet it would still mean that a spiritual master would be missing at least 97% of what’s really there. Yes, that’s probably about right!
Looking at our relationship with God in this way is rather humbling. It may make you wonder if it’s possible to be connected to God in any way that matters. But assuming we have just 1% awareness does not mean we’re cut off from 99% of God. It just means that we’re only aware of 1% of the 100% of God that we actually experience. Just as the Ultraviolet spectrum of light is invisible to our eyes yet affects us quite directly, so God may play a direct role in our lives that is quite a lot greater than we can be aware of or even imagine.
II. Are We An Accident?
Last Sunday, a member of my church confided after the worship that she had a problem with the theory of evolution. “I don’t believe we’re all just accidents,” she told me. “I believe that God intended for us to be here.” What do you think? Did we evolve by random chance out of the primordial soup of creation, or do we have “designer genes?”
Behind this question are other more pressing questions. For instance, does life have meaning and significance besides simply what we give it? Is God aware of us, or did God simply set the processes of life in motion and leave the scene? Or is there even a God to begin with, if all of creation could arise on its own without supernatural assistance or intent? So a lot rides on the question of whether our genes are “designer” or not!
Personally, I don’t think we’re accidents at all. In fact, my life experience strongly suggests that not only is God aware of us, but that God is far more highly aware of us than we are. One reason I believe this is because I regularly get nudges, hints and intimations of a loving-awareness that seems to come from beyond myself, from a perspective that is much higher and expansive than I am. I feel like the two-dimensional square in the book Flatland who one day becomes aware of a three-dimensional sphere that has bisected his world. The square is only capable of interpreting what he sees in two-dimensions, and thus the sphere appears like a circle. But the circle keeps acting in ways that that aren’t like other circles. It changes size, for instance, and sometimes even disappears. What the square doesn’t realize (until he is eventually taken to a three-dimensional place called Spaceland) is that the sphere is simply moving up and down.
Human beings have recorded experiences of higher dimensional awareness since the age of pictograms and hieroglyphics. Many have considered those experiences “supernatural.” Yet if the Flatland analogy is at all indicative of reality, then such interactions may be entirely “natural.” It’s just that our view of nature limits our understanding of it. We sense only a narrow band of reality.
I sometimes wonder if our understanding of evolution is equally limited. It makes us feel like unintended accidents when in reality there is a lot more to the story. I don’t mean to s suggest that evolution isn’t real, like those who argue for so-called “Intelligent Design” believe. There is far too much evidence to confirm that evolution is as real as gravity. The fossil record, DNA, and other evidence makes it abundantly clear that we humans evolved from single-celled organisms that drifted in the primordial oceans about 3.6 billion years ago, developed into multi-cellular life a billion years ago, made our way onto dry land a half-million years ago or so, and became anatomically human around 200,000 years ago. We evolved through processes such as random mutation, migration, genetic drift, and natural selection. Yet is this all that could be said?
III. Preferential Pathways
In his book, God’s Universe, Harvard astrophysicist and Darkwood Brew guest Dr. Owen Gingerich makes a powerful and reasoned argument for seeing God’s hand in the creation of the universe and life on earth. Of course, he’s wise enough to know that you could never prove God’s existence. And he’s a firm believer in evolution. Still, he offers a body of evidence that points strongly in the direction of God, or at very least a “super-calculating intelligence” whose will and desire seems to be at work in the evolutionary process in a perfectly natural way. Says Gingerich, “Just as I believe that the book of Scripture illumines the pathway to God, I also believe that the Book of Nature, in all its astonishing detail – [from] the blade of grass … [to the] incredible intricacy of DNA – suggests a God of design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist.” (God’s Universe: 79)
While Gingerich believes in an intelligent designer, he is not a proponent of Intelligent Design (capital “I” and “D”), which he considers scientifically bankrupt. He argues that the so-called Intelligent Design movement is more of a political movement than a scientific one, seeking to update the fundamentalist Creationist story and insert it into public school curricula by paying lip service to evolution while inserting the supernatural intervention of God anywhere there is a gap in our knowledge. By contrast, Gingerich finds in the evolutionary process itself a number of perfectly natural signs of an “intelligent designer” that do not break the natural laws he believes God established to begin with. In other words, Gingerich suggests that we are not seeing the whole picture when we observe the evolutionary process and conclude we are just random accidents. We’ve been like Flatlanders who see the world only in terms of two dimensions … or like human beings who are only aware of 1% of what’s happening right in front of our faces.
In accord with evolutionary theory, Gingerich accepts that there is a high degree of randomness in the origin and development of the universe and life on earth. Yet he also argues that something – or someone – has loaded the dice. Evolution isn’t as random as many believe. Something or someone has created “preferential pathways” that skew the universe toward the creation of life. Of course, that’s a stance that challenges a good deal of the scientific establishment, and especially the “new atheists” who dismiss God out-of-hand. Yet Gingerich produces enough scientifically credible evidence to back his case that a few years ago Harvard University broke with its tradition of not inviting its own faculty to deliver its prestigious William Belden Noble lectures and asked him to speak.
For example, Gingerich points to the fact that there are at least six constants in the universe that must be so precise in order for life to exist that they betray at least a strong suggestion that they have been fine-tuned by a super intelligence. You can find much discussion of these constants on the internet. One of them is known as the Cosmological Constant, which is the ratio of energy density to empty space. You don’t need to know what this means in order to appreciate the fact that in order for the universe as we know it to exist, the ratio must be one part in 10 to the 120th power. That is, one part to 10 followed by 120 zeros. In other words, we wouldn’t be here now if the ratio wasn’t one part in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. Not even my Mini Cooper is that finely tuned!
In order to explain how the Cosmological Constant could exist by random chance without the influence of God or a “supercalculating intelligence,” our best scientists posit that there are multiple universes. How many? Well, in order to beat the odds, there would have to be approximately a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion universes, give or take a few! And scientists accuse theologians of going beyond the evidence?! Gingerich doesn’t argue against there being multiple universes, by the way. He simply reminds us that when scientists speak of a multi-verse (multiple universes) they move from pure science into metaphysics. They don’t insert God into the gaps of their knowledge like the Intelligent Design folks do. They stick entire universes there!
After offering a number of other mind-blowing, odds-beating facts about universe, Gingerich turns his gaze to the earth. Compared to the complexities involved with the creation of life on earth, says Gingerich, the creation of the universe is child’s play. In fact, when it comes to the formation of such intricate mechanisms like DNA, Gingerich notes that the odds of such a structure forming randomly are so great that the earth would have to be far older than 4.6 billion years to account for it. In other words, in order to evolve something as complex as a single strand of DNA, something must speed up the process beyond what can be accounted for by random mutation and natural selection. And scientists now think they know a little something about what that is. To understand this “little something,” let’s first find an analogy. Let’s consider what makes for a standing ovation …
IV. The “Standing O”
Standing ovations used to be an uncommon response to musical or dramatic performances. They are growing more common all the time. Theoretically, a standing ovation only occurs in response to a performance that is so extraordinary that people readily conclude that it warrants special recognition. A musical group could offer a thousand “average” or even “above average” performances and consider themselves lucky to receive a single “standing O.”
In our day, however, it is not unusual in certain circumstances for only a “slightly inspiring” performance to receive a standing ovation, or even a “modestly uninspired” or downright “bad” performance. How does this happen? You know how it goes: People start clapping, then perhaps a proud parent towards the front stands up to give their child an ovation. Everything their “little darling” does is worthy of an ovation, isn’t it …? This parent’s action encourages one or two other parents or soft-hearted individuals to stand. Slowly, people around them begin to rise to their feet. Some people hold out, while everyone else begins to stand. Then, some of these holdouts slowly rise as well, worried that their refusal to stand might be misinterpreted as a negative statement and not even they are willing to make a public statement that the performance has been bad. When all is said and done, all but a few highly irritated people who want to make a statement against the cheapening of ovations are on their feet.
In the world of evolutionary science, researchers have recently discovered the genetic equivalent of the proud parent. I don’t know if Amish parents are considered soft-hearted or overly proud, but a clue to this genetic wonder – and God’s loaded dice – is found among them.
V. Six Fingered Dwarfs and the Human Eye
Among the highly inbred population of Amish in Lancaster County, PA, a rare syndrome exists called six-finger dwarfism. There are about 75 known cases of six-finger dwarfism. What’s astonishing about six-finger dwarfism – besides the sixth finger – is the fact that in every instance both parents could trace their lineage back to a single Amish couple who migrated from Europe in 1750!
What they now know is that the sixth finger is produced by a genetic mutation involving a single gene in the DNA strand. This particular gene acts as a switching mechanism that causes a cascading series of reactions to occur that codes the DNA in such a way as to produce the sixth finger. In other words, the mutated gene acts like a proud parent who gives a standing ovation to a performance that otherwise didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hades of receiving one. Without this gene influencing a whole series of genes to act contrary to their nature, no extra finger would be produced. In fact, without this mutant gene, the only way for a sixth finger to evolve on a human hand would be through a process that would likely take thousands, if not millions, of years.
The Amish couple who immigrated in 1750 did not have six fingers, but one of the parents carried the mutant gene which had simply not been “switched on.” That gene was passed down through the generations without causing a problem until one child inherited the gene from both the father and the mother (which happened through inbreeding). When the mutant pair was united in this way, the gene “switched on” and a six-fingered dwarf was born.
Clues like this have led scientists to discover a whole raft of genes that act like switching mechanisms (or proud parents) that move the evolutionary clock forward by thousands of generations. Our eyes are a product of one of these switching mechanisms. The eye contains a “proud parent” gene that can be traced clear back to the bacterial stage of life on earth. In other words, that “proud parent” was giving a genetic “standing ovation” for nearly two billion years before the “right crowd” of genes was assembled to even hear the music. Talk about advance planning! If it weren’t for that “proud parent” gene, we might have ears to hear the music, but we’d still be waiting for eyes to watch the performance.
Clues such as these suggest that evolution is not entirely random. Whether we look at the evolution of the universe whose basic forces are fine-tuned to amazingly fine tolerances, or the evolution of life on earth where amazingly complex features evolve faster than random chance would allow and yet at least certain features seem to be foreseen well in advance of their creation, there seems to be a degree of intentionality behind it. When we broaden the narrow band of awareness we go through life with just a bit, what once appeared ordinary and random is shown to be meaningful and intentional.
VI. Designer Genes
So it appears that all of us may just have “designer genes” after all! Not just us, but all the species of the earth. Or at least we have a “proud Parent “whose belief in us far exceeds our abilities.
If this is the way God works, by weighting the dice or stacking the deck in ways that skew toward life, then it may explain why life feels both utterly random and meaningful simultaneously. Don’t you feel this way, at least at times? For instance, think of when something profoundly bad has hit you from out of the blue and someone has rushed in to comfort you by claiming that “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Didn’t some part of you feel gross and internally revolt against this conclusion even as you may have nodded your head and smiled?
No, if God acts in the world like God seems to act through evolution, this would suggest that sometimes things “just happen.” They are truly random and neither you, nor God, exercise any significant degree of control over them. Yet this would also suggest that within a given series of random events, the dice are loaded in a life-bearing way. God’s purposes for your life may at least potentially work themselves out even when bad things happen. Like a proud parent who gives a standing ovation for even a bad performance, sometimes God’s influence triggers a series of reactions that produce something unexpected. Of course, whether this happens or not depends on whether you respond to the standing Parent and rise to the occasion yourself or remain in your seat, staunchly refusing to stand for a bad performance. The choice is yours.
Says the Bible, “the fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom.” Awestruck wonder is the beginning of all wisdom. If you allow God to expand your vision to behold the extraordinary hidden within the ordinary (and even the negative), and respond to it that way, you will be wise indeed. And God’s purposes will continue to evolve in your life.
Note: If you’ve read this entire reflection, then I strongly advise you to take a final 3 min 22 sec to watch this video! You won’t regret it.