In 1900 the scientific community had broad consensus that the universe had been around forever. Every major scientist believed that the universe had not been created. The Bible, of course, told a different story. God has revealed Himself to us in two major ways: 1) in nature, and 2) in scripture (the Bible). Because God is consistent, there is perfect agreement between these two forms of revelation. Any time an apparent disagreement has arisen, it has been reconciled by an advancement of science (greater understanding of nature) or an advancement of theology (greater understanding of scripture, often correcting a commonly-held misinterpretation).
Renowned physicist cum Hebrew theologian Gerald Schroeder has written one of the most fascinating books I have read in my life. It continues the trend of many recent scientific findings showing how they align perfectly with God’s revelation in scripture. His previous books have mostly been about breakthroughs in science. This book is mostly about a breakthrough, actually a “break-back” in theology. “Break-back” because he is reasserting theological understandings that were common over a thousand years ago. For whatever reason these ancient interpretations of scripture had fallen out of favor and been supplanted.
These ancient interpretations call into question theological understanding that has been accepted by mainstream Judeo-Christianity for centuries. Schroeder presents a common-sense reading of several passages of scripture which have been “glossed over” because they did not fit the prevailing narrative. A corrected understanding of these passages together with the observation of evil, disease, jealousy, etc. in the world make all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together resulting in a better understanding of God and the world He has created.
Specifically, Schroeder presents two worldview-rattling assertions:
1) God does not express omniscience with humanity, but instead is dynamic, learning, and adjusting as the world evolves.
2) Not only does humanity have free will, but so does nature itself.
Here’s how Schroeder builds the case for these two startling conclusions. First, for interpretation of scripture, Schroeder wanted to use only ancient Jewish commentaries, understandings of scripture that would not be informed by modern science. He used works such as the Talmud and commentary by Maimonides, and other works nearly a millennia old.
With regard to God’s omniscience, Schroeder focuses on several passages that directly call this claim into question, and notes that omniscience wasn’t part of the interpretation of these ancient theologians.
Schroeder notes that in several passages of scripture, God “regrets” and “reconsiders” and notes others of His own design flaws. In Genesis 6:7, God “regretted” having made humankind, a mere three chapters after creating the entire universe and pronouncing it “good.” Consequently, He engineers the great flood which destroys nearly all of humanity. God also “regretted” making Saul king (1 Samuel 7:15). In Genesis 18 God is prepared to destroy the city of Sodom, but allows Abraham to negotiate with Him, allowing Abraham to argue for the preservation of Sodom if only 50 righteous people are found, niggling all the way down to only 10 righteous people. In this and other cases “the protagonists actually bargain with God over the extent to which God’s demands need be fulfilled” (p. 118).
There are other instances in the Bible where God changes His plan. For example, the earliest humans often lived for about 900 years. However, this seemed to be too long, resulting in unproductive behavior on behalf of these early humans. After the Flood, God limited the human life span to about 120 years.
Moses argues with God and seems to convince him on more than one occasion that he should not wipe out his frustrating chosen people. (Exod. 32:12; Num. 14:15-16; Deut. 9:28, Deut. 32:26-27). In, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for the relationship God wants with us, Jacob wrestled with God and “won.” Schroeder notes that “God wants us to wrestle, wants an interactive relationship, a dialogue, a sharing of power and responsibility between the Creator and the created” (p. 122).
In one of the most memorable Old Testament stories, God asks Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering in Genesis 22. Abraham reluctantly goes along with the plan, and God spares Isaac’s life at the last moment as Abraham takes out his knife to slay his only child with Sarah. The same Abraham who argued vigorously with God about sparing Sodom, put up no argument about the killing of his son. Schroeder notes that before this incident, God has frequent interaction with Abraham. After the incident, he never again interacts directly with God. Schroeder suggests that God essentially “punishes” Abraham for not putting up a fight to spare his son, for not challenging God and His directive.
The suggestion that Nature itself has free will is even more startling to me than the first point. In order for human beings to have free will, God must allow some actions that he otherwise would not. The Hebrew term for this condition is tzimtzum, the contraction, of God’s manifest presence (p. 204). Schroeder writes, “To have evil, discord, in a world constructed of peace, some of that peace must be withdrawn. From God’s vantage point, the act of creation, in Hebrew, be’re’ah, entails a lessening of God’s manifest presence and control. Creation according to the Bible is God’s spiritual contraction. In Hebrew the term to describe this Divine contraction is tzimtzum, which literally means ‘to contract’ or ‘to withdraw,’ in this case a partial withdrawal of God’s evident spiritual presence. In essence, God hides God’s face. What once might have been a simple unified whole becomes multifaceted, moving in a multitude of paths, not all of which are necessarily spiritually compatible. Tzimtzum provides spiritual space for all aspects of existence as we know it” (p. 101).
The first violation of God’s commands is commonly thought to have been Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. However, God was disobeyed earlier than that, but by nature itself, not by human beings. Before humans were even created, in Genesis 1:11 ”God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit….” However, look at what nature delivered. In Genesis 1:12: “The earth brought forth… trees bearing fruit.” I had never noticed this subtle distinction. God commanded fruit trees bearing fruit but nature produced trees bearing fruit. A fruit tree would be one in which the tree itself would be a fruit. Apparently, the only example in nature is cinnamon, so that the trunk itself is a fruit. Nature has disobeyed God.
This interpretation helps us completely to understand scripture just a few verses later that otherwise seems bizarre. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Even have eaten the forbidden fruit, God metes out the punishments to the serpent, to Eve (on behalf of women), to Adam (on behalf of men), and to the ground (v. 17). The obvious question is, why should the ground, who seems like an innocent bystander in this story, be punished? Apparently, God uses this incident as an opportunity to impose consequences on the ground for not being obedient in producing fruit trees bearing fruit. So, in this chapter, we have, together, the punishments for the first violations of obedience to God, by human beings and by nature.
What are other implications that flow from the notion that nature has free will? Apparently, a stumbling block for many non-Christians is “why bad things happen to good people.” I believe that there is already ample evidence in scripture to “prove” that the answer is “because people have free will.” Still, the strongest evidence against this “proof” would be cases such as people born with severe retardation. Whose free will ultimately caused this state of affairs? Now we have a scriptural answer that makes this proof air-tight – nature did it. Why would nature, cruising along, doing its thing, replicating healthy genes suddenly mess things up by making a mistake in genetic reproduction? For the same reason that people do things we KNOW to be wrong. Paul notes this most poignantly, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). God also foreordained that we would choose badly, even in matters of life and death. In Deuteronomy 30:19 Moses conveys God’s admonition, “I call heaven and earth to witness with you today, life and death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life in order that you may live, you and your children.” This seems like a strange piece of guidance. Could God assume that we would always choose life? Apparently not. With the powerful free will given to us, we need to be reminded to choose what is life-giving. So, nature seems to share the human condition of not always doing what is known to be right.
Schroeder summarizes beautifully, “The laws of nature are indeed ‘laws.’ However, sequestered within is a quantum slack, a leeway in those laws that control nature. At the subatomic level, identical causes do not yield identical effects. That also is the message of the tzimtzum of creation. Einstein is quoted as having said in response to this quantum uncertainty that he could not believe that God played dice with the universe. Einstein was correct. God does not play dice with the universe, but God allows the universe to play dice” (pps. 101-102).
So, what difference does it make if we understand God and nature in these ways? The implications are enormous. One simple implication is that this perspective adds yet another reaffirmation of the fidelity between God’s revelation in scripture and in nature. We see disease, evil, etc. in nature and previously mostly blamed it on God. Now, we can understand that nature itself, independent from God’s desires, brings about “naughty” behavior. We now have an integrated understanding of the scriptural passages that were previously glossed over.
Not that what I like makes a difference in cosmology, but I like the idea of a God that is more dynamic, learning, and growing. The Bible tells us that we are made in God’s image, so this interpretation makes that case more strongly. I know that I am dynamic and I learn and grow. This interpretation puts less distance between God and me. God is, of course, on a higher pedestal than people are, but that pedestal is no longer as distant as previously interpreted. As noted in the metaphor about Jacob, God wants us to “mix it up” with Him – to challenge Him, to cry out with the deepest longings of our heart, to know Him with the deepest intimacy. This perspective comes closer to a relationship of “partners,” which is the way Schroeder concludes his book: “The Bible recognizes that flaws exist in nature’s designs. It even describes them. The God of the bible expects us to fix them. That’s what partnership is all about. Not only are we our brother’s and sister’s keepers, we are even God’s keepers, as is God our Keeper” (p. 212-213).