By David Madison
Dangerous thoughts of a young seminarian
Only a few items survive in the dusty archives! That is, the paper trail from my eleven years of graduate work is meager. Boston University School of Theology was my academic home, 1964-1975. There is, of course, my 250-page doctoral dissertation (typed on my manual typewriter), but I saved few of my other papers. One that I cherish the most is a 17-page essay titled, The Secrecy Motif in Mark’s Gospel, which received an “A”—and a glowing comment from the professor: “This represents a lot of careful work and thought, and I have learned much from it. An excellent paper.” What a nice boost for 24-year old me!
However, there is one essay in my file from my BU days that is a standout: it anticipates by a few decades Sam Harris’ observation: “Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance…” I didn’t write this essay for any class, but out of my desire to get a few frankly dangerous thoughts—given where I was—down on paper. I showed it to only one person, a fellow student whom I trusted. He responded with ridicule and sarcasm, but he kept my secret.
Here are my thoughts as a young seminarian in 1966, word for word:
On the Improbability of God
As mankind becomes more aware of the size of the universe and the depth of outer space, theology is going to be increasingly plagued by a credibility gap. No matter how elaborate, logical and sophisticated the arguments for a personal deity, the whole notion of God is going to fall increasingly within the realm of the “simply unbelievable.”
Christian theology posits a deity who has agonized a great deal over the world and who has acted decisively and sometimes dramatically in human history; this deity knows about and cares for every person on the face of the earth, indeed has concern for flowers and birds (Matt. 6:28, 10:29). It is belaboring the obvious to point out that such a concept of deity developed in pre-Copernican times, when the prevailing worldview permitted such an intensely concerned deity. God was radically present and concerned because God was near, merely a few miles overhead, hovering watchfully over the affairs of man. This concept has been refined considerably as the church has sought to adjust to the eroding of the ancient worldview. God is no longer “out there” or “up there,” but is assigned to a strictly non-geographical realm. God is an inner, spiritual reality. But, although the geographical aspects have been removed, the view of God as a personal loving deity, which depended so greatly upon the nearness of God which the ancient world view guaranteed, is still the basic tenet of modern theology. However, it is precisely this aspect of theology today which is most threatened by man’s increasing awareness of the universe—the full implications of the Copernican revolution are having a calamitous impact.
Theology has for a long time been threatened by the growing evidence as to the size of the universe and the relative smallness of the earth: who has not been driven to his most gnawing doubts by continual pondering of the infinity of deep space? We have realized that the formula: God created the heavens and the earth, is outrageously and absurdly out of proportion. Belief in a personal God is strained. Theology has countered by pleading for an ever larger God—your God is too small, we are told, and we are urged to believe that God is bigger and better than previous generations could have imagined.
Christian theology finds itself trying to impute truly universalistic dimensions to a deity previously embodied in terrestrial thought forms, previously described completely anthropomorphically: the Christian deity bears a curious resemblance to a creature that happened to evolve at one drifting point in space.
We need to continually ponder the geography of our universe to determine whether the pre-Copernican deity can actually be convincingly inflated to the proportions that we now require. Can we have the universe as it is, and a radically personal God too? Theologians may scoff at such thoughts, and tend to feel that the problem is elementary and easily dismissible; but is the confidence which they exude really convincing?
It is enough to raise doubts merely to examine our own “neighborhood” in space. Our solar system is a millionth part of one galaxy of stars which is 100,000 light years across; or to put in another way: if one had started a cross galactic journey when the pyramids of Giza were built, and had maintained a constant speed of 186,000 miles-per-second, we would be 1/20 of the way across the galaxy at the present time. The galaxy in turn represents an incredibly small portion of known space. Our earth, of course, is invisible and undetectable even from the nearest star. Even in comparison to our sun the earth is fantastically tiny. We are perhaps all misled by diagrams in science texts which show the planets in orbit around the sun. For us to represent the solar system pictorially, one must distort its proportions drastically. If the sun were represented by a globe 27 feet high (about five times the height of a man), the earth would be a sphere about the size of an orange in orbit about 2,900 feet away. Or if the sun were represented by a sphere 5 ½ inches in diameter, the earth could be represented by a grain of sand orbiting at a distance of about 50 feet.
I point all this out not to evoke awe, not for its “gee whiz” value, but rather to achieve a balanced perspective. For from the standpoint of the earthling who treads the planet every day, it looks pretty large and solid; we naturally tend to feel that the earth must loom large in the eyes of God. But in the fuller perspective of all known space—we are indeed lost in space in the same sense that a grain of sand is lost in the Pacific Ocean, or in the sense that a particle of soil is lost in a dust storm.
Theology, however, insists that the personal deity of the entire universe knows about and cares about this planet: a truly fantastic idea. Theology even goes beyond this, however, and insists that the deity knows about and cares about every person on the planet. Such a belief is on a par with the assumption that a baker knows about and cares about every particle of flour in his dough, and about every atom in every particle.