|The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking|
The response from writers in the commercial media was fast and furious. Their harsh comments quickly appeared on Twitter, a platform that encourages short, sharp statements. Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan dismissively wrote, “Stephen Hawking can’t use physics to answer why we’re here.” Mollie Hemingway of Christianity Today was judgmental; her tweet read, “If this is really what Hawking said, another indication of how unserious some atheists are @ big questions.” The nastiest tweet came from Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear. “Stephen Hawking’s answer to the God question,” she wrote, “stinks.” The blogosphere was equally uncollegial. In an essay titled “Theology: Stephen Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism,” Robert Barron of the Word on Fire Blog wrote, “something in me tightens whenever I hear a scientist pontificating on issues that belong to the arena of philosophy or metaphysics.”
What made these writers so upset? Brachear describes herself as a “religion reporter on a quest for truth and Truth – yes, with a capital T.” Capitalization is central to the Hawking discussion, as well; the media response has focused exclusively on God – yes, with a capital G. While Barron calls Hawking a dogmatic New Atheist, I would argue that the physicist is actually an open-minded Old Mythologist. Switch the mystic power from capital-G “God” to little-g “god,” move the frame of reference from Christian mythology to Norse mythology, and Hawking appears downright spiritual. Modern physics may be incompatible with the Christian creation myth, but it works nicely with the Norse one.
According to the Eddas, the 13th-century Icelandic manuscripts that are primary sources for Norse mythology, there was nothing at the dawn of time but Ginnungagap – the beguiling void of chaos. Then, out of nothing came something. Fire and ice appeared, and our reality emerged from their clash – their “Big Bang,” if you will. There was no conscious agent at work, no Prime Mover. This fits nicely with Hawking’s assertion that “the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Barron’s rebuttal is that “any teacher worth his salt would take a student to task if, in trying to explain why and how a given phenomenon occurred, the student were to say, ‘well, it just spontaneously happened.’” Of course, any four-year-old with basic human curiosity would ask, “who made God?” In contrast to Norse mythology’s complex family tales of gods, giants, elves, and dwarves, the Christian mythos is noticeably silent on the origin of its deity. In effect, he “just spontaneously happened.”
Hawking’s justification for spontaneous creation is that “there is a law such as gravity.” This particularly irked Barron, who wrote, “which is it: nothing or the law of gravity? There’s quite a substantial difference between the two.” Norse mythology once again provides a metaphorical context. The gods, far from omnipotent, are themselves subject to laws, and there are grim consequences for breaking them. Richard Wagner wrote four “music dramas” exploring the struggles of the Norse god Wotan with laws that he must both enforce and obey. The gods are subject to immutable cosmic law just as planets are controlled by the law of gravity. Barron writes that “to claim that something as finite and variable as the force of gravity is the ultimate explaining value is simply ludicrous.” I’d bet that Hawking’s science is a bit more nuanced than “gravity did it” Is it really more philosophically sound to simply assert that “God did it”?
In The Telegraph, physicist Graham Farmelo asserts that Hawking was “speaking metaphorically” when, in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, he wrote that the ultimate end of science was to “know the mind of God.” In June of this year, Hawking said that “you can call the laws of science ‘God,’ but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet and ask questions.” Suprisingly, Barron (a Catholic priest) seems to agree: “Catholic philosophy has identified this non-contigent ground of contingency, this ultimate explanation of the being of the universe, as ‘God.’” If the leaders of the Catholic Church have really moved from God-as-conscious-being to God-as-philosophical-construct, cheers to them.
If we accept this idea of religion-as-metaphor – and many of us won’t – isn’t the Norse cosmogony a better fit for modern physics than the Christian one? I agree wholeheartedly with Farmelo that “no religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations.” Rationality seems to have had very little effect on the major religions; the weapon that has destroyed older faiths has been the overwhelming cultural, economic, and military force of the conversion-based religions. I do, however, disagree with his claim that “no religion has ever been set out in terms of scientific statements.” The Norse cosmology clearly sets out to explain the world around us: the phenomenon of lightning is caused by Thor throwing his mystic hammer, the aural experience of thunder is caused by Thor’s sky-chariot rolling through the clouds, etc. What is mythology but the earliest attempt of humanity to create a scientific understanding of the overwhelming world around it?
To Hawking, the 1992 discovery of a distant star with its own orbiting planet made the Earth’s development “far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.” Again, this lines up better with Norse myth than with Christian myth. Of the Nine Worlds described in the Eddas, our human one is clearly not the most important. The idea that humanity is not necessarily the center of reality is also put forward by Hawking. Arguing that existence is comprehensible through physics alone, he writes that there is no need to imagine a “benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit.” Farmelo writes that Einstein and Spinoza both felt that “the concept of God is an expression of the underlying unity of the universe, something so wondrous that it can command a spiritual awe.” The scientist and the philosopher have more in common with the Old Norse than the Christian; for the societies in which Norse mythology developed as an expression of living faith, this sense of wonder at the glory of existence was expressed by tales of larger-than-life gods and goddesses who represent natural powers and phenomena. The gods did not create the natural world; they are the natural world.
Mathematician Eric Priest wrote in The Guardian that “being able to explain the big bang in terms of physics is not inconsistent with there being a role for God.” If physics is even more consistent with Norse mythology, doesn’t that mean that this ancient worldview is more compatible with modern science than Christianity is? Indeed, Priest writes that “often philosophy or history or theology are better suited to help answer” many of life’s deepest questions. Yet he, like most of the writers mentioned above, focuses solely on a culturally-bound duality by insisting that “you can ask whether the existence or nonexistence of God is more consistent with your experience.” Are those the only real choices? If I don’t believe in the God of Abraham, am I ipso facto an atheist? In any time period, insisting on this false choice would feel culturally imperialist. In the 21st century, it feels dangerously out-of-date. The need to expand our theological concepts to include perspectives other than monotheistic, Creator-driven faiths is long overdue.