Finding order out of chaos

Physicist and theologian Dr Lydia Jaeger is Academic Dean at the Nogent Bible Institute near Paris. She talks to Nigel Bovey about creation and the orderliness of the universe.

Dr Jaeger, do you describe yourself as a scientist or a theologian?

By training, I am both. I have degrees in physics and in theology and a doctorate in the philosophy of science.

What first attracted you to science?

I had a very good high school teacher who taught physics – particularly astronomy – in a way that captured my imagination. He explained how the universe worked and helped me to sense the orderliness of it. I am attracted to physics because I like the idea that the universe is ordered – that there are laws we can discover and mathematically describe.

What attracted you to theology?

My first calling is to missionary work. I am linked to a German missionary society, so by the time I started studying physics, I knew that at some time I would do theology as well. I read physics as a way of becoming a missionary teacher.

You say that through your study of astronomy you came to appreciate the notions of order and cause. Is the universe a product of design or the outcome of an accident?

There is too much order for it to have been an accident. The natural order is a strong argument for the existence of something greater. It speaks about God’s work.

What is your definition of ‘creation’?

Creation is God’s free act of bringing about everything that exists ex nihilo. That means two things. First, there was no preexisting matter before the creation, so God is the only eternal being and everything else is a result of his creation, and, therefore, completely dependent on him. Secondly, the created world is not an extension of God’s nature. The Bible teaches that creation was a free act of God – it links to his will; it does not flow from his nature. In pantheism, for example, the world is an extension of the divine and the distinction between the creator and the created is unclear.

So the idea is that, without materials, God built a material universe. How can you make something out of nothing?

Creation is a unique act. The Bible opens with a firm statement: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ It doesn’t start out with an argument for creation or for the existence of God, it just confronts us with God’s presence and his work. It is beyond our understanding, but that doesn’t mean it is unreal, rubbish or irrational.

You describe creation as a free act of God. To what extent do people have free will?

We are free in the sense that we are responsible for our acts. It is not an autonomous freedom that exists without any connection to anything or anyone else. We are dependent on our upbringing, the conditions we live in and factors such as physical health, all of which should help us to make free and responsible choices. The biblical perspective is that the main impediment to freedom is sin. Sin makes us slaves to our own desires and passions.

Reflecting on the orderliness of the universe, philosopher William Paley pictured God as a watchmaker. How satisfying is that image to you?

The watchmaker is one image of God as creator but it is not the only one. A watchmaker, for instance, does not make the materials from which the watch is made. Nor do they design the laws that the watch follows. God as watchmaker, however, suggests that all God did was to start things off and then withdraw, whereas the world exists by his continual providence.

How does God interact with the world? How does he intervene?

I believe God continues to be involved in the world and I certainly believe in miracles. But I don’t like the word ‘intervention’, because it gives the impression that the world is going on in an independent way and that God occasionally jumps in to fix it. There is general providence and – through what we call ‘miracles’ – there is specific involvement in human history.

To what extent does God break the laws of orderliness?

There is no reason why the lawmaker couldn’t break his own laws. It is not a complete explanation of everything, but I like the illustration of CS Lewis. Referring to the laws of writing poetry, he said that a beginner is taught never to go against these laws, because if they break them, they will never know how to write good poetry. But, if you are an excellent poet, from time to time you need to go against the laws of poetry to make a special point.

In that sense, I don’t think that God breaks the laws of nature because he doesn’t know what he is doing, but at certain points he wants to have a special effect, to make an impression on us. That’s what the Bible terms a ‘miracle’. It is more difficult for us to see God’s work in ordered nature than in extraordinary events.

What is your view on creation?

While every Christian is a creationist, in the sense that they believe God created the world, the word is often taken to describe a very specific concept of creation – a literal calculation of the six days of creation as described in Genesis.

The doctrine of creation is fundamental to the Christian understanding of the world. If you believe in creation, you have a very different outlook on the world from somebody who believes that it came about by chance. That insight affects everyday concerns, such as work, the environment and relationships.

On the question of the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3, there are scientific and exegetical difficulties with a literal interpretation. I do not regard these chapters as having been written for a literal understanding. There are pointers in the text that indicate a literary understanding. For example, the text speaks about historical events – and it’s important to note that sin is not part of nature; it is something that came into God’s created world at a certain point – but it does so in an allegorical, metaphorical or figurative way.

How closely do the events described in Genesis 1 to 3 correspond with what science says about how life came into being?

They tackle the same issues. I don’t see it as being a case of science dealing with facts and the Bible dealing with values. The Genesis accounts talk about the world and say that God created it. But, when it comes to specific questions about how he did so, the text does not give us a lot of information. But then, that is not its purpose. The Bible is meant to speak to every human being. If it were full of scientific language, many people would not understand it.

Does the idea of God as creator conflict with Darwin’s theory of evolution?

In general, I don’t think so. Some argue that God could be a speculator, trying things out, rather than a designer, or that his method of designing could include the use of chance.

Some people argue that, by describing a process of modification that takes place over millions of years and involving the death of animals, the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Bible because there was no death until Adam and Eve sinned.

I hold firmly to the belief that human death is a consequence of sin. I don’t, however, see that animal death has to be a consequence of sin. Romans 5, for example, talks only about human death. If animal death were linked with sin, then we would live in a completely different world from the one that God created. I don’t think the Bible demands such a belief.

One of the holy grails of science is the theory of everything – a device or formula that explains how everything has come to be. To what extent do you regard creation as a Christian theory of everything?

Creation is certainly the grounds for everything. It provides a kind of metaphysical explanation, but it doesn’t give an explanation of how things work or how they came about. It leads, though, to a multidimensional perspective on reality. Physics, for example, does not describe and explain the whole world. Psychology, economics and theology offer different perspectives. The seven days of the creation account in Genesis 1 suggest a multidimensional nature. We need to approach reality by different perspectives, of which faith and science are complementary components.

New atheists are among those who claim that science offers humankind all the answers it needs. Why are they wrong?

First, they forget that science started against the background of faith. Early Greek thought and Christianity helped bring about what we now call ‘science’. Christianity played a key role in the scientific enterprise of such founding fathers as Newton, Boyle and Kepler.

Secondly, the Christian doctrine of creation gives many of the starting points of the scientific method – the world is ordered, humankind can understand the world, it is worthwhile exploring the material world. A lot of the presuppositions of science come from the Christian world view.

Thirdly, new atheists often exaggerate what science can tell us. Science is not about whether or not God exists. There is nothing in science that contradicts God’s existence. I would say you can’t understand science fully if you don’t believe in God as creator.

So, someone who regards the universe as a random outcome cannot understand science?

That’s right, because they have no idea why there is a natural order. If the universe is random, why do we have laws and why can we describe these laws? Also, science is not the only thing in the world. There is human experience, relationships and reason. Without creation, reason does not make sense.

To what extent is having a faith reasoned and reasonable?

For theists, God is at the very basis of existence. You cannot prove God’s existence but, through reason, you can conclude that God exists. Faith is not proved by reason, but – starting from faith – when you accept reason you can have a much deeper understanding of the world.

God cannot be proved, but what evidence can you offer for his existence?

In a sense, everything speaks about God’s existence, because everything is created by God. Specifically, I would point to natural order, the possibility of understanding natural order and the fact that we’re able to reason. There’s religious awareness. Miracles, the fulfilment of biblical prophecies and Christ’s resurrection are also evidence of God’s existence.

Couldn’t an atheist argue that the universe as a random outcome is just as logical a conclusion as the theistic narrative?

I wouldn’t call that an explanation. Granted an atheist can refrain from explaining how the world came to be – that the world is just a brute fact – but they still need to explain why there is such a strong tendency to look for an explanation. But while such a view might be possible, refusing to explain facts does not live up to the high calling of reason.

How and when did you become a Christian?

I was raised in a Christian family. My parents were very good in allowing me to discover faith for myself. They taught me to read the Bible and they put me in contact with a church that suited me.

When I was a teenager, I went to a Bible camp, where I questioned whether I was really saved. I knew the gospel and I believed it, but I didn’t have the assurance that it meant personal salvation for me. So at 17, I confirmed my decision to follow Jesus and to take his saving work on the cross personally.

What convinces you that Jesus is the Son of God?

It is a mixture: the rational beauty of the Christian world view, the examples of Christians (Christians are not perfect but I see a big difference between the lifestyle of Christians and non-Christians), the coherence of the Bible and the gospel message of God’s saving grace, which I would rather accept than face life rejecting.

What convinces you of the resurrection of Jesus?

Without the resurrection, I can’t make sense of Jesus’ life or of the apostles’ witness. If Jesus was not resurrected, then the most extraordinary person the world has ever seen – who fulfilled hundreds of years of prophecy – was either a liar or deluded. The whole history of the church – including people willing to face death for their faith – does not make sense if Jesus was not raised.

What does your faith give you?

I don’t like the idea of faith as being something you get something from. I have simply placed my life before God and try to live it accordingly.

This interview was conducted by Nigel Bovey and first appeared in The War Cry. It is used here with permission

Photo by Nigel Bovey