Bluebells, Gnatcatchers, and the Nature of God

Because I teach, I'm occasionally called upon to explain things to people.  Students, mostly, but not always the ones in my classes. Recently, I've been engaging in one of my periodic discussions of natural history, a subject in which I am 100% professionally unqualified to teach, but in which I have done more than a little independent study, particularly on the subject of evolution.

I'm for it, by the way.

Not all the students I'm discussing the subject with are so happy with it, however, and one in particular is so determined to stick with creationism (though I think he's actually calling his version "intelligent design") that he pulled out an assertion I hadn't actually seen used in an argument before, though I'd read of its use in past arguments: that the light of the stars we measure at millions of light-years away was actually created not by the stars, but by a much more recent Creator--and was created in transit, so to speak, so that it only APPEARS to come from the distant stars.

Aside from calling into question the morality of a Creator who would violate natural law in order to bear false witness (and make the evidence of the universe deny His very existence), the main thing this behavior would do is destroy all science.  If you can't count on natural laws to be true at all times and places, science, mathematics, and even logic become impossible, and we're literally unable to know anything about the universe other than the most basic Cogito ergo sum solipsism. 

This, to me, is a far more terrifying idea than the possibility that I might share DNA with a lamprey, but I suppose if you insist on seeing the universe reflected in the glass of the Bible, rather than directly, the universe is likely to be bent in some pretty terrifying directions to see it in the Bible's funhouse mirror.

But on my trip along the Rapidan River today, there were blue-gray gnatcatchers buzzing in the trees, and late Virginia bluebells were blooming beside the path, and I began thinking about how they got there.  Obviously, random mutation over an enormous length of time would be one method, but it's not one that satisfies everyone. If you believe in the funhouse mirror's accuracy, they got there because God, in one of the tiny increments of his ineffable plan, determined that the six blossoms to the left of the path in the shadow of the hickory tree had to be there, as did the fourteen blossoms to the left of the path, but in the shadow of the larger tulip poplar, not to mention the fifteen blossoms that lay in the patch of sunlight between the shadows of the two tree trunks, not to mention the seventy-eight bluebells on the RIGHT side of the path, the miscellaneous weeds that grow among them, the trees themselves, and the assorted invertebrates, microorganisms, and fungi that lie unseen beneath the bluebells. And that doesn't even count the bluebells elsewhere along the river, in other parts of Virginia, or in the rest of the world.  Not to mention all the big stuff like keeping the gravitational constant of the universe steady, keeping planets in their course, and listening to the prayers of all the beings in the universe that want Him to take care of something.

If nothing else, it seems as though the God who has to specially create everything that ever was, is, and will be would wake up every morning in a prodigiously grumpy mood considering all the stuff on His to-do list.  And since He's omniscient, He would know every night before bed exactly what He'd have to put up with the next day.

So I began to consider: wouldn't God create a universe where He could be surprised?

I'm sure that if God were to sit down and plan a bluebell, or a gnatcatcher, He would doubtless be enormously pleased by the way in which His creation came into being.  The violet-blue shade of the flowers, or the bright eye-ring and white tail feathers of the bird give such pleasure to me, I can't imagine how they could do less for their Creator.  They're beautiful, they hold their spots in the ecology well, and they reproduce successfully.  Bully for them.

But if He knew how they were going to turn out--perfectly according to plan, just like everything else He created--would His pleasure in them be greater or less than if He did not?  If just saying "Let there be bluebells" is all it takes to get a perfect set of bluebells, why bother saying it?  God already knows exactly what they'd be like and how they'd fit into the universe.  Bringing them into being isn't really necessary--it's just gilding the lily, so to speak.

So  is it that hard to imagine that God might set up a universe with only a few predetermined elements--the number one, the speed of light, the law of entropy, and a few other items--and then turn it loose to see what happened?  He's omnipotent, after all; He could create a universe where He didn't know how it was all going to turn out--where His omniscience would not apply.

If God were walking down the path alongside the Rapidan and had never seen a bluebell before, what mighty delight, what rapture, what ineffable joy He would know when first He came across one.

Sort of the same way we take delight in our children when they do something we have not taught them.

I think such a God and I would find quite a lot to talk about on a riverside walk.  And I have no doubt that He'd make the best possible companion along the way.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 17, 2009 5:03 PM.

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