Facts, Truth, and How to Understand God and the Universe (an imperfect commentary)

flat earth
© Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock

I don’t write here much anymore. Back in the day, I was practically fanatical in my rapid pace of authoring some sort of missive, sharing my perspectives on faith, Messiah, Judaism, and the people of the nations of the world.

What happened?

Well, it got to the point where I felt I said everything I had to say. After all, I’m not a professional theologian. I haven’t been to school for this sort of thing, and have no special training beyond what any layperson in a faith community would have access to. I’m just a guy with an opinion, and believe me, there are far too many of us in the blogosphere, religious or otherwise, as it is.

However, yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Tom. I see Tom on Sunday afternoons every other week unless one or the other of us has another commitment. Tom suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” He is a man of great faith who, at least when I’m present, faces his ailment with remarkable courage.

We visit in the back bedroom of his home which has been converted to a small den or office. Topics of conversation run from science fiction, comic books, movies, the possibilities and problems with colonization of the Moon, Mars, and even Venus, and just about anything else. We also talk about our faith and what is called “Messianic Judaism” and “Hebrew Roots.”

Many years ago, I ceased attending my local Messianic community (which subsequently disbanded) because I was in a position of leadership and teaching, and as my understanding of my faith and its Biblical foundations evolved, I came to realize that what I had been teaching was pretty much dead wrong. I also realized I had no business teaching anyone anything because I was totally unqualified.

The people I worshiped with didn’t seem to mind one bit and said they enjoyed what I was teaching, but as a matter of conscience, I couldn’t continue.

For a lot of reasons I won’t mention here, I eventually started attending a small, local Baptist church. Just about everyone was nice, and the head Pastor took a liking to me, even to the point of having one-to-one meetings with me almost every Wednesday evening. But in the end, he was trying to convince me to become a good Baptist, and I was trying to convince him of the centrality of corporate Israel in God’s plan of redemption, that the Jewish people remain under the Sinai Covenant, and that the New Covenant, which for the past twenty centuries, has just been peeking through the door at the faithful, so to speak, is merely the writing of Torah on the hearts of Israel, rather than throwing the Five Books of Moses and the writings of the Prophets out the window.

We parted company, and in the years since, I haven’t heard anything from him or anyone else at church.

I’m pretty much a lone wolf these days, reading, studying, and worshiping privately.

So when my friend Tom, who does keep in touch with local, long-term members of the Messianic community, told me there were currently a total of seven “Hebraic” faith groups in our area, I was intrigued. Not enough to sample them, which would complicate matters, including my home life, but I was interested in hearing more.

kjv
© James Pyles – The KJV Bible my Grandma gave me when I was eleven years old

He mentioned a couple who I’d met years ago, and how they had formed their own group. He also mentioned a schism in that group, which happens with some regularity in many of these collectives, but this one was interesting. I guess the problem started with a woman, who is a very intelligent and well-educated mathematician, and who also became a very strict Bible-literalist, as well as a King James Bible only proponent, believing all other translations of the Bible from the original languages into English are bogus.

The most startling revelation was that she also is a Flat Earther. I was stunned.

Supposedly, she dismisses all of the evidence that we live on a globe as conspiracy theories, fake news, faked photographs, and such. This is quite surprising coming from a mathematician, but there are generally two areas of human understanding where dogma and belief seem to outweigh facts in most cases: politics and religion. When you enter those realms, faith and devotion to a set of beliefs, and in many cases, a charismatic leader figure (political or religious) trumps the facts (no pun intended).

The head Pastor at the church I once attended was something of a Bible literalist but not to such an outrageous degree. We live in an observable universe which, to the best of our techniques and our technology, we can objectively examine and re-examine using the scientific method.

Unlike some people I experience in the secular world, I believe science is NOT an object of absolute devotion, and it certainly doesn’t yield accurate results one hundred percent of the time, which is why science is never “settled.” It is a logical, fact-based process of asking questions about some observation, doing research, constructing a hypothesis, testing it, and so on. It is not merely a set of definitive pronouncements by people in lab coats who some treat as their “High Priests.”

All that said, as a person of faith and a rational, (hopefully) intelligent, and educated human being, I believe that the objective universe and the Bible cannot conflict, because in the former case, the universe was created by God, and in the latter case, our Holy writings were inspired by the same God (inspired, but not authored…it’s complicated).

I know atheists who would jump all over me at this point, citing multiple inconsistencies between Biblical text (which they read in English and with little or no background in solid hermeneutics) and what we know about the universe around us.

As far as how we understand scientific knowledge about some phenomenon, let’s consider black holes which are the end products of stars over a certain mass (our sun doesn’t quality and will eventually become a white dwarf star). Albert Einstein first predicted the existence of black holes in 1915, and when I was taking astronomy classes in the mid-1970s, I was taught a certain set of (then-known) “facts” about black holes. The late Stephen Hawking revolutionized our current understanding of black holes, and even more recent studies indicate that perhaps he didn’t get it quite right.

black hole
Credit: Shutterstock

No, science is never “settled.”

However, if studies and experiments are unbiased (and remember, federal government grants fund an awful lot of scientific studies), the results, given the limitations of our tools and our understanding, should be taken as fairly reliable, which is why I believe the Earth is a sphere and not a flat dinner plate.

My understanding of the history of God’s interactions with human beings tells me that He encounters them/us in all manner of circumstances including worship contexts, which means that the Catholic Church, Seventh Day Adventists, or any other body of worshipers is NOT the one and only “true church” rendering every other congregations of believers invalid. Just look at how much the early worshipers of Christ during the lifetime of the apostles gathered, their praxis, and their prayers differ from most if not all church communities today.

But as I said before, politics and religion are areas where people seem to feel free to leave their brains at the door and rigidly adopt perspectives that are sometimes wildly outside of reality (to the best of our ability to understand said-reality).

The Earth is not flat, the KJV Bible is merely the first biblical text that was translated from ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into (now archaic) English and widely disseminated, and science does not disprove God.

Surprised at that last one? How can I say that? There are entire volumes published on trying to answer that question, but let’s briefly consider the nature of God. God creating all of timespace, everything we can observe about the universe and everything we can’t, is like me writing this blog post or drawing a sketch. The creator, by definition, cannot be dependent upon the creation.

Sure, I can write a story about myself, or make a self-portrait, but objectively, I still exist outside of those products. If I delete the blog post or burn the drawing in my fireplace, I don’t cease to exist. I’m still outside of those “universes.”

So is God.

Of course, God can choose to interact with human beings, and His “interaction” with Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 attests that He can physically affect geography, in this case burning the top of the mountain to ashes.

How He does this no one knows, which is why we call it a miracle.

We can observe, again to the best of technology and methodology, everything inside of the universe, but God is not in the universe, which is why whenever people attempt to experience God outside the context of prayer, they turn to arcane mysticism, which is a topic all its own.

In a nutshell, this is why I believe the Earth is a globe, we’ve put men on the Moon, we have populated Mars with human-made robots, and that God is real.

Understanding God, the Bible, and coming to faith isn’t something that happens in an instant and then the religion is “settled.” Yes, people can come to faith in a single moment, but for most of us, it’s a sometimes long process of exploration. It’s one that I haven’t finished yet, and I probably won’t until the day I die. Just like scientific study, the study of the Bible, and evolving in a life of faith is ongoing, and just like science, it is a never ending process. In both circumstances, we largely accept many things about reality because we have to live and interact in the world without constantly confusing ourselves. We have “faith” in the conclusions by which we operate in a day-by-day life, both scientific conclusions and Biblical conclusions.

But none of that means we know it all. The minute we stop asking questions is the minute we become ignorant, uninformed, dogmatic, rigid, and out of touch with the realities of the universe and the Bible.

In the case of the “Flat Earth” lady, she believes in a certain, rigid understanding of the Bible that contradicts observable reality. In some other person’s case, they believe in a certain, sometimes rigid understanding of science, and that all of its conclusions are absolute and final, without considering realities that exist beyond the timespace continuum, and that can only be realized metaphysically.

No human being can know the mind of God, so, as the Apostle Paul quipped in 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (emph mine)

The best we can do in understanding both an infinite God and a finite universe is by looking “in a mirror dimly,” a highly distorted and limited set of lenses, because we ourselves and all of our tools and understanding are limited by design.

mirror
Photo credit unknown after search

But it’s not always going to be that way. A day is coming when we will see clearly and everything that we puzzle over now or even downright deny will suddenly make sense. It will be like the day a resurrected Jesus (Yeshua) encountered two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and his explanation of key portions of scripture opened their eyes to the truth of the Messiah (and I wish what he said had been recorded by Luke, because I’d like to hear it, too). Someday it will be like that for all of us, but until then, we need to keep asking questions. Don’t take anything for granted, because if you do, if you stop asking questions, stop seeking a better understanding, whether you are religious or secular, you will become the moral equivalent of a “flat earther.”

I’m very grateful for my relationship with Tom and our regular conversations. He has a brilliant mind and a compassionate heart. He is a good friend and an excellent role model for a man of faith. As David wrote in Psalm 23:3, I think God uses him to restore my soul.

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17 thoughts on “Facts, Truth, and How to Understand God and the Universe (an imperfect commentary)”

  1. I’ve seen the flat earth claim several times recently. The most recent was in the comments section of The Guardian, where someone stated that the Bible said the earth is flat and therefore the Bible is clearly false.
    Comments on that particular thread were closed by the time I saw it, so I wasn’t able to say that in all the times I’ve read the Bible I’d never come across anything about a “flat earth”.

    This morning I finished reading the book Moonwalker by Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke and his wife Dottie. He was the 10th man to walk on the moon. The book details his life leading up to and including that moon mission, and then moves on to the encounter he had with Jesus that changed his life, surpassing his experience of walking on the moon.

    I mention Duke’s book because he writes of his personal experience of a spherical earth, that “hangs…on nothing” and his amazement that it was described as such in scripture written thousands of years prior to science discovering that was the case.

    Unfortunately it is often the extremist that is cited by those who want ammunition to support their desire NOT to believe. Rather than search the scriptures themselves, to see what the bible REALLY says, they are very happy to rely on outlandish claims made by others to “prove” their ill-informed preconceptions of biblical unreliability.

  2. I saved this post and I just got around to reading it. I enjoyed it and you made some sound arguments about the nature of both science and religion. That said, you case for believing in the existence of God seems to be based upon this sentence you wrote: “God [created] all of timespace, everything we can observe about the universe and everything we can’t.” Followed by “The creator, by definition, cannot be dependent upon the creation.” But isn’t this a circular argument? Unless I’m missing what you’re saying, which is quite possible, you seem to be suggesting that because God created all of timespace, God exists. But how do you know that God created all of timespace? How do you know that man, searching for answers to the unanswerable, didn’t conceive of (i.e., create) God as the creator of all of timespace in order to fill in the gap? The reason I don’t believe that God exists is simply because I don’t believe that God created all of timespace, everything we can observe and everything we can’t.

    You need not respond, James. I just wanted to let you know that I read and enjoyed your post, but there is nothing that can persuade me of the existence of a supernatural, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful being that is responsible for everything that is.

    Well, unless I win $350 million in Friday’s Mega Millions drawing, in which case I reserve the right to change my mind.

    1. To address one of your points, I can’t see how the finite mind of man could create an infinite and all-knowing God in any substantive form. One of the “answers” to “where did God come from” or “when God was created” is, since God exists in a timeless realm, the laws of causality do not apply, and in fact, never applied until the creation of the universe, and then, they only apply inside that universe (the past, present, and future tenses I use above are not adequate to describe a timeless God, but given the limitations of human language, it’s the best I can do).

      1. Since the dawn of humanity, man has been concocting supernatural explanations to explain the unknowable and unexplainable. Sometimes it was multiple god, part human, part animal, part divine. It’s in man’s nature to create gods, things to worship, deities to fill in the blanks our finite minds can not conceive. So why not give infinite, all-knowing being as the the entity we create as the creator of us?

    2. A relevant bible quote:”…what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse”

      To me the answer seems clear. We either recognise what we can clearly see in front of us – an unbelievably complex creation – or we see the universe as the result of an uncountable number of lottery results where conditions for the universe to fall into existence were “miraculously” drawn out of the lottery barrel in the right order at the right time.

      1. “To me the answer seems clear. We … recognise what we can clearly see in front of us – an unbelievably complex creation.” Yes, the universe is unbelievably complex, but that doesn’t mean that it was created by some supernatural being who can only be seen, understood, and comprehended by all that is around us. Still, if that answer works for you, great. It doesn’t work for me. The size of the universe is far too vast for the god that we on earth have invented in our own image and that we call our own to be the single source and force behind it all. That takes a leap of faith that I am incapable of making.

        And, for what it’s worth, quoting the Bible to prove the existence of God? Really?

      2. Fandango said; “And, for what it’s worth, quoting the Bible to prove the existence of God? Really?”

        Is that what you thought I was doing?

        I quoted a bible verse that merely spelled out the blatantly obvious, that God’s existence is made clear by the creation around us. Creation is the proof, not the verse.

        Would the fact that the sky is (mostly) blue be nullified in your mind if there was a biblical statement describing the sky that way?

        You have a clear choice – to believe that an incredibly complex and interdependent universe (allegedly governed by ordered and consistent scientific principles) sprang out of nothing into that amazingly complex state all by itself…

        Or you can choose to recognise the blatantly obvious situation mentioned in the bible quote I gave.

        Sadly your comments so far indicate that you prefer the something out of nothing view that comes with the false assurance of there being no accountability to a creator.

      3. So the fact that everything exists… or maybe that anything exists…is proof of Creation (with a capital “C”) is God’s work? You’re right. I believe that the universe was created by a random event, perhaps what people call the “Big Bang,” and has, over billions of years, evolved. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, and, according to the Bible, God created all the creatures, including man, on the same day, day 6. But you know that didn’t happen. It wasn’t until maybe a 4-7 million years ago that humans appeared on earth.

        So what is blatantly obvious to me is that the Bible is a book of fiction and that the only “Creation” is the creation of God by man. And I don’t find that at all sad.

      4. Fandango said:
        “…and, according to the Bible, God created all the creatures, including man, on the same day, day 6. ”

        If you insist that Genesis is describing literal 24 hour days there’s clearly a problem.

        If you want to portray the Genesis account of creations as a scientific treatise, there is clearly a problem.

        I don’t accept either of the above so I see no problem in accepting a poetic revelation of God’s creative actions, passed on orally from generation to generation until the account was eventually written down.

        You have clearly made your choice about this matter – ignoring the countless coincidences, lucky events and seemingly magical, spontaneous developments that would be required to result in a universe of such diversity – the MOST diversity being only witnessed on this planet.

        I have to confess I don’t have such a strong faith in random chance to believe what you do.
        If I did I’d believe it was possible to continually win all of the world’s major lottery prizes and become the richest man in human history. The odds of that happening would be more likely than life the universe and everything spontaneously erupting out of nothing.

      5. “You have clearly made your choice about this matter – ignoring the countless coincidences, lucky events and seemingly magical, spontaneous developments that would be required to result in a universe of such diversity.”

        Yes, I have made that choice, which, for me, makes way more sense than “God’s creative actions.” So I think we have exhausted this topic and I’m sure James must be getting tired of our having this pointless debate on his blog.

  3. Whoa! A flatearther…

    Up until I saw those word, all I was going to say is I have a bible that looks like the very same kind, from the school I went to for first and second grades.

    So, now I have to read the rest.

  4. I enjoyed the rest of what you wrote, James. Can you tell me his you see the quotation if Paul from First Corinthians as a quip? I think I’m missing something. Maybe just because we’re being referred to as dim? (I kinda see that as simply a fact, not a little funny except when it comes to people who think they have “it all” figures out.)

  5. @Fandango: I don’t know a single Christian who has come to faith solely because someone presented them with a logical argument based only on human scientific observation. Every single person (and this includes secular Jews who came to faith in the Almighty, albeit still not having faith in Jesus as the Messiah) has had some sort of metaphysical experience, and believe me, they can be hard to articulate.

    For me, it was a long, drawn out process encompassing probably a year or more of “amazing coincidences” that pretty much blew the laws of probability out of the water. I won’t go into detail, because it would be a blog post of its own (or more like a novella-length commentary).

    I do no that from various articles and texts I’ve read, the math describing the creation of the universe starts to get pretty “wonky” as you approach the “big bang,” so we don’t know everything. Also, Onesimus is quite correct that the Bible can’t be read literally if one expects to get any sort of meaning out of it. Some portions do relate what appear to be factual events, some portions are poetry, some portions are metaphorical, and scholars have been wrestling with how to interpret the Bible for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the debate goes on to this day. That’s why I can read through the Bible year by year and always get something new out of it.

    Of course, there’s a difference between reading the Bible in English and actually studying it.

    Oh, and if you’re expecting to “bait” God by “making” Him let you win the lottery just so you’ll believe in Him, good luck with that. Deuteronomy 6:16 and Matthew 4:7/Luke 4:12 state that “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” which pretty much means you can’t call out the Creator of the universe.

    @Onesimus: Nice to see you here again. Thanks for your comments.

    @Marleen: I was using the word “quip” somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

  6. James said: “Also, Onesimus is quite correct that the Bible can’t be read literally ”

    I would change the above statement to “can’t always be read literally.
    I believe mostly it should be read more literally than it often is – too often clear meanings are pushed aside and parts of the texts are given “interpretations” that have little to do with what is actually said on the page.

    Understanding of scripture always depends on context, and individual parts of scripture should not be torn from their context and given applications that contradict the rest of the Bible.

    In the case of the creation accounts (there are more than one accounts in Genesis), there is a clear poetic element to the structure of the writing that indicates stories passed orally down from generation to generation until eventually someone recorded them in writing.
    I also find the actual accounts taken together possibly reflect a different creation reality to that commonly promoted. But that’s probably too big a topic to go into in a blog comment.

    I just suggest that people take the time to read and carefully consider the early chapters of Genesis for themselves, recognising it is poetry and NOT a scientific treatise.

    To me the most important part of the creation account is found in the first five words “In the beginning, God created…”

    That phrase sets the tone for the whole of the Bible – it’s all about God and His relationship with His creation.

  7. A book I found very helpful around 20 years ago was Genesis and the Big Bang by Gerald Schroeder.

    I’ve been trying to find my copy of it to read it again, but so far with no luck. I suspect it’s in a cupboard in the garage, but it’s too hot to spend a lot of time searching.

    I don’t recall any detail, but I DO know that it helped me out of a long standing “spiritual crisis”, at the time it helped convince me that science and the biblical account of creation are not enemies.

    From memory it was written by a non-religious Jewish physicist.

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