ISSUES interviews Nancy Ellen Abrams, author of A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet.
Nancy Ellen Abrams is a lawyer, philosopher of science, and co-author with her husband, astrophysicist Joel R. Primack, of The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future. ISSUES interviewed Abrams regarding her new book, A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of our Planet. Abrams is Jewish, but does not share the Messianic Jewish perspective of the editors of ISSUES
I read about your experience when you were a child in Sunday School. Was your family Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox?
Well, sort of a mixture. My grandparents were Orthodox. My parents joined a Reform temple, but I don’t think they had any beliefs of their own. My father had been a soldier in World War II, and my mother’s entire extended family was killed by the Nazis. And I think that by the end of World War II, they had very little belief in God, if any. They still did ritual type things once in a while. They did send us to Sunday School, but that was about the extent of their interest.
I read with interest your story about the essay you did for the rabbi, when he yelled at you for writing, “God didn’t create us; we created God.” You said it was more than a decade before you went back to a synagogue. What brought you back?
I was working in Washington, D.C., and someone invited me to go to a big synagogue for the High Holidays, so I just went. And that was the first time back.
Did you continue attending?
Do you currently attend synagogue or any house of worship?
I do occasionally go on the High Holidays, not to a synagogue, but in my town, Santa Cruz, we have several smaller Jewish groups that have their own interpretation. I do sometimes attend their services.
Now I’m going to turn to the Bible and also to statements that I’m quoting out of your book, A God That Could Be Real. Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth ” (Genesis 1:1). You state in your book, “Something as complex as a mind capable of planning and creating the universe could not possibly have been there to do so.” Now in stating that, aren’t you in a sense bringing the God of the Hebrew Scriptures down to the level of man, in that you are assuming that the mind of the biblical God is the same as the mind of man?
Well, what I’m saying is that anything that would have a consciousness that could plan couldn’t have been there in the beginning because we understand a lot today about how the universe began. At the time when the Bible was written, and certainly at the time that those stories were first told, which was long before the Bible was actually written down, people had absolutely no concept of what the universe was. They had a story that was based on much more ancient stories that had been told in Egypt and Sumer. Their picture of the universe was of a flat earth, a bubble of air above that, and a hard dome above that, built by God on the second day when he “separated the waters.” The idea of “separating the waters” was that God had to make a space for the creation in the endless primeval waters, which people believed existed before heaven and earth and continued to exist outside the creation. This is so completely different from what we actually know today that it really requires us to rethink our sense of our own origins. Where did we really come from? Where did the whole universe come from? What is the universe? Now we know we live in a universe made 95% of invisible dark matter and dark energy, two dynamic presences in competition since the Big Bang, with dark matter pulling ordinary atomic matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their interaction with the ordinary matter we’re made of has spun the galaxies into being and created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life. The story of creation needs to be rethought. But rethinking that in no way affects the really important ideas of God that actually help us in our lives.
You say in your book that God can’t know everything. In the book of Job, Job says God is “perfect in knowledge” (Job 37:16). So, who do you say is right? You or Job?
Well, let’s look at the meaning of the words here. Because you know words change their meaning over time. And knowledge can be perfect within a very small sphere. So it is possible to have, I suppose, perfect knowledge of some small thing. But it is not possible to have perfect knowledge of everything, now that we know what the word “everything” may include. As I said before, for people in biblical times “everything” was a certain picture of reality. But now we understand that we live in a relativistic universe. We live in a universe where if two people are traveling at a speed close to the speed of light relative to each other, then the order of events outside them that they both observe not only appears different, but is different in their frames of reference. So it’s not even a meaningful idea to say that perfect knowledge could exist. If we want the Scriptures to stay sacred to us in our lives, we have to realize that they are about a certain small portion of reality that people understood in pre-scientific times and not about stuff that’s been discovered since then.
You also state that God doesn’t plan what happens. Now, in the Psalms King David said to God, “In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). So again, who’s right? You or King David?
I assume you are talking about the Book of Life? What book are you talking about?
That’s a good question, Nancy. I think we could agree he’s talking about the Book of Life.
Well then, if you have gone to the Yom Kippur services, especially to the Kol Nidre service, you hear again and again that the Book of Life is open until sunset tomorrow. It’s open. It’s not closed. What will be is not determined yet. And the whole point of Yom Kippur is that we atone for our sins, that we pray to be written into the Book of Life. So you can’t say that even God has everything written in, because God is waiting for you to pray and to see if you deserve to be put in the Book of Life.
You estimate the size of the visible universe as having a radius of approximately 46 billion light-years. You say, “That’s how far the material that emitted the heat radiation of the Big Bang is from us now.” Where did the material that emitted the heat radiation come from?
That was the Big Bang. That’s the particles and energy that were created in the Big Bang.
Okay, but my question is, how did something come out of nothing?
Well, the way that traditionally people have tried to figure this out has been to ask, “Where was the beginning?” Now that’s not the way that science has discovered that it’s best to look at these things. What we really need to do is start with what we know. And we push back step by step and say, where did that come from? You have to push back to the beginning. What we know scientifically is that there was a Big Bang. There’s just a huge amount of evidence that the universe began in a very, very small region, which exploded and has been expanding ever since. Now the question: Where did that come from? Well, there’s another theory called cosmic inflation. Cosmic inflation explains what set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang. It explains the last instant before the Big Bang. But then you say, where did cosmic inflation come from? But now, you see, we’re outside our universe. So although we can theorize and push back mathematically to figure out where cosmic inflation came from, once you’re outside our universe, how do you get any data? How do you get any evidence to support your theory? At that point we go into what could be called metaphysics. It’s based on very solid mathematics. The theory that explains where cosmic inflation came from is called eternal inflation. The idea is that outside the universe that’s created by the Big Bang is an enormous super universe that is expanding much faster than the speed of light. It’s hot, it’s dense, but there’s nothing there except the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest particles because nothing can get together to even make an atom, because everything is expanding so fast. We don’t know where the real beginning is. Because if that theory is true, it could be eternal. In which case it has no beginning. Or it could be eternal into the future, but it started in the past. But how are we going to know that?
Regarding the origins of the universe, in the Book of Romans in the New Testament, Paul writes that God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).Can you conceive of a God that can do that?
The emerging God as I have described it in my book, A God That Could be Real, does exactly that. What it calls into existence is not what exists but the meaning of what exists. So there’s something out there that’s at least 13.8 billion years old. And we and our galaxy and our planet and our whole local group of galaxies, we all evolved out of this stuff that was there. God emerged from us, from the interacting aspirations of many, many, many thousands of generations of human beings.
You were talking a little while ago about the concept that the universe might not have a beginning or an end. The Bible says, “God created the heavens and the earth.” So the biblical idea is that God was outside of this universe and created it. But I know that you don’t agree. You think that would be impossible.
Anything that is outside of our universe cannot possibly be in contact with us, not scientifically, not spiritually, not intellectually, not in any way at all. Because our universe is so much bigger and so much more complicated than the early notions of the universe. The whole point of my book is, we now know all this about the universe. How can God still be real? God can be real, but only if it’s in our universe. And if it’s in our universe, it has to follow the laws of science. On the other hand, the laws of science are a lot more generous than most people realize. Because most people think the laws of science just say if I drop something it will fall. The laws of science are far more exciting than that, the new ones that are being discovered in the last decades. So the new picture of the universe does close off some traditional ways of thinking about God. But it opens a huge new way no one could have thought of before.
Can you picture a God, the traditional God, that doesn’t have a beginning or an end?
Well, I don’t picture a traditional God at all. I think that the traditional God is just an idea. And it’s a way that people try to explain things. There’s no such thing as a beginning and an end as an objective reality. The beginning is a place that people use to start telling a story. The end is the place that people stop telling the story. It’s not something that objectively exists. So it’s all a question of how we think. I’m hoping that with the modern knowledge of science that we now have and with our continuing deep need for God, we can begin thinking about God in a new way that works for our time.
In writing about the afterlife, you state, “This collective aspect of us, not our individual consciousness, can become immortal.” In Psalm 23, King David wrote, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” King David seems to talk about a literal living forever.
No he doesn’t. He doesn’t say that. You’re just assuming that. He says, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” If God is indeed emerging from us, we will all dwell in the house of the Lord forever. That is, forever, as long as human consciousness exists. And it’s really up to us how long that goes on. If we continue to destroy our planet, human consciousness could be gone in a few generations. But if we really take good care of our planet, and we take care of our descendants, and we allow our descendants to live on this beautiful planet of Earth for the next half billion years—and they could because conditions will be fine here if we don’t wreck them ourselves—then human beings could move out into the galaxy, they could be the seed of intelligence. We could change the whole universe. And we would truly live in the house of the Lord forever.
There are other references in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to an afterlife, a literal dwelling with God in heaven. And we who believe the Scriptures as written believe that there is a literal heaven. But you don’t agree.
Well, I think we’re living with God in heaven right here on Earth. If you compare Earth to anyplace else in the entire universe that is known, there is nothing like it. And a lot is known. Astronomers have discovered more than 3,000 other solar systems, that is, stars with observed planets. We are living on a jewel of the universe. The fact that intelligent life has evolved here is extraordinary. We don’t know of course anyplace else that it has happened. It’s possible there are aliens out there. But not only our planet but our entire solar system is unusual too. We live in this amazing solar system, where all the planets have orbits that are almost exactly round. And that means that they are the same distance from their star (the sun) all year long. In most planetary systems, the planets come zooming in really close to their star on one side and zoom far out in a big ellipse so that their planetary conditions will be extremely uneven. The temperature will vary wildly and it is very hard for life to evolve under those circumstances. Our solar system has practically no asteroids compared to most other solar systems. In most solar systems the planets are being constantly bombarded. But ours is incredibly clean. There are so many ways in which we live in a fabulous solar system. And in our solar system, our planet is the only one that is the perfect distance from the sun, so we earthlings have liquid water all year long. In many ways, this is heaven. And because God is emerging from the collective aspirations of all of us humans, God is right here. We are living with God in heaven right here. We don’t have to wait to die. And the fact is, that if we do the best we can, if we contribute the best we can to this God that is emerging from us, then our contributions and our role as part of this emerging phenomenon will go on forever. That’s how I read that phrase.
All those things you said about earth and its uniqueness are incredible and interesting. There are some who would say that this is an argument for God’s existence—that earth is His special creation. What do you think about that?
Well, earth is special because we’re here. But God is here because we’re here. That’s how I see it.
Okay, we agree to disagree on that.
Sure. There’s nothing wrong with that. You know, let me say that, people who have a clear view of God that serves them in their lives, that makes them loving, not judgmental, people and effective and inspired and so forth, I am fine with that. I’m not trying to change anybody’s idea of God if it really serves them in their lives. My book was written for people who are more like me, people who didn’t have a view like that. People who couldn’t see how God could possibly be real and live in the scientific universe that we understand. People like me were simply torn in half. We could not see how to pull it all together. And I figured out a way to have a really powerful spiritual interpretation of the modern universe as science now understands it. If you don’t need that, then you don’t need it. But if you do need it, this is a wonderful discovery. It’s absolutely thrilling, that we can have a God that is absolutely real by scientific standards and still be just as inspiring for people like me as your God is for people like you.
I appreciate you saying that, Nancy, and where you are coming from. Here is my last question. Regarding morality, you write, “This is the state of the world today, with dueling moralities, the believers in each averring it to be universal while in fact none of them is or could be.” What would you say about the Ten Commandments, such as “You shall not murder”; “You shall not commit adultery”; “You shall not steal.” Are they not universal?
No, I don’t think they’re universal. They might be humanly universal in the sense that most of them might be applicable to most of us. But they are certainly not universal from the point of view of aliens. Why would aliens want to go by, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”? We don’t know how they reproduce.
If there are aliens.
And what about, “Honor thy father and thy mother”? Let’s think about this from a cosmic perspective. Who is your real father and mother? Well sure, there are the two people who actually conceived you. But where did they come from? And what made it possible for them to exist? Our true parents go all the way back, back beyond our parents, back beyond our ethnic group, back beyond humanity, back beyond the primates that preceded us, beyond the first living cell, back beyond the atoms that we are made of. All the atoms that we are made of except for hydrogen were made inside stars, thousands of different stars that supernovaed at many different eras, and all that stardust that they created floated through space, and became part of the earth when the earth was forming. Those are our parents too. And what made those stars possible? What made them possible was the incredible competition between dark matter and dark energy that has been going on since the Big Bang, and has spun the galaxies into being. All of that, that’s what I think when you say, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” We should honor all of it, all the way back, because that’s our deep parentage. So much of the Ten Commandments is still valid, but we really have to think about them in a big way, because we now know that we live in a big universe.