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'God is a person, not a theory'

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Stephen Hawking is wrong to assert that God did not create the Universe, says Christianity’s new poster boy John Lennox.

In September, when The Times made international headlines with the news that Professor Stephen Hawking had concluded that God had not, after all, created the Universe, it should have been a blow to John Lennox. The 67-year-old Oxford University maths professor has in the past few years emerged as academia’s lead champion of Christianity against the post-9/11 “New Atheists”. He has three times debated their leader, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, two years ago at the university’s natural history museum in what some hailed as a rerun of the great 1860s evolution debate between Darwin’s supporter Thomas Huxley and God’s Samuel Wilberforce.

But now the war was being fought on a new front — physics — by a scientist whom Lennox had admired since their student days at Cambridge.

Yet Lennox says that it wasn’t a blow. “No, not in the slightest. It was fascinating. I thought, ‘What new arguments does he have?’”

This, one might say, is the Oxford mind at work. For others, however, the shock was real enough. A “simple believer in the Christian faith” e-mailed Lennox to say that he had driven into a petrol station and seen the headlines. “He said it hit him viscerally. It knocked him for six.” Perhaps it was for him, then, that Lennox has now written in retaliation God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design is it Anyway?, a short book that he will give us a sneak preview of on Monday with a lecture at the University of Dundee.

We meet at Green Templeton College, Oxford, for which, among his other jobs, Lennox is pastoral adviser. The first thing to say about him is that he is extraordinarily nice. He is plump and beaming and untidy, a father of three and grandfather of four. There is huge warmth in his Northern Irish accent, as well as what appears to be a genuine interest in others. The second thing is that he extremely clever. As a young father teaching at Cardiff University he subsidised his salary by translating Russian, a language that he taught himself as he went along. He also speaks French, German and some Spanish. Maths, on which he has published 70 peer-reviewed articles, he regards as just “another language”.

He has just returned from a lecturing tour in America. Maths or God, I ask over lunch in the college.

“God,” he says although anyone who has struggled with his book God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? will know that a knowledge of advanced maths might prove very useful when discussing God with him were he mean enough to shift the debate to the origins, divine or otherwise, of amino acids.

He finds an empty room near the college entrance and we talk first about what Lennox calls Hawking’s “staggering” proposition that science has made philosophy redundant. But it is Hawking’s denial of God that I want to discuss. In A Brief History of Time 22 years ago Hawking had hoped that the discovery of a unified theory of classical and quantum physics would lead us to know “the mind of God”. In The Grand Design, his new book, written with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking declares that it is not necessary for God to light the blue touch paper. “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” His explanation requires M-Theory, which Lennox seems to understand, but I don’t, and the existence of a multiverse, which I have seen enough sci-fi to grasp but which, personally, Lennox regards as crazy. “But in any case,” he says, “you can have both. What’s to stop God creating a multiverse?” Is Hawking’s evidence, I ask, actually worked out on a whiteboard in some very long equation? “Well, people would use a great deal of mathematics to describe it, of course they will, but the point is: does this very difficult and complicated mathematics describe reality or is it just interesting mathematics? Mathematics can take on a life of its own. The difficulty is that sometimes if the mathematics is very beautiful and very elegant one can think ‘Well, that’s got to be true’, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be true. Mathematics is involved but a decision to believe in a multiverse — well, I think it is Paul Davies [the physicist] who makes the point that an element of world view philosophy inevitably comes into these cosmological matters.”

And here, it seems to me, we hit a major road block in the God debate, for one can never know for sure how far a hunch or a grudge or an emotional commitment infects the logic of one’s case, let alone anyone else’s. There might, one imagines, be obvious reasons why Hawking would doubt the existence of a benign, omnipotent Creator. Lennox’s case demolition job is logical and convincing but it is also informed by his own world view.

Lennox knows that having grown up in Northern Ireland, the son of a Christian (Protestant but far from sash-wearing) department store manager, belief may be in his “genes”. A childhood in Armagh might well put you off religion — his brother, now a pastor, lost an eye in a bomb most probably placed by the IRA at his father’s shop — but God is harder to slough off. “I came to Cambridge and, possibly in the first week or so people said, ‘Do you believe in God? Oh, I’m sorry you’re Irish. All you people believe in God and you fight about it’. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve heard that before, but now I have the opportunity in Cambridge to actually interact with people who are serious thinkers and very bright who do not share my background and I actively sought them out.”

At the end of his investigations, supplemented by reading atheists such as Camus, A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell, he came to the conclusion that the faith his parents had brought him up in also happened to be true. “But I believed then, and I still do believe, that Christianity is falsifiable. It’s not believing in spite of the evidence; it’s believing because of it. In fact, what I discovered at Cambridge was the more I exposed my faith to the opposition, the stronger it held up.”

The strongest argument, he says, is the human brain; its capacity for reason indicates to him its rational origin. But he admits you cannot deduce a loving, personal God from science. Much of the evidence for Him, he says, was cumulative, the way you come to have faith in a person for “God is a person, not a theory”. There are still what he calls “ragged ends”. Two years ago he was admitted to John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, suffering chest pains after his right coronary artery seized up. His surgeon told him that he should have been wiped out by a huge heart attack but instead he had put a stent in and he could go home the next day. Yet that same year he watched his sister’s 22-year-old daughter die of a brain tumour (without, he adds, losing her faith). His faith, he says, has to accommodate both.

We get into a little dispute about how loving this God might actually be — David Attenborough’s parasitic worm burrowing into the African child’s eye, get called in by me — but our squabble does not negate the respectable (although no longer to Hawking) deist position that God set off the Big Bang. Lennox goes much farther than this, believing, or at least not ruling out, His multiple interventions in the evolution of the Universe and of life. I practically stumble on these when he posits, as an explanation for suffering, the Fall of Adam and Eve. He doesn’t, I ask, actually believe, that in some oasis in Africa Eve was persuaded by a serpent to eat an apple and that ruined our world? “I do actually,” he says. “But let me put it a slightly different way. If you imagine that there was a God who created the first humans, possibly directly . . .”

But we don’t imagine that, do we? “Well, we don’t know. You cannot tell. I would want to argue that a lot of people don’t think that, but their evidence is not necessarily convincing.”

Is this why people call him a closet creationist? “No, it’s not really — because I’m quite open with it. I have no difficulty with the long ages,” he says, distinguishing himself from the “young Earth” creationists. “Nor do I have any difficulty reading what Darwin observed. What I have great difficulty with is the theory that the mechanisms that Darwin observed and others observed later are creative. I think they explain the variation. I’m not sure but they’re creative, and it’s as a scientist that I feel that, not so much as a Christian.”

As a scientist, I say incredulously, he thinks we may not have come off the same tree as the other primates?

“I think that’s possible.”

Read on. (Warning: paywall)



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