John Updike and Me
Going head to head with the late author on reason and faith.
February 6, 2009 - 12:11 am
I first encountered John Updike through his Roger’s Version, a cosmological and theological treatise disguised as a porno novel. Updike, as he admitted in Roger’s Version, is really a Marcionite Heretic. This ancient heresy, most recently advanced by the German theologian Karl Barth, holds that God is wholly other, completely unapproachable by reason: theology and science are two non-overlapping magisteria. Technology, being of the natural world and hence other than God, is fundamentally bad.
The greatest challenge to Marcion/Barth is the Anthropic Principle, one version of which says that we can see the Hand of God in the fine-tuning of the laws of physics. Roger’s Version was an attack on this idea. The book’s climax was the humiliation of the idea’s defender, a hapless graduate student, by a wily old Harvard chemistry professor.
Oxford University Press published The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, which I coauthored with Cambridge University astronomer John D. Barrow, the year after Roger’s Version appeared. I sent a copy to Updike, pointing out that two real professors of cosmology could make a better case than a fictional graduate student. Updike replied — on a typewritten postcard; he refused to use computer technology — that he was not convinced by our arguments, but he was glad we were out there.
I think he was conciliatory because he was a bit nervous about taking on two professional cosmologists. But he regained his confidence. In an interview on C-SPAN, he said that he was inspired by reading my later Physics of Immortality to write his 1997 science fiction novel Toward the End of Time. My picture of the future of the universe is the ultimate progressive vision: using technology, we expand into space, engulf the universe, and live forever. In Updike’s view this is a horrible fate. Updike’s vision is the ultimate Luddite vision, unalterably opposed to technology.
In the November 1999 issue of the New Yorker, he explicitly rejected my proof for God’s existence, given “in his large, formula- and graph-ridden Physics of Immortality [Updike's description]” with “a God who could be proved would be an inescapable tyrant, an inert and imprisoning datum. Belief, like love, must be voluntary.”
I am astounded that such an acute observer of human nature as Updike could be so blind. Love between the sexes is founded on sexual attraction. Is sexual attraction “voluntary?” I think it is genetically determined, as is a mother’s love for her children. Are these two loves, the deepest loves of human experience, “inert and imprisoning” because they are involuntary, an expression of hardwiring in the human brain?
Orthodox Christianity has always regarded reason and faith as two sides of the same coin, necessarily joined together, necessarily mutually supporting. In Roger’s Version, Updike’s alter ego, Roger the Barthian theologian, claims that there can be no human way to God, that God must reveal Himself through Self-revelation: we cannot find Him through science.
The Orthodox reply has always been, what on earth do you think science is? God has given us two, not one, books of Scripture. The Bible is one book. The natural world is another. The former, God revealed through His prophets. The latter, He wrote with His own hand. When we study nature, we are learning about God. We can reach God, in particular deduce that He exists, by the study of nature, just as we can infer His existence and nature from the study of the Bible. If the conclusions we reach from these two overlapping magisteria do not agree, then either our faith is misplaced, or our science is wrong.
Updike/Roger gives the real reason he detests natural theology:
Really, what a preposterous glib hope, of extracting God from the statistics of high-energy physics and Big Bang cosmology. Whenever theology touches science, it gets burned. Barth had been right. Only by placing God totally on the other side of the humanly understandable can any final safety for Him be secured.
So it is Updike’s fear that his own picture of God will be refuted by science. God, the Uncaused Cause of everything, needs no human protection.
And it’s simple to infer the Uncaused First Cause from “high-energy physics and Big Bang cosmology.” These tell us that the whole of the created order originated 14.7 billion years ago from the “cosmological singularity,” an entity that is wholly beyond space, time, and matter, that is infinite, and that is not subject to any physical law, known or unknown. Instead, the cosmological singularity has no cause, but is the cause of all causes. The cosmological singularity is the Uncaused First Cause, or in a word, God.
Roger is not finished. “You’re a Christian, yes? You keep wanting to prove the existence of God via natural theology; where does Jesus figure in your diagrams? How do you see the two natures of the God-Man combining?” And Updike in the New Yorker asks me directly “why an omnipotent God would choose to create our species by such a lengthy, wasteful, and cruel method as evolution?”
The answer to Updike’s direct question is, “Because God is love.” To understand why a “lengthy, wasteful, and cruel method” is not that at all, but instead an expression of ultimate love, requires understanding Many-Worlds quantum physics. And this understanding leads to the realization that God is a Trinity, and one sees exactly where the God-Man fits in. To explain these connections would require a book, which I’ve written: The Physics of Christianity. (Hint: there is a profound theological reason for Christianity’s unalterable rejection of abortion.) I sent Updike a copy of my latest book just before he died. I fear he was to ill to read, but no matter; he is now getting an explanation from an Author infinitely more capable than I.
John Updike died at the age of 76 on January 27.