For several years now, I’ve been hearing a persistent tone, 3,950 Hz to be precise, the highest B on a piano keyboard. Tinnitus is usually caused by damage to the ears from loud noises or music. Maybe I listened to Pink Floyd too much as a teen?
Somewhere in my ear, damaged nerves are firing non-stop, which makes it seem like there’s a high-pitched squeal in the air. My brain “hears” the sound, but no one else does.
It doesn’t bother me. I find that I unconsciously tune it out when I’m reading or listening to music. There’s no “cure” for tinnitus, but you can learn to push the sound into the background by not paying attention to it.
From dreams to hallucinations to delusions to phantom limb pain, there are a host of experiences that seem completely real to us, only they turn out to be in our heads. Our brains sometimes play tricks on us.
Is it possible that God, too, is in our minds? Is it possible that belief comes from something organic rather than something revealed to us by an eternal Creator?
The University of Oxford has decided to spend $2 million pounds to discover why we believe in God. According to the London Times report, “[Researchers] will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but … whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.”
This is the science of evolutionary biology at work, looking for chemical answers to some of the deepest questions of life.
Science is in the business of explaining things, and belief in God or gods or supernatural forces is an ancient and universal human phenomenon. I understand the need to look for a material cause for faith; finding material causes is what science does. We are material beings. Our instruments of investigation are material creations. Science can’t examine God Himself, so it looks elsewhere at what it can examine: behavior, the brain, society.
And yet, the question Oxford wants to examine seems a bit like the puzzle of the chicken and the egg. If belief in God is found to give humanity an evolutionary advantage, does it necessarily follow that we invented belief to cope with evolutionary stress? It could just as easily be the case that a Designer created us for belief, perhaps to take our minds off ourselves and give us a curiosity about himself, and about the meaning and purpose of human existence.
It seems pretty certain that if Oxford comes up with a useful theory connecting faith and evolution, it will be taken as evidence that belief is just a quirk of nature handed to us through our genes.
But does that really tell the story?
Suppose the ancient Wonbogmees doubted gravity, and the neighboring Bogwonmees believed very sincerely in gravity. Both tribes’ only food source fell from very high, very dangerous trees. The Bogwonmees reasoned that shaking the trees and catching the fruit that fell to the ground would be the safest way to feed themselves. The Wonbogmees impatiently scorned such a cautious approach and climbed the trees to harvest the fruit, reasoning that if they fell they would simply float to the ground unharmed.
The Wonbogmees would not have lived long enough to pass along their genes. Naturally-speaking, we always do best as a species when our beliefs are congruent with the way the world really is.
So it makes sense that if there is a God, human effort will thrive when we live in a manner that accepts rather than denies that reality.
No matter what the results of these studies, they leave us with the same dilemma we have always had: if God is immaterial, if we have no tools that can spy on him and examine him, how, if at all, can we “know” God?
Christianity offers several answers. First, we can know God if he reaches out to us and reveals himself. The Apostle Paul suggest that the Holy Spirit, third member of the Trinity, does exactly that:
That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” But it was to us that God revealed these things by His Spirit. For His Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. — 1 Corinthians 2:9-10, NLT (the Apostle Paul speaking).
But the Holy Spirit is himself immaterial. Paul goes on to claim that Jesus Christ was God “incarnate,” God arriving in human skin, living a normal human life. Again we have God revealing himself to us, but this time in a fully material way:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, — Colossians 1:15, NLT (the Apostle Paul speaking).
The writer of Hebrews goes on to claim that it was Jesus’ divine nature that has made him such an astonishing figure in human history. Jesus lived beyond normal, healing incurable disease, raising the dead from the grave, teaching with uncommon insight, and defeating death after he was executed and buried:
[Christ Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, — Hebrews 1:3, ESV
In the life and words of Jesus Christ we have a means for discovering the immaterial God of the Bible.
Faith may be imprinted on our minds. There may well be some sense in which the capability for belief gives us a competitive advantage in life. But that’s a far cry from saying, as some do, that this God stuff is all in our heads.
Because that leaves unanswered the question of Jesus. Who was he? Why did he have such a profound effect on history? Was he actually the eternal God, or just an ordinary soup of organic chemicals that long ago died and turned to dust?
Photo credit: Mel Gibson’s ear, courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Many critics have called Mr. Gibson’s earlobes the finest ever to grace the silver screen.