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The Theory of Everything: A God-Haunted Film

by Bishop Robert BarronDecember 30, 20145 Comments

The great British physicist Stephen Hawking has emerged in recent years as a poster boy for atheism, and his heroic struggles against the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s disease have made him something of a secular saint. The new biopic “The Theory of Everything” does indeed engage in a fair amount of Hawking-hagiography, but it is also, curiously, a God-haunted movie.

In one of the opening scenes, the young Hawking meets Jane, his future wife, in a bar and tells her that he is a cosmologist. “What’s cosmology?” she asks, and he responds, “Religion for intelligent atheists.” “What do cosmologists worship?” she persists. And he replies, “A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe.” Later on, Stephen brings Jane to his family’s home for dinner and she challenges him, “You’ve never said why you don’t believe in God.” He says, “A physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by belief in a supernatural creator,” to which she deliciously responds, “Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists.”

This spirited back and forth continues throughout the film, as Hawking settles more and more into a secularist view and Jane persists in her religious belief. As Hawking’s physical condition deteriorates, Jane gives herself to his care with truly remarkable devotion, and it becomes clear that her dedication is born of her religious conviction. Though the great scientist concluded his most popular work with a reference to “knowing the mind of God,” it is obvious by the end of the film that he meant that line metaphorically. The last bit of information that we learn, just before the credits roll, is that Professor Hawking continues his quest to find the theory of everything, that elusive equation that will explain all of reality. Do you see why I say the entire film is haunted by God?

As I have argued elsewhere, it is by no means accidental that the modern physical sciences emerged when and where they did, namely, in a culture shaped by Christian belief. Two suppositions were required for the sciences to flourish, and they are both theological in nature, namely, that the world is not divine and that nature is marked, through and through, by intelligibility. As long as the natural world is worshipped as sacred—as it was in many ancient cultures—it cannot become the subject of analysis, investigation, and experimentation. And unless one has confidence that the world one seeks to analyze and investigate has an intelligible structure, one will never bother with the exercise. Now both of these convictions are corollaries of the more fundamental doctrine of creation. If the world has been created by God, then it is not divine, but it is indeed marked, in every nook and cranny, by the intelligence of the Creator who made it. We recall the opening lines of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word…and all things were made through the Word.” The universal intelligibility of nature is a function of its being brought into existence by an intelligent Creator. The young Joseph Ratzinger stated the relationship as follows: the “objective mind” discoverable in finite reality is the consequence of the “subjective mind” that thought it into reality. Ratzinger furthermore observes how a peculiarity of our language discloses the same truth. When we come to know something, we speak of “recognizing” a truth, but the word “recognition” (re-cognition) implies that we have thought again what had already been thought by a more primordial intelligence. Long before Hawking used the phrase, Albert Einstein characterized his own science as a quest to know the mind of God, and in so doing, he was operating out of the very assumptions I’ve been articulating.

In light of these clarifications, let us look again at the central preoccupation of “A Theory of Everything,” namely, Hawking’s quest to find the one great unifying equation that would explain all of reality. It is always fascinating to go to roots of an argument, that is to say, to the fundamental assumptions that drive a rational quest, for in so doing, we necessarily leave the realm of the purely rational and enter something like the realm of the mystical. Why in the world would a scientist blithely assume that there is or is even likely to be one unifying rational form to all things, unless he assumed that there is a singular, overarching intelligence that has placed it there? Why shouldn’t the world be chaotic, utterly random, meaningless? Why should one presume that something as orderly and rational as an equation would describe the universe’s structure? I would argue that the only finally reasonable ground for that assumption is the belief in an intelligent Creator, who has already thought into the world the very mathematics that the patient scientist discovers. In turning his back on what he calls “a celestial dictator,” Stephen Hawking was indeed purging his mind of an idol, a silly simulacrum of God, but in seeking, with rational discipline for the theory of everything, he was, in point of fact, affirming the true God.