The other weekend at a synagogue in Vancouver, I had the opportunity to speak about the book I recently coauthored with Senator Joe Lieberman, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. It was a Friday night and the best part, I think, was learning from the rabbi that I had been preceded as a speaker at this particular Orthodox synagogue, the largest in Western Canada, by none other than biochemist Michael Behe.
That was unusual and gave me some hope because Behe, of course, is Catholic not Jewish. Houses of worship don’t routinely have members of others faiths in to address the congregation. But this rabbi had studied up on intelligent design and told me about being particularly impressed by Behe’s The Edge of Evolution. Good for him.
The other memorable experience I had in Vancouver was meeting an extremely tall Australian, a soft-spoken businessman named Rod Salfinger, who gave me an outstanding insight about the design evident in life and nature and how the Sabbath relates it. Is the design really so evident? Yes, but the imprint is subtle.
Telling me about his own take on the Sabbath, Rod reminded me of a saying from the Talmud. Attributed to Rabbi Yochanan, it makes an observation about the Hebrew Bible: “Wherever you find mention of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, there you will also find mention of his humility.”
Rod insisted on this point about God’s humility, a kind of shyness or modesty, almost, that seems to be a characteristic of his personality. The purpose of setting aside weekday activities on the Sabbath is to make a space where God will feel comfortable and — so to speak — unafraid of joining with us in our homes in a most intimate fashion. All the frenetic driving, shopping, cellphone-talking and Internet-surfing we do the rest of the week would absolutely poison such an atmosphere. I thought that Rod had a neat way of putting this.
The God of the Bible isn’t identical with the God of the philosophers. He is a personality and, just as people can have seemingly discordant traits, apparently in contradiction to other traits they display to us, God too has characteristics that you might not expect. Among them is the quality, surprising to find in the transcendent source of all existence, of being rather shy.
Later I tried to explain this to our kids with an illustration from their own experience. One Saturday afternoon this past summer I found a couple of deer nosing around the blackberry bushes that overgrow the edges of our driveway. My wife and I called the kids together to take a look but, as we cautiously opened the front door, told them to keep very quiet. It was a pair of black-tailed bucks, beautiful and silent. Not small either.
Deer are shy but not because they lack physical power or heft. Recently a friend told me about how his daughter and son-in-law were driving in Virginia and a 300-pound buck jumped into the road and collided with the car, taking off much of the front end. The people in the car were fine, but the deer lost his life, unfortunately. The car was a total loss too.
Many a deer, if he were inclined, could physically intimidate a human being.
They don’t have it in their nature, though. A powerful animal like this would be spooked by a 4-year-old boy, like our twins, getting too close or even uttering a peep. In the end, our 8-year-old daughter ventured out into the driveway. Despite walking on tiptoes, she unintentionally scared the deer off.
God, so it seems, is a little like that. This may explain a lot of things. For example, why so much of the Bible gives a superficial impression of simplicity, even primitiveness or dry legalism. Impatient readers assume that’s all there is to it, never realizing what lies beneath the surface but that can only be uncovered by subtle probing of hints and nuances, hidden and delicate pointers that give way suddenly, unexpectedly on limitless vistas of wisdom from another world.
It may explain too why the historical redemption that Jews and Christians wait for is so long in coming. A situation where all of mankind turns its eyes to you, fully revealed, is not a prospect that a shy deity would necessarily want to see rushed to fruition.
It may, finally, explain why the evidence of nature’s design is elusive to lots of people. Often we wonder why Darwinists can never seem to get it. They champ and cry and try to shout us down with taunts that we are “creationists.” They can never tire of boisterously waving Judge Jones in our face.
We try to explain to them that their materialism keeps them trotting in a closed logical circle where Darwinian evolution, the rule of blind, dumb forces over all nature, must explain life’s history because only blind, dumb forces are allowed to be adduced in explanation of anything. Because that’s “science”! They can never seem to quiet themselves down and open up to the possibility that science itself suggests other influences at play in life’s development.
In truth, that evidence is subtle. It can’t be heard over a lot of noise, the hubbub created chiefly by our fears that embracing unfashionable ideas may endanger our personal prestige.
The signature in the cell, in the genetic code, in protein synthesis, in what Behe calls irreducibly complex features of biology, in the Cambrian explosion and the rest of the fossil record, in cosmology, in individual types of creatures — from butterfly metamorphosis to the history of whale evolution — whatever piece of the argument for intelligent design that you want to think of, it is all very lightly imprinted. The “signature” is in a sense misnamed because you can’t make out the name of the signer. It takes patience and study to see any of this.
It is the totality of the evidence that impresses you, the way that taken altogether it forms a suggestive pattern and alludes — again, subtly — to purpose and creativity behind nature’s facade. It’s a “still small voice,” hardly more than that. Furiously gesturing to your own creativity would be immodest, the opposite of humble — not God’s style at all. By no means does nature hit you over the head and shout “I am designed! There is a designer! And the designer’s name is the LORD!”
Just what you might expect from a deity who would think up an idea like the Sabbath as the distinctive medium where he chooses to meet human beings up close. This is the designer, if you incline to traditional Western theistic belief. It’s just who he is.
Speaking only for myself, this is one thing about intelligent design that makes it so satisfying, in contrast to other ways of construing the relevant evidence. It’s what makes it possible to be — adapting Richard Dawkin’s famous phrase — an intellectually fulfilled theist.