Talking Science and Faith with Morgan Freeman

Mike Beidler

Who has best portrayed God in cinema? My vote is for Morgan Freeman’s version in the theologically profound Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty. Freeman gave the role gravitas, tackling a number of vexing theological questions in a humorous and endearing way. Thirteen years after his initial portrayal of God, Morgan Freeman is hosting National Geographic Channel’sThe Story of God with Morgan Freeman, which recently kicked off its second six-episode season.

In each episode, Freeman explores topics such as the afterlife, Armageddon, miracles, and the problem of evil with genuine curiosity and—in spite of his belief that God has been invented by humans—a decent measure of respect. In a January episode, "Proof of God,” Freeman explored alleged evidence of God’s existence and presence in the modern world. “Have we cut God out of our modern lives,” Freeman muses, “or are there special moments where God breaks through and makes his presence known?”

The episode begins with Freeman introducing us to an Indian-born Christian who believes he experienced God’s comforting Spirit while his wife was trapped in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. As the episode progresses, we encounter practitioners of West African divination in Harlem; Ethiopian Orthodox observers of Meskel, an omen-filled religious holiday celebrating Saint Helena’s fourth-century “discovery” of Jesus’ cross; and a Tibetan master of Tantrayana, one of Buddhism’s various paths to enlightenment. Freeman further introduces us to the ancestral spirit-channeled healing practices of southern Africa’s San people and an Islamic scholar who believes the Koran to be “God come to earth in book form.”

Last, but certainly not least, Freeman interviews Ard Louis, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University and a member of the board of directors at BioLogos, which advances harmony between science and biblical faith. “Religion,” Freeman observes, “often seems at odds with another way of understanding the world: science. Some even see science as supplanting faith.” Voicing over images of Christian protesters carrying signs that read, “evolution is a lie” and “god created man,” Freeman quips, “Physicists discovered the God particle, so … do we still need God?”

Science demonstrates the beautiful, rational order of the universe, and suggests a creator God behind it.

As they walk through the New York Botanical Garden, Louis draws Freeman’s attention to the intricate veins in a large, broad leaf. He argues that the beauty and complexity in nature, as demonstrated by the leaf, gives us a sense of “awe and wonder … something beyond ourselves,” and that this beauty points to—but does not necessarily prove—the existence of a rational divine creator.

“There’s a widespread sense,” counters Freeman, “that as scientists discover more and more about the natural world, they’re kind of taking away the wonder and taking away the awe.” Louis acknowledges that many feel this way, but thinks Freeman has it backwards. “I think the more we learn about the world,” says Louis, “it points more towards God, rather than less.”

Louis uses an example from the world of mathematics to demonstrate his point. The Dirac equation, first proposed in 1928 by British physicist Paul Dirac, not only predicted particle behavior at high energies and velocities equivalent to the speed of light but, as Louis informs Freeman, also predicted antimatter, whose existence was observationally confirmed in 1932. This, for Louis, demonstrates the beautiful, rational order of the universe, and suggests a creator God behind it.

The Dirac equation’s elegance also inspires Louis in his own scientific work. In fact, he tells Freeman, “I want to discover an equation like this, that maybe describes what life is.” Freeman responds using a common cultural stereotype about God and science: “So, if you find this equation, you think it would be proof of God?” “God is not a thing out there in the universe that we look for,” Louis explains. “It’s the other way around. God is the reason why there is a universe.” Here, Louis is drawing from a provocative statement by Francis Spufford, a Christian writer and intellectual:

When people who believe in God talk about God, we don’t mean that a being exists who is an animal like ourselves, only bigger and cleverer and more complex. We don’t think He lives in the universe. In fact we don’t think that He exists in any environment; we don’t imagine that He had to grow, or evolve, or appear, or emerge, thanks to some process or other. It’s the other way up. We think that all processes exist thanks to Him; we think that He is the universe’s environment.

If this is true, argues Louis, it “means that I can’t prove God the way I can prove something scientifically.” Louis compares this to an attempt to “prove” the love of his wife. Just as his confidence in the unscientifically verifiable truth of his wife’s love increases as he gets to know his wife better, he “get[s] to know God better [through scientific observation] and my confidence that God exists grows.”  

“Too many people think of science and faith as two opposing worldviews, each trying to tear the other one down, but nothing can be further from the truth,” Freeman claims after contemplating his discussion with Louis. While Freeman isn’t endorsing faith in Jesus Christ here, it’s wonderful to see National Geographic air a positive message about the harmony between science and faith.

I certainly don’t endorse all of the messages in the series, which frequently portrays all spiritual paths as equally valid. However, I do encourage you to continue watching the show as a means of exposing yourselves to other ways in which people, from all walks of life, seek the divine.

Ard’s short segment on this episode offers several lessons on how to intelligently and winsomely use science as a tool to share Christian faith:

  • Use awe and wonder as a bridge-builder. Almost everyone has experienced a sense of awe when observing nature. Thus, it’s a natural (pun intended) starting point for conversation.
  • Point to God as a theological explanation for the order and beauty of the whole world, rather than as a scientific explanation for one part of it.
  • Resist the urge to “prove” God and instead invite people to see the world through the lens of the Christian worldview (to borrow language from C.S. Lewis and Alister McGrath).  
  • Emphasize a loving relationship with God, through Christ, as the heart of our faith.

By offering his perspective on a show like The Story of God, Ard Louis boldly adds his voice to the cultural conversation about the place of religion in a modern scientific world and smashes stereotypes about faith and science. He’s an example for all of us—world-class scientists or not—to follow.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Arts & Leisure