STEPHEN HAWKING was iconic: to say that is to risk cliché, but it was true several times over: in science, in human struggle, in a life of activism. Within his discipline of cosmology and mathematical physics, Professor Hawking was a giant, who made enormous contributions to our understanding of black holes, quantum gravity, and cosmic inflation.
His prominence as a representative figure, however, went far further. His long and courageous struggle with motor neurone disease, for more than half a century, places him alongside Pope John Paul II in the public imagination as an example of determination and good grace. He was also an emblematic “public intellectual” and an active campaigner on a host of topics. He was a strenuous advocate of the National Health Service, for instance, taking on both the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and Republican critics of universal health-care in the United States.
Professor Hawking’s prominence was profound — on climate change and other “existential risks”, or on nuclear disarmament, as much as on health care — but his authority was not simply his own: it was also the authority of science. The standing of science finds no clearer example than Professor Hawking. His personal struggles may have underlined his authority, but it was grounded on his position as the representative scientist, and on physics as the representative science among sciences. Even in a country that has “grown tired of experts”, the currency of Hawking’s expertise was not debased.
That is crystallised in the runaway success of his book A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, which sold more than ten million copies, and appeared in the Sunday Times bestseller list longer than any other book. Even more than the man, the book is iconic, talismanic, a sign as much as an object. In previous generations, the mark of learning or culture might have been the casual presence in one’s home of Virgil in the original, or of Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. In our day, it has been this work of cosmology. It was the book that everyone wanted to own, and to be seen to own.
Which is not to say that we then read it, as e-reader data now shows. When Professor Jordan Ellenberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison devised a measure of how far people actually get through the books that they download, he called it the Hawking Index. A Brief History comes second in this ranking of owning but not reading: on average, people get seven per cent of the way through.
HAWKING’s standing as a physicist, then, is a cypher for the standing of physics. He made much of that for social questions, but also for philosophy and theology. In A Brief History of Time, he remained agnostic about why there is a universe, leaving us with a phrase, on the penultimate page, that a theologian can do business with: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? . . . Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
By 2010, however, in The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow), Hawking had no place for God, and was unwilling to observe a boundary between theology and his own discipline: given the laws of physics, nature drags itself into existence; there is no need for a creator (News, Comment, 10 September 2010).
In the past, the largest questions were posed to philosophy: questions such as “What is the nature of reality? Did the universe need a creator? Where did all this come from?” Now, however, “philosophy is dead”. Hawking said: “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” In particular, those torch-bearers now appreciate the power of a “no-boundary” approach to cosmology, which would see the universe as neither eternal nor as having temporal edges.
Here, Hawking oversteps a barrier, writing about theological matter without having read what theologians actually say. He assumes that religious believers are invested in those edges, as if the universe were “like a model railway track”; as the part played by God is “to set the train going”. If so, without a beginning, the universe would no longer call for God.
To talk about creation out of nothing, however, as Christians do, and as Jews and Muslims do, too, is to be interested rather little in temporal beginnings. God is not simply, or even mainly, the one who sets procedures in process. God is equally at work at all moments. As St Thomas Aquinas put it, creation is most of all a matter of relation: the relation of creatures to God, as their source, as much now and in the future as at some putative temporal beginning, if there was one. Consequently, “creation may be understood [combined] with newness of existence or without.” No universe — laws and all — can account for the sheer fact of existence, whether eternal or not.
HERE, Hawking has done the theologian a favour. He reminds us not to think of God as dwelling at the edge of the universe, from there “pushing” off the “train” of the universe along a track of space and time, or flicking the first domino. We should not expect to encounter God at some temporal edge of the universe. God is not a thing among things, and not a cause among causes. At such an “edge”, God might come across to the mistaken as an almost-intra-mundane agent. Hawking’s proposal removes any such temporal edge, however; it removes some initial moment when God might be confused as one more cause in a chain of causes.
Within a scheme of creatio ex nihilo, this can be not only embraced, but welcomed. Cosmology has its place; so has theology. Cosmology, the theologian might say, reflects on what ex nihilo looks like from the inside.
Listen to Canon Andrew Davison reflect on Stephen Hawking on this week’s Church Times Podcast
Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. An essay on this theme, “Looking Back toward the Origin”, was published in Creation ex nihilo: Origins, development, contemporary challenges, edited by Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl (Notre Dame, 2017).