BOOK REVIEW: Faith Across the Multiverse by Andy Walsh

Andy Walsh is hands-down the best and most fascinating polymath I’ve read since Aristotle. Yes, that is a huge compliment to give anybody, but once you’ve read Faith Across the Multiverse (published by Hendrickson Publishers), you will understand why I say that.

Author Thomas Jay Oord describes the book as a ‘category breaker’, and I think there is no better way to describe it. Combining insights from mathematics, physics, biology, and computer science with illustrations from pop culture (including films, TV shows, comic books, and novels), Dr. Walsh presents deep theological truths in a manner that is both intellectually stimulating yet comprehensible for the layperson. He writes with wit and humour, yet displaying an incredible amount of reverence and understanding towards the heavy topics that he attempts to engage with. The result is a well-written and informative book that leaves you in awe of the amount of knowledge and wisdom that he possesses in these diverse areas.

Theme and Goal

Walsh states that he wishes to show that he wishes to present abstract theological concepts (for example, faith, sin, grace, sovereignty, free will etc.) in a way that makes sense to individuals who live over two thousand years since those concepts were first described in the Biblical text, showing that these concepts are still as relevant today as they were then. But how can one translate these concepts described in an ancient setting to the current context? Walsh uses the example of the Babel Fish from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Just like putting a Babel Fish to one’s ear can help you understand what anyone is saying regardless of the language being spoken, Walsh considers himself to be the instrument capable of making these concepts comprehensible to a diverse audience who speak different ‘languages’ in terms of their backgrounds. How can he do this? Well, he has a strong educational background in many subjects, including (but not restricted to) mathematics, computer science, microbiology, and philosophy. This interdisciplinary grasp of things allows him to understand when different disciplines talk about things that are analogically similar (or the same) but are expressed in their own characteristic language. The goal of this book, then, is to utilize this grasp and apply the same sort of analogical reasoning to theological concepts, explaining them in the languages of mathematics, physics, biology, and computer science; thereby translating ancient concepts into the current languages of science and displaying their continuing relevance.

I’d like to give you a general idea of the content in this book, while doing my best to avoid giving any major spoilers. It’s going to be a hard task, but I can promise to do my best.

Content

Walsh’s first experience of utilizing analogical reasoning involved discovering that a mathematical concept showed him why it is reasonable to still believe in the likelihood of Christ’s impending return, just as the early disciples did 2000 years ago (more on that in Chapter 0 of the book). It was this discovery that set him on the path of continuing to reason in this fashion, identifying parallels between biblical and scientific concepts. The common motifs in both these fields also suggested to him that God could be the common author of both these fields (special and general revelation, as Christians would call them). As previously mentioned, the motifs examined in this book stretch across the fields of mathematics, physics, biology, and computer science, showing how each of these ‘languages’ say things that are similar to what is said in the biblical ‘language’. I will briefly describe the concepts he connects without giving out too many details.

The first section focuses on mathematics. Walsh sets out to define the concept of ‘faith’ in an attempt to examine whether there is truly a conflict between faith and science. Rather than defining it as a dogmatic belief in something despite contrary evidence, he uses the mathematical idea of accepting certain basic axioms as true and foundational to define faith as “choosing a set of assumptions or axioms for understanding the world” (35). The main analogy he uses to build this definition are the seemingly self-evident yet often paradoxical axioms of geometry, which are held onto because of their utility in explaining the rest of geometry. He also defines sin by analogizing it to the concept of mathematical optimization; it involves “deviating from the path to an optimal version of ourselves”, an optimal version that God planned out for us and Jesus embodied, and choosing to “optimize qualities other than the ones God invites us to optimize” (61). He then tackles the issue of grace and the apparent conflict between divine sovereignty and human freedom by understanding chaos in dynamical systems, analogizing grace to a strange attractor that brings things back towards an optimal outcome, despite the ‘chaos’ caused by human actions.

The second section focuses on the language of physics. Walsh takes inspiration from Jesus’ claim to be the ‘light of the world’ to apply the concept of light’s wave-particle duality to examining the paradoxical character of Christ, who was both truly God and truly man at the same time. He also analogizes our use of the speed of light as an standard in physics to Christ as an absolute standard of moral living. Finally, he examines the physics of entropy (disorder) and the role that the sun plays in helping reduce entropy and increase order in the environment, before analogizing it to Christ and His role in creating order from disorder in Creation and His death on the cross that saves us from sin, among other things. He also analogizes entropy to explain Christian concepts like repentance, ‘dying to self’, and Christian living.

The third section studies the language of biology. Walsh describes the various characteristics of a typical human cell (in particular things like the division of labour) and then analogizes it to the church, a body containing similar diversity and a wide range of functions within it. He further analogizes the church to the DNA and the human genome, for just as the genome decides how the cell ought to express itself, the Bible , read in context, decides how an ideal church ought to express itself. He then goes on to discuss what a healthy church must look like by reinforcing the importance of the various parts of the cells and also the importance of communication within the cell. He further discusses disease causing microbes like viruses, bacteria, and eukaryotes and the body’s defense mechanisms against each of them, before comparing our body’s immune system to the church’s responsibility of keeping itself on a Biblical track. He then diverges into the field of ant biology and the ‘collective will’ they display in their activities, before using it to describe the ‘collective will’ of our cells that come together as the ‘I’ or the self that we refer to. He then uses this idea to expound on Christ’s role as the head of the church, as well as the structure of the church as one body that consists of the collective will of its individual members.

The final section examines the language of computer science. Walsh discusses how computers use tiny bits of information to end up performing large scale actions, and also how just-in-time compiling works. Using these concepts, he describes the work of God in the Bible, which is also often ‘just-in-time’. He then focuses on how “Basic actions stimulate infinite complexity” (225), or how basic small-scale rules and actions can result in immensely complex output, especially as we can see in computer science and in the creation of complicated graphics like in the film Doctor Strange. He uses this concept to explain how simple commandments in the Bible can cover the vast and complex number of human experiences that we have in the 21st century. Finally, Walsh discusses evolution in both computer science and biology, simply as an illustrative model without explicitly endorsing it as the means by which today’s biological diversity came about. He discusses how evolution works as an algorithm that samples various possible solutions and picks out good ones, whether in biological processes or in something like making music and also addresses concerns that people have about many of its ‘random’ mechanisms, including variation, mutation, selection, etc. Put together, he analogizes this to our ability to ‘take part’ in the creative processes with God in shaping our future world, as we learn from the past and utilize creativity to shape our futures (just like evolution does).

Walsh closes by inviting his readers to put aside any presuppositions about a conflict between science and the Bible, asking them to study both fields with an open mind; for “If God is the source of truth, then all avenues that reveal truth will help us know him better” (261).

Assessment

You might be wondering, “Well Abraham, you’ve just summarized the main ideas of the book for me. Why should I get the book now?” If you think you shouldn’t get the book for that reason, you couldn’t be more wrong. Not only have I barely skimmed the surface when it comes to the many deep concepts that Walsh discusses, but I have also not explained any of what I have discussed in the way that he does, replete with analogies from both science and pop-culture. Before picking up this book, I would have told you that it is impossible for someone to explain concepts like sin, grace, free will, sovereignty, love, creativity, etc. using a crazy mixture of things like geometric axioms, statistical graphs, photons, viruses, ants, graphic design, the X-Men and other Marvel comics, Ant-Man, Ender’s GameDoctor Strange, The Matrix trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars. And yet, after finishing this book, I have to admit that Andy Walsh has indeed achieved what I thought was impossible. And to understand how well he has achieved this, you need to get the book.

Continuing on about the good stuff about the book, I cannot stress on how well Walsh has managed to simplify probably some of the most difficult concepts to grasp in science (including stuff in quantum mechanics or complex mathematical ideas), and a large part of this was due to the analogical reasoning that he employed by using pop-culture references. Once he made sure the reader had understood the scientific concepts, he then utilized those concepts to explain perhaps even more complex theological concepts. Through this three-step explanatory process (pop culture to science to theology), the brilliance of the analogical method really shines through in breaking down the most toughest concepts and that is something that must be appreciated. I must also admit that reading this book has got me making analogies of my own between things I see in my everyday life and theological concepts that I read about in the Bible. I might put that to good use sometime in the future, perhaps even on this very blog.

Coming to more specific things that I appreciate about this book, one of the things I liked most was how Walsh handled the idea of faith. Given my interest in philosophy, I found a parallel between what Walsh termed as “the set of assumptions for understanding the world” and what in epistemology are called basic beliefs or the fundamental axioms of a belief system. It is important to note that every worldview has its own set of fundamental and unprovable axioms or assumptions, regardless of whether it is a religious one or a secular one. In short, everybody has faith, despite what the atheist wishes to deny. I also think faith involves an act of trusting in God based on available evidence, but defining it as the choice of axioms is a good place to start.

The chapters on the genome and on the human immune system were also favourites of mine. I was especially impressed by the analogy between the division of labour in the cell to the various roles within the church (and this could be extended to within the family as well). Another excellent example used was that of the T-cell, which is ‘trained’ in the thymus before being sent out to perform its role as part of the immune system. It gave me an excellent insight into how the church can be the place where individuals are trained to use the Bible as their plumb line in order to combat any heresies or controversies that come up.

An excellent thing about the book was the further reading section, where Walsh recommended additional books that one could read if one enjoyed the topics discussed in his book or simply wanted to look for more information on any one of these issues. These included books on natural theology, general science, language, mathematics, physics, biology, computer science, and drumroll, a list of comic books that he enjoys! Yet another reason for you to get this book, because reading it will only be the beginning of a journey filled with learning new things through all of these amazing recommended resources.

There were parts of the book that I’m not sure I fully understood, quite certainly because of my lack of exposure to that area. This was particularly true of the last chapter on evolution in terms of computer programming and biology. I certainly learned more than I knew before opening the book, but I’m not sure I fully understood the general idea that Walsh was presenting there. Once again, this is no reflection upon the effectiveness of the metaphor itself, but merely a reflection on my lack of exposure and inability to understand these ideas (Once again, this is more reason for you to get the book, because I’ve probably butchered the attempted explanation of this chapter in the Content section).

There isn’t much I can say of this book that would be a negative opinion. Like any other book, there were things I disagreed with. For instance, I was a tad uncomfortable with the sort of language used in Chapter 3 with regard to the sovereignty of God. When Walsh speaks of issues of human choice, he suggests that man could act in a manner outside of what God had always intended for that man to act in, thereby inviting a certain reaction from God, whether it be wrath or disappointment or something else. To quote an example Walsh gives:

“We saw Moses choose to decline the commission to speak to Pharaoh on his own; our model affirms that this is genuinely a choice on Moses’ part and allows for such choices. That makes it easier to understand God’s anger at Moses’ choice, since it is something Moses has genuinely chosen without God having always intended for Moses to act thusly…” (79).

While I would not call this full-blown open theism, given that Walsh does affirm that God does have an ultimate plan and utilizes the ‘strange attractor’ notion to show how God can bring about that plan to pass in spite of human actions, I think the language of “without God having always intended for X to act thusly…” seems to imply some sort of fallibility in God’s foreknowledge of the choices of free agents, thereby denying the notion of essential omniscience. I see similar statements regarding how the events that actualize in our world are a mixture of both what God intends and of things that God does not intend but are brought about by created beings apart from God’s will. I’m not sure how such a view can be reconciled with the traditional (and as I see it, biblical) view of God being essentially/infallibly omniscient, hence there being nothing that ‘surprises’ God. Meanwhile, I would like to make it clear that God’s essential omnipotence has no impact on human freedom whatsoever; human beings are still capable of making free choices that God foreknows without Him having predetermined them.

That was my biggest point of disagreement within the book. There were a few other smaller ones here and there. Nonetheless, none of them take away from the respect that I have for both the author and for the book and for what it has accomplished. The issues I disagree with, like the interpretation of God’s sovereignty, are open to discussion in broader Christian circles. These discussions must continue to take place, and I hope this book serves as a catalyst to inspire more people to look into these issues.

Verdict

In short, Faith Across the Multiverse is an absolute must-read for nerds, aspiring theologians and apologists, and just any lay Christian who is looking for a better way to understand heavy theological concepts and doesn’t mind having a bit of fun along the way. And there is no better guide (or Babel Fish, to put it correctly) to take you on that journey than Andy Walsh.

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