Portraying the life of celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the new biopic, The Theory of Everything, raises questions about the age-old conundrum of how to reconcile science and religion. Almost entirely paralyzed, Hawking has ALS—a disease that typically condemns the sufferer to gradual muscle degeneration and ultimate respiratory failure in an average timeframe of 39 months. Hawking, however, has outlived his prognosis by 50 years, powerfully contributing to the fields of general relativity and quantum gravity despite his illness.
The film is directed by James Marsh, director of the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on a Wire, and stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking, his wife of 25 years. Marsh’s wonderfully sensitive Man on a Wire chronicled the irrepressible Phillipe Petit’s mission to tightrope walk between the twin towers. Marsh stays true to his interest in depicting the striving of the human spirit in all its wonderful variety with the The Theory of Everything, directing a script adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoirs Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. In contrast to other depictions of Hawking’s life and work, The Theory of Everything is distinctive for giving equal weight to the Hawking marriage, Jane’s struggles in caring for Stephen, and maintaining her belief in God against his increasingly strident atheism.
However, in portraying the dynamics of the Hawking household and the issue of faith—and also charting Stephen’s illness and elucidating Stephen’s very abstruse work in astrophysics—the film suffers from its own ambition, taking on more than any movie can be expected to satisfactorily accomplish in 123 minutes. But ambition is never wholly a bad thing. Despite being stretched thin, the film does succeed in balancing Stephen’s scientific triumphs with the story of Jane’s quiet love and sacrifice, all while providing a thought-provoking domestic microcosm of the fraught intersections of faith and science.
In her memoir Jane affirms that the schism between science and religion cut across their married life. Before they were married Jane remained convinced that there had to be more to the meaning of life “than was contained in Stephen’s cold philosophy.” The film, however, is only able to give a superficial account of this clash in worldviews. We find out that Jane is “busy on Sundays.” She joins a church choir to find relief from the burden of her domestic duties and comes to have a tense ménage à trois with the choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer. This unconventional relationship is a central focus of the film. At first the relationship was platonic. Jonathan, a recent widower, found solace in helping to care for Stephen and the Hawking family. But as the relationship becomes romantic the film suggests it is their shared faith in God that gives Jane’s relationship with Jonathan an ease that her relationship with Hawking lacks.
Similar to the one-dimensional portrayal of Jane’s faith, the NYT has complained that the depiction of the scientific process in The Theory of Everything is rather muddled. Complex theorems are given superficial explanations and Hawking’s work seems to proceed by a series of inspirations. Although the film sketches the clash between scientific and religious worldviews, the narrative is too driven by biography to deliver a thoughtful treatment of this theme. The Theory of Everything will, however, prompt conversations about the clash between science and religion. It is interesting then, to attempt to push this discussion a bit farther to gain a clearer picture of the intersections of science and faith in Hawking’s life and work.
Hawking’s work has indeed struck right at the heart of the debate between the roles of faith and science. His early work caused a great stir in the scientific community by upsetting the dearly held Steady State Theory, which maintained that the universe had no beginning or end. Hawking’s postgraduate work provided the theoretical basis for the then nascent Big Bang Theory. In part, because of Stephen’s work, the theory that the universe began from a singularity 15 billion years ago has become scientific gospel. Although, he suffered quite a few lecture walkouts in the process of overturning the scientific status quo. It is not difficult to understand why many physicists were reluctant to surrender the Steady State Theory—any theory that suggested the universe had a beginning opened the door to speculations about nonmaterial causes of the universe.
Science has been left to flounder for a material explanation for the origin of the universe since the discovery of cosmic background radiation provided proof for the Big Bang Theory. Remarkably Professor Hawking was among the first to refute the idea that the Big Band Theory required the universe to have a beginning. He has since thrown his support behind Superstring Theory, which appears to be gaining precedence in physics circles, although it has a purely mathematical basis and has not provided a prediction that can be experimentally verified. Superstring Theory predicts that space-time has 11 dimensions and further development of the theory, known as M Theory, makes the remarkable prediction that ours is not the only universe. There may be an infinite number of universes each with it’s own physics. The implication for the beginning of the universe is that space-time, although appearing to be finite, has no boundaries. Hawking writes: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end, it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”
Professor Hawking had an intimate relationship with at least one other person with a robust faith in God. Don N. Page, now a theoretical physicist at the University of Alberta, lived with the Hawkings from 1976-1979 while a doctoral student at Cambridge. The way Don was able to reconcile his beliefs with an interest in physics appeared paradoxical to many onlookers. Don addresses this apparent paradox in the conclusion to a paper entitled Scientific and Philosophical Challenges to Theism:
“As finite beings, we should not expect to understand everything, though it is good to seek as much understanding as possible. We can wrestle with the problems, but in the end we have to live life with the limited knowledge that we do have. Let me close with an aphorism that I coined to summarize my thoughts as a scientist and as a Christian: Science reveals the intelligence of the universe; the Bible reveals the Intelligence behind the universe.”
Physicists do not often make this distinction. Rather they often conflate the “intelligence of the universe” with the “Intelligence behind the universe.” When Einstein said “god doesn’t play dice with the universe” he was voicing opposition to the apparent randomness of quantum theory by, in effect, saying that “God” (the intelligence of the universe) is not like that. Similarly, Professor Hawking ends his first book, the record-breaking best seller A Brief History of Time, with the line, “…if we discover a theory of everything,”… “then we should know the mind of God.”
Nikita Khrushchev also conflated the idea of a God of the universe and a God behind the universe in a 1961 speech given after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Khrushchev said: “Gagarin went into the heavens and he did not see God.” C.S. Lewis was still alive at the time and he penned an essay responding to this statement entitled The Seeing Eye. In it he writes, “If God exists, he is not a man in the attic, but the Playwright. That means we won’t be able to find him like we would find a passive object with the powers of empirical investigation.” Lewis points out that the expectation that we can discover God or know the mind of God through empirical investigation is mistaken. If a creator God exists then trying to find Him empirically is like Hamlet trying to find Shakespeare by looking in the rafters of the theater.
It’s impossible to watch The Theory of Everything and not feel a tremendous amount of compassion and admiration for a man who has suffered so resolutely through such a horrifying disease. However, it’s also troubling that, although he has been able to intellectually explore the furthest reaches of the universe, the beginning of time and the places where time and space stop, he has confined himself to the limits of the universe, never allowing his imagination to consider what might lie beyond the rafters of the theater.