For a brief time in college I considered myself a deist. I think it had more to do with my general spiritual rebelliousness at that time then anything else, but I do recall being rather enamored with the elegant idea of “Nature’s God”-a temptation that can be found in some older posts on this blog where I comment on the mathematics of the universe. Nonetheless, as time has gone by and the volume of my reading materials has increased, I am increasingly convinced that the very concept of Nature’s God is superfluous at best and downright harmful at worst. I now find the idea of “natural religion” to be generally unworkable (the qualifier is necessary because one can argue that Buddhism and Taoism are forms of natural religion and I would contend that both of these religions do provide workable paths in life-though I’d also add neither includes any variant of “Nature’s God”).
I am not entirely opposed to natural theology-in other words I am not a Barthian in this regard. I have found John Polkinghorne’s thoughts in this arena quite helpful-natural theology and revelation balance each other out, with the former being a means of keeping theology from barricading itself into an intellectual ghetto. It is extremely valuable for people like myself who cannot believe in open defiance of the facts (religion is of course more than facts, it is not reducible to facts, but in good Catholic fashion faith and reason can never be implacably opposed). And as Fr. Barron has written, natural theology and revelation exist on the same ‘axis’, with the latter being best understood as an intensification of the latter.
Yet, there is more to say here than this. David Bentley Hart, noting that the cosmos is “obviously a closed economy of life and death” asks a very important question:
So, then, what sort of God should a purely “natural” theology invite us to see?
Hart then proposes an interesting answer to this question:
…perhaps a God of the purest sublimity…creator and destroyer at once, as in Arjuna’s vision of Vishnu on the Kuru plain…an image of God as sacrifice, as life and death at once, peace and violence, the creative source and consuming end of all things. That glorious theophany in the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the supreme expression of the religious genius of Hinduism, is as perfect and devout a vision of God as the Absolute as any faith has ever produced (not that this is all the Gita has to say about God).
Hart goes on to note that the Christian metaphysical definition is “of a different order”, but he is not the only one to have turned to Hinduism in his quest to identify Nature’s God. In his Faith of a Physicist Polkinghorne notes that biologists could fear that the God discerned in this field could well be Shiva. Shiva, one could say, is the “other Lord of the Dance”, a rather fearsome figure who is associated with crematoria. That hasn’t stopped some prominent Christian theologians from referring to Shiva. Rowan Williams, for instance, who writes:
If we lose sight of the beauty and terror of dancing Shiva or Job’s God in the whirlwind, we are taming the vision to the scope of what we can cope with, pretending that our language has caught up and that we no longer need paradoxes of confusion and subtlety to speak of it.
Elsewhere, he writes:
The Hindu analogue should not cause us too much anxiety. To recognize in dancing Shiva an echo of the ‘dancing day’ of the second person of the Trinity is not to attempt some synthesis of Christian and Hindu faith, simply to note how the Shiva image gives forceful expression to much of what the Christian wants to say about the eternal Word’s involvement in the world. The dance of Shiva is above all an image speaking of trust and of peace in the midst of what seems a profoundly menacing and hurtful world. Shiva, notoriously, is the god who combines sharp contradictions in his person…the whirlpool of reality has a still centre, the terrible God of instability and ceaseless motion points us to stillness and greets us in peace.
As valuable as Williams’s reflections are, I still find myself returning to Hart’s comments that Christian metaphysics are of a different order than the Hindu, and the problems posed by a purely natural theology. What, precisely, do we learn about God from nature? On at least one level Richard Dawkins can answer that question:
…nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, nor cruel nor kind, but simply callous-indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.
Dawkins, who has long critiqued the idea that humans have “purpose on the brain” (he doesn’t mean that in a good way) has indeed drawn a conclusion from these observations of nature:
…the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
There are two points to be made in response here. First, Dawkins isn’t entirely wrong in his observations but he draws the wrong conclusions from them. Hart helps us here. Commenting on how modern science no longer concerns itself with 2 of the 4 causes recognized by Aristotle he says of Dawkins’s conclusion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design” that it is
in keeping with his frequently reiterated assertion that what we find when we look at the evidence of biological evolution is precisely what we should expect to find if we assume that the entire process is governed by nothing but random chance. But, in fact, while the latter claim is true, the former is only a false inference drawn from it. It is, after all, one’s prior expectations that are always at issue. For what one sees when one looks at the evidence of evolution is also what one might expect to find if one assumes that the entire process is the consequence of a transcendent intelligence drawing all things from nothingness and endowing them with form according to an internally coherent sequence of causes and a collection of magnificently intricate mathematical laws.
You see, the issue here is not with scientific data but over the philosophical interpretation of the data. As James Arraj notes:
…scientific discourse sometimes becomes encrusted with the philosophical and religious inclinations of the scientists.
Ed Feser puts the matter more bluntly:
…the elimination of purpose and meaning from the modern conception of the material universe was not and is not a “result” or “discovery” of modern science, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the results of modern science which owes more to earlier secularist philosophers like Hobbes and Hume…than it does to the great scientists of the last few centuries.
Hart dryly notes that folks like Daniel Dennett belong to “that parasitic subcategory of analytic philosophy that serves simply as a sort of adjunct to the hard sciences”-one may not care for his polemical attitude but his observation that much philosophy today is a sort of adjunct to the hard sciences (he dryly suggests that this is “no longer really philosophy”) is hard to argue with. In any case, none of this is to argue that science can prove God’s existence, it is rather to argue that science cannot disprove God’s existence, for the real debate here is in the realm of philosophy and not science itself. [For more, I highly recommend Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker; as well as the aptly titled Why Science Does Not Disprove God by Amir Aczel]
That’s the first response. The second response is more pithy: There is nothing “new” about the New Atheism in this regard (incidentally I think the whole ‘new’ meme is already old-we’ve put the word “new” or the prefix ‘neo’ in front of practically everything these days and its rather tiring). The question of whether the universe is meaningful or meaningless is perennial and one can find the latter position abundantly depicted in the thought of ancient Greece, as has been noted by Hahn, N.T. Wright, Jonathan Sacks and Timothy Keller in their recent books. Modern science has not suddenly thrust on us these problems-it was Stephen Jay Gould who noted that we are asking the same questions that the Psalmist (“What is man that thou art mindful of him?”) and Job (why bad things happen to good people) many, many moons ago. One can find precursors of Dawkins and Hitchens in Epicureanism, which as Wright notes is more or less the same as modern deism. Polkinghorne once noted that we all need metaphysics, and it is perhaps no surprise at all that the same metaphysical attitudes repeatedly reappear. After all, as Ecclesiastes puts it, there is nothing new under the sun.
And this brings me to my point. The fact that a simple objective review of reality suggests a great expanse of meaningless is not remotely new. One finds it in, of all places, the Bible itself. In his magnificent Three Philosophies of Life Peter Kreeft engages the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and in particular what he calls conventional religion. Kreeft summarizes it:
God, like the universe does not seem to give a damn…observation of nature shows no divine preference for the good guys…such a religion is as dull as the world. It is superfluous…for Solomon’s epistemology is purely naturalistic and nature is only God’s back. But Scripture is God’s mouth, and Jesus is God’s face.
The key word here is “superfluous”. Nature’s God is indifferent to human affairs, redundant to anything that we can learn from the great observations of science. This is not “religion” in any meaningful sense of the idea, it is nothing more than a superfluous idea about the order of reality. And how could it be anything else? One cannot build any kind of meaningful life based on observations of nature unless one is exceedingly selective. Nietzsche critiqued Stoicism along these lines:
“According to nature” you want to live? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power-how could you live according to this indifference.
How ironic. In the shadowland where all we have is Nature’s God, Dawkins is quite right that we are left with nothing but indifference. The archbishop of atheism may be wrong that science has disproved the Creator, but he and the communion of atheists, past and present, are quite right about how the name of the game in the end is indifference. Qoholeth’s observations of the world in Ecclesiastes is the best that natural theology can do. Nature’s God has, to put it bluntly, nothing to offer us. We are ultimately left in the same place as atheism.
Things look rather different, of course, through Christian eyes. The Pope Emeritus, as just one example, can speak of the apparent wastefulness Nietzsche mentioned as being of theological significance (see Introduction to Christianity) and the lens of faith can even see purpose in evolution (though the fact that we and in some sense the universe are fallen cannot be ignored). Of course, reason is not entirely useless here-Catholic philosophy can give us a foundation for reflecting on, and seeing our existence and consciousness as pointers toward the Good, the True and the Beautiful. But even this gets us no further than a sort of Platonism, which, as the Pope Emeritus observed, amounts to little more than idea. Karl Adam, perhaps a bit more optimistic than Peter Kreeft, says
But natural reason only leads me so far, only to God as the principle and meaning of all things. It leads me to a natural worship of the Most High, but it does not lead me to a supernatural commerce of life and love with this God, nor can it tell me about whether such a living intercourse is possible. It is true that creation gives testimony to God’s omnipotence, wisdom and goodness; but it does so only so far as these attributes are mirrored in natural things. It does not give us testimony to the fullness of His creative love, it does not let us see into the heart of God. Is God only the Creator and Supporter of my being? Or is He more than that, and would He be more than that?
Sean Carroll, the atheist, once dismissed all such talk as crazy talk. And it is-if we are discussing Nature’s God. The question remains, however-can God be more to us than an abstraction? If we limit ourselves to natural theology, no. But if we are prepared to accept that perhaps God can intervene in the real world, in our souls, in our own lives, in history-in short, if we accept the idea of revelation-than the very nature of the game has changed. Kreeft alluded to how Jesus is the face of God. This is a theme that has occurred repeatedly in the writings of the Pope Emeritus, and the idea of God hiding his face has been noted in Judaism as well (see, for instance, Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Hidden Face of God which is a very thought-provoking reflection on the same topic, though obviously lacking the resolution given by the Pope Emeritus and Kreeft).
If we are to know Nature’s God, so that Nature’s God will in fact become our God, no longer an idea but the Living God Himself (in Pascal’s idiom the God of the Philosophers must become the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). It is a shame, a real shame, that in this day and age we have become squeamish about the idea of revelation. It is quite discouraging that so many people today do not have the honesty of Qoheleth-esque honesty of Dawkins to face what serious observations of the world reveal (indifference) but instead to bury ourselves in sentimental auto-eroticism. In the immortal words of Flannery O’Connor:
One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into…therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention.
If we do in fact surrender to the idea of an impotent God who cannot reveal Himself to us, we are left with a spirituality that truly is nothing more than an opiate of the people and might as well as be ditched. For if we all we have is Nature’s God than we are left with no more than our delusions, whether they be of sentimental divinity, our own grandeur or a Stoic indifference that simply refuses to think too deeply about the world. We are left alone, and whether it is with the Alone or not, makes little difference.
- I do not wish to be too harsh towards the “cosmic religiosity” that is popular these days-Dawkins himself has expressed sympathy with it, as did Albert Einstein (who believed in Spinoza’s God) and I myself (who does not!) am tempted to it. Nonetheless, I find it ultimately unsatisfactory. CS Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, noted that feelings of the numinous themselves are highly ambiguous; and in Mere Christianity he noted that theology functions as a map to put personal experiences in context. While not directly on point, they are helpful in outlining why a quite understandable sense of cosmic awe is in and of itself limited and ambiguous.
- It is by no means accidental that Christianity speaks of bringing all knowledge before Christ (Fleming Rutledge) or enabling people to understand that truths of whatever source “ultimately toward the one truth” (George Weigel). What is gleaned through science is not to be feared, but again to paraphrase Lewis, this is to say that by the Risen Sun we see everything else in a new Light. Absent this, we are left in the shadowlands of indifference.