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C. R. Wiley

It is unclear which was lost first, the cosmos or God. With hindsight it appears they came as a package, lose one and you lose the other.

People still speak of the cosmos, but they either do not know what they are talking about or they mean something very different than what people used to mean when they used that word. The word cosmos means order. It is not as though people have suddenly gone blind to the order all around us. But the conviction has grown that this order came about by a generative out-working of aimless power. We are told that if we just look at things dispassionately we will see that the universe is not designed. Instead we will see that we, along with everything else, are the flotsam and jetsam of a tremendous explosion. The order we perceive, if that is the right word for it, is just a loss of momentum and a balancing of forces following that explosion.

This is now the official story of the universe. As you can see, God does not come into the story at all. God’s apologists have said he is at work behind the scenes, like the director of a film, but when it comes to the story itself even many of these folks admit he does not make a cameo appearance. From the standpoint of the story you can take him or leave him. And from that standpoint many think leaving him off the credits at the end makes perfect sense in light of the story itself.

Obviously this is a departure from the Biblical story of creation. But this is also quite a departure from other accounts of the beginning—the stories that are usually lumped together under the heading “mythology”. Those stories vary a great deal, about as much as civilizations can vary. Still, a thread seems to run through most of them and that thread runs something like this—somewhere in the primordial past, order prevailed over chaos.

Chaos is often depicted as a monster and the monster must be either killed or imprisoned for order to prevail. It never just happens of itself. There is almost always a god, or a band of gods, to do the job. And this is not just a concession to a human need for a dramatic persona, it reveals the real conviction throughout history that purposeful agency is behind every order. This is why, when it comes to creation stories, the modern version may be the most fabulous ever told.

Social scientists, especially the species known as cultural anthropologists, inform us that creation stories do more than merely satisfy curiosity, they serve a social purpose. They help create a social order. In pre-modern societies the job of telling the stories is usually given to religious leaders: shamans, oracles, priests, and the like—the folk whose job it is to converse with the cosmic authorities described in the stories. It is the job of the leaders in those societies to retell the stories through their actions. They rule as the image of their gods, keeping up the fight against chaos in the name of their gods.

Fortunately, most scientists do not think it is the job of a scientist to order society. Unfortunately, that does not keep it from happening. Let us leave the scientists and their well-lit data collection centers for a moment and walk downstairs to the converted broom closet where the philosophy department is now located. An old gentleman with pipe tobacco on his vest greets us at the door. We tell him about the social scientists and what they say about religion and its role in pre-modern societies. He nods appreciatively then asks, “Would you say modern societies are religious?” After thinking about declining church attendance and the low regard of most people for televangelists we say, “No.” He then asks, “Then what holds modern societies together?” We shrug. He then says—“There are only two possibilities, either the social scientists are wrong, or what we call religion, pre-modern societies would have called science if they had had the term. Or, put another way, what we call science they would have called religion.”

Before we can object he adds, “People in those societies believed what they believed because they thought what they believed was true. Today we believe the story science tells us about the origins universe.” “But how does that story order our society?” we ask. He looks at us incredulously then steps back into his tiny office. As he closes the door he says, “The same way religious stories have always ordered societies—by mimicry, of course.”   

Cosmology and Social Mimesis

It is believed by most educated people that nature is both mechanical and purposeless in its operations. Calling it a machine is perhaps unavoidable, but it is misleading since machines are made by people and serve purposes. But what they mean is it is somewhat like a machine insofar as it is impersonal and unconscious. I will call it a Chaos Machine then. Because its operations are mechanical, it is like a machine; because those operations are aimless, they are chaotic. Furthermore, since it is mother of all—even those things that seem impossible to reconcile with it—human consciousness for instance—it is universal. It is the Universal Chaos Machine or UCM, for short. Unlike someone I will talk about in a moment, the UCM does not love you and have a wonderful plan for your life. In fact the UCM is an ever-present threat to your existence since it is all powerful and utterly indifferent.

This is the paradox of our social order—our civilization can knowingly serve no purpose higher than itself since the official story situates it in a purposeless universe. It is at once the product of the universe yet struggling against it for its survival.

In case my tone has not made it clear by now, I do not believe in the UCM. But I do believe that the myth of the UCM has shaped the modern world. It has done so in every conceivable way.

There are times when the object of your study is so close to your face you cannot focus on it. This is one of the reasons we have literature. It can draw caricatures for us, exaggerating features of our experience in a way that pulls them away from us so that we can see them distinctly. Two books that have this with modern social life are George Orwell’s, 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World.

Conventional wisdom has it that they present competing futures: the total state verses the total market. But the subtexts of the stories are in profound agreement.  They agree that life in the future will be modeled on the machine.

In both stories people are small, almost to the point of vanishment. The Industrial Revolution has dispossessed the last aristocrat—the human being. The division of labor and scientific management have redefined him and made him a part of a larger system, like a cog in a machine. It may seem overdone, but it is not fanciful. Orwell and Huxley did not dream this stuff up; they had seen the beginnings of it. When they wrote, government and private institutions had already grown to inhuman proportions. They simply extrapolated.

There are no “winners” in their stories. Protagonists get hammered like nails, but that is expected. What makes their stories so unnerving is how conformists fare. In each novus ordo seclorum they appear shrunken and deformed. These are not societies dedicated to cultivating human goods. These are societies that use people like natural resources, like petroleum or iron ore—societies where people are valued insofar as they serve the social machinery.

The first thing to go in the books is the natural family. In 1984 where there are families, they are mockeries of the real thing. The ties of natural affection are severed by the interposition of the state. If anything parents now serve the interests of the state by raising its children. When the protagonist Winston goes next door to help his neighbors with a minor household repair we get a glimpse of this.

“Up with your hands!” yelled a savage voice.

A handsome, tough-looking boy of nine had popped up from behind the table and was menacing him with a toy automatic pistol, while his small sister, about two years younger, made the same gesture with a fragment of wood. Both of them were dressed in the blue shorts, gray shirts, and red neckerchiefs, which were the uniform of the Spies. Winston raised his hands above his head, but with an uneasy feeling, so vicious was the boy’s demeanor, that it was not altogether a game.

“You’re a traitor!” yelled the boy. “You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

In Brave New World there is no need for this sort of thing. Procreation and child rearing have been industrialized. Sex has been liberated from every moral consideration. It is now just another form of recreation and is about as meaningful as bowling. But even so, functional obsolescence is not enough to dissolve the bonds of intimacy—for that, the strictures of psychological hygiene are called for. Mustapha Mond, the director of the marvelously named, “Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center” describes the process of child rearing that once prevailed in the following way,

“Home, home—a few small rooms, stiflingly over-inhabited by a man, by a periodically teeming woman, by a rabble of boys and girls of all ages. No air, no space; an under sterilized prison; darkness, disease, and smells.”

He continues,

“And home was as squalid psychically as physically. Psychically, it was a rabbit hole, a midden, hot with frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion. What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane, obscene relationships between members of the family group! Maniacally, the mother brooded over her children (her children)…brooded over them like a cat over its kittens; but a cat that could talk, a cat that could say, ‘My baby, my baby,’ over and over again. ‘My baby, and oh, oh, at my breast, the little hands, the hunger, and the unspeakable agonizing pleasure! Till at last my baby sleeps, my baby sleeps with a bubble of white milk at the corner of his mouth. My little baby sleeps…”

“Yes,” said Mustapha Mond, nodding his head, “you may well shudder. …Our Ford—or Our Freud, as, for some inscrutable reason, he chose to call himself whenever he spoke of psychological matters—Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life. The world was full of fathers—was therefore full of misery; full of mothers—therefore of every kind of perversion from sadism to chastity;….”

In both stories social machinery has made the natural family obsolete. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see a rough parallel with our contemporary scene. We no longer think of the natural family as the first institution, most do not even think of it as indispensable. For many it is merely a lifestyle choice, fine for people who are into that sort of thing.

The Final Victory of the Machine?

Early modern thinkers believed that a universe bleached of divine purpose would allow humanity’s true colors to emerge. Our hearts would no longer long for heaven; humanity would finally see the earth as its true home and make a heaven of the earth. What humanity actually got was an eviction notice.

Dehumanization in 1984 and Brave New World should not be blamed on poor execution—as though a more humane vision would be possible if only a more sophisticated understanding of human beings as biological machines informed it. The word machine is not a synonym for human being. The word human speaks to aspects of our being that cannot be reduced to machinery.

The human longing to be more than a machine has not failed to garner the attention of the apologists for the machine. Once upon a time materialists scorned it, calling it childish. Not anymore. Now they have appropriated it, informing us that the longing to be more than a machine is itself a gift of the machine. It is a clever bit of bio-chemical hardwiring that serves to keep our bio-chemical machinery running. These same people inform us that our social institutions are gifts of the machine as well—even religious institutions. A religious institution is the part of the social machinery that makes it possible for small conscious machines like you and me to believe we are not machines. And this has been indispensable to our survival in an unloving and purposeless universe. But there is a problem. When we think of religious concepts and institutions as machinery they stop working. What makes 1984 and Brave New World so disturbing is the revelation that society can become just as mechanical and implacable as the universe. It is because we have always thought of our bodies and our social institutions as something more than machinery, that we have felt at home in them.

No one really believes in a universal machine—at least not yet—not even socio-biologists. Either we must believe in a deep meaning to the order around us and thereby reject the UCM (religious people and humanists of all sorts), or we must practice a sort of functional schizophrenia. We can treat the universe as a chaos machine in those cases where personal meaning is remote, but we must behave differently in cases that touch us. A socio-biologist may spend his working day treating human bodies as bags of soft machinery but when he comes home he will speak tenderly to his wife because he knows that she is his wife—not merely a bag of soft machinery. But if the Chaos Machine is truly universal can even this concession continue?

Not very much longer it appears. It was once thought that consciousness could stand as an island of meaning in a sea of chaos—that things could be objectively meaningless while remaining personally meaningful. But the neurobiologists have landed and have claimed consciousness for the machine. Resistance is futile. No place is safe from the engineers—not even your own mind. “Unhappy at work, Mister Anderson? We can adjust that. Just take this pill.”

Inside Information

When God was evicted God from the cosmos, we not only lost God, we lost ourselves. I am reminded of the volume on Mr. Tumnus’s shelf in, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Is Man a Myth”? Well, if the Chaos Machine is all there, apparently yes, he is a myth.

One reason we feel out of place in the universe is because we begin with the universe and not with ourselves. This is an odd thing to do since we are part of the universe. Clues to its nature are as likely to be found inside of us as they are to be found someplace else—actually more likely. But that possibility is denied by modern people. Our desires, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, all the taproots of humane society, are believed to have no real connection to the universe as it is in itself. But when we remove the most meaningful features of human interest from our study of the universe we find ourselves on the outside of everything. Is it any wonder that the world appears indifferent to us?

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis tells us we have, “inside information” when it comes to thinking about ourselves and the universe we find ourselves in. He did not dream that up. He was voicing an old conviction—the notion that man is a microcosm of the macrocosm—a small order that reflects a larger order. We are not strangers in a strange land—we have a map within us.

To read the map we must look beneath the surface of things and the first thing to look into is ourselves. What exists underneath the surface is traditionally known as spiritual reality. In this way of looking at things reality has two levels. There is a material or physical level apparent to the physical eye, and an immaterial or spiritual level that is apparent to an inner eye.

This is an old and venerable way of thinking. It does come with some well diagnosed problems. But materialism has its own set of problems. Unless we know everything there is to know, every way of thinking will have its attendant problems. What we should look for is a way of thinking that keeps us off a procrustean bed. If we want to live as human beings we will need to embrace some form of dualism. Humanism has always taken the immaterial side of humanity seriously. In this sense at least, humanism is dualism.

Dualism is affirmed by most traditional cultures. It is the sort of thing you cannot help believing when you see a dead body. Two things are there, then one of them is gone. And everyone agrees that it is the part that is gone that is the more important part.

Materialists know that something is lost at death but they believe it has a material basis. It is an epiphenomenal mist rising from a swamp of matter. Since it has no metaphysical basis it can have no metaphysical rights. Desires are less real than the physical mechanisms that make them. To a materialist psychological problems are just engineering problems.

Dualists deny that human beings can be reduced to their bodily functions. For dualists the spirit is no less real than the body, in fact it is more so. This should not be seen as giving aid and comfort to the Manicheans. For dualism to remain humane it must take the body seriously. A body denying spirituality is just as inhuman as a spirit denying materialism.

It may come as a surprise that in the biblical account of creation there is the same chronological relation between body and spirit as there is in materialism. First comes the body, then comes the spirit. But here the immaterial aspect is not epiphenomena, it is the whole point. Further, something other than the body—or even the universe—is responsible for creating it.

The Bible tells us that our bodies are made of dirt. The name Adam means “dirt” in Hebrew. That does not seem like an auspicious way to begin. But it is only half the story. After God forms dirt into a body he breathes upon it and it in turn breathes. The word for breath in Hebrew is the same word that is used for spirit. According to the story man is in some sense a composite of two things. And it is the second thing that completes the man and is the higher aspect of his nature. The immaterial part cannot be reduced to the operations of the material part. Instead the spiritual part has another source. It takes up residence in the body, but it remains distinct from the body. Rather than denigrate the body by its presence, the spirit it elevates and dignifies it. The spirit makes a home of the body and cares for it like a good homebody should. What is more, it is the spirit that helps the body make a home for itself in the world.

Thinking Big

But what about things on the largest scale? The human body makes the biblical view of the relationship between body and spirit seem plausible, but the immensity of space and apparent age of the universe seem to imply that universe itself could not be here merely to serve human interests. Are we an anomaly then? Is there no relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm after all? If not, then we truly are strangers in a strange land. But here is where the story of the Bible gets very interesting.

It is a lie to say the Bible depicts a small man-centered universe.[1] While it is true that the Bible is largely preoccupied with human concerns, throughout the Bible we catch glimpses of things that are outsized and alien to us. There are the revelations of heaven for one thing, and while those accounts do depict intersections of heavenly business with earthly concerns, one cannot help but be impressed with the immensity of the operation. The Bible also does justice to the vast scale of the universe. Humans are described as puny and insignificant and while there are no images from the Hubble Telescope, the poetry voicing the content of the naked eye is fulsome enough for the job—whirlwinds, earthquakes, ocean waves, unfathomed depths—they are all there and their message is summed up by the Psalmist: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4)

As our appreciation of the capaciousness of the universe has grown so has our suspicion that there are other forms of life—perhaps sentient, like ourselves—dwelling in regions beyond our ken. We should not be surprised. The Bible tells us about another form of sentient life: the angels. While we are preoccupied with what they mean to us, the Bible reveals that they are not similarly preoccupied with us. But the prospect that the universe is big enough for others is not the most surprising thing the Bible has to say about creation. The bigger surprise is that even if the universe were utterly devoid of life it would still serve a divine purpose.

In the Bible—at the very start—we see the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters. The presence of water in the beginning has puzzled many people, but water here should be understood to signify more than the stuff in the glass at your elbow. The important thing to note about water for the purpose of this story is that it appears to be formless—pour out the stuff in that glass and it will run everywhere. Instead of possessing form, it fills whatever form it is poured into. It does not set its own boundaries. It is like a void; you could even say that it is the embodiment of nothing—and this is the thought that should fill our minds when we see water before anything is made.

People who believe that water just means water here miss this. Some heretical theologians even suggest that the presence of water means God made the world out of some primordial—or formless—stuff. But nothing exists without form, and that is the point. There is no need even to see this as a sort of two-step process in which God has created primordial stuff off-camera before the story begins. God does not create “stuffness” then particular things from the formless stuff. The best thinkers in the history of Christianity insist that this is a story about God creating the world out of nothing and water here in some sense embodies nothing.

This typological use of water makes some people uneasy. It strikes them as poetic and for many people that is a diminution. Poetry is believed to refer to nothing more than psychological states, it doesn’t say anything true about reality. Until we get beyond our bias against poetry we will never appreciate the Bible because it is a bias none of the biblical authors shared. In fact, for those writers, poetry is the highest form of speech because the physical world itself is a form of poetry—it is not self-referential—it refers to things beyond itself.

Back to the story—following the creation of light God does something we cannot imagine and by doing so he makes possible everything we can imagine; he divides the waters. He divides nothing and creates something. Creation from that point on is a series of divisions. Without division there is no form and without form there is no being and without being there is no identity—and that means without division there is no you and there is no me.

From this point on they are held back. The ongoing significance of this is picked up later in the Bible, for example in Psalm 104. There the Psalmist sings, “He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters,…” (v.3), and again, “At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight. …You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.” (vv. 6-9). And when the Lord speaks to Job from the whirlwind he says, “Where were you when I….shut in the sea with doors…and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far you come, and no farther, and here your proud waves be stayed?’” (38:4, 8-11).

According to the Bible creation is not a machine—like a watch that runs on its own. It is a place, surrounded by walls and protected from life-obliterating, identity-destroying water. From then on water is a Sword of Damocles, an ever present threat of divine judgment. Waters are released in Noah’s flood, at the Red Sea against the Egyptians, even in the story of Jonah as a way to discipline a wayward prophet. And when we come to the very end of the Bible, we see there is no more sea (Rev. 21:1). And what are we meant to take from that? Creation is finally finished and the final judgment is over. (That, by the way, is why Jesus walked on the water—it prefigures the end. And you thought he was just taking a shortcut.)

So what is the story of creation all about? Is it given merely to inform us of where things come from? Of course not. The story is intended to tell us that the universe serves a purpose. It is about a house raising. A roof is raised, and so are walls, and a foundation is set. And with each successive day progress is made toward the goal—a beautiful two story structure filled with goodness and life. The upper story is called heaven, and the lower story is called earth. The upper story is a throne and the lower story is a footstool. When the seventh day finally arrives the builder enters the house, rests from his labors, and governs it. [2]

According to the Bible everything is meaningful because everything is made to serve God. Paradoxically even chaos is meaningful in the Bible. In a divine order a flood is a judgment. In contrast, the prophets of the new scientific faith cannot find meaning even in the order they see around them since it is nothing but an outworking of the aimless forces.

And here we stumble over the true offense of the Bible. The Bible does not offend because it is unscientific. It has been argued convincingly that we could not have science as we know it without the Bible.[3] The Bible offends because it reveals a universe that has a purpose. It is God’s home and it is meaningful to him and consequently it is only meaningful to us in a secondary way. For some time many theists have suspected that materialism is not the humble acquiescence before the facts that it claims to be; it is a proud denial of what the facts should mean to us. The very things that should reveal our marginal status are inverted to make God marginal. Because the universe is too big for us, the materialists inform us, there can be no God. But then—by a clever slight-of-hand—the coin of purpose is made to reappear behind the ear. There is purpose in the universe after all, the materialists tell us—the purpose is whatever we choose for it to be.

But the Bible confirms what our eyes tells us. When we see the whirlwind or the thunderhead or the ocean wave we see there are purposes served that are beyond our ability to grasp. God is at the center of the vortex, he rides on the storm, he wades in the sea. The universe is built on a scale that serves his interests, not ours. We should be grateful for a room with a view. We can look out on the royal estate. Our portion consists of a sliver of atmosphere and six inches of top soil. That is room enough.

Home Economics

Once upon a time people lived in households. They built them, husbanded the resources sheltered in them, and dwelled in them. (The word “husband” means “house-bound”.) Today we are houseless—oh, we have places where we sleep and recreate when we have the time—but we no longer live in houses. This is one reason we no longer feel at home is the cosmos—our homes no longer function as households. The reverse is also the case, one reason we no longer think of our homes the way people once did is because we no longer think of the cosmos as a household. The notion that the cosmos could be a household seems absurd to modern people. This, I am convinced, is one reason why our lives seem absurd.

The Bible tells us there are two levels to creation (perhaps more) and those levels are called heaven and earth. Heaven is the upper story and in a sense the sky is a reflection of it. The sky was never believed to be all there is to heaven. You could say it was always seen as the underside of it. Like all great houses in antiquity, the upstairs is where the people in charge live. Apart from the sun and the moon that govern day and night, the other furnishings of the upper-story are out of view. On the other hand—the lower story where we live—the earth—is described in some detail in the Bible. It is as much part of the house as the upper story, but it is where the lesser servants live. Servants from the upper story occasionally appear on the lower story. We are curious about the affairs of our betters but our inquiries are neither encouraged nor indulged. Throughout the Bible the stress seems to be placed on the work at hand—to mind our own affairs. This is rather humiliating for modern people—but there it is.

In the Bible God dwells primarily on the upper level, but at different points in the Bible we see him descend the staircase to see what is going on downstairs. Usually he is displeased with what he finds. What does he want to find? He wants to find little images of himself doing what he does. And what is that? Exercising dominion.

Much ink has been spilt by critics of Christianity on the subject of dominion. That Christianity should be singled out in this way reveals how sheltered and provincial critics of Christianity can be. The relationship between divinity and humanity outlined in the Bible is pretty conventional for the ancient Near East. There we see the belief that divine beings extend their rule through human beings showing up again and again. While there is plenty to complain about when it comes to the justness of human rule that is not the thrust of the criticism. The very notion that there is a dominion at all seems unjust to these people. The implicit, and sometimes explicit, sentiment is that we should have a niche, like the rock badger or the polar bear and that’s it. But if a rock badger had human intelligence and our manual dexterity its niche would be considerably larger than it is, and that’s the problem.

How people that espouse a mechanistic understanding of nature can use the word “ought” about anything is a puzzling.  But leaving that aside it is worth remembering that the Latin root for dominion is the same as the root for the word, “domicile”. The Latin means “master”. And presumably the Rock Badger behaves like he is the master of his rocky domicile. The common origin of words apparently as different as dominion and domicile is evidence that we have drifted very far from the world in which the words find their origin. Historically a house was more than a place to eat, sleep and watch television. It was where people made a living. In the old days everyone worked where they lived. Going to work meant a change in activity more than a change in location. Dominion is a matter of ordering your work and ordering your rest, of ordering your time and ordering your help. It is a matter of economy. Economy is another one of those words that has wandered far from home. Its original sense is just how I have used it here—household management. Our word is derived from the Greek compound word—“oikos”, meaning house and “nomos”, meaning management or governance.

Home at Last?

If creation is a household and not a chaos machine then modern society does not reflect the natural order; it is profoundly out of accord with it. To the ancients such a thing could not stand. The larger order must prevail and there will be hell to pay. I am afraid we are already making payments. We can see evidence that our civilization is at war with very conditions of its existence. It is an odd war to wage—like blowing up your own supply chain. But what should we expect when nature is conceived as little more than a temporary stasis amid a sea of aimless forces? When we war against nature we act in accord with our conception of nature. But the cost of the conflict has been considered tolerable for many years because the spoils of the war were sweet. But now it is striking close to home. Not only have we felt it in the loss of our households, we have lost our souls, or as C. S. Lewis aptly put it—we have abolished them. [4]

But those of us that reject the Universal Chaos Machine in favor of home economics find ourselves in the curious position of being at war with the society that surrounds us, but at peace with the cosmos. I am reminded of the story of the prodigal son. There we see that the wayward boy began his journey home when he, “came to himself”. Likewise, we will begin our trip home when we finally come to ourselves and take what we find there seriously. And just like the prodigal son we will find that when we have done that, we will be well on our way home, and when we come through the door at the end of our journey we will find someone waiting for us.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes
1. C. S. Lewis refutes the same charge as it relates to Medieval cosmology in, The Discarded Image.
2. John Walton in, The Lost World of Genesis One (IVP Academic, 2009) outlines the basis for this interpretation.
3. Two books that do so are: Stanley Jaki’s, The Origin of Science and the Science of Its Origin (Regnery, 1979), and Rodney Stark’s, The Victory of Reason (Random House, 2006).
4. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
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Published: Dec 23, 2012
Author
C. R. Wiley
C.R. Wiley is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and a Presbyterian pastor in Manchester, CT. He writes young adult fiction under the pen name, Mortimus Clay. His short stories have appeared in The Mythic Circle and Fear and Trembling. His nonfiction has appeared in Touchstone Magazine, Relevant Magazine Online, and Modern Reformation.
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6 replies to this post
  1. One root of the misunderstanding and antagonism between evolutionary biology and theology may be simple semantics. In biology, it is thought that evolution proceeded in a "random" manner, that the myriad of different modes of adaptation over time are not linked by any logical causality along the lines of Aristotelian telos. If they were, this would mean that we could return to premodern, nonexperimental science and predict the fate of existence by way of inductive reasoning. This is so contrary to scientific methodology and to empirical data that I think it is why biologists instinctively bristle at the idea of "purpose" in evolution.

    Of course, the "other side", let us call them theists, thus points out that a universe without purpose is a universe where "man" must therefore abide nihilism, create his own "values" or go against all reason to accept a "fundamentalist"/literal reading of the Bible (which of course is usually not literal, because it is not mindful of the originals).

    A good way out of this is to recognize that God, being above human perception, is necessarily spoken of only in poetic form, since poetry is always a grasping toward the unknown. Science makes more and more of the unknown at least approximately known, but is not therefore unpoetic, but merely purely peotic (a peotry of being itself, of logic without ornament – a kind of Hegelian ideal).

    Secondly, it must be recognized that God is life: those who wrote the Bible had no idea as to the true nature of the cosmos. The shift from a perspective in which we are at the center of an essentially Aristotelian physics to the Copernican universe is profound. It means we cannot rely on the Bible to know God fully. To know God we must rely very much on our own powers of perception, thought and prayerful insight. Science, as the practical tool for uncovering the mysteries of the universe, is therefore the means we have for uncovering God. The living God is present now, let us then have the courage to percieve Him with our means, as the people of biblical times did with theirs.

    I am happy that modern physics tends to prove creatio ex nihilo, and that many other Thomistic insights find empirical and mathematical grounding. But where science diverges from theology, as it does most strongly in the case of evolutionary biology, we must go where the light leads us. Mankind are, as far as we know, unique in evolution because we are spiritualized conscious matter. We are therefore no longer merely biosphere, but what De Chardin termed Nousphere. This path of inquiry of De Chardin's is the only honest path that boldly accepts science as well as the spiritual nature of Man.

  2. Peter,
    Have you read the Blessed John Paul? Or Robert Frost? I think you're onto something, but you take us into dangerous territory with de Chardin, when very sensible people would do.

  3. Thank you for the thoughts, Peter–several of which I agree with. What appears to me to be your main point I do disagree with though.

    "To know God we must rely very much on our own powers of perception, thought and prayerful insight. Science, as the practical tool for uncovering the mysteries of the universe, is therefore the means we have for uncovering God. The living God is present now, let us then have the courage to perceive Him with our means, as the people of biblical times did with theirs."

    Science does not help us to see beneath the surface–I would call it the poetry of surfaces. Science seeks to make a nonperspectival image of material reality. In its quest for a nonperspectival truth it dismisses spiritual reality (a reality that necessarily includes the subject) from consideration. Further, science in its advanced forms, distorts perception through amplification. We now see things too closely, or from too great a distance to see what they could mean for us. As with all art–and creation is art, it is artificial in the sense that it is the work of a person and it bears meaning–there is a proper viewing distance. From this perspective our ancestors actually had an advantage–their view of the cosmos was not deformed by telescopes and microscopes. This shouldn't imply that I am anti-science. I am very grateful for the work of scientists–one of their things I hope my writing can achieve is the creation of a zone of space for believing scientists to do their work without fear of doing harm to the spiritual lives of their fellow believers–and a way that believing nonscientists can celebrate the achievements of science without dishonesty or fear.

    As you can see I have a very high view of biblical revelation and I believe the canon of scripture is closed.

  4. Dr. Willson: I have not yet read the blessed John Paul II. If Robert Frost is the poet, then I vaguely remember one poem about fences, and another about being in a rush. My readings have been almost all exclussively radical French Jesuits, because I was admited into the Church (communion & confirmation) after a one year tutelege in a Jesuit Church, by a French educated Jesuit mentor.

    I admit I am biased, but this is also tied with the very personal path my faith took. I do hope to read more, but for now I am very fascinated by Jesuit thought. I am now going to read Bennedict XVI's recently published work on Jesus.

    I have a lot of catching up to do – I admit it.

    CR: Regarding amplification, De Chardin notes that the infinitely small and infinotely large are theologically manifestations of the One God. Perspectivism is the condition natural to all sentient beings who are temporal and not omniscient. It is also the condition happily embraced by the embodied Christ.

    I also think your view of science is Newtonian. This whole notion of a "mechanistic" universe is no longer scientifically accurate. Quantum physics demonstrates a "nonperspectival image of reality" is not plausible. At best, we can only have a mathematically probable image. Look at the two recent Nobel prize winners in physics. They managed to find a way to isolate particles which, up to the physicists' discovery, were beyond tangible grasping because they were always "seen" in an altered state (altered by light) [my explanation here is probably very bad, but it's the best I can do based on trying to listen to a physicist with whom I discoursed on these matters for several months]. Even though they succeeded in isolating particles, they still cannot account for the mystery of the dual matterial/wave nature of certain particles. The whole problem of the Four Forces, out of which the Newtonian gravitational perspective is but one shows that science has in fact laid bare the beautiful mystery of God.

    The problem is that scientists are not educated in theology, and they make wonerfully theologically relevent discoveries but cannot connect the two, because to most of them, God is some fairy tale, not the perfectly logical Being of St. Anselm who manages to defend the entire Christian faith without ons biblical reference.

    It is tragic that the two branches of thought so often speak passed on another

  5. I agree my treatment was Newtonian. In an early draft of this article I made a passing comment to the fact that I was describing the mythology that has emerged in the wake of science–the popular understanding, in other words. (Perhaps I should reinsert it–this is a working draft for the first chapter of a book I'm working on.) I would also say that once you leave the physicists behind the further you go from theoretical concerns the more mechanistic science gets. I agree most scientists have no background in theology–it is always delightful to see scientists discovering theology late in life and watching their prejudices fall away and their appreciation grow.

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