Nature and Grace

τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται, ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης (Romans 1:20)

ἐν αὐτῷ γὰρ ζῶμεν καὶ κινούμεθα καὶ ἐσμέν (Acts 17:28)

I enjoy learning how things work. This is often a professional task in my day job as a chemical engineer but this curiosity extends to pretty much everything I encounter. Part of learning how things work is conceptual or physical dissection, dividing a thing into simpler components, but crucially, a comprehensive understanding also requires parallel reassembly, understanding how the components fit and work together. To understand most comprehensively what a thing is requires looking at it in several ways and I marshal a heavy arsenal of varied methods. This includes religious ways of looking at things.

For a secular audience using religious methods of understanding would seem to require some justification. The justification I can give with most confidence is pragmatic, that many aspects of my world of experience, my lebenswelt, are simply more comprehensible with these methods than without them. Not all things of course. Empirical and mathematical methods work just fine for learning about the design of devices and manufacturing processes. But understanding other kinds of things requires other kinds of methods, like literary, artistic, and philosophical methods. What a thing is is often more than its physical makeup, though it is also that. Paintings and photographs are physical objects with no meaning in themselves. But as objects we interpret they are representations, which in a sense transcend their physicality. Similarly a musical composition is more than just a sequence of sounds, though at one level it is that as well. Roger Scruton calls this possibility of looking at things in different ways “cognitive dualism”. He contrasts this with ontological dualism, the view that there are different kinds of things. Cognitive dualism by contrast allows for multiple and similarly acceptable ways of looking at a single type of thing, a difference in perspective rather than in nature.

Objects of religious interest like existence, life, death, and personal identity all have non-religious interpretations that can work just fine in practice but I happen to find that religious interpretations add something to the others. I don’t consider different approaches to an object to be in competition with each other but to have complementary relationships. One criticism I have of scientism and overreaching naturalism is that they presume to exhaust all legitimate perspectives on an object, dispeling all others. Free will is debunked because decisions are physical neurological processes. God is expelled from nature because nature operates according to self-sufficient physical laws. Things are nothing other than what science and naturalism say they are. Mary Midgley called this kind of reductionism “nothing buttery”, the tendency to see a thing as nothing but one particular view of it. My approach is not to deny the empirical, scientific perspective. I view things in that way too. Rather my approach is to see things from additional perspectives, including religious perspectives. Yes, the thing is that, but it is also this.

In many cases this leads me to see God in precisely those places from where he is thought to have been dismissed, particularly in the natural world. I see the natural and supernatural as distinct but not separate. In this I take a side in a significant, if somewhat technical theological debate within the Christian tradition. The direct focus of the debate is between realism and nominalism, which to explain with some simplification is basically a debate over the nature of abstractions (“universals” in medieval terminology), whether they have independent reality or whether they are useful fictions.

In a Platonic or Neo-Platonic conception of reality the physical world is patterned after and governed by a higher order populated by eternally existing universals or forms (εἶδος). Examples could be mathematical and physical laws. In the Christian Platonism these forms subsist in the mind of God. Because this higher order is, at least in principle, comprehensible the mind and nature of God are also comprehensible. Significantly nature, by being patterned after a higher order, is itself ordered and rational. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) understood this connection to be an operation of God’s grace in the created order. Nature is continually driven and directed by God’s power. And so to observe nature is also to see God’s hand in it. Paul of Tarsus, no stranger to Hellenistic thought, expressed this affinity between Gentile and Judaic ideas. For example he said of the Gentiles in his letter to the Romans that “ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). He also  taught the people of Athens that God infused nature with life, quoting the Greek poets as saying, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

William of Ockham (1280-1349) dispensed with universals in his metaphysics and in his theology saw God as much further removed from nature, unknowable, and unpredictable. This had important implications for Christian ideas about judgment and salvation that carried into the Protestant Reformation centuries later. In an application of his famous “razor” Ockham dispensed with the forms populating the higher order of reality as entities that had been multiplied beyond necessity. One benefit of this move in Ockham’s view was to make God absolutely free. Nature is not ultimately governed nor ordered by eternal law but by God’s pure will. God can change anything in nature as he sees fit and can make things opposite of what they are. Because of this it is not possible to learn anything essential about God by observing nature. God becomes more inscrutable, known through scripture alone.

As I said, I take a side in this theological debate on the side of Aquinas and the realists. There are various reasons for this but among them is a Christian sentiment that God is intimately involved in the world. I find this more satisfying both spiritually and intellectually. Admittedly that’s not a solid rational argument but it makes more sense to me. One implication of this is that I see the demystifying, debunking, and secularizing impulses of naturalism and scientism around any natural phenomena rather unthreatening to a religious perspective of the same phenomena. Because God’s grace is observable in the operations of the natural order any greater understanding of the natural order by science in no way displaces God. It is rather a fuller description of God’s activities in nature, one that is more comprehensible to a particular form of human understanding.

I think evolution is a good example of this. Historically no scientific idea has been more threatening to religious people because it provides a way to think about life developing in nature without God. But I think this was only a threat because of a historically contingent intellectual climate in which, centuries after Ockham, it was even possible to think of nature as a whole operating independent of God. David Bentley Hart has argued that the theory of evolution would likely not have bothered ancient and medieval theologians at all had they known about it because in their view any operation in nature is also an operation of God’s grace. They may have simply seen evolution as “the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” In other words, if evolution proceeds by natural selection according to a predictable algorithm, to use Daniel Dennett’s characterization, this is simply the Platonic conception of nature following after the pattern of a higher governing order.

Because I see God and nature so closely related I don’t find certain views of the creationist or intelligent design movements especially compelling or necessary. You could say that I do subscribe to intelligent design in the most general sense of God being active in evolution, since God is active in all of nature and evolution is part of nature. But I don’t see a need to look for gaps in the fossil record or instances of irreducible complexity in molecular biology to carve out a space for God. There’s no need to carve out a space for God because God infuses the whole process from start to finish. Certainly there are gaps in the fossil record and instances of complexity in molecular biology that we can’t explain. But I believe these are simply instances of incomplete knowledge of the process rather than actual gaps in the process itself. For my aesthetic taste I hope that is the case. I would find the divine design of a seamless process that did not require periodic interruptions and fixes much more elegant.

I’m similarly unperturbed by neuroscientific descriptions of mental experiences and find “eliminative” interpretations of them quite unpersuasive. In an eliminative view, physical descriptions of our mental experiences eliminate the need for common-sense notions of mental experiences like fear, belief, anxiety, and desire, dispensing with these concepts as superfluous “folk psychology”. I find it improbable and impractical that one way of interpreting something, even if it is empirical and quantitative, should eliminate the utility and possibility of interpreting in other ways, especially ways that are primary to experience. I don’t know if concepts like fear and desire will be useful in the future of neuroscience but they are certainly useful in many other domains, especially in daily life.

The most inviting target for a naturalistic perspective of the brain is the soul. Do we have souls? Eliminativists and presumably many religious people must have a much more fragile understanding of what a soul is than I do because I cannot imagine what it would even mean for people not to have souls. I understand a soul to be the totality of the organism, its substance and its activities. At first glance this may seem to claim very little. If this is all a soul is then of course we have souls. Souls are what we are. But I maintain that on more thorough reflection the totality of the organism and its activities, particularly the human organism, is an incomprehensibly remarkable entity and that the soul, even understood in so seemingly minimal a way is just as miraculous as whatever maximal conception one might have of it. One need not refer to religious ideas to appreciate this. Two “problems” in the philosophy of mind will suffice. The first, “easy” problem of consciousness is the project to give thorough physical descriptions of the processes in the brain that produce conscious experiences. The easiness of this first problem is only easy relative to the second because it is quite difficult relative to current scientific capabilities. The brain is fantastically complex and the more I study neuroscience the more I come to see how far we are from understanding it as a physical system. Still, I can imagine it being solved eventually. The second, “hard” problem of consciousness is a more fundamental philosophical problem of how the physical material of the brain produces first-person, self-conscious experience, which would seem to be something immaterial. I cannot even imagine how this explanatory problem could be solved, even though the process it concerns obviously takes place.

From a religious perspective the soul has a spiritual origin and I find that perspective a perfectly adequate account for it. As in the case of many other things for me a religious perspective of the soul, of the totality of the organism, adds something to it, a certain way of seeing our connection to all things. The soul, as a part of nature, is not thereby separate from God or anything spiritual because in my theology God and nature are intimately connected through grace. God’s creative activity in nature coincides with his animating, life-giving activity that produces our souls. The Bible gives a sublime narrative and symbolic illustration of this. God breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life and he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). The breath or spirit of God is an important creative force in biblical text. On the first day of creation God’s breath or spirit moved or brooded upon the face of the chaos of primordial waters prior to bringing order to them (Genesis 1:2). Just as God infuses all nature, governing and directing it, God’s spirit inspires and animates all life. I find this a significant perspective to consider as a synthesis of all the information we might gather about the universe and ourselves. It all weaves together into a coherent whole and we are connected to all things in God.

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