CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A charge frequently leveled at theistic evolutionists is that of the inconsistency between accepting both the uniformitarian geological and biological evidence for the age of the Earth and the miracles performed by Jesus and other biblical figures. In the latter presumably God acted by divine fiat, bypassing or overriding the usual creaturely processes by which objects are linked by cause and effect with other objects. Now if-so goes the objection-the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes involved the creation ex nihilo of fully formed loaves and fishes, presumably such that if a person were to examine them without knowledge of their miraculous origin they would seem to be completely normal loaves and fishes, how can we trust the appearance of age and the natural unfolding of Earth's long history that science presents? Can we indeed rule out the possibility, daringly put forward by Philip Gosse, that creation ex nihilo implies a similar scenario to the loves and fishes, except for the entire Universe? Perhaps this world is like a novel in God's mind, where we can enter the story in medias res right from the first chapter, with its world stretching back into the past and on into the future by projecting from the context of that chapter, but with that world only existing as the context of the actual story laid out in the pages of the novel, and nothing more.

So the question is, as the title suggests: if God creates (ex nihilo), is everything permitted? Can we in fact trust that the sun will rise tomorrow and the next day after that? Or is this world like the Matrix, where new programming can be introduced on a whim and seamlessly integrated into the collective illusion?

I think it's pretty clear that God, as God, can do whatever he sets his mind to. The Bible provides ample evidence of that. It is also clear, both from the Bible and from the very idea of an omnipotent Creator, that Creator and creation are vastly asymmetrical ontologically. Compared to the blazing sun of God's power and reality, the creation is nothing more than a flimsy, gossamer tapestry. This is not to say that the world we know is not real and not good: it is both. But in comparison to God, the nations indeed are as a drop in the bucket, and the Earth could roll up, old and wrinkled like a garment, and God would remain, the same yesterday today and forever. It follows that yes, strictly speaking, if the Biblical God is real then everything about creation is entirely contingent, even the coming and going of sunrise and sunset. This truth is expressed as the doctrine of creatio continua, which states that the world's existence depends on God's continually upholding it in existence. If he were to cease to uphold it, it would simply blink out of existence like a lightbulb going out.

But there is another, equally prominent motif in Scripture that tempers the implications of the above ideas: throughout the Bible, we see that God is intensely committed to his creation, despite the ontological asymmetry, even if this means he has to put up with some serious challenges that arise due to man's disobedience and the unruliness of the powers and forces of creation.

We can see this motif of commitment already in Genesis 1. True, there is the stark image of God speaking things into existence merely by divine fiat, the sheer exercise of divine power. But equally in the very beginning we see God already committing to work with, not around or despite, the things that he has created. Just after the first, primordial statement of God's creating the heavens and the earth, the text tells us that the earth was "without shape and empty" (or as Robert Alter literally translates the expression, 'welter and waste') and "darkness was over the surface of the watery deep." (Genesis 1:2; NET translation) Clearly this primordial state of existence does not have the form and ordering that God wants for creation. And yet, mysteriously, this is how God begins to create. That God subsequently works on this raw material, somewhat as a sculptor works with a piece of marble, instead of directly speaking into existence the world exactly as He wanted it, shows clearly that God creates something and then commits to work with it to further his purposes.

This pattern of creating and then committing continues in Genesis 1. God speaks light into existence, but then proceeds to 'divide' the light from the darkness (1:3-5). God initially creates a vast, watery deep, but then gathers the waters and strictly determines their boundaries in order for dry land to appear (1:9-10), implying that somehow the dry land emerges from the water, not as an ex nihilo creation. The potentiality of all creation is already present in that primordial water, as we also see further on. When God creates the 'vault' or 'dome', he puts it "in the midst of the waters," specifically in order to divide the waters under the dome from the waters above the dome. This is quite a striking example of God's commitment to work with what he has already created: again, God 'separates' or 'divides', verbs that presuppose God working with and through creation rather than above or against it.

Then we move to plants and vegetation. Does God create these things ex nihilo? No! God says, "Let the earth put forth vegetation..." (1:11) Just as dry land was already inherent in the potentiality of the primordial deep, so vegetation was inherent in the potentiality of dry land, and God calls forth this potentiality. He does not cause it to come into existence on its own, independently of everything else he has created. God then 'makes' the two great lights and the stars, and 'puts' them in the dome of the sky. It is not clear where these lights come from, but there is reason to think that the Israelites thought of these lights as 'holes' in the 'vault' of heaven, from which the primordial light would peak through, sometimes with great intensity (the light ruling the day) and sometimes with much less (the 'lesser' light ruling the night). If so, then God's creation of the lights still reflects his fundamental commitment to working with his creation. Then as we move on, the sea puts forth swarms of living creatures and the earth puts forth cattle, creeping things and wild animals (1:20-25; the creation of birds in v.21 constitutes a possible exception to this motif, as the author does not specify where birds sprung from; nevertheless, the overall trend of the text is clear). Only with man at the very end do we have God creating directly (1:27), although this image is complicated by God's fashioning man out of the dust of the ground in Genesis 2:7.

Now if Genesis 1 describes God as constantly working through his creation to bring about his purposes, Genesis 2 does it to an even greater extent. We already noticed how God formed man from the dust of the ground. But then we have that God 'planted' a garden in Eden (2:8) and God 'made things to grow' out of the ground (2:9)! These verbs again do not suggest God simply speaking, and bringing something into existence ex nihilo, but rather God is 'getting his hands dirty' and working the ground and planting a garden, the very tasks that will be then be assigned to God's image or viceroy, the human. But especially astonishing for our purposes is the story of how woman was created. God says that man should not be alone, and resolves to make him a helper (2:18). One would think that God had ordained ahead of time exactly the right companion for the man, and created her directly in sheer perfection. But no! In vv.19-20 the image we get is of God creating every animal and every bird, and parading them before man "to see what he would call them" (2:19) Now to understand this passage we need to jump ahead to the man finally meeting woman, where we see him say that "This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh." (2:23) The man calls the woman 'bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh' with a tone, astonishingly, of exasperation and relief! The image we get is of God creating animals and parading them before the man one by one, to see if the man would call one of them his helper and companion, almost like a merchant parading goods before a skeptical customer. But even though man does call them different things, and each animal does have something important to do with his happiness and well-being, "for the man there was not found a helper as his partner." (2:19) We can only imagine his frustration at this point. After this unusual 'process of elimination', God finally creates woman, but again not ex nihilo, but using as raw material a bone from the man's chest. Why didn't God simply form another human from the dust of the ground? Why create woman in such a 'messy' way? The answer seems clearly to be that God is committed to working with and through what he has already created, even if that means bringing about one of his most important purposes (the creation of a helper for man) through such an apparently clumsy and even comical process of parading the animals before the man one by one, to see if he would 'bite'.

And the motif does not stop there. In Genesis 3 we have a description of the first humans' disobedience, and God's plan for humans to be his viceroys on earth appears on the verge of collapsing. This would seem to be a good time for God to 'start the level again' in video game parlance, scrapping his creation as a faulty first draft and starting from scratch. After all, what could possibly be gained by continuing to invest in this flawed, disordered creation? Astonishingly, God does continue to invest in his creation and persists in using it to fulfill his purposes. Thus he sets a plan in motion to eventually crush the serpent who incited the first humans to disobedience and restore the humans to a right relationship with him. So much trouble, when God could have wiped everything out and started again! Again we are compelled to ask, why?

Actually, the thought of starting from scratch apparently did occur to God, when he resolved to destroy his wicked creation through a great flood. Given the significance of the primordial waters from which dry land emerged in Genesis 1, we should not think of this water as mere water. The picture of the 'fountains of the great deep' opening up and the 'windows of heaven' opening suggests that the order of the universe was about to be fundamentally undone, the waters that had been contained at creation rushing in to overwhelm the stable order of dry land and living things. But God pulls back from this complete destruction, makes the waters subside and dry land emerges once more. Upon smelling the sweet savor of Noah's offering, God makes a promise that "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." (8:22) Why does God pull back and resolve never again to destroy his creation? The answer is two-fold, and reinforces the theme of God's commitment to his creation: first of all, as Robert Alter comments, "after the Flood, God, once more recognizing the evil of which man is capable, concludes that, given what man is all too likely disposed to do, it is scarcely worth destroying the whole world again on his account." (Five Books of Moses, p.49) This implies that the created world apart from man is precious to God: he will not destroy it if it would not also wipe out the evil which man was disposed to do. Second, despite his acknowledgment of their inclination to evil, God takes compassion on the humans and allows himself to be pacified by the sweet savor of the sacrificial fire. Even though before the deluge God had only found one man to be "a righteous man...blameless in his time," (6:9), God was eager on account of that one drop of goodness in a sea of iniquity to refrain from destroying all mankind, just as later on he would show himself willing to spare the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if only ten righteous people were found in them (18:32-33).

Examples could be multiplied, such as the truly heroic patience God exhibits when dealing with the stubborn people of Israel, whose thick-headedness was so great despite all the grace he showed them that, just as with the deluge, God was tempted to annihilate the people of Israel and start over. Moses manages to change God's mind by appealing to his covenant faithfulness which was now a matter of public record all over the world. Though the issue is framed as a matter of God's honor and consistency in the face of scoffing onlookers, at the heart of Moses' appeal is God's commitment to his people, and his resolve to be with them and give them their inheritance, come what may. Even Jeremiah's story of the potter (Jeremiah 18:3-4), usually interpreted to accentuate God's absolute power over his creation, actually confirms our motif of working with creation, because notice that the potter does not throw out the clay when he finds a blemish or hardening. Instead, he sticks with the marred clay and remolds it. Again, this is a 'hands-on' picture of God's power: we can imagine the hands pressing hard into the clay, working to mold it without destroying it. The clay resists, and the potter must exert pressure. He doesn't merely point his finger and shazam! the clay confirms to his will. The potter must strive to enforce his will on the clay. Again, it was the potter's prerogative to throw the clay away and start from scratch, but he seems to want to work with this clay, marred and blemished as it is.

In the fourth century the great bishop Athanasius had to answer a peculiar pagan challenge to the Incarnation: if God wanted to make things right and save mankind, why didn't he directly instruct and save them, through a mere act of his will? The answer he gave serves as a fitting summary of our discussion, and a truly glorious vision of God's love and commitment:

In the beginning, nothing as yet existed at all; all that was needed, therefore, in order to bring all things into being, was that His will to do so should be signified. But once man was in existence, and things that were, not things that were not, demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Savior should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil. For that reason, therefore, He was made man, and used the body as His human instrument. If this were not the fitting way, and He willed to use an instrument at all, how otherwise was the Word to come? And whence could He take His instrument, save from among those already in existence and needing His Godhead through One like themselves? It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man—man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin. It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument and by that means unfold Himself to all.
When one saves something, one does not destroy it and create something else in its place. Implicit in the very idea of salvation is that what is being saved is preserved. Precisely because of his love of and commitment to his creation, God wanted to save it, this very creation, not throw it away and start again.

What, then, is the conclusion of the matter? And what does this have to do with the challenge of ex nihilo to theistic evolutionism? Simply this: although God is indeed all-powerful and can dispose of his creation as easily as we can blow out a candle, the Bible teaches that God is not fickle in his attitude towards creation: once God creates something, even if that something deviates from his purpose and obstructs his will, God does not simply toss it out and start over. This motif of God working with and through creation, together with God's promise that the rhythms of the world would no longer be disrupted as long as the world lasted, allows us to affirm a substantial amount of creaturely autonomy and uniformity. God does not create and destroy things in the blink of an eye, and creation is not just a story in God's mind. God has chosen to make creation both real and good. Even though he is omnipotent, God has chosen to give creation its own 'firmness' or 'solidity' over against his all-powerful will. This creates the need for God to strive, to wrestle with, to bind and to master his creation, images the Bible continually employs (see John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol.1, pp. 64-75). The thing we must keep in mind is that this need for striving is not inherent in the nature of things. The 'firmness' or what we might call the 'ontological inertia' of creation is entirely the result of God's free decision.

Now I have not touched yet upon two important issues for the discussion: the coming judgment which will involve the re-creation of the heavens and the earth, and the place of miracles in a world which God has given some autonomy and regularity, but which nevertheless must in the end fulfill his purposes for it. Scholars dispute whether New Testament apocalyptic envisions the complete annihilation and destruction of the current world and its complete replacement by a new one, or whether the final judgment, although cataclysmic, simply transforms the present world, albeit almost beyond recognition. That is the subject of another post, as is the issue of whether miracles can be seen as yet another example of God working with and through creation as opposed to overriding it by divine fiat.

But the point for now is that the Biblical God is not the sort of God who would create an Omphalos-type world in which things only seem to be what they are, and the reliability of natural processes is constantly in doubt, constantly under siege by the ever-present threat of creation ex nihilo. If there is one thing we know about God from the Bible, it is that once he creates, he commits. Nothing about the creation forces him to commit to it: the initiative and the promise are entirely from the divine side of the relationship, an expression of God's perfect, undeserved love. We can trust that creation, after careful and critical study and experimentation, will not deceive us about its character as creation. We can trust the scientific evidence for uniformity and antiquity, because it coheres with the character of God as one who creates by the unfolding of his original creation, as opposed to bringing new things into existence every now and then.

The apologists over at Triablogue have written another lengthy critique of a leading atheist anti-apologetic. Their e-book is The Infidel Delusion, which is a response to Loftus and cos. The Christian Delusion.

Their post introducing The Infidel Delusion is here.

I just returned from vacation so I have not read it yet, but look forward to doing so.

In a recent Triablogue post, Patrick Chan links to a brief apologetic for Christianity by Douglas Jones, in which Jones makes the remarkable claim that in performing such a seemingly mundane task as buying a bottle of milk, the average person actually betrays the knowledge (or at least the belief) that Christianity is true, because only Christianity undergirds the tacit assumptions about the nature of reality that such a task takes for granted. It follows that the average person's failure to explicitly acknowledge this truth is due to that person's desperate attempt to evade God's claim upon his or her life and the truth that he or she is a sinner, the fitting object of God's wrath.

I do not think Jones' apologetic is a very good one, and in this post and the next one I want to highlight what I see as its weaknesses. In so doing I do not mean to attack Jones personally or (God forbid) undermine the truth of the Gospel. My main purpose is to issue a note of caution to overzealous apologists who, starting from the Apostle Paul's claim that "[Sinners] know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them" (Romans 1:19), are tempted to take intellectual shortcuts by insisting that certain data of human experience have much clearer theological implications than they really do. Even C.S. Lewis, after presenting in considerable detail a moral argument for the existence of God which established that there is a moral law, given by a divine Lawgiver, which we continually break, conceded that "I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology." (Mere Christianity, p.25) He understood that more argumentative work had to be done in order for the Christian claim to be even prima facie compelling. Paul's comments on the psychology of sin are no excuse for a sloppy apologetic. Of course, in calling Jones' apologetic 'sloppy' I acknowledge my own burden of proof, so on to the text itself.

Jones begins by raising the possibility that we may be radically mistaken in our view of the world: it would be quite possible to wake up one morning and suddenly realize that "your long-held, day-to-day views of nature, social values, and self are obviously mistaken. Common things that you have seen for years take on a whole new light. The world hasn't changed, but different things stand out in odd ways. Things you once adored are now utterly disgusting. Things you once hated now command your deepest loyalty. You can now see through your motives and rationalizations in a way hidden before. How could you have been so naive?" He argues for this possibility, not only in some 'obvious' cases like that of Islamic extremists, but even in very mundane, common-sensical views of the world that seemingly sane people have inherited from their surroundings.

It is clear that this preamble is meant to raise people's suspicions that perhaps they shouldn't take their current view of the world for granted: it is perhaps quite likely that many, perhaps most people are radically mistaken in their view of the world. But Jones makes an almost imperceptible yet crucial shift in his exposition: having started out by talking of being mistaken and naive, in the second paragraph he begins talking of deception and by the eight paragraph he has landed at self-deception. But clearly these are not equivalent concepts, especially given what Jones is aiming at: to get people to admit their moral and spiritual culpability before God. It is hardly culpable to be mistaken in one's view of things, especially since, as Jones observes, "anyone's years on earth have really been very few. And the time any of us spends thinking about the world is relatively minute compared to all that there is to understand." An aboriginal bushman, for example, who has never heard of modern science and simply accepts the evidence of his sight that the earth is a flat disc and the sun is a bright light in the dome of heaven, cannot be held accountable for his failure to embrace heliocentrism. Neither is deception necessarily culpable, since the deceiver might successfully come across as trustworthy, and we usually accept the word of others unless there is good reason to doubt it.

Self-deception, however, is culpable, and Jones attempts to establish it with his example of going to the store to buy milk. The example is worth quoting in full:

In fact, people's actions often reveal more about their likely deception than their words. For example, whenever you do something like go to a grocery store to buy milk, you reveal many things about yourself. When you first walk up to the grocery store, you assume that you and the store are two different things, not one, thus showing your rejection of most Eastern and New Age religions. When you walk down that same dairy aisle and select the same kind of milk, you assume that the world is not chaotic, but orderly, regular, and divided into set kinds of things. When you stand in line with others, expecting others to respect your space and person, you reveal your rejection of moral relativism and your deep trust in absolute ethical norms. When you calculate your available change, compare the price of the milk, and make the exchange with the clerk at the register, you engage in a complex array of thought processes involving nonmaterial rules of reasoning, thus showing your rejection of materialism and evolution.

In short, when you do something as mundane as buying milk, you accept and reject all sorts of views. You act like you reject many popular religious and scientific claims. In fact, given the sum of what you assume and reject just when buying milk, you act like you believe that you live in the world described by Christianity. The world depicted above suggests complexities and contours of reality that are only supplied in Christianity. If Christianity weren't true, then such things as simple as milk buying would appear to be impossible. Now, you may openly reject Christianity, but you certainly act like it is true and that your non-Christianity is false. Why such self-deception? Why don't you just confess what you appear to assume?

I have highlighted in bold the key argumentative moves here. Jones claims that, regardless of what they may verbally profess, people's actions in even an ordinary situation like going to the grocery store reveal their (subconscious?) belief that Christianity is true, because these actions would not make sense apart from the truth (or, at least, people's assumption of the truth) of certain claims about the world that, presumably, only Christian theism can underwrite.

I need to make two points before going on to consider Jones' analysis of these actions: first of all, the link between belief and behavior is not quite as straightforward as he makes it out to be. Our actions do not necessarily reveal our deepest convictions about the world. They may sometimes, but not all of the time. For example, I may be perfectly aware that the House of Horrors at Universal Studios does not house any real horrors, but still feel my heart beating really fast and scream like a little girl when a 'monster' pops out of the mist. It would be silly to infer from my actions that I actually believed I was in danger from Chucky or the possessed girl from the Exorcist. Or consider, more ominously, the case of a preacher who has lost his faith, but still continues to preach on Sundays, his flock not having the slightest idea of his spiritual struggles. Again, we see that a person's actions are not always a reliable guide to that person's true convictions.

The second point is that, even if people act as if a certain claim is true, that does not imply that the claim is true, and therefore that people are self-deceived. It is certainly hypocritical to profess one thing and then act as if one didn't actually believe it, but Jones needs far more than hypocrisy or inconsistency between belief and action in order to get to his claim that the average person is self-deceived and culpable before God: he needs to show that Christianity is true in order to indict people on their self-deception.

Jones attempts to establish both that people's actions at the grocery store presuppose belief in Christianity, and that Christianity is true, but his efforts are not successful. In order to see this, we need to ask whether the beliefs that are presupposed by ordinary people's actions at a grocery store really amount to Christianity, as opposed to a generic theistic or deistic hypothesis, and also whether these beliefs must correspond to reality in order for the people's actions to be intelligible.

His argument for the claim that people's actions presuppose belief in Christianity rests on his analysis of the significance of certain actions undertaken when people go to the grocery store. He starts with going to the store itself: "When you first walk up to the grocery store, you assume that you and the store are two different things, not one, thus showing your rejection of most Eastern and New Age religions." Now it is uncontroversial that people assume the world is made up of discrete things separated in time and space. But it seems wrong to call this a rejection of certain Eastern unitary views of the world, because most people have never heard (and will never hear) a clear exposition and defense of these views, nor how they take into account the apparent multiplicity of the world. This is not rejection, but ignorance, because it may be that at least some people will become convinced of unitary views and accept the explanation for why, even though distinction among objects is ultimately illusory, nevertheless it appears to us as if there are distinct objects (including the distinct object we mistakenly call our 'self'). And these people will continue to go to the store as if presupposing they are distinct from it. This is an important point: the same behaviors may be compatible with many different interpretations of those behaviors, both by the people performing those behaviors and by onlookers. Therefore the fact that people walk to the store does not necessarily mean they are committed to the distinctness of objects.

Nevertheless, as I conceded before, it is probably the case that most people do assume the distinctness of objects, and therefore hold to a position incompatible with certain Eastern views. Does that move us in the direction of Christianity? Perhaps, but we have not yet narrowed the range of possible views very much. Still, a small step in the right direction might have a part to play in a cumulative case, so let's see what Jones says about the other actions.

He suggests that "When you walk down that same dairy aisle and select the same kind of milk, you assume that the world is not chaotic, but orderly, regular, and divided into set kinds of things." This too is fairly uncontroversial: we assume that the sun will rise every morning and that our clothes will not suddenly disappear from off our backs, among other things. But how does this move us in the direction of Christianity? At most it affirms the uniformity of the world and its processes, which is compatible with deism as well as Christianity, and a fairly attenuated version of deism at that. In fact, it may involve no more than a kind of Spinozistic pantheism, in which everything that happens in the world, happens of necessity, as an expression of the modes or properties of the one self-existent (but hardly personal) substance.

Next, Jones points out that "When you stand in line with others, expecting others to respect your space and person, you reveal your rejection of moral relativism and your deep trust in absolute ethical norms." Now I am of the opinion that people indeed are intuitive moral realists, but that you must present them with certain paradigm atrocities or good acts before they reveal this. It is not at all clear that standing in line at the grocery store involves 'expecting others to respect your space and person'. It may merely involve expecting that people are simply indifferent to you, that even if they don't respect you as a person they would see cutting in line as more trouble than it is worth. A person may have little confidence in absolute ethical norms but still be confident, even using a cold utilitarian calculus, that he will be left alone, and that he will be able to keep his space in the line. In sum, it is not at all clear that 'playing by the rules' at a grocery store reveals people's 'deep trust in absolute ethical norms.' Other behaviors may do this, but not buying milk at the grocery store.

Lastly, Jones appeals to a form of the argument from reason: "When you calculate your available change, compare the price of the milk, and make the exchange with the clerk at the register, you engage in a complex array of thought processes involving nonmaterial rules of reasoning, thus showing your rejection of materialism and evolution." This is actually a different claim than the ones given above. In the previous examples, Jones only claims that people act as if they viewed reality in a certain way. That is, they act under the assumption that certain facts hold, whether or not those facts do actually hold. Here, though, Jones presents a claim about what actually underlies the person's actions. He is not claiming that people only act as if their thought processes involved nonmaterial rules of reasoning, but rather is claiming that their thought processes do in fact involve nonmaterial rules of reasoning. But whether or not this is true, we are not given information about the person's beliefs concerning thought processes. In fact, it is doubtful whether most people know enough to make the distinction between material and non-material processes, let alone identify their thoughts as instance of the latter category. Just as with the Eastern religions, it is not so much rejection on display here as ignorance.

The problems with Jones' statement do not stop there, however: equally egregious is his conflation of materialism and evolution. If we take materialism to be the view that reality is fundamentally purposeless, consisting of nothing other than inert particles of matter in random motion, it is clear that materialism is not the same as evolution, where we take the latter to mean the process of descent with modification via the mechanism of natural selection. Evolution can operate in a purposeful, i.e. nonmaterialistic context, such as when a computer programmer deliberately sets up a Game of Life in order to create certain complex structures (the rules of the game of life are not exactly those of biological evolution, but they are both examples of processes where the continued application of a few simple constraints results in complex outcomes). It is telling that both of the great defenders of the argument from reason, C.S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga, distinguish clearly between evolution as a biological process and the conjunction of evolution with naturalism, which is supposed to be self-defeating.

So in the end, what do the person's actions at a grocery store imply about that person's beliefs about the world? Merely that the person believes the world is divided into distinct objects, that the world is orderly and that other people will not interfere with that person's affairs if that interference is more trouble than it is worth. We might possibly add, despite the worries raised in the last two paragraphs, that they presuppose the efficacy and rationality of their thought processes.

It should be quite clear that this cluster of beliefs does not amount to full-blown Christianity, not by a long shot. Even if the ultimate implications of these beliefs converge upon Christianity, if the person is not aware of the connections between these beliefs and the tenets of Christianity then Jones cannot argue that people's actions presuppose belief in Christianity. At most, people's actions presuppose beliefs that are compatible with or ultimately lead to Christianity. Now later on Jones seems to argue that people in fact are aware of the connections between these beliefs and Christian theism, but try to suppose their knowledge of these connections by making up "grand scenarios to evade [God]". But Jones does not demonstrate that people are in fact aware of these connections. Therefore, he has not shown that people's actions presuppose Christianity.

As if that weren't bad enough, Jones does not establish that Christianity is actually true. All he says is that "given the sum of what you assume and reject just when buying milk, you act like you believe that you live in the world described by Christianity." Let's assume, despite the misgivings of the previous paragraph, that Jones has in fact established this. But from the fact that people act as if they believed they lived in the world described by Christianity, it does not follow that they are deceiving themselves, if Christianity is not true. At best, if they profess not to believe in Christianity yet act as if they believed in it, they would be hypocritical. But the only gesture Jones makes towards showing that Christianity is true are the next two sentences: "The world depicted above suggests complexities and contours of reality that are only supplied in Christianity. If Christianity weren't true, then such things as simple as milk buying would appear to be impossible."

The first sentence is clearly false, or at least, Jones hasn't argued for its truth. He has not ruled out deism, for example, as an explanation of the orderliness of the world and the existence of moral absolutes. More to the point, however, what does 'the world' in the above sentence refer to? If the preceding discussion is any indication, here world should mean only 'the world as construed by people who buy milk at the grocery store'. That is, so far we have only been discussing the phenomenal world, the world as it appears to those who buy milk and engage in certain actions. But how to establish a correspondence between that world and the 'real world'? It seems Jones tries to do this with the second sentence, where he claims that certain actions would simply be impossible if Christianity weren't true. Granted that people assume certain things about the world when they perform certain actions, perhaps those actions themselves would be impossible if the things people assumed about the world were not in fact true. But this is not the case, as a study of people's folk intuitions about biology and physics shows. For example, most people believe that an object must be continually pushed in order for it to stay in motion. This is false (Newton showed it's the other way around: an object will stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force), but that doesn't make pushing objects around impossible: a false assumption about the world expressed in a certain action does not make that action impossible.

Now Jones might attempt to give a description of what it is that people buying milk at the grocery store are really doing when they perform certain actions, as opposed to what those people think they are doing and what they assume about the world as a result, but that would only mean that those people are mistaken, not that they are deceiving themselves. To establish the latter result one would have to make the case that people are actually aware of what it is they are really doing, along with the theoretical preconditions of those actions, but Jones has not made such a case. His argument has been limited to the claim that people act as if they believe certain things, not that they act on the knowledge of certain things about the world.

So we see that Jones' apologetic fails, because he has not established that people act as if they believe Christianity is true, and because he has not established that Christianity must be true in order for those actions to be intelligible.

This is not to say that transcendental arguments for the existence of the Christian God are impossible. But if they are possible, they must rest on features of human experience other than those involved in buying a bottle of milk. In the next post I will discuss Jones' arguments on several other topics, such as faith and rationality and original sin.

Bill walker is a regular reader and commenting atheist critic of this blog and mainly of Atheist Watch. Apparently he doesn't actually read my posts because I've said things that totally contradict the assertions he makes and that should tell anyone of reasonable intelligence that their view of what I believe is wrong; but he doesn't seem to notice. Here he's at it again:

billwalker said...

Joe, I'm still hoping that you'll take a cosmic view of the Cosmos & of the primitive tribal god our ancestors invented during the early iron age. If you need help on this, it's to be had on,also Atheist Nexus.Reconciling the dogma of Xianity & science, especially Astronomy, is impossible. When one considers the fact of several hundred BILLION galaxies,each with up to several hundred billions in each of them, ours being one of the smaller ones, & of 13.7 BILLION years in existence, the sheer unlikelihood of 'the creator sending his only offspring to be born of a virgin in the early iron age in a dinky town in the middle east, isn't just astronomically unlikely. It's frigging INSANE. Please open your mind to examining the doctrines of Xianity.

He makes the astoundingly naive assertion that if one was to understand the juxtaposition of modern astronomy with ancient primitive beliefs once could not be a Christian. At this point he would have to assume that all Christians are literatists and too stupid to understand Genesis as metaphor or mythology or to see the big man in the sky of the OT as metaphor. This does nothing but highlight the ignorance and stupidity of not reading theology but pretending to pompously critique it. If he read theology he would know that the vast majority of theologians in the world today (being the more learned end of Christian camp) do not buy Genesis as a literal history of creation.

Not that there's a logical reason why the big man in the sky could not create an unbounded universe. The universe is finite, contrary to Bill's understanding. He, like most atheists who yak at Chrsitians about the wonderfulness of science really knows little about scinece. Universe is finite yet unbounded. NO reason why a guy with a body if he was powerful enough could not or would not create it. Of course the truth of it is most modern theologians (myself included ) do not think God is a big man or has a body. I am sure Bill thinks we do. I took four courses in astronomy in college and I'll wager that's more than Bill took and I will wager I know more about astronomy than he does.

I've said this explicitly a number of times and if Bill was really reading he should get it. I understand that the people who wrote the OT, the collections of writings that make it up (it did not fall out of the sky as one bound volume nor were all the parts of it written by the same guy) were written by primitive people whose understanding is not up to par with ours in terms of science or the cosmos. We all  know this. As many times as I've talked by my view of inspiration he should understand that I do not regard the books of the Bible as "written by God" but as human accounts of divine/human encounters. It's a totally different model than the one he is use to assuming Christians believe. It's a model that allows for mistakes in fact. It's a model that allows for mistakes in scinece and history. It's a model that is not about inerrency.

My assumption is that there is this aspect to all being, it is an aspect that is eternal. Invidious "things" aka "the beings" are temporal, contingent, and temporary. They come into being, the go out of being, they replaced by other temporal, contingent, temporary things. There is an aspect to being that is eternal. It has no beginning and no end, it is not a series of causes, it's not really a "final cause" since you can't really trace it as a series of causes and effects. This aspect is called "being itself" the basis of what being is, the "ground of being." "Ground refers not only  to basis, so its' the basis of 'the beings" or all that exits, but it's also "ground" as in "depth psychology." When Tillich says "Being has depth" he's saying that that there's an aspect of being we only understand subliminally, an aspect that fits into the background, that we don't think about usually and we can't see we can't locate it as a "thing" among other things, but it's always there and it always has been and always will be.

It's that thing we call "God." The primitives in sensing the presence of it try to pin it down and say what it is the attached to it the cultural constructs they understood best. In the world of the bronze age when they wrote the OT works the first draft of J (the J document that was woven together with E,D, and P to form the OT) they filtered this eternal aspect of being through their lens of cultural understanding they linked it the king on his throne because that was the most powerful they knew of, that's what they thought about when they thought of creative power and the force of divine will. Of cousre understanding it as a will at all was an even older construct. So they speak about "the Lord" and they portray him as a man on a throne a king, becuase that's what they thought about when they thought of power. We come along for generation after generation thinking of God in this say, as a king, as "the Lord." We don't realize there are other constructs we have ourselves we can also filter it through. For me one of those constructs is Necessary Being. I use this one becasue I like philosophy and find a helpful distinction the one between necessity/contingency, so I call it "eternal necessary being."

This "being itself" is not "a being" but being, the thing that the act of being is. The basis of the act of being. We can even say that is a construct. But this aspect of being is in all things. It's in the ground, the in the air, it's in us, in me and you, in  each of us. The unwary can become concerned and think its' pantheism, it is not pantheism. Pantheism reduces God to a thing, the force of nature, or the sum total of all things taken together. But God is not a "thing" alongside other things. I call it an "aspect of being" that itself is a construct and might be in danger of reducing God to a thin, if we think of it as one ingredient in making up the universe with other ingredients, it also makes the universe sound like a cake.

I've expressed this before in this blog. I quote a translator form 1923 who describes Dionysus the Areopagine's view of God. I find this is a find description that really sums up what I believe.

The ideas of “Pseudo Dionysus” as he is most often known in the west, are set down in a long introduction by the translator Clearance Edwin Rolt. Rolt died at thirty-seven and this was his only book, but he had been hailed as one of the finest scholars ever produced by Queens College. Thus I think it only fair that we quote from the man himself. The major concept in which turns all Dionysus has to say is daubed by Rolt as the Super Essential Godhead:

The basis of their teaching is the doctrine of the Super-Essential Godhead (ὑπερούσιος θεαρχία). We must, therefore, at the very outset fix the meaning of this term. Now the word “Essence” or “Being” (οὐσία) means almost invariably an individual existence; more especially a person, since such is the highest type that individual existence can in this world assume. And, in fact, like the English word “Being,” it may without qualification be used to mean an angel. Since, then, the highest connotation of the term “Essence” or “Being” is a person, it follows that by “Super-Essence” is intended “Supra-Personality.” And hence the doctrine of the Super-Essential Godhead simply means that God is, in His ultimate Nature, Supra-Personal.

Now an individual person is one who distinguishes himself from the rest of the world. I am a person because I can say: “I am I and I am not you.” Personality thus consists in the faculty of knowing oneself to be one individual among others. And thus, by its very nature, Personality is (on one side of its being, at least) a finite thing. The very essence of my personal state lies in the fact that I am not the whole universe but a member thereof.

God, on the other hand, is Supra-Personal because He is infinite. He is not one Being among others, but in His ultimate nature dwells on a plane where there is nothing whatever beside Himself. The only kind of consciousness we may attribute to Him is what can but be described as an Universal Consciousness. He does not distinguish Himself from us; for were we caught up on to that level we should be wholly transformed into Him. And yet we distinguish between ourselves and Him because from our lower plane of finite Being we look up and see that ultimate level beyond us. The Super-Essential Godhead is, in fact, precisely that which modern philosophy describes as the Absolute. Behind the diversities of this world there must be an Ultimate Unity. And this Ultimate Unity must contain in an undifferentiated condition all the riches of consciousness, life, and existence which are dispersed in broken fragments throughout the world. Yet It is not a particular Consciousness or a particular Existence. It is certainly not Unconscious, Dead or, in the ordinary sense, non-Existent, for all these terms imply something below instead of above the states to which they are opposed.

At this point I quote myself because I've put this up before:

We can see in that description several features which correspond to the things Tillich says. One interesting discussion that I close before it is started is the “personal” aspects. I am saving that discussion for its own chapter on Being itself and consciousness. The first point of interest is the connection between being and essence. He defines ousia as either one. Ousia of course is the root words of homoousios. Rolt confirms Tillich’s view in saying that essence refers to a particular existence, but the Super Essential is in contrast to an individual person. God is beyond the consciousness of an individual, but is in fact a universal consciousness that is in all things and can identify with all beings. I’ve already dealt with Tillich’s nix on pantheism; this is not a pantheistic idea. Yet in defining it Rolt deals with many of the aspects of God as being iself expressed by Tillich. God is infinite, God is not one person among others, transcendent of all we know and dwells on a plane beyond our understanding. The term “Super Essential” can be understood as “ground of being” or “Being itself.” They are basically saying the same thing. The Greek phrase he uses for “Super-Essential Godhead” is ‘humperusios Thearkia: Super means “over” or “transcendent” a structure over something else, such as “superstructure.” Thearkia is commonly the term in the NT for “Godhead.” What is being communicated is the notion of transcendence but also the transcendental signifier, the overview to the ordering of meaning and order, that is equivalent to the concept of a ground, of course as pointed out, essential has an affinity with being. Thus we could as well translate it “ground of being.” The concept of God as “Ground of Being” is the concept of “Super Essential” God. I don’t suggest that “ground” would be a good translation as translations go, but I do think it’s hinting at the same idea.

Pseudo Dionysius himself begins by embracing the vita negative, God is beyond our understanding, we don’t try to say what God is, we experience what God is (mystical union) we say what God is not and infer from that the truth, except where we are given clear understanding in Scripture. “We must not then dare to speak, or indeed to form any conception of the hidden Super-Essential Godhead, except those things that are revealed to us from the Holy Scriptures. For a Super-Essential understanding of it is proper to unknowning which lieth at the Super-Essence thereof surpassing discourse, intuition, and Being.” The translator capitalizes being.

The one who is beyond thought surpasses the apprehension of thought; the good which is beyond utterance surpasses the reach of words. Yea, it is a unity which is the unifying source of all unity and a Super-Essential Essence, a Mind beyond the reach of mind and Word beyond utterance, Eluding Discourse, intuition, Name and every kind of being. It is the universal cause of existence while itself existing not for it is beyond all being and such that it alone could give, with proper understanding thereof, a revelation of itself.(52)

Notice that this appears to be where Tillich obtains his usage of the term “existence,” and the distinction that God does not exist. What is puzzling is that while Tillich says God is beyond existence, because existence is for contingent things, and God is Being itself, identifies God with Being, Dionysus says God is beyond being. But then he is a full blown neo-Platonist. For him being is just reality and that is a copy of the true nature of things in which it participates. Tillich seems to move one step over from neo-Platonism toward modern existentialism. Dionysus tells us that we must make no expression or positive statement about the Super-Essential Godhead except those revealed in scripture for these are actually revealed by God. He tells us that “many writers thou wilt find who have declared that it [Super-Essential Godhead] is not only invisible and incomprehensible but also unreachable and past finding out since there is no trace of any that have penetrated the depth of its infinitude.” God reveals “itself” in stages commensurate with the powers of the subject for understanding. The notion that God is so wholly other, so transcendent of understanding is right in line with Tillich’s view. It’s clear Dionysius is a major source for Tillich’s existential ontology.

Do you see now how this view just totally kicks in the head of any idea that I think there's this big man in the sky? In this view God does not have to create by sitting around and saying "I think I will make me a universe." He doesn't even have to be a planner or do any kind of ratiocination. In this view God could be a principle like the dialectic, the laws of physics, the unified field, or even evolution 'itself.' (what else but an "itself?"). But don't go thinking this destroys Christianity or that it is the least bit unorhtodox. Dionysus is at the center of Greek Orthodox world, he's as Orthodox as one can get. Nor does it eliminate the idea of a loving fatherly God who cares about you, the concept itself (see above) include the idea of God as conscious. In  fact it leaves us with the idea of mind as the basis of reality rather than energy or mater. Thus "God" would be the origin of the conscious. the planing and all that seems to connect God to the mind like that of a man can be understood as an instant or a second a nono second requiring no reflection. It is both deterministic and random it's both impersonal and the product of a consciousness. That makes "God" both loving and dispassionate. It also means sense because God transcends all our neat little categories. This is why the atheists can't determine or second guess what God would do. That would require understanding God and God is beyond our understanding.

God is not the man on a throne and the open boundless nature of the universe reflects God's unconditioned nature. While at the same time we can relate to God's love and accurately call God "father." The contingent nature of the universe reflects it's created nature and thus highlights God as the eternal necessary aspect of being.


Dionysius the Areopagite: on Divine names and the Mystical Theology, trans. Clearance Edwin Rolt , New York, New York: Cosmio 2007, from original 1920 publication.  see also online versionChristian Classics Ethereal Library, on line version, The Author and his Influence, trans by, 1920  website URL:  by
visited May 13,
[1] Ibid, Introduction, 4-5
[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, On Divine Names, Ibid 52
[1] Ibid, 53
[1] Ibid.

The two people who disagree about the monster agree about all the other animals. God, however, is not merely 'one more thing.' The person who believes in God and the person who does not believe in God do not merely disagree about God. They disagree about the very character of the universe. The believer is convinced that each and every thing exists because of God and God's creative activity. The unbeliever is convinced that natural objects exist 'on their own,' without any ultimate reason or purpose for being. In this situation there are no neutral 'safe' facts all parties are agreed on, with one party believing some additional 'risky facts.' Rather, each side puts forward a certain set of facts and denies its opponent's alleged facts. There is risk on both sides. (C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God, p.22)

See here for an expanded version of this argument with reference to Russell's 'celestial teapot.' This is similar to a point I made in a post a while back, on the question whether the theist bears the burden of defending the addition of 'metaphysical baggage' to our cosmic account:

I was thinking recently about why atheists so often refer to God as an 'unnecessary hypothesis'. Of course I can understand the intellectual appeal of such a rhetorical strategy, as it provides atheism with a rational foundation. My question was more how is it that they are able to use this strategy with such ease and assurance? It occured to me that it stems from a particular way that atheists (and many theists) construe the relationship between naturalism and theism, encapsulated in the title: theism is basically the same as naturalism, EXCEPT there's an extra being called God who intervenes in nature and ensures an afterlife and so on. On this view, God may do some metaphysical 'work' in the form of ensuring that the wrongs in this life will be righted in the next, or serving as the recipient of prayers and the focus of spirituality, but other than that it is assumed that naturalists have access to the same moral and intellectual resources as theists: naturalists can do good science, write up ethical theories and find life just as meaningful as the theist. When naturalism and theism are so construed, especially with the invocation of science as a source of explanations for why things are the way they are, it is only natural that theism should be seen to carry unnecessary metaphysical baggage in the form of the God hypothesis. When arguments are put forward for and against the existence of God, this view is tacitly assumed: God's ontological and explanatory status is judged based on the framework of just about everything else that we take for granted.

In a recent and provocative article (in the edited volume
How Successful is Naturalism?), however, philosopher Nancey Murphy persuasively argues that both theism and naturalism represent competing 'traditions' in the sense put forward by Alasdair MacIntyre: competing, complete accounts of the world and the human condition, often (though not always) based on the interpretation of certain privileged texts, and which must be judged not by the isolated deductive arguments for the reality of their ontological postulates, but by the extent to which they make the best sense of human experience as a whole, their progressiveness and their ability to overcome various epistemological crises which occur at various points in the development of each tradition. She gives several examples of theistic crises, including natural evil, divine action and the diversity of religions and also sketches two naturalistic crises: the persistence of religion despite its alleged refutation due to the pioneering efforts of Hume and the 'masters of suspicion', Freud, Marx and Nietzche, and naturalism's inability to ground a proper normative account of ethics.

There is not space here to evaluate her account of these crises, but I think it is extremely important to be clear exactly how to formulate the conflict between theism and naturalism. It is definitely NOT the case that theism simply carries an extra metaphysical burden, i.e. the 'God hypothesis', which it must defend with deductive arguments. Rather, both theism and naturalism try to offer integrated accounts of the origin of existence, human nature and morality and must be judged at the broader level of these accounts. Naturalists often assume that they have access to intellectual and moral resources which in fact they should really have to argue for rigorously (all too often in response to challenges to naturalism I hear the same lazy reply: "but why can't a naturalist simply assume X?" or "I see no reason why I should have to defend myself on this point").

C. Stephen Evans opens his new book, Natural Signs and the Knowledge of God, with a puzzle familiar to anyone who has read widely in natural theology and apologetics:

[A]rguments for God's existence are frequently criticized and declared to be conclusively refuted, yet the arguments continue to be presented. Some people, including well-trained, well-educated individuals-philosophers, scientists, and other intellectuals-find the arguments convincing. Many others, equally well-trained and well-educated, find them to be without merit. The arguments never seem to convince the critics. However, the refutations never seem to silence the proponents, who continue to refine and develop the arguments. (pp.1-2)
There are several conceivable explanations for this impasse. One is that either the proponents are simply blind to the deficiencies of the arguments, perhaps because of some ulterior, psychological need to believe in God, or the critics conversely are blind to the cogency of the arguments, perhaps because, as Thomas Nagel once admitted, "I don't want the Universe to be like that." Another is that this is simply the nature of philosophical arguments: I doubt there has ever been a knock-down proof of any substantial philosophical position in history.

Evans' purpose in his book is to offer a rather different explanation. He suggests that theistic arguments derive whatever force they have from the experience of what he calls 'natural signs' that point to God's reality. For example, behind the cosmological argument lies a widely experienced sensation of 'cosmic wonder' which tends to produce the belief that the world we see around us is merely contingent, and that beneath it must lie a deeper, more stable reality that is not contingent (more on this below). Theistic arguments, on this view, are attempts to reconstruct what is usually an immediate, intuitive perception as an inferential chain of reasoning. Even if these reconstructions fail to convince, however, there is still the experience of the natural sign itself that does not go away.

Interestingly, two of the foremost critics of theistic arguments have acknowledged this. David Hume is well known for his scathing critique of the analogical design arguments popular in his day, but perhaps less well known for concession that, despite his objections, the impression the world gives of intelligent design is very hard to shake. As Philo admits to Cleanthes in Part 10 of the Dialogues, "Formerly, when we argued concerning the natural attributes of intelligence and design, I needed all my skeptical and metaphysical subtlety to elude your grasp. In many views of the universe, and of its parts...the beauty and fitness of final causes strike us with such irresistible force, that all objections appear (what I believe they really are) mere cavils and sophisms; nor can we imagine how it was ever possible for us to repose any weight on them." Of course since this statement occurs in a dialogue between fictitious interlocutors, and none of them (not even Philo) represents Hume's view consistently, we should take this concession with a grain of salt. But in his introduction to the Natural History of Religion, Hume himself makes a similar statement. After noting that the two questions any inquiry into religion must face concern its foundation in human reason and human nature he suggests that "Happily, the first question, which is the most important, admits of the most obvious, at least, the clearest solution. The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational inquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion." Granted that what Hume means by 'genuine Theism' and 'Religion' may fall far short of full orthodox conviction, he nevertheless witnesses to the force of the impression of intelligent order in the world.

Immanuel Kant is also well known for his devastating criticisms of all theistic arguments based upon 'pure reason', including the design argument. However, as Evans points out, "What is remarkable is that in Kant's eyes the failure of the argument as a proof of God's existence by no means undermines the power and force of the design we observe in nature as legitimately leading us to belief in God." (p.23) Indeed, as Kant argues:

It would therefore not only be uncomforting but utterly vain to attempt to diminish in any way the authority of this argument. Reason, constantly upheld by this ever-increasing evidence, which, though empirical, is yet so powerful, cannot be so depressed through doubts suggested by subtle and abstruse speculation, that it is not at once aroused from the indecision of all melancholy reflection, as from a dream, by one glance at the wonders of nature and the majesty of the universe-ascending from height to height up to the all-highest, from the conditioned to its conditions, up to the supreme and unconditioned Author. (quoted p.23)

Although Evans does not discuss him, we can actually add a third unlikely witness: Charles Darwin, the very man reputed to have once and for all eliminated the need for an intelligent designer to explain biological adaptation. Certainly Darwin realized, as his critics did, that his theory of natural selection refuted Paley's design argument. His gradual transition from an unreflective theist with firm belief in both the design argument and the authority of the Bible to a skeptic and finally an agnostic is also well known. Despite his skepticism, however, he too could never shake completely the impression that, as Hume put it, the whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author. For example, in a well-known letter to Asa Gray, he wrote that "I had no intention to write atheistically...I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force." In his autobiography he refers to "the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wondrous universe, including man with his capacity of looking backwards and far into futurity, as a result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist." (Quoted from Dennis Lamoureux, Theological Insights from Charles Darwin) Of course, as in the case of Hume, we must not press these statements too far. The problem of evil was a terrible dilemma for Darwin, he doubted whether the mind could be trusted when it came to such conclusions (concerning intelligent design) and admitted that his views fluctuated over the course of the years and that he should better be described as an agnostic. But it is still noteworthy that Darwin admits he 'feels compelled' to posit a First Cause to explain the universe. It suggests that Evans may be on to something with his distinction between theistic arguments and the natural signs they derive from.

Evans presents his explanation of the success (or otherwise) of theistic arguments within the context of the more ambitious goal of presenting a new framework for natural theology. He briefly argues for the religious legitimacy of natural theology despite concerns that it doesn't provide saving knowledge of God and does not provide grounds for total commitment, as special revelation does. At the very least, Evans suggests, natural theology can undermine the givenness of atheistic naturalism and make robust supernaturalism a 'live option' in our intellectual context. Taking his cues from Reformed epistemology, however, he also wants to understand how a person might come to knowledge of God without access to highly sophisticated philosophical arguments and without relying entirely on propositional evidence. He suggests that ordinary people may become aware of the reality of God on the basis of their experience of natural signs that point to God's existence, such as cosmic wonder, the impression of benevolent, intelligent order in the world, the experience of moral obligation or their awareness of the inherent worth and dignity of human persons, without understanding or even being aware of the cosmological, teleological and moral arguments debated in philosophical circles. Even for people who can understand the arguments and find them only weakly persuasive or even flawed, these signs may properly undergird continued belief in God and are good evidence, albeit of a non-propositional kind, for His existence (conversely, those who find that the current intellectual context undermines the persuasiveness of the natural signs may be reassured by the existence of more rigorous, reflective arguments to shore up their faith).

However, Evans also recognizes that these natural signs are not universally compelling, and can be undermined in a variety of ways:

Signs have to be perceived, and once perceived must be 'read.' Some signs are harder to read than others, or, one might say, easier to interpret in alternative ways, even if not all of the possible interpretations are equally plausible. The natural signs that point to God's reality are signs that can be interpreted in more than one way and thus are sometimes misread and sometimes not even perceived as signs. They point to God but do not do so in a coercive manner. To function properly as pointers, they must be interpreted properly. (p.2)
But according to Evans, this situation is exactly what we should expect of the Christian God, if He exists. He proposes a pair of 'Pascalian constraints' on the evidence we should expect to find of God. The first is what he calls the 'wide accessibility' principle: if God desires a personal relationship with His creatures, presumably evidence of His reality would be readily available, even to people without philosophical training. This is consistent with St. Paul's claim that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them." (Romans 1:19) In counterpoint, however, Evans proposes the 'easy resistibility' principle: God doesn't want His existence to be overwhelmingly obvious, because He wants people to be free to either respond in love or reject Him. Both principles are evident in Pascal's famous remark:

If he had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence...It was therefore not right that he should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him. He wished to make himself perfectly recognizable to them. Thus wishing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart and hidden from those who sun him with all their heart, he has qualified our knowledge of him by giving signs which can be seen by those who seek him and not by those who do not. There is enough light for those who desire only to see and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition. (Quoted p.16)
Surprisingly, Evans derives further support for the reasonableness of these Pascalian constraints from arch-skeptic John Schellenberg, who agrees that the Christian God (or at least a generically loving, personal God) would supply evidence within these parameters. Schellenberg argues that the evidence should be much more widely available and much less easily resistible, but Evans argues against these more stringent constraints (pp.160-169)

To understand Evans' argument we need to understand what he means by the term 'natural sign', which derives from philosopher Thomas Reid's theory of perception. Reid was an opponent of representationalism in philosophy of mind, according to which we do not have epistemic access to external objects, but only representations of them in our mind. Such a position can all too easily lead to radical skepticism about the external world. Instead, Reid suggested that perception puts us directly in touch with objects in the external world, and natural signs are sensations or states of affairs that put us in touch with them. That is, natural signs point beyond themselves to the reality they signify. In order for a sensation or state of affairs to be a natural sign, it must have an appropriate causal link with the reality it signifies and produce, or at least tend to be produce, belief in that reality. This process is not inferential: we do not observe the sensation and then infer that there is an object present. The process is psychologically immediate. For example, the sensation of hardness we feel when we touch a solid object makes us believe that we are touching that object. We do not say, 'Hmm, I'm experiencing a sensation of hardness, so I must be touching the object': the sensation and our awareness of the object it puts us in touch with, are inseparable. As an example of a state of affairs which is a natural sign, Evans suggests our awareness of other's emotions when we 'read' their faces. Again, we do not say to ourselves, 'Hmm, that person's eyebrows have been twitching with higher frequency and there is a tinge of red in his cheeks, so he must be flustered.' The move from observing a person's facial features to a conviction about their emotional state is immediate.

Not all natural signs are equally persuasive, however. Some, like the sensation of hardness, are for all practical purposes indubitable. Others, however, like facial gestures, are dependent for their persuasiveness on experience and background knowledge. We may suspect that someone is trying to trick us, for example, and thus will have a defeater for our perception of that person's emotional state (it is interesting, however, that even when we know that someone is acting, we allow ourselves to react emotionally to their character). So perception is not infallible, but we are hardwired to accept as undeniable at least some natural signs; otherwise we would be forced into radical skepticism about the external world.

Although generally we are aware, not of the signs, but the thing they signify, we sometimes focus attention on the signs themselves and attempt to reconstruct the connection between the sign and the thing it signifies in propositional form. This is what happens with theistic arguments: although a person can become aware of the reality of God through the signs directly, by focusing on the signs themselves philosophers can construct inferential arguments that posit God as the best explanation for the existence of the natural sign. Even if these arguments fail, the sign itself still creates a belief, or at least the tendency to form a belief, in the reality of God.

This view is compatible, both with the fact that many people do not believe in God, and that they have widely varying beliefs about God. The persuasiveness of theistic natural signs, unlike the sensation of hardness, is highly variable and dependent, among other things, on upbringing and education. And merely being aware of the reality of something does not guarantee that we form the right beliefs about it. Evans gives the example of seeing your sister cross the street in the fog, and thinking that it's the neighbor you're seeing. The natural sign of her movements puts you in touch with her reality, even though you are not consciously aware of her.

With this framework in place, Evans proceeds to discuss the cosmological, teleological and moral theistic arguments, in order to assess their strengths and weaknesses and discern what natural sign might lie behind their appeal. As I mentioned above, the cosmological argument refers to what Evans calls 'cosmic wonder': "Not only is it the case that I might never have existed; my parents and friends might never had existed...In the end it may strike one as odd that there should be a universe at all, a world with objects, all of which possess the property of 'might-never-have-been-ness.'" This perception of the world's contingency "is closely linked to the contrasting notion of something that lacks this character, something whose existence is in some way impervious to non-existence...implicit in our experience of cosmic wonder, in which we perceive the world as contingent, is a grasp of the idea that there could be a different manner of existing, a reality that has a deeper and firmer grip on existence that the things we see around us." (pp.62-63) As evidence of the 'wide accessibility' of cosmic wonder Evans cites ancient origin stories, which presuppose people's awareness that the world around them required explanation, as well as confessions by unbelievers such as J.J.C. Smart and Albert Camus, who felt the force of cosmic wonder even if they could not go all the way to belief in God.

Evans discusses the different argument in this order (cosmological, teleological, then moral) because they give us progressively more information about the nature and character of God. Cosmic wonder is a necessarily vague impression of a necessary being, while the natural sign behind the teleological argument, the experience of beneficial order, tells us that this being is an agent with purposes. Finally, the natural signs behind the moral argument, the experience of moral obligation and the perception of persons as having an inherent dignity and worth, tell us that this intelligent being cares about us and what we do.

Given this framework, then, it would seem that we can acquire a significant amount of 'natural' knowledge of God, apart from special revelation. But how can we be sure that our experience of these signs is not just an illusion? Hume was well aware of this worry. In a letter concerning the Dialogues to his friend Gilbert Elliot, he wrote, "The Propensity of the Mind towards [the conclusion of intelligent design], unless that Propensity were as strong and universal as that to believe in our Senses and Experience, will still, I am afraid, be esteem'd a suspicious Foundation...We must endeavor to prove that this Propensity is somewhat different from our Inclination to find our own Figures in the Clouds, our Face in the Moon, our Passions and Sentiments even in inanimate matter. Such an Inclination may, and ought to be controul'd, and can never be a legitimate Ground of Assent." (Hume's Writings on Religion, p.26) The modern cognitive science of religion could possibly justify this worry, by demonstrating that the cognitive faculties which produce religious beliefs are evolutionary by-products of other, survival-conducive cognitive faculties, and thus are no more reliable than our tendency to see faces in the clouds. But Evans argues that this conclusion is unwarranted: our capacity for higher mathematics, for example, was surely not directly survival-conducive, but instead piggy-backed on other, more basic cognitive capacities. Clearly, evolutionary by-products can be quite reliable in putting us in touch with reality. Furthermore, as Christians we should expect humans to have an innate awareness of God, and cognitive science research confirms that belief in God or gods is not merely or even primarily the result of social influence, as atheists want to believe, but the result of cognitive processes that manifest themselves even in very young children, before they receive any instruction from parents or community (see pp.38-42, 155-157)

I particularly appreciate Evans' discussion of the relevance of evolutionary theory for the design intuition and argument. He suggests that evolutionary theory only undermines the perception of beneficial order if we have good reason to think that God would not use evolution as His method of creation. He argues very eloquently, and I am inclined to agree, that a God as powerful and patient as the Christian God might very well choose to create by an evolutionary process: "If God is eternal or everlasting, it is not clear what it would mean to say that it is 'inefficient' for God to employ a process lasting millions of years...Even if God does place a special value on humans, there is no reason he cannot regard the whole process as one that has intrinsic value, a grand show in which he takes delight. God may relish each and every species that passes on the scene of natural history, or even every individual." (pp.91-92) I think that describing the natural order as 'beneficial' rather than 'intelligent' (even though the latter is implied by the former) helps circumvent the worry that evolution renders God superfluous as an explanation for the ordering of the natural world. Regardless of the mechanism that produces the ordering, it seems clear that the natural world is so ordered as to produce states of affairs of inherent value, including the emergence of rational, self-aware, valuing beings who can respond and give praise to God. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to perceive or infer the reality of a Creator and Orderer who aimed to produce those valuable things.

As long as this post has been, I have barely scratched the surface of Evans' insightful argument. In barely 200 pages he provides an accurate summary assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the major theistic arguments, identifies the natural signs that they refer to, and proposes a new framework for natural theology that is authentically Christian and intellectually robust. It is accessible enough for the nonspecialist, but even those who have been studying these issues for a long time will gain many new insights. Without exaggerating, I think that this book is the most important current discussion of natural theology, and should form the basis for all subsequent work in the field.

It's pretty normal nowadays for revisionist historians and commentators, when promoting the "lost texts" of early Christianity, to lambaste Imperial Rome for imposing a canon-from-above, and for outright destroying competitive texts, in a bid to force compliance with Imperial ideas of orthodoxy.

This is almost hilarious as a claim throughout most of the 4th century (300s CE), since the ruling elite during most of that time were one or another kind of Arian, not of the "Orthodox" party. (Arians believed either that Christ was a lesser created deity taking human form, or more popularly that Jesus was a totally human hero promoted up by God the Father to deity status. Not unlike typical claims for previously pagan Emperors, by the way.) Still, the fact of the matter is that there were indeed document purges in the Roman Empire during the Christian history (including the trinitarian Christian history) of the Western and Eastern Empire. So it isn't unreasonable, at first glance, to infer that canonical text lists were therefore necessarily a result of Christian clergy bowing, at least eventually, to Imperial pressure (whatever the reasons for that pressure might be).

However, Penn State University professor, historian and author, Dr. Philip Jenkins, demonstrates in The Lost History of Christianity that there is also major evidence against this view, by a comparison with the history of Asian Christianity. These vast trinitarian denominations (as we would call them today) existed in complete political independence of even Eastern (much less Western) Roman Imperial power. Indeed, they migrated east into the Persian Empire originally in protest against what they saw as Roman Imperial heresy.

This was the massive Nestorian Church of the East (and to a lesser extent the Jacobite Church). Despite heavy denunciations from both sides, the Nestorian Church and the Roman Imperial Church (East and West) were just about identical in their acceptance and promotion of trinitarian theism. (In hindsight, it's clear enough that Nestorius was not advocating what became known as the Nestorian heresy, schisming between the two natures of Christ; he even declared himself vindicated by Pope Leo's advocation of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, and went to his grave lamenting that he was being unfairly slandered and libeled by his enemies. Dr. Jenkins' companion piece, Jesus Wars, is an excellent readable resource tracing the history of the Christological struggles from the fourth through eighth centuries. The late Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov provides a more technical in-depth look at these controversies in the first part of his work on Christology The Lamb of God, vindicating Nestorius again along the way.)

So the basic theology was, in principle and practice, effectively identical--rhetorical flaming against each other notwithstanding. (The Church of the East believed the Catholic/Orthodox party was lapsing into the heresy of Monophysitism. This doubtless confused any Ethiopian or Coptic theologians of the time who heard about it, since they were busily denouncing the Orthodox party for heaving into Nestorianism! Behold the internet flamewars of the ancient era... {wry g})

What wasn't identical, was that the CotE existed as a tolerated minority under vast empires separate from the Roman regimes. They rarely even distantly approached having the political power of the two Romes (Rome in the west, and Constantinople or the New Rome in the east). Moreover, their style of mysticism and asceticism (despite their roots in the historical-cultural Biblical hermeneutic of the Antioch school) was very similar to surviving evidence of Gnostic theology in the West. Indeed, whereas in the west Saints Peter and Paul were considered the examples to follow, the East venerated lesser known apostles such as Simon the Zealot and (most notably for our present purpose) Thomas Didymus as the Evangelist of India. Beyond this, the CotE had a protracted history of working hard at cooperating with rival religious interests in their area, including the newly arising Muslims, the Manichees, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists and lesser-known central Asian pagans (such as the Mongols and Huns). And they certainly knew about extra-canonical texts, which they preserved as historical relics.

Even with all these factors, though, the Church of the East (the largest surviving fragment of which is today known as the Syrian Orthodox) accepted and propagated no more than the same standard canonical group propagated by Rome. (Plus, at some times and in some regions, Tatian's Diatessaron, which in itself was a late 2nd century Syrian harmonization of the same four canonical Gospels--with a few alternate references available at the time for flavor.) Indeed, insofar as their canon significantly differed, it did so by rejecting the least-well attested in the list: 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and the Revelation to John.

So they had the political freedom to create an alternate canon, and acted significantly on that freedom; and they had a long history of syncretic work with other Eastern religions; and they certainly knew about, and even preserved, alternate texts which, in their flavor, far more closely approached the type of mysticism they loved than did the canonical lists.

And yet, they still went with the same canonical documents. Not even including the so-called Gospel of Thomas. Why? For the same reasons the Imperial theologians gave: they knew that those were the widest used texts with the best-attested ancient history, and also because the texts agreed with one another theologically. Other texts were not so clearly attested in use back through Christian history.

In other words, both sides had a clear criteria of distinction about the dating and spread of texts, which they appealed to as a reason to accept some texts as genuine and others as lately invented: a criteria going back to the same second century when some few scholars want to place the composition of practically all canonical texts. True, there was also a criteria of similar theology; but that criteria wasn't enough to allow the widespread (and eventually final) inclusion of many texts that were deemed entirely orthodox in their theology. The Church of the East even took that set of criteria more stringently than did the Catholic/Orthodox church, by rejecting several texts accepted in the West (and still accepted today by most Christians--myself included, by the way) as genuine.

In case you were wondering, the Ethiopian and Coptic "monophysite" trinitarian churches, who also held a highly esoteric mystical tradition, and who actually were oppressed by Chalcedonian Imperial power (sometimes brutally so), and who featured (and still feature today) a history of defying such oppression with all tools at their disposal, still accepted, and still accept, the same canon list as genuine.

The theory of a set of canon being "oppressed" into existence from Imperial power, and for Imperial reasons, consequently does not match the existent evidence, once the focus widens out to a larger scope of Christian history. Put another way, all the sides accepted more-or-less the same texts that the Christian church valued most during the opening centuries of its own occasional oppression (including book-destroying oppression) by pagan Imperial authority. As the late textual critic and canon historian Bruce Metzger liked to quip: when the soldiers come to your door demanding you hand over your Christian texts, it makes a difference whether you hand them GosThom or GosJohn. The gospel "According to John" was worth the risk of dying for. GosThom, not so much.

(Lost Histories, pp87-88) The Syriac Bible was a conservative text, to a degree that demands our attention. In recent years, accounts of the early church claim that scriptures and gospels were very numerous, until the mainstream Christian church suppressed most of them in the fourth century. This alleged purge followed the Christian conversion of the emperor Constantine, at a time when the church supposedly wanted to ally with the empire in the interests of promoting order, orthodoxy, and ecclesiastical authority. According to modern legend, the suppressed works included many heterodox accounts of Jesus, which were suspect because of their mystical or even feminist learnings.

The problem with all this is that the Eastern churches had a long familiarity with the rival scriptures, but rejected them because they knew they were late and tendentious. Even as early as the second century, the Diatessaron assumes four, and only four, authentic Gospels. Throughout the Middle Ages [i.e. for more than a thousand years after Constantine's conversion], neither Nestorians nor Jacobites were under any coercion from the Roman/Byzantine Empire or church, and had they wished, they could have included in the canon any alternative Gospels or scriptures they wanted to. But instead of adding to the canon, they chose to prune. [...] The only extraneous text that a few authorities wished to include was the Diatessaron itself. The deep conservatism of these churches, so far removed from papal or imperial control, makes nonsense of claims that the church bureaucracy allied with empire to suppress unpleasant truths about Christian origins. Although they did not include them in the canon of scripture, all the Eastern churches knew many ancient Christian texts, including apocryphal Gospels and apocalypses, and many [of their] scholars quote from now-lost patristic texts and commentaries.

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