Ktismatics

8 February 2007

Reading the Book of Nature

Filed under: Christianity, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 5:31 pm

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:17-20)

The gist is this: if you pay attention to the Creation you will learn about God, because the Creation reveals what God is like. Presumably you don’t even have to become a scientist to learn, because this God-knowledge is clearly seen. Neither do you have to become a Christian to learn, because the knowledge is already evident even to the ungodly.

So the question is this: Does everything in the Creation reveal God’s divine nature? Everyone can see what the natural world is like: there is beauty and bounty and birth, but there is also violence and indifference and death. There are also plenty of features in nature that just seem sort of neutral and impersonal and random. Is God like all these things? Or does God instill in everyone the ability to distinguish those features of nature that are like Him from those that aren’t?

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14 Comments »

  1. Who says that violence, indifference and death do not belong, in some strange, analogical way, to the nature of God???

    Just throwing that one out there…

    Personally, I don’t feel that everything needs to be reflect the Creator. It may, or it may not. I think Romans 1 is simply saying that if we see clearly then we can see some things about God in some of the things we encounter in nature.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 8 February 2007 @ 7:29 pm

  2. That sounds sensible to me. If I write a novel that contains a murderer and a description of the Andes Mountains, does it mean I too am murderous and mountainous?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 8 February 2007 @ 8:38 pm

  3. Jonathan — A Further thought on your comment. I think the Eastern tradition has been more all-inclusive in attributing attributes to God. Creation/destruction, multiplicity/unity, passion/indifference, peace/violence — all are aspects of the Godhead. Maybe your buddy Qoheleth subscribes to this viewpoint.

    If, on the other hand, you have to say that this feature of nature reflects God whereas that feature does not, then you have to bring a priori criteria for discernment to your observations of nature. I think that’s part of the Christian view of the sensus divinitatus. The idea of ascribing all so-called negative features of nature to the Fall seems to be heaping a mighty big burden on sinners. Can’t nature be amoral?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 9 February 2007 @ 7:02 am

  4. What do you mean by “nature”? (As you use it in the last two sentences.)

    With Calvin, of course, there was no problem bringing a priori criteria for discernment. This would, of course, be the Scriptures.

    Those who subscribe to SD would have various levels of confidence in it: SD can lead us to knowledge of God, SD can’t lead us to knowledge of God b/c we are sinners and SD is warped, SD, itself, is too warped to give us anything really substantial, etc., etc. I’m not quite sure where Calvin would fall. Aquinas? He seems to subscribe to some version of SD – perhaps he has more confidence in SD. This would be more consistent with his natural theology and compliments his “ways” quite nicely, I believe.

    Where do I stand?

    Well, thanks for asking.

    I tend to not impose a one-size-fits-all garment on all people. I think SD is there, but the degree to which people sense God varies widely. Furthermore, SD can be explained away on naturalistic or psychological grounds.

    I interpret Romans 1 in a very general sense: That human kind has a knowledge of God available through SD, but that as a general rule they prefer to reject this and absorb themselves in that which is:
    – consistent with their cultural/sociological group
    – suitable to their own individual desires
    – that which is easy
    – that to which they are inclined

    The inclination of the human heart is towards that which is evil. “Evil” encompassing a very broad range of activities and inclinations from the very grotesque (child abuse, etc.) to that which we would almost consider amoral (psychological abnormalities).

    Of course, that introduces the need for some sort of healing or repair of our spiritual, cognitive, and psychological faculties, which brings us to the Holy Spirit – an integral part of the theological development….

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 9 February 2007 @ 2:01 pm

  5. Thanks for the thorough exposition, both of SD generally and of your personal views.

    I refer to nature because I assume that in Romans 1 Paul speaks of the Creation in the traditional sense: the material universe. Again, it seems to me that Romans 1 talks about being able to discern God’s character specifically through looking at the Creation; i.e., nature. Is sensus divinitatus necessary to distinguish those aspects of nature that reveal God’s character from those that don’t? So, for example, suppose by studying nature you conclude that massive bodies pull things toward themselves. Do you infer something about God’s character from the way gravity works? Then Einstein comes along and says gravity results from the curvature of the space-time continuum around massive bodies: does that reveal even more about God’s character?

    I suppose the alternative is that Paul wasn’t being so all-inclusive about nature. Maybe he was talking especially about that aspect of the Creation that God specifically said reflected his image and likeness. Maybe Paul is saying that people can see evidence of God’s character within and among themselves.

    The S.D. idea is consistent with evolutionary psychology. Little kids tend to attribute causality to everything. Perhaps it’s an artifact of the way humans learn from one another: I assume that the other has motivations and intentions similar to my own, so that by watching the other I can learn things that are relevant to myself. If a kid sees a rock rolling down a hill he will assume somebody pushed it, because it’s adaptive for the kid to assume that effects have causes which he might be able to emulate. If the kid can see no obvious pusher of the rock he might assume either that the rock felt like moving itself or that some invisible being pushed it. Hence the “god instinct” as an evolved source of a sensus divinitatus.

    Your interpretation sounds pretty straight-ahead Reformed theology. I’m curious that you regard “psychological abnormalities” as in some way evil. Do you include things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, say, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or schizophrenia? Or are you talking about abnormalities that seem to have a moral component to them: kleptomania, homosexuality, masochism? How about mood disorders: depression, mania, anxiety?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 10 February 2007 @ 12:13 am

  6. Is sensus divinitatus necessary to distinguish those aspects of nature that reveal God’s character from those that don’t? So, for example, suppose by studying nature you conclude that massive bodies pull things toward themselves. Do you infer something about God’s character from the way gravity works? Then Einstein comes along and says gravity results from the curvature of the space-time continuum around massive bodies: does that reveal even more about God’s character?

    I think it might help to discuss the difference in the worldviews of the ancient mind versus the worldviews of the contemporary 21st century wo/man. In a very general sense the ancient did not draw much of a distinction between the secular/sacred or between supernatural/natural. I’m not asserting that there was no distinction, but simply that the ancient cosmology did not draw as sharp a dichotomy as we tend to do today.

    So, when we approach Romans 1 our worldview and mindset is immediately intrigued as to the grounds for Paul connecting the natural to the supernatural. Paul leaves us somewhat dissapointed in this area b/c he simply makes the connection and does not explain how he connected the two. He simply says that we can know of both the Deity of God and of the eternality of his power, and that these things are clearly evident from what God has made. For you and I this is a debatable point. We want to know exactly what we can know of God and exactly how we have inferred it from the creation. That’s how we have been trained, philosophically to think. Very modern, in this sense. The cause-effect mindset is a staple of modern science and a center piece of enlightenment debates (i.e. Hume and the great father of them all Kant). However, was Paul’s point in v. 19-20 really a contestable point in ancient cosmology? I don’t know that I have a definitive answer to that question, but my hunch is that most ancients would agree that knowledge of god(s) was evident from the created order. The debate would more likely center on who that god(s) was and what was expected of human kind. But notice Paul keeps it vague in chapters 1 and 2 and only speaks of a general culpability based on a general knowledge that God is powerful and holds us morally accountable. Hence, in chapter 2 the “Gentiles” will be judged based upon “conscience”. Even though they do not have the Law (capital “L”) they show that they have moral consciousness and that they will be judged on how they respond to the knowledge that they have. From here Paul transitions into the specifically Jewish question of faith/works, etc. and builds his case for salvation by faith. Romans 1-2 was just some foundational groundwork.

    My point, then, is that Paul’s concern is not to specifically address the natural/supernatural connection, but simply to state that it is there. We know about God through the creation, and we have a moral sense that holds us culpable to that God regardless of whether we have Law (or, by implication, some form of written revelation). But Paul doesn’t make an effort to close the gap between creation/Creator or to explain how we “know” our Creator.

    Natural Theology has developed logical and rational arguments to close the gap. We infer the Creator from the creation. SD is a bit more broad and general and closes the gap by simply saying that the knowledge of God through creation is “triggered” as we simply move about the world and encounter various aspects of the creation. We are a part of the creation and we are wired in such a way that we sense the Creator. I think SD is probably closer to what Paul had in mind. I think SD is closer to mirroring the ancient philosophy of the cosmos that Paul would have been working under. But there is big debate on this issue.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 10 February 2007 @ 4:03 pm

  7. The S.D. idea is consistent with evolutionary psychology. Little kids tend to attribute causality to everything. Perhaps it’s an artifact of the way humans learn from one another: I assume that the other has motivations and intentions similar to my own, so that by watching the other I can learn things that are relevant to myself. If a kid sees a rock rolling down a hill he will assume somebody pushed it, because it’s adaptive for the kid to assume that effects have causes which he might be able to emulate. If the kid can see no obvious pusher of the rock he might assume either that the rock felt like moving itself or that some invisible being pushed it. Hence the “god instinct” as an evolved source of a sensus divinitatus.

    These are fascinating observations. Two thoughts.

    1) It is interesting that cause-effect is how normal human beings cognitively operate. That is, we don’t seek to prove cause-effect, nor are we obsessed with establishing the philosophic foundations for it (as Hume/Kant were), but rather we simply take it as a given and go from there. Plantinga’s Externalist Warrant Epistemology might label this a “properly basic” belief. That is, we have warrant (not justification) for operating upon the cause-effect belief not because we are justified (in an Internalist fashion), but simply because we are designed in such a way (by Creator or Evolution, though Plantinga would prefer the former!).

    2) I’m not sure how SD could tie together with a naturalistic approach. SD is a sense of the divine, if there is really no divine, then our “sense” would have to be directed at or through something else. Maybe I miss your point?

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 10 February 2007 @ 4:09 pm

  8. Your interpretation sounds pretty straight-ahead Reformed theology. I’m curious that you regard “psychological abnormalities” as in some way evil. Do you include things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, say, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or schizophrenia? Or are you talking about abnormalities that seem to have a moral component to them: kleptomania, homosexuality, masochism? How about mood disorders: depression, mania, anxiety?

    Well, by “evil” I guess I mean both moral and amoral senses of the word. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of “evil” as being things that happen to you that are rather disturbing or unfortunate. Similar to how we use the term “bad.” It may be “bad” that my bosses car didn’t start because it was so cold, but it was certainly not an immoral state of affairs.

    But in reading my post I think what I am trying to do is blur the lines between moral and amoral. To say that the general state of affairs is evil. That is that the state of sin in our world produces depressions that can envelope a person in darkness. This is not to say that a depressive person is less “good” than a non-depressive person, nor is it to say that a depressive person cannot accomplish good that comes through and as a result of the depression (crf. Abraham Lincoln). It is simply to say that certain depressive states may open us up to certain spiritual vulnerabilities, and create certain moral crisis.

    What I want to stay away from is drawing a sharp dichotomy between the “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” or between the “moral” and the “amoral.” There is too much overlap and interplay between the two to make a clear distinction. This, I think, would be more true to the spirit of the calvinistic doctrine of “total depravity”, although I don’t know that my calvinistic friends would appreciate me blurring the lines between moral and amoral. They tend to prefer black and white theology.

    Those subject to psychological challenges of oc, anxiety, depression, homosexuality, etc. are opened up to completely different challenges. Everyone faces certain challenges distinctive only to them. I believe God holds us culpable not so much for the “evil” state of affairs we find ourselves in, but with how we respond. Again, I think this is a Romans 1-2 line of thinking.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 10 February 2007 @ 5:44 pm

  9. There’s a sort of convergence between natural theology on the one hand and evolutionary psychology on the other. I mentioned one idea: that humans are genetically predisposed to attribute causality to natural events. Evolutionarily it would have been adaptive to pay attention to other people’s intentional acts in order to learn useful skills from them. A very interesting article by Paul Bloom presents some empirical findings and interpretations. It’s long but I think well worth the effort. Part V of Bloom’s article is entitled “We’ve Evolved to Be Creationists.” Belief in god is natural, just like Paul says.

    Presumably humans are genetically predisposed to think of certain aspects of the environment as “good.” Humans evolved on the savannah and so are adapted particularly well to that environment. Therefore you might expect that people who are naturally attracted to that kind of environment would have been more likely to survive than, say, people who are attracted to the desert or the high mountains. People who felt the lure of these less hospitable places would be more likely to die, and so the “love the desert” gene would die out with them. Human eyesight is adapted to daylight conditions and their most lethal predators tend to be nocturnal, so you’d expect that little kids who loved the darkness might have been more likely to be eaten than kids who were afraid of darkness. Hence, light is “good,” darkness is “bad.” Certain features of the environment are more supportive of human survival than others: streams, fields, greenery, fruit trees, etc. People who carry a gene that causes them to be naturally attracted to those features would be more likely to survive. Other things it pays to avoid — excessive heat or cold, snakes, spiders, the open sea, lions — and so the gene that induces fear of these things would be adaptive and would perpetuate itself through increased survival rates.

    So this is partly why I wonder whether, in Romans 1, Paul thinks that the entirety of the natural world reflects the nature of God, or just those features to which we are particularly well adapted. Perhaps the naturally compatible features of the environment, the ones to which we are attracted, we tend to associate with God’s lovingkindness. Whereas the incompatible features, the ones of which we are frightened, we associate with God’s wrath and power and otherness.

    More later on other issues you’ve addressed.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 11 February 2007 @ 1:22 pm

  10. I think it might help to discuss the difference in the worldviews of the ancient mind versus the worldviews of the contemporary 21st century wo/man. In a very general sense the ancient did not draw much of a distinction between the secular/sacred or between supernatural/natural. I’m not asserting that there was no distinction, but simply that the ancient cosmology did not draw as sharp a dichotomy as we tend to do today.

    This is why I’ve been looking at Aquinas and Owen Barfield in recent posts. Barfield tries to characterize the ways in which the ancients saw the connection between the natural and the supernatural. Paul’s comment in Romans 1 seems to reflect a Greek sensibility; Aquinas too, in a more formal theological way. But there were other ways. In particular, I’m not so sure that the Hebrews bought into the notion that the Creation “participated” the Creator. The Hebrews certainly weren’t animists. God’s presence in their midst wasn’t particularly mystical: He would show up at specific places and times, rather than being always generally there interpenetrating the world. So I wonder whether Paul’s real-reflects-ideal interpretation of the Creation here reflects the Jewish-Greek syncretism that characterizes so much of the New Testament.

    Don’t get me wrong: this new idealism may have been God’s new revelation in Christ. Or it might have been a cultural artifact of living in the Greco-Roman world. Or both.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 11 February 2007 @ 2:41 pm

  11. Well, by “evil” I guess I mean both moral and amoral senses of the word. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of “evil” as being things that happen to you that are rather disturbing or unfortunate. Similar to how we use the term “bad.”

    Yeah, I think happy is better than unhappy, peaceful than anxious, and so on. Sometimes the world imposes itself on you in unpleasant ways; sometimes you have to go out and confront the world knowing that you’ll have to set aside some of your more pleasant emotions in pursuit of a greater gain. And perhaps some people’s neurochemicals aren’t optimal, either temporarily or chronically, regardless of circumstances. You do get a feeling from the NT that, since the fruit of the Spirit is joy and peace, then the unhappy and anxious person
    might be regarded with spiritual suspicion. But that’s a whole nother topic.

    Those subject to psychological challenges of oc, anxiety, depression, homosexuality, etc. are opened up to completely different challenges. Everyone faces certain challenges distinctive only to them. I believe God holds us culpable not so much for the “evil” state of affairs we find ourselves in, but with how we respond. Again, I think this is a Romans 1-2 line of thinking.

    That sounds reasonable.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 11 February 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  12. Ktismatics
    So I wonder whether Paul’s real-reflects-ideal interpretation of the Creation here reflects the Jewish-Greek syncretism that characterizes so much of the New Testament.

    I’m not 100% convinced that Romans 1 is a Platonic or Greek notion. I don’t know that Paul is doing a real-reflects-ideal thing. Especially if SD or something like it is true. In the case of SD you have knowledge of God triggered by interaction with nature so that one has a sense of God. Natural theology is more into a real-reflects-ideal scenario, but SD does not require that the creation mirror the creator or that it reflect the Creator in any way, at least as far as I can see….

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 14 February 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  13. K:
    You do get a feeling from the NT that, since the fruit of the Spirit is joy and peace, then the unhappy and anxious person
    might be regarded with spiritual suspicion. But that’s a whole nother topic.

    Yes, you do. However, scholars have speculated (rightly, I think) that Paul probably suffered periods of depression during his ministry. So, I don’t know that one can say that a Christian must be happy all of the time.

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    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 15 February 2007 @ 12:19 am

  14. Jonathan – As best I can tell, Calvin regards sensus divinitatus as nearly self-evident: We lay it down as a position not to be controverted, that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of a Deity (Rom. 1:20)… Now, since there has never been a country or family, from the beginning of the world, totally destitute of religion, it is a tacit confession, that some sense of the Divinity is inscribed in every heart. (Institutes, I.ii.). There doesn’t seem to be much to Calvin’s position beyond a restatement of Romans 1:20, an unquestionable premise from which other deductions can be drawn but that cannot itself be deduced from prior premises, and an empirical observation about the universality of belief in god. Not particularly persuasive, unless you already believe.

    I don’t think Romans 1 is any more Greek than the New Testament generally. The basic premises of the Word made flesh, the Eternal represented in the temporal, the world and the kingdom, the old man and the new man, etc. — if this religious sensibility isn’t derived directly from Greek thinking, at least it’s a lot more compatible with it than is the Old Testament.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 15 February 2007 @ 2:10 pm


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