Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part One)?

Something has been bothering me for years, and I am obsessed with getting clear on it: why does living in modern culture rob us of a sense of God’s presence? When Paul spoke to the Athenians he could assume that they shared his vivid sense of a divine presence in human life and in nature. He was sure that they would agree with the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Epimenides whom he quoted: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). For the Athenians and nearly all the ancients it seemed obvious that nature was moved and ordered and directed by the divine spirit and mind. Why isn’t it obvious for us? Perhaps there are many reasons, but I want to focus on one: the impact of the model of reality generated by early modern science.

Modern science began in the early seventeenth century with Francis Bacon’s and Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy of science, especially their exclusion of formal and final causality from the study of nature. A formal cause is the design plan or blue print that makes a thing what it is as opposed to something else. It is the unifying center of a thing that integrates all its components into one whole. It is the foundation of its properties. Clearly a design plan is not a physical thing and does not exercise causality in a physical way. It can be comprehended only obscurely, as imperfect image. For these reasons, Bacon and Galileo excluded it from their new empirical/mathematical science.

A final cause is the reason for which a thing is made. It is the aim at which its entire development and activity is aimed. Like a formal cause, a final cause is not a physical thing and cannot exercise physical causality. It exists only in the mind of the maker of the thing. Bacon and Galileo saw no way of studying final causes empirically. How can you study the mind that made a natural object or the inner striving of the thing toward a goal? Those things, if they are factors at all, are hidden from the practitioner of empirical science who always views things from an external point of view.

Bacon and Galileo redesigned natural science so that it deals only with empirically observable phenomena, which it comprehends exclusively in mathematical terms. In other words, the task of natural science is to figure out the mathematical relationships of things that are capable of activating one of our five senses. What sorts of things activate our senses? The impacts of material objects! Hence, for Bacon and Galileo, natural science envisions reality as bits of matter related in space in ways that can be understood truly only in mathematical terms!

Natural science and the technology it has made possible have been decisive in forming modern culture. Modern science’s way of explaining empirical phenomena and the model of reality that has guided its investigations have so shaped our understanding of nature that we unthinkingly assume that it describes the way things truly are: everything in nature really is just bits of matter related in space. There is no formal causality operative in nature and no final causality that directs it toward a goal. Hence we cannot immediately experience nature as the result of design and in movement toward an end. And this is why we cannot feel what Paul assumed the Athenians felt, that “in him we live and move and have our being.”

In my view one of the most urgent needs of modern culture is to rediscover formal and final causality in nature and ourselves. I am not a professional philosopher or a scientist, but I want to do something to help people see the world through a different lens. What follows is not highly systematic. But I hope it can nevertheless cause us to question the materialistic model that robs us of the feeling of living in the flow of the divine life and thought as it manifests itself in the forms and flow of nature.

To Be Continued: Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

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