Category Archives: theology of creation

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Three)?

Physical Objects as Ideas

In our experience of the world in common sense and scientific study we seek to understand physical things. We name them, categorize them, enumerate their properties, experience their effects, and perceive their holistic integrity and stability. In considering a physical object, such as an atom or a living cell, we know the difference between its unordered components and the thing itself. In the thing, components are so ordered, integrated and coordinated that they constitute one thing, which possesses its own properties, functions and actions. What makes a natural physical object the particular object it is rather than an aggregate of unordered components or some other physical object?

Natural objects are much more complex and highly integrated than human-made objects. We understand the objects we make better than natural objects not only because they are simpler but because they existed as ideas or design plans in our minds before we gave them actual existence as physical objects. Natural physical objects are living or nonliving. Some nonliving physical objects are aggregates: sand stone, blocks of coal, piles of sand or gravel. The nature of an aggregate is revealed in that by dividing it you do not destroy its properties. Break a block of sand stone into pieces and you do not change its properties. Nonliving things possess their unique properties and inherent integrity only at the molecular or atomic level. Break them apart and they no longer exist.  We can gain some knowledge of molecules and atoms by breaking them apart to discover their components and internal relations. But the problem with this approach is that we have to destroy the thing to discover the cause of its integrity! Our understanding of the original thing is an abstraction, memory or model. It’s not the thing itself. We cannot experience a physical thing in its integrity except externally. But that is not the same as experiencing the cause of its integrity, that is, its idea, which can be experienced only from within. Yet physics, chemistry and every other empirical science makes no sense unless it aims at this ideal, that is, to possess the entirety of a thing’s cause as an idea in the mind—a goal that it can never achieve.

The smallest living thing is much more complex than the most complex human made machine. Yet living things achieve much greater integrity, harmony, and unity than human made things. Billions of components are integrated into the whole organism to the degree that each stands in constant communion with all the others and participates in the life of the whole. We can observe the properties and behavior of living things in their natural state and environment or we can attempt to discover how all the components, systems and subsystems relate to each other and the whole organism. We quest for the entire “blueprint” for the organism. Unfortunately, the quest to think the blueprint leads us to destroy the integrity and the life of the organism. And we never really get inside the thing to experience the cause of its unity and life in the act. But unless we imagine that there is such a cause, it would make no sense to search for it.

These reflections lead me to conclude that our quest for knowledge of the physical world makes no sense if the world is purely material, if everything is at bottom only bits of matter related in space. This quest for knowledge assumes that there is a real intelligible aspect to the world and every thing in it, living and nonliving. Only the assumption that our minds can think the blueprint and cause of a physical thing can explain our drive to understand it, that is, that the thing could in principle exist in our minds as an idea.

Hence our quest to understand nature assumes that the ideas of physical things exist and exercise causal force in things before we set out to discover them. When we direct our minds to them we find them thinkable and available to be united to our minds. Our minds can think them even though we did not invent them. What is the explanation for this amazing fit between our minds and the ideas that cause natural things to be what they are? From where did the ideas of things come? How did these blueprints come to be actual physical things?

Other Minds

In our interactions with human beings we encounter other minds. We can understand their thoughts and, since we are embodied in the same way, we can empathize with their feelings.  Other minds are not my creations and they are not material any more than my mind is. Yet other minds are not simply ideas either. Other minds affect us in ways bodies and ideas don’t, as active, free and creative, as bearing a likeness to our own minds. The same idea can exist in an infinite number of minds. There exists, then, a community of intelligent minds that share the same mental space, an extra human intelligible world, where they can meet.

The existence of other minds confirms for us the reality, creativity and freedom of our own minds, and underlines what I concluded previously: that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces. By reflecting on how other minds and ours work we become convinced that information can be produced and thought only by minds. But non-human nature is teeming with ideas and loaded with information, which enters our minds through our experience of the world. As I indicated above, the ideal of scientific knowledge is to think the whole world and reproduce its blueprint in our minds.

What is the explanation for this state of affairs? Nonmaterial minds exist and live in a physical world ordered by ideas. Our minds can create ideas or discover them in nature. We can share ideas we create or discover with other minds. The multilayered intelligibility of the world can be in part discovered by experience. In my view the most plausible explanation for the deep-down and far-wide intelligibility of the world is the creative activity of a universal and all-inclusive Mind. The human mind, far from being a by-product of the chaotic movements of unintelligible matter is actually the place where the true nature of reality finally shows itself most clearly in its basic form—creative mind!

And it is this Mind to which Epimenides and Paul referred when they said that “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul says God made the world in such a way that we could “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:28). And in this series I’ve tried to show that it really matters where you begin your search.

 

 

 

 

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Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Two)

Why can’t we feel what Paul and the Athenians felt: that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)? In Part One of this series I argued that modern natural science beginning with Galileo and Bacon teaches us to view the entire world of nature as bits of matter related in space. Nature has no soul, no nonmaterial aspect, and no internal goal. No wonder we cannot feel that we live and move and have our being surrounded and indwelt by God’s presence and activity! Instead we live and move and have our being inside a giant material machine! And if God is anywhere at all, God is outside the machine in another dimension. We’ve been taught a model of reality that makes us blind to God’s activity and presence; we’re all deists now! Or atheists or materialists.

In my view a wholly materialist understanding of nature will lead eventually to metaphysical materialism and atheism. That is to say, if we exclude formal and final causality, we will not be able to imagine divine causality and activity. If we cannot imagine created, nonmaterial causes acting within the world, we will not be able to imagine how God is present and active in the world.

Sense Experience and Materialism

A common argument for atheistic materialism begins with sense experience, which supposedly reveals the nature of reality for our immediate inspection. Through our senses we perceive the world as consisting of external, opaque and impenetrable physical objects.  Our senses are activated by our body’s physical contact with external bodies. Using this common experience of the world as an analogy, the materialist constructs a model of reality in which purely material bits (atoms) are accidentally related to each other to form the order we experience in the world. Matter itself possesses no order. The materialist perspective assumes that since we can destroy the ordered physical things we meet in everyday experience but cannot destroy the material substance of which they are composed, the material substance must be the only reality that endures throughout all change. The order itself is nothing and can be wholly reduced to spatial relationships of material bits. Everything other than unordered matter, including our minds and all intelligible properties, is simply a pattern in collected bits of matter. And the existence of the particular sets of spatial arrangements of matter that constitute the present order of nature can be explained as the result of pure chance. The world merely falls into place. It is not put or held in place.

A Different Beginning Point

But what if we begin our thinking about reality at a different point, not with perception of the external world through the senses, but with the mind’s perception of itself and its experience of its contents and powers? After all, we know our minds better than we know any other thing. Indeed, our minds are the only things we know from the inside. We are our minds! We experience our minds as intelligent, creative, unified, transparent and internal. In contrast, matter is defined by its impenetrability, externality, lack of order and unintelligibility. It is spatial, mindless and massive. The materialist model of reality as bits matter in spatial relationship is derived from an external view of things. But why rely on an external view of reality when we have an internal view! We have an internal perspective on ourselves completely inaccessable to an external point of view. Why not assume that other things do as well? Hence we are not being irrational or arbitrary when we make inner experience of our minds and their contents the beginning point for constructing a model of reality that includes minds, ideas and purposes.

From Inside Out

Let’s see what the world looks like when we begin with an internal view of the mind. Here is the path we will follow: (1) We will move from the mind and its inner world to our bodies; then (2) we reflect on our experience of the physical world not merely as external surfaces but as intelligible and information rich; then (3) we will ask about the significance of our encounter other minds like our own; and (4) finally we raise the question of an all-inclusive and universally operative mind in whom the whole world lives and moves and has its being.

Inside the Mind

Internal experience teaches us that our minds are real, free, creative, nonmaterial powers. Hence we know that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces.

Mind In and Over Body

We find also that our minds have causal power over our bodies. We can move them as we will and through them move and reshape the external physical world to resemble the images we have created in our minds. Our own experience of our bodies demonstrates the power of mind to impose its internal order, its ideas, on the physical world. But what about the natural physical objects we encounter? Is the order they display the product of a mind?

Part 3 coming tomorrow

 

Divine Joy and Joy Divine: Five Points on Creation

We tend to treat God’s act of creating heaven and earth as an event in the long past, relevant to our lives only as setting the stage for the drama of sin and salvation. But the biblical doctrine of creation is much richer than that. It brims with implications for daily life and for understanding God’s continuing relationship to us in providence and in salvation. The first two chapters of my book The Faithful Creator explore the biblical doctrine of creation, summarizing it in five points. In today’s post I want to state these points and briefly explain them.

(1) The one God is the absolute origin and sovereign ruler over all that is not God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul states this truth in unforgettable words: “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36; cf. 1 Cor 8:6). The two concepts of absolute origin and sovereign ruler go together. Our creations can get away from us and outlive us, but that is because we are not “absolute” origins for the things we make. Nothing escapes the Creator. And that is very good news for those who love the Creator and believe he is good!

(2) The one God freely established the Creator-creature relation, which is characterized by generosity, freedom, and power on the Creator’s side and dependence and debt on the creature’s side. God was, is and always be our Creator. We will always depend on the Creator and will be forever in his debt. For some, this type of relationship seems demeaning, and they wish to forget it or try to escape it. But those who understand that the one on whom we depend is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ revel in the gracious gifts of our faithful Creator.

(3) The creation really exists before God and stands before him as good; that is, as the result of God’s act of creation, the creature really is what God intended it to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, God pronounced the creation good at almost every point. And the Psalmist exclaimed, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’” (Ps 24:1). And Paul explains, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:3-4). That creation is “good” does not mean that it is perfect or that it cannot be misused. Rather it means that each and every creature has a place and a function rooted in the will of the Creator. Christians are not Gnostics or Manicheans who reject the body, food and the human joys of life. The good things of creation may be legitimately used to sustain and enhance human life and bring glory and thanksgiving to God. Only, they must not be worshiped or enjoyed selfishly or greedily. Instead they are meant to provide occasions for shared joys. Jesus did not condemn feasting but he did urge us to invite the poor and the sick that they may share in the joy!

 (4) The Creator-creature relation established at the beginning, with its characteristic qualities, endures for all time. The author of Revelation praises God in these words, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11). God sustains his creation through the powerful word of the Son (Hebrews 1:3). Creation is happening now. Every new moment and every new thing comes from the hand of the Creator. What a difference it would make in our sense of God’s presence if we grasped this truth! The world and everything in it, every beat of our hearts, every breeze that cools our brows, and “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:16-17) comes from the heart of our faithful Creator!

 (5) Human beings possess a unique relationship to the Creator characterized by their image and likeness to God and responsibility to him. Human beings are not the whole of God’s creation but they have been given a special role. We have been given the capacity to know and love the Creator, and we have the obligation to image the Creator in the created world. Of course we don’t do a good job of it. In the New Testament we learn that Jesus Christ is the image of God in an archetypical sense: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15; cf. 1 Cor 15:49). By living in fellowship with the true image of God in the power of the Spirit we can begin to do what Adam did not, that is, shine with the glory and image of God (Col 3:10; 2 Cor 4:4; Rom 8:9) and spread the divine light over the world. Let there be light!