Ken Tuinstra was asked to prepare and share a message for Meeting for Worship on March 13. “What Can I Know About God From Nature” follows.
What Can I Know About God from Nature?
Spokane Friends Meeting
While I was preparing this message my wife asked me if I was going to tell any jokes or stories, well knowing my penchant to be dry and tedious. I did think of one story that I read a few years ago that is very funny. It also relates to today’s topic because it is about the idea of infinite regress that cosmologists sometimes discuss.
The origins of the turtle story are uncertain, but the most widely known version appears I n Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
To begin, I would like to state my conclusion, and then give my argument for the conclusion. I believe that knowledge of God comes through faith, but if you seek him he will reward that faith. Our “brute fact” of existence is the first four words of Genesis: “In the beginning God”. For me, there is evidence from our observation and study of nature that belief in a Creator-God is justified.
For a Christian knowledge comes from t3wo sources, Special revelation (the scriptures which relate Hebrew history and the life and work of Jesus Christ) and General Revelation (that which is discovered through experience and the application of reason).
Early in Christian history ,the apostle Paul pointed to the struggle that would take place to integrate Jewish history and Greek philosophy as sources of truth or understanding.
1 Cor. 1:22-25: While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti- miracle and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself— both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. ` Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength ` can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.” (The Message)
The Church dominated the spiritual and intellectual worlds. Early Christian theologians may have thought that they could prove the existence of God, the Creator by the use of Faith (Revelation) and Reason. Thinkers such as Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas sought to think through the relationships between Jerusalem and Athens, or between Jewish and Greek conceptions of truth.
Augustine (354-430) was the Bishop of Hippo, in what is now Algeria . In his Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John he wrote: “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that `thou mayest understand.” Anselm held that faith precedes reason, but that reason can expand upon faith. Wikipedia “Anselm”.
“Faith seeks understanding”, according to Augustine means to “believe in order to understand” and “understand in order to believe”: (not blind faith but the dynamic of experience and reason). Throughout history this has been an important theme for those trying to make sense of Christian faith.
Faith is a gift of God.
Rom. 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (NIV, 2011).
Quakers belief that there is “that of God in everyone”. The Spirit witnesses to every person.
C. S. Lewis:
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” Essay Collection C.S. Lewis, “Is theology poetry?”, in London: HarperCollins, and Other Short Pieces .21; 21. – 2000, 10
For our topic today, an important statement about faith is found in
Hebrews 11:1-3: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed ed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (NIV, 2011)
John Polkinghorne (British mathematical physicist who worked at Cambridge University and was involved in the discovery of the “quark”. He later became an Anglican priest and has written many books regarding the interaction of science and faith) says that every person has a metaphysical view of things or a world- view.. He says the “brute fact” of the atheist or materialist is the “laws of nature”, or “that’s the way it is”. For the Christian the world-view the “brute fact” is that the laws of nature point to a God-Creator” .
Natural Theology is defined as theology deriving its knowledge of God from the study of nature independent of special revelation. Traditionally it involves the use of reason. Thinkers in the Christian Tradition never assume that knowledge of God from natural theology is enough. It supplements revealed theology. For the Christian, there is an interaction of reason and revelation (faith).
Some believe that the earliest natural theologians were the writers of wisdom literature I in the Bible. These writers were believers, and what they wrote was probably the result of both faith seeking understanding and faith interacting with reason.
There is some discussion and scholarly work on the notion that the wisdom literature (Book of Job. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes , Psalms, Song of Songs) are examples of natural theology. For example: Psalm 19:1: The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship. (The Message)
The Middle Ages ranged from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Before the 5th century was the Classic period and after the 15th century was the Modern period.
The next significant period in the history of natural theology was the late middle ages from about 1100 to 1500 AD. Two Christian theologians Anselm and Thomas Aquinas did natural theology by emphasizing logic or the laws of thought.. They did appeal specifically to astronomy or anatomy, as did later people, but purely to reason or logic.
Anselm (1033-1109)sought to understand Christian doctrine through reason and develop intelligible truths interwoven with the Christian belief. He believed that the necessary preliminary for this was possession of the Christian faith. He wrote, (“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”) An ontological argument for the existenceof God attempts the method of a priori proof, which uses intuition and reason alone. The argument examines the concept of God, and states that if we can conceive of the greatest possible being, then it must exist. Wikipedia, “The ontological argument”.
Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274 CE), a theologian in Medieval Europe, adapted the argument he found in his reading of Aristotle and Avicenna to form one of the most influential versions of the cosmological argument. His conception of First Cause was the idea that the Universe must have been caused by something that was itself uncaused, which he asserted was God. Aquinas also posited positing teleological arguments. “The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by the archer. Therefore, some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”
The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment) is the era in Western philosophy, intellectual, scientific and cultural life, centered upon the 18th century, in
which reason was advocated as the primary source for legitimacy and authority. It is also known as the Age of Reason. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science. Thus, there was still a considerable degree of similarity between competing philosophies.[3 Some historians also include the late 17th century as part of the Enlightenment. Modernity, by contrast, is used to refer to the period after The Enlightenment; albeit generally emphasizing social conditions rather than specific philosophies. Wikipedia, The Age of Enlightenment
Kant (1724-1804) wrote in The Critique of Practical Reason “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe—the starry heavens above me, and the moral l aw within me.” C.S. Lewis made strong use of the “moral law within” in his Mere Christianity, as a reason for belief in God. Recently, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, and now Director of the National Institutes of Health has written a book called The Language of God. In it he points to this statement of Kant as being very influential in his becoming a Christian. He spent months wrestling with the meaning and I mplications of it and decided that he needed a savior.
“Two things fill me with wonder,” Kant confessed: “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” What a man wonders about fills his heart and directs his thought. Note that Kant wonders about only two things: not God, not Christ, not Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection and Judgment, but “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” “The starry sky above” is the physical universe as known by modern science. Kant relegates everything else to subjectivity. The moral law is not “without” but “within,” not objective but subjective, not a Natural Law of objective rights and wrongs that comes from God but a man-made law by which we decide to bind ourselves. (But if we bind ourselves, are we really bound?) Morality is a matter of subjective intention only. It has no content except the Golden Rule (Kant’s “categorical imperative”). Peter Kreeft http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/civilization/cc0011.html
Paley (1743-1805) is famous for his analogy of the watch and the watchmaker. This is a form of the teleological argument (the argument from design) which had been used by ancient philosophers, especially Aquinas. In 1802 he published Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity .His subject matter was central to Victorian anxieties, which might be one reason Natural Theology continued to appeal to the reading public, making his book a best seller for most of the 19th century, Wikipedia, “Paley”. Paley devoted one chapter to Astronomy, but stated that his thesis rose or fell on the basis of anatomy. He used many analogies in his work to point to a creator. One of those was the eye, especially the mammalian eye. Paley believed the eye to be a unique creation of God, but modern studies of the eye have show a sequence of development of the eye that indicates an evolutionary history. The eyes of mollusks have been extensively studied in this regar
Natural Theology Today
According to John Polkinghorne the modern revival of Natural Theology is different in at least two ways:
“ ` 1. it is more modest. It is not about truth, but insight. Theism enables greater understanding
2. it is not a rival of science, it is complementary, peaceful coexistence
`Scientists themselves normally take it for granted that we live in a rational, ordered cosmos subject to precise laws that can be uncovered by human reasoning. Yet why this should be so remains a tantalizing mystery. Why should human beings have the ability to discover and understand the principles on which the universe runs?’ Paul Davies, ASU Astrophysicist
The idea that we live in a rational, ordered cosmos is a Christian idea derived from God being the creator and sustainer of the universe. Science, modern science, did not rise in ore-christian, pagan cultures. There is Muslim and Chinese claims to early scientific achievements, but the rise of modern science came about based on a Christian view of the universe. (cf. Hooykaas, R. 1972 (2000). Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Regent University Press)
Certain meta-questions arise out of our experience of doing science.
For example, why is science possible at all?
Evolution is one thing and may apply well to our everyday life, because it is about survival. But scientists who study the universe find that it is rationally transparent. For example, why is mathematics so effective? To many, the effectiveness of mathematics points to a common origin in the mind of the Creator.
Why is the universe so special?
very long lived
steadily providing energy
balance between gravity and electromagnetic force
heavier elements essential for life are made in stars
The triple alpha process is a set of nuclear fusion reactions by which three helium-4 nuclei (alpha particles) are transformed into carbon. Fred Hoyle
However, those energy levels, while needed in order to produce carbon in large quantities, were statistically very unlikely. Hoyle later wrote:
“Would you not say to yourself, “Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule.” Of course you would . . . A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”
—Fred Hoyle, [3
Hoyle, an atheist until that time, said that this suggestion of a guiding hand left him “greatly shaken.” Consequently, he began to believe in a guiding force in the universe, which led him to a belief in panspermia. Wikipedia, Fred Hoyle
Why is the universe finely-tuned to produce life as we know it?
The fine-tuned Universe is the idea that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different the universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood. . Wikipedia, fine-tuned universe.
Summary and Conclusion:
AWE is a common experience of nature, and for me it is a place to begin to develop my natural theology. Atheists and Theists respond differently. Atheists say that is just the way it is. Theists attribute the awe and magnificence of the universe to a Creator-God. The theist has a creator to thank and praise.
“I don’t think they come much more anti-religious than I do,” claims Richard Dawkins. “And yet there are objects and occasions which invoke in me a profound sense of the sacred.” He goes on to describe being moved to tears in the presence of the great fossils of palaeo-anthropology in Kenya or of “the strata of geological time laid out before you” at the Grand Canyon.
“The human mind is big enough, and imaginative enough, to be poetically moved by the whole sweep of geological ages represented by the rocks that you are standing among. That’s why you feel awe. That’s why you feel as though you are undergoing a religious experience.”
Dawkins’ feeling of ‘awe’ is echoed by Simon Blackburn. “Despite being an atheist, I find a lot of things arouse a sense of the sacred in me. Works of art or music, sublime grand spectacles in nature, the starry heavens above and the moral law within, the oldest human skulls in Kenya or the newest human baby in a maternity ward can all be fitting objects of different kinds of awe and reverence.” http://newhumanist.org.uk/824/shock-and-awe
Hebrew 11:6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (NIV, 2011)
I believe that knowledge of God comes through faith, but if you seek him he will reward that faith. Our “brute fact” of existence is the first four words of Genesis: “In the beginning God”. For me, there is evidence from our observation and study of nature that belief in a Creator-God is justified.
O heavenly Father, who has filled the world with beauty:
Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works;
that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve
you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all
things were made,your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.