One of the minor ongoing spats in the origins debate is the objection of some analytical Neo-Aristotelians like Ed Feser to the idea that one can perceive divine design in nature, or anywhere else, come to that. My own reaction to this is here, and I’ve also referred to another dissenting Aquinas scholar, Logan Paul Gage, an essay by whom is here. There are, in other words, objections to such ideas within the writings of Aquinas himself.
One ID supporter, another philosophy PhD and general supporter of scholasticism, returns to the issue in a recent Uncommon Descent column. Vincent Torley comments here on one particular objection of Feser to design in nature: that the God of classical theism cannot be seen as merely another intelligent designer, like a human being. His intelligence, like his other attributes, is only analogous to ours, so how can we possibly discern his intentions as if he were a human engineer or artist? You’ll note a similar argument is used by atheist objectors to ID.
Torley’s case majors on showing that to infer design – broadly, intentionality and final causation – does not necessarily imply what is called univocity between God and us. He agrees that the divine essence can only be compared to our nature analogically, and I do too, as I’ve pointed out quite often, even recently. To consider God as possessing our attributess, only in greater or more refined form, is the source of many evils in contemporary theology, usually in the direction of bringing God down to our level. Torley himself unwittingly contributes to this, in fact, by failing to do justice to Aquinas’s view of the simplicity of God’s knowledge.
But one thing is not considered in Torley’s piece, and maybe it arises from working from that scholastic concept of God, rather than beginning with the self-revelation of God in Scripture. And that is that creation is not just the overflowing of God’s power and wisdom, in which we happen to find ourselves dwelling. Rather creation was from the start a work of revelation for us, as those uniquely made in his image.
The theology of this depends on the worldview of the Bible, the big story underlying the Christian gospel (which in my recent reading is excellently explored by Tom Wright in The New Testament and the People of God). This is close to what I’ve often described here in connection with, particularly, the writing of Richard J Middleton. This big story is that God, in love, created the world and all its denizens as a temple for his glory, with mankind appointed to rule it and express its worship in a royal and priestly manner, as those formed in his image. That’s the bit that concerns the topic, but the rest of the narrative is, of course, the defilement of creation through sin; the redemption promised through Abraham and paradoxically through the failure of the chosen descendant nation, Israel; the salvation actually effected through the personification of Israel (and mankind) Christ; and the eventual renewal of all things by his victory over death and sin. It’s a great story, which is why it’s called “the Gospel”.
But to return to the “creation” part of that, we come to realise from the Bible that there is a more-than-fortuitous relationship between mankind and his Creator. That actually occurs at more than one level, as I explored in relation to the mystery of the Trinity here. It is not because we just happen to be generically intelligent, as God is intelligent (likewise for any other quality), that we can conceive of, and even relate to God. It is because we ourselves are created with specific affinities to God, and because the whole creation is, as much as anything else about it, God’s revelation of himself to us to enable us in our image-bearing. In that sense, creation was made for man, though that doesn’t preclude its having entirely different purposes as well.
This is where the mystery of the surprising intelligibility of the universe, to which Einstein famously drew attention, slots in:
“The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” from Physics and Reality(1936)
It’s true that we can’t know everything about the universe, still less about God himself, for the very reasons Feser says. As the Bible points out, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth” (Eccles. 5.2). But what we can know about creation is possible only because God has suited it to our understanding, whether we see that as Galileo did, in the language of mathematics that he thought to be the language of creation, or simply in the everyday narratives that make sense of what is around us. The point is that God, in wisdom, did not simply create a being capable of understanding his creation: he also made a creation suited to our comprehension.
This may be seen as entirely analogous to Scripture as divine revelation – God’s ways are higher than ours, but he has revealed himself, in perhaps anthropomorphic ways, both in his historical acts of salvation and in the inspired words of the prophets. John Calvin put it thus:
“For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accomodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness” (Calvin, Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1).
But Scripture teaches the same thing about itself:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deut. 29.29)
This gives a particular set of “legs” to the old concept of God’s two books, the idea that the “book” of creation teaches a certain natural theology of glory and wisdom, as summed up in verses like Rom. 1.20 and Ps. 19.1-4; and the book of Scripture teaches the way of salvation (amongst other truths). So it’s not that God satisfies his creativity through creation, and we can teach ourselves, through science or maths or meditation, to find truths about him from it. Rather the “two book” analogy acquires its validity from the concept of revelation – we read what God has written in nature, because he actually wrote it so we could read it, and so give him glory and praise for his works.
A brief caveat – “God’s book of nature” is abused, as Scripture is abused, when it is interpreted illegitimately. Nature, like the Bible, has a “literal” meaning which we ought to seek: what it means on its own terms, pointing to God’s glory by being what it is, rather than being another mine for subjective allegory as Origen, for example, saw it. What I’m talking about here is the simple business of seeing God’s creation as creation.
The idea of nature as communication can actually be pursued in great depth through science and philosophy, as in Arthur Eddington’s profound examination of the interdependence of mind and matter in the physical world. One strand of his study is that the deep reality of the universe (which we might justly call “the secret things of God” in Deuteronomic terms) is unknowable, whereas the world of perception through our mind and senses is almost like a symbolic language translating those deep things into our own mental framework. We can only understand anything through symbolism, but that symbolism is built into our minds, and the world, by God our Creator. It’s a very intimate and Fatherly concept, as befits the God of Israel rather than the God of the philosophers. Here’s the start of Eddington’s book (albeit voiced annoyingly in a foreign accent!)
At a more basic level it means that, the truth of classical theism about the “otherness” of God notwithstanding, we can gain true insights into God and his role in the world, within the strict limits that natural theology covers, for the same reason that we can know analogies about God in Scripture as truths: because he is a God who knows how to reveal himself to those he has made in his own image.
The upshot, regarding the original issue of design/teleology in nature, is that there is no reason why God should not, quite legitimately, make the ineffable depths of his mind and will manifest, through revelation in nature, by the analogy of design. It is theologically legitimate to answer the charge that we cannot know the creative purpose or modus operandi of an infinitely wise Deity by replying, “But he is my Father, and he created these things so I could glorify him through them.”
The biblical God, after all, is not an abstract or timeless principle of rationality – the perennial danger inherent in the philosophical approach to God – but he is the one who is primarily known through his acts in history for his people, and who reveals himself to them. As First Cause he may be logically deductible and necessarily transcendent – but as Yahweh he is the One who formed us for himself, and as Christ he is the One who showed that he could be fully human, and is still known to us as a man.
For this is what the high and exalted One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isa. 57.15)