The changing face of God and creation

There’s an apocryphal story about the days before 1857 (when the law was reformed) when a divorce in Britain could only be obtained by a private Act of Parliament – clearly only possible for the rich and powerful. The tale goes that when a lengthy, tedious and ill-attended bill about the Corporation of Liverpool (some say Birmingham) was presented, the town clerk managed to slip into one interminable clause the words, “and hereby the town clerk N. is granted a divorce.”

As I finish Arthur Lovejoy’s book on The Great Chain of Being mentioned in the last post my strongest impression is how, even when working from the same philosophical foundations, intellectuals can draw entirely opposite conclusions in different times. Meanwhile their entire generation (or those movers and shakers who matter at the time) are thoroughly convinced that no other truth is, or ever has been, possible. More often than not, these incontrovertible ideas are internally inconsistent anyway – and nobody in civilized society appears to notice until a later age, when scholars pour scorn on their predecessors and repeat the same exercise. So fickle is our human reason.

One good example of this is the sea change from Classicism to Romanticism at the end of the eighteenth century. Lovejoy suggests that the core metaphysical and theological truth of the former age was the kind of rationalism exemplified by Deism: the only truths worthy of acceptance are those obvious to men of reason everywhere and in all times.

In art, that meant that the aesthetics that had inspired people over the world since classical times, that seemed to spring from Nature herself, were much to be preferred to local aberrations such as the dark Gothic products of Mediaeval England.

In religion likewise, only what Reason and Nature made clear to all men, and not abstruse and mysterious doctrines such as traditional Christianity taught, were worthy to be called “religious.” In other words there was a Universal vision of truth, which was available to all capable of exercising the reason implanted in their nature by a rational and Universal Deity, whose Being was pure perfection. Put like that it sounds pretty egalitarian and, of course, by definition “Enlightened”.

In Romanticism there occurred something like a polar reversal of this. Nature was still the Great Teacher, but her lesson was principally that of diversity, closely linked to Life (with a capital “L”). Anticipating Postmodernism by two centuries, A W Schlegel urged people to renounce their accustomed aesthetic sense and

…transpose ourselves into that which is peculiar to other peoples and times… Thus the despotism of good taste, by which [some critics] seek to enforce certain perhaps wholly arbitrary rules which they have set up, is always an unwarranted presumption.

He goes on to compare Westminster Abbey favourably with the Pantheon, and Shakespeare with Sophocles, each seen in their own terms. From this new viewpoint, perhaps universal reason now seems a bit restrictive. Worse than that, it’s dead – and that applies to ethics as well as art. Friedrich Schleiermacher (yes, the “Higher Criticism” Schleiermacher) waxed passionate in his diversity training:

Why, in the province of morals, does this pitiable uniformity prevail, which seeks to bring the highest human life within the compass of a single lifeless formula? How can this ever have come into vogue, except in consequence of a radical lack of feeling for the fundamental characteristic of living Nature, which everywhere aims at diversity and individuality?

Note the polemic buzzwords – “pitiable”, “lifeless formula”, “arbitrary”, “presumption” – and especially the capitalized and personified “Nature”. This last was not fortuitous, because not only was Schleiermacher, in the Spirit of the Age, convinced that “the multiplicity of religions [is] grounded in the nature of religion”, but that Nature’s diversity and development was a reflection of diversity and development in God himself – the complete opposite of the God of perfect reason of just a few years before. Indeed it took a surprisingly short time for Romanticism to conclude that God reflected Nature in being, himself, all about change. Friedrich Schelling in 1809:

God is Life, and not merely being. All life has a fate, and is subject to suffering and to becoming. To this, then, God has of his own free will subjected himself…

This is Moltmann long before Moltmann, and by much the same reasoning. Schelling’s naturalist friend Lorenz Oken shared this view, expanding it in a thoroughly evolutionary (and panentheistic or pantheistic) way half a century before Darwin, so that to him the God who is “pure nothingness” achieves “realization” only through the history of the universe he becomes. The highest point of evolution being Man, you can pretty soon figure out where to find God now.

Note the similarities to the panentheism of recent science-faith writers like Peacocke, the idea of God evolving with his universe as seen in Open Theism (which however has quietly jettisoned the obvious corollary that God, like the universe, started off completely unevolved), and the assumption, carried over into Darwin’s thought, that evolution is about inevitable progress. Modern evolutionary theory having dispensed with the idea that evolution goes anywhere, a modern evolutionary theology would need to accept the likelihood that God is as likely to devolve as to realize his “fate” in eternal becoming.

It was at this time in the history of ideas that the ideal of human “originality” and even the word “creativity” came into vogue. Humans have always done new things, but it may surprise us, living still in a basically Romantic culture, that as a virtue it is as recent as the shift from unity and permanence to diversity and change at the end of the eighteenth century. Chaucer or Shakepeare were content to tell old tales in new ways. Now more than ever, originality has become an end in itself, over and above any actual need for improvement. I mention this particularly as I try to draw together some of these strands about the changing fashions in human thought and apply them to the origins issue as it stands now.

Popular theistic evolution, as I have often complained, keeps its core philosophical ideas well in the Nebulosphere. But one recurring strand (in distinction to Creationism or ID) is the strong echo of Leibniz’s deistic idea that “God governs the universe by natural law”. But this somehow has to sit with the apparently opposite idea that “God is mightily hands on”.

It seems that natural law is conceived as capable of executing God’s will in some detail. Indeed, much of the polemic of TE writing from John Polkinghorne to BioLogos is about the “spontaneity” and “creativity” in nature itself, having been given its freedom to progress towards its true being by God. So Nature, too, embodies the Romantic “originality” imperative. That freedom, as far as one can pin it down concretely, refers, rather anticlimactically, actually only to chance contingency operating alongside law. Note, however, how the attractiveness of such a view of nature is entirely founded on Romanticism’s ultimately Platonic concept of diversity and self-realization, rather than on anything found in historical Christian doctrine.

But in that context, even the conceptual treatment of God’s underlying law is a very particular and relatively recent understanding of the role of law. In my opening anecdote, the humour lies in the apocryphal town clerk’s managing to subvert a law designed to provide general constraints for the City of Liverpool (or Birmingham) in order to procure a personal outcome. British law is not intended for that. For TEs to suggest that natural laws could ensure individual outcomes such as the evolution of mankind is to seek to apply laws of general governance to specific cases. Law is the wrong tool for such a job.

In fact it would seem that the way TEs see “law” in relation to a “free creation” is thoroughly modern and democratic – laws in nature, like laws in society, are seen to provide broad limitations that enable the maximum possible individual liberty.

But a few centuries ago that was not the understanding of law at all. To Plato, just laws were the means by which good men, through complying with them, learned to emulate the good character of the lawgiver. And that’s very similar to the concept of torah in the Bible, which surely should govern Christian understanding: Mosaic laws were not general boundaries within which original and creative people could realize their potential. Rather they were the teaching of God which, through constant meditation, Israelites could come into in communion with God, or indeed become like him.

So, it seems to me, what we see in much of the modern attempt to reconcile science to Christianity is a failure to see how much of the agenda doesn’t come from the creation itself, nor the Word of God, but from the mishmash of garbled ideas that have percolated through to our modern worldview from the wildly varying fashions that have formed Western thought over the last few centuries. Many of these ideas appear self-evidently true to me as much as anybody else, until I see their history and notice the alternatives. But how is one, somehow, to rise above mere fashion in thought and approach closer to truth both in scientific philosophy and in theology?

Larry Norman sang:

Don’t ask me for the answers, I’ve only got one
That a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son.

That’s true, but maybe leaves more loopholes than is desirable. Perhaps I prefer this word of the prophet Isaiah:

To the law and to the testimony! if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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