Science in Christian Perspective
FROM DEISM TO DEICIDE:
WHY GOD "DIED."
EDWARD P. COLESON*
From: JASA 20 (December 1968): 114-117, 128.
The recent "God is dead" controversy has stirred a good many people who have not gotten excited about theology for a long, long time. Yet anyone who has watched the trends over the years can hardly be amazed at this development. This is but the logical conclusion of centuries of philosophical "evolution," the ultimate destination of a course that the scholarly world has been pursuing for many a year. In fact, one wonders why people are so excited over the "death" of a God who long ago became almost irrelevant to Western man. Let us truce this transition from the "Age of Faith" to the present hour. Perhaps as an introduction to this discussion, it would help to focus our thinking on the issues involved if we would consider the sort of "death notice" for the morning papers which would be appropriate in this ease-if we may speak of God thus without being blasphemous or even irreverent. Such a news item might read as follows:
The tragic and seemingly sodden passing of the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, has been a distinct shock to a multitude of people beyond the immediate circle of friends. Yet those who insist that they are most intimately acquainted with the inner workings of Universe Incorporated claim that the Founder of the firm had not taken an active part in the business for a long time now. It seems that the junior partner, Homo Sapiens, has pretty well managed the company in recent years, with the Creator and former Manager becoming increasingly less active. They assure us that there is no reason to believe that the demise of the Most High will make any difference whatsoever in the practical affairs of the organization; in other words, business as usual. Many people are relieved to know this. Still they feel a deep sense of personal loss in the passing of the Deceased-One they have known at least casually since the days they repeated "Now I lay me down to sleep" at their mothers' knee. This newspaper, The Cosmic Courier, wishes to express its profound sympathy to the bereaved in this hour of great loss.
The above bit of fantasy may seem to border on the sacreligious, but I trust it will shock us into seeing the present situation for what it is: there have been few, even among the devout, in recent years who have appealed to their Lord and His Book as the ultimate Authority on any practical question whatever. The Bible is simply a devotional manual, according to present day thinking. The Communist may say, "It is written in Marx" or "Lenin dixit," but "Thus saith the Lord" is obsolete even among professed Christians. While many good people resent the blatant arrogance of the "God-is-dead" theologians, their resentment seems to arise from their feeling that this is in bad taste, rather than the conviction that God makes any particular difference in the practical affairs of life. Furthermore, modern man's detached view of his Creator is not the work of this new crop of heretics:
shortly after World War II a survey, reported by Reader's Digest,1 found that while most Americans believe
in a Supreme Being, few insist that they believe could see any connection problems between their faith and lving in the present world. The student,2 of a few years ago, one of the "unsilent generation" who thought he could afford to be "indifferent to an indifferent god," was very much a product of his age. God has simply become irrelevant in the contemporary world, or so a multitude of people-both pious and impious-seem to think.
Modern man's casual attitude with respect to his Creator contrasts strangely with the profound convictions of our Puritan ancestors,' as is evident from the following brief quotation:
The Puritan was a Scripturist, a Scripturist with all of his heart. . . He cherished the scheme of looking to the Word of God as his sole and universal directory. The Word had been but lately made the common property . The Puritan searched the Bible, not only for principles and rules, but for mandates-and, when he could find none of these, for analogies -to guide him in precise arrangements of public administration, and in the minutest points of individual conduct.
Now while I am very willing to allow that the Puritans were carried away by their enthusiasm and tried to read too much into Scripture, are we justified ill going to the opposite extreme of seeing nothing there, except of such a heavenly nature that it has no earthly application? It is well to remember that God was irrelevant in the eyes of modern man long before He "died." I might mention parenthetically that I am quite weary of the continuing tendency of our time to downgrade our Puritan heritage. There may have been self-righteous Pharisees among them, this I will concede. But by a reversal of the ancient pattern today's 11 publicans and sinners" are thankful they are not Pharisees! Is this any improvement?
God's Law in Human History
The Puritan appeal to God as the Ultimate Authority was in no sense unique or even new in human history. Back in the classic Creek period Antigone4 could remind a tyrant:
Thy writ, O king,
Hath not such potcnce as will overweigh.
The Laws of God . . . fixed
From everlasting to eternity.
The concept of a Higher Law, given by the Supreme Lawgiver Himself, is of course basic to the whole of Hebrew history also and long before the Golden Age of Greece. Unlike the usual oriental despots the kings of the Chosen People were constitutional monarchs, "tinder God and under the Law", as Henry de Braeton so well expressed it in thirteenth century England. But the early Jews were not philosophers: the Creek Stoics elaborated the doctrine of a Higher Law and Cicero appealed to the Law of God as a sure foundation as the Roman Republic was breaking up about him. In the centuries which followed Christian thinkers, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas, took up the theme. So it has always been: much as Caesar had his Brutus and Charles I his Cromwell, so in a constructive way David had his Nathan, Ahab his Elijah, and Mary Queen of Scots her John Knox. The best defense against tyrants down across the ages has been the appeal to a Higher Power. It would surely have helped if more Germans had continually reminded Hitler: "Gott ist mein Fiihrerl" We in the democracies also need this the voice of the people steadying influence for is not the voice of God.
Perhaps the classic expression of the doctrine of a Higher Law is to be found in William Blackstone's Commentary, published in 1765. The American colonists seized upon this work with the greatest enthusiasm, finding in it an antidote for the tyranny of George III. A decade later on the eve of the American Revolution Edmund Burke could assure Parliament that there were "nearly as many of Blacekstone's Commentaries in America as in England." The following brief quotation will serve to illustrate Blackstone's5 approach to the problem of ultimate authority:
This law of nature, . . . dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force . . . from this original.
It should be immediately apparent to the reader that the notions of modern man contrast strangely with the convictions of Blackstone and the Founding Fathers of this nation. Walter Terence Stace6 well expressed the dominant philosophy of our age in his "Science and Faith" a few years ago. He reminds us that all previous advanced cultures have believed that the "world is a moral order," but then goes on to tell us that our contemporaries commonly hold the opposite view. According to present day social scientists, he continues, moral Godes are purely human arrangements-and one might add, like prices, are subject to change without notice. Stace allows that this is why the foundations of society are crumbling and urges that we devise what might be called a scientific moral Gode to take the place of our outmoded system of ethics which was founded upon religion. In the light of a few thousand years of philosophical endeavor, one might well ask what the chances of success would be for a moral "operation bootstraps."
From Deism to Darwinism: God Becomes Unnecessary
Moses commanded Joshua when he came into the Promised Land to deploy the Twelve Tribes on the twin mountain peaks of Ebal and Cerizim (Dent. Chap. 27 through 30), so that the people might make a dramatic and very definite choice between good and evil: "Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse" (Dent. 11:26). This is so different from present day thinking: we would gather all the folks down in the valley between the two hills-the "middle of-the-road" position with no choice involved at all. At the Mountains of Blessing and Cursing the Hebrews made a contract with Jehovah to obey Him, with the understanding that disobedience would bring the direct consequences. This concept of a Covenant between God and His people survived through the Puritan epoch three hundred years ago. It is interesting to note, as Scott Buchanan7 points out, that "social contracts" then "took the place of covenants with God." In this we are moving toward the French Revolution and the radical upheavals of the present era.
It is not easy to date the beginnings of our own decline and fall. The late Richard Weaver8 insisted that it was back in the fourteenth century when Western man, like Macbeth, met the "witches on the heath." Those who rate civilization strictly in terms of horse power and gadgets may see no problem, but when we recall that we have seen atrocities in our own time that make the horrors of the dark ages pale into insignificance, the dangers of the course we are following become apparent. Where then did we miss our way? The concept of a personal God, concerned and involved in the affairs of men and to whom men are accountable, is often said to have been a casualty of Newtonian physics with its mechanical "world view." If one dates the rise of Deism to the pronouncements of Lord Herbert9 in 1624, Deism antedates Newton by more than a generation. In all fairness to Isaac Newton, it should be pointed out that he was devout and intended no disrespect to the Divine Lawgiver of the universe in seeking to understand the laws of motion basic to celestial mechanics. Whatever Newton's intent, his physics had a profound influence on philosophy in the ensuing years and went far in depersonalizing the universe.
This mechanical world became even more impersonal with the rise of modern geology about a century and a half ago, with Darwin's theory of evolution in biology completing the process a little later. Sir Charles Lyell,10 following James Hutton, insisted there had never been any great catastrophes such as a universal flood and was most emphatic that whatever natural calamities there had been across the ages were not divine judgments on sinful men. He said that ".
in a rude state of society, all great calamities are regarded by the people as judgments of God on the wickedness of man." For instance, "the submersion of the island of Atlantis under the waters of the ocean, after repeated shocks of an earthquake, . . . happened when Jupiter had seen the moral depravity of the inhabitants." LyclI thus liberated his contemporaries from what he considered the primitive notion that God punishes men for their sins. Darwin, a devoted disciple of Lyell, went even further in decreeing that there could be no meaning or purpose in this universe of ours. To understand the impact of Darwin's denial of purpose one must remember that the early nineteenth century might well be called the Age of Paley. William Paley had seen evidence of immense design in our world and had argued that design presupposes an Infinite Designer. The scientists of his time were caught up in this quest for proof that "all things work together for good" in a creation harmoniously engineered by the Supreme Architect of heaven and earth. Darwin11 was most emphatic: he said his contemporaries "believe that many structures have been created for the sake of beauty, to delight man or the Creator . Such doctrines, if true, would he absolutely fatal to my theory." He even discussed the flowers and the birds, but decided that their beauty or the songs of the birds have no higher purpose or meaning than mere survival -a view certainly less romantic than Emerson's12"... if eyes were made for seeing, Then Beauty is its own excuse for being." In conclusion, let us summarize the philosophical import of these two centuries from Deism to Darwinism: the Creator was first relegated to the position of absentee Landlord of His creation; it was later decided that we could also dispense with His services as First Cause and Designer of this universe as well as Supreme Judge. God was no longer necessary.
Relativism and Ruin
The sequel of these two centuries of philosophical "evolution" is most fascinating and, of course, brings us down to the present hour. The rigid, mechanical legalism of the Deists with their devotion to the physical laws of the universe soon gave way to the relativism of the modern period. Whatever the thinking of Einstein and Heisenberg may mean to the physicist, they still build bridges, battleships, skyscrapers and jet planes according to traditional mechanical principles and even launch Sputniks in terms of Newtonian physics. But in the realm of social science the victory of relativism has been well neigh complete. Whole academic disciplines have been built on the assumption that there is no truth and there are no abiding principles, that God and His Word simply do not matter. "The proper study of mankind" is legitimate but beset with many pitfalls.
While there has been considerable excitement at times over the last century about monkeys in cocanut trees, the larger implications of the modern secular "world view" have been almost completely overlooked by Christian scholars including the professors in our church-related colleges, presumably the last intellectual strongholds of the faith; having been educated and "brainwashed" in the state universities, our Christian teachers often fad to see the conflict between the academic disciplines they teach all week and the creeds they profess on Sunday. While I am out urging the abolition of secular learning, our blindness is tragic. As one of many possible examples, may I mention that one will search in vain through psychology and sociology books nearly as big as the Sears and Roebuck catalog for one mention of the fact of sin. Surely, if these subjects claim to be a study of human behavior, this is more than a minor omission. Still the psychologists and sociologists with their faulty view of man are in the forefront of the secular attempt to save the world. Furthermore, the triumph of this relativisitic, naturalistic, pragmatic philosophy has been a landslide, overwhelming every area of human thought and endeavor. For instance, former Chief Justice Viston13 rendered the decision in 1951: "Nothing is more certain in modern society than the principle that there are no absolutes ... all concepts are relative"-in other words, there are no abiding principles, no eternal Truths that were true when the Creator flung the stars into space and will still be true when this world is on fire. We have come a long way in the two centuries since Blackstone declared that the laws of men should conform to the Higher Law, "dictated by God Himself." The world has rejected God's Law and we have forgotten it. Those who would insist that I have overstated my case need only recall Julian Huxley's'4 remark of a few years ago:
The advance of natural science, logic and psychology has brought us to a stage at which God is no longer a useful hypothesis . . a faint trace of God still broods over the world like the smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat. But the growth of psychological knowledge will rob even that from the universe.
We are living in the post-Christian era, we are told. Little wonder that our civilization is rapidly being reduced to chaos and mass liquidations of human beings, created in the image of God, have become a commonplace.
Faith in a Living God
Still this is no time for us to become discouraged, although I suspect things may get worse, much worse, before they get better. Nevertheless, God is still on the throne. Those who know their history cannot help but be aware how dark the night has often been before the dawning of a new day of hope. Perhaps the beginnings of a New Reformation are already upon us. One may wonder if this "God-is-dead" controversy may not yet work out for His glory in that it brings a lot of issues out into the open: it at long last helps us see where our philosophical paths have been leading its over the last few centuries. Furthermore the bankruptcy of modern man's efforts to save himself are becoming increasingly apparent, most obviously in the colossal failure of the godless gospel of salvation according to Marx but no less so in other humanistic attempts to redeem mankind which may not have been so blatantly and offensively anti-God, although their basic assumptions were very much the same. Man must see his own abysmal failure and utter lostness before he feels his need of God once more. This he is increasingly aware of, although he seems not even yet to see the appropriate remedy, perhaps because of our own failure. Can it be if we could just turn the primitive Church, the Church of Peter and Paul, loose on our perverted world that they could turn it right side up once more? The Lord is still able-are we?
But we must realize that it will take much more than a little religious excitement-a revival in the very narrow sense as urgently as this is needed-to meet the needs of the world in this hour of global crisis. To those who would lament that we are living in the "last days" and that all is lost, may I say that our task is to "occupy till He comes"; our defeatism tends to bring defeat, for thinking so helps to make it so. Many times before down across the ages an insignificant minority with God's help have won the victory. It may yet be so. The task today is enormous because man has totally lost his way-spiritually, morally, intellectually. The "Christian World View" that Western man once took for granted has been shattered by several centuries of atheistic philosophizing and even we who should have been a saving leaven have largely forgotten our own great heritage. We as evangelicals need desperately to catch on our "homework "-there is a Christian point of view which follows most logically from the creeds we profess, if we would but take them seriously enough to investigate the practical out-workings of our own beliefs. Our own philosophical failures have left an intellectual vacuum. Consequently the Church of today, feeling the urgent need to "get involved" once more, is seriously lacking any sense of direction.
Fortunately, present conditions seem to favor a renaissance of Christian thinking in every dimension of life. The failures of the arrogant attempts of men to dispense with God and His Word, and to work out their own salvation without the help of a Higher Power, are multiplying. A number could be cited but two must suffice because of space. One is the dramatic collapse' of Wellhausen's "higher criticism," once the standard and "orthodox" view of the liberal theologian. For this heartwarming story see Herman Wouk's15 This is My God. Wouk is Jewish and, of course, would not agree with me on several points of theology but his book makes fascinating reading, particularly the brief section on Wellhausen. Another development that is of interest is a rebirth of concern for that Higher Law, "dictated by God Himself." There is a growing literature in this field. As I write I have before me a legal work, The Natural Law Reader, edited by Brendan F. Brown,16 a professor of law. He tells us on the dust jacket of the book: "Today a great resurgence of natural law thinking is taking place throughout the world, largely due to the frightful consequences of its rejection in Nazi and Communist countries." These and other encouraging signs may be only a cloud the "size of a man's hand," but I see in them great promise, if we will clear our minds and let our hearts be "strangely warmed" like Wesley before he went out to preach a message that saved England and the world in another dark hour in human history. God lives and is still able to meet our need in this hour of global crisis.
1.Lincoln Barnett, "God and the American People," Reader's
Digest, (Jan., 1949), pp. 33-38.
2. Otto Butz, (editor), The UnSilent Generation, "Au Anonymous Symposium in Which Eleven College Seniors Look at Themselves and Their World," (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1958), p. 26.
3John Palfrey, History of New England," in Christian History of the Constitution Vol. 1, compiled by Verna M. Hall (San Francisco: American Christian Constitution Press, 1960), p. 48.
4. C. E. Robinson, Hellas, A Short History of Ancient Greece (Boston: Beacon Press, 1948), p. 100.
5. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England
Vol. I (Lewis's edition, 1902), p. 31; quoted also by Hall (op. cit.), p. 142.
6. Walter Tercoco Staco, "Values as Natural, Objective and Universal," in Crucial Issues in Education, edited by Ehlcrs and Lee (New York: Holt-Dryden, 1959), pp. 163-167.
*Edward P. Coleson is at Spring Arbor College, Spring Arbor, Michigan