Naturalism and it’s discontents

A man was caught in floods, and climbed up onto his roof to avoid the rising waters. He prayed to God to save him from the flood. Along came a man in a monster truck, which had a high enough wheelbase to be clear of the water, and offered him transport out of there. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Along came a man in a boat, and offered him a place in the boat. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Then a helicopter flew over, and a man called from it “Here, I’ll drop you a ladder – climb up and I’ll take you to safety”. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Eventually, standing on the ridge of the roof, with the water lapping at his feet, the man prayed again “God, why have you not saved me?” A voice came from the clouds “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter – what more do you want me to do?”.

I’ve recently had a couple of exchanges on Global Christian perspectives revolving round the fact that I’m a methodological naturalist. That means that, when confronted with a situation, I look for natural rather than supernatural causes, i.e. I look for a scientific explanation.

What happens if I can’t work out a scientific explanation? In conscience, I assume that there actually is a scientific explanation, just not one which I can yet understand – maybe based on scientific principles which haven’t yet been discovered. What I don’t do is go the extra step and say that it is not possible that there is a non-scientific, supernatural explanation (which would be ontological naturalism, i.e. naturalism going to the root of what things are in themselves) – but for all practical purposes, that isn’t saying much. It caused a bit of a stir at my small group a while ago when I said that I couldn’t believe in any supernatural cause – how is it, one person asked, that you can be a Christian and not believe in the supernatural?

It’s actually entirely possible. There are even atheist Christians, who positively disbelieve in the existence of God, but much more widespread are a large number of what are commonly labelled “liberal” theologians, of whom a 20th century German theologian called Rudolph Bultmann stands out. His great project was to “demythologise” scripture, which meant to look for the meaning of scripture stripped of all the mythological elements, which included miracles, but also a large amount of the story told in scripture, in his case particularly any account of the historical Jesus.

Much of the academy (i.e. those who study theology and scripture professionally in universities) are in line with this kind of thinking. However, this relatively seldom translates into local churches, at least in my experience; theologically trained clergy put aside their philosophical positions when delivering their sermons, or they find some philosophical “work round” such as neo-orthodoxy or post-liberalism. I have never heard a sermon attempting to explain either!

In conscience, though, I also find that whatever the people in the pews state as their beliefs (which are usually far more historically conventional than followers of Bultmann), in practice they are also methodological naturalists. Most of them will respond very positively to the story I started with, variants of which I’ve heard in several sermons. Most of them will not rely just on prayer for healing, they will also see a doctor and take medicine. They are largely relying on naturalistic solutions, though they may well pray as well.

A few, a very few, actually go through life depending on God (or as an atheist would see it, chance) to provide for them. They appear actually to believe that “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20). And, mirabile dictu, it quite often seems to work for them. Mind you, it also seems that non-religious people who are fired with unshakeable convictions can sometimes achieve things which the average somewhat doubtful person could not. To this congenitally sceptical observer, it also seems that sometimes both groups set themselves up for colossal failure by doing this, and that the positive impression I have painted may be largely the result of confirmation bias, but from where I sit, if you can live like that, do it. I can’t, however hard I may try.

I am not, of course, suggesting that people are being hypocritical or lying about their beliefs, or at least not any more than every human being does. Most people, I find, don’t actually examine their beliefs in very much detail, and those that do may well feel that a kind of desperate hope that, in fact, things might be the way they believe is sufficient. I can manage that desperate hope myself (and do, particularly when there’s no other option than desperate hope) – I just can’t any more elevate it to the category of something I really believe in

That, of course, extends to “faith that” statements which I am regularly asked to confirm I believe, and where those include a supernatural element (such as, for instance, the virgin birth) I have to say that I cannot actually bring myself to believe these; the nearest I can get is to suspend disbelief and (with Bultmann) look for what else such a statement is able to carry as a message.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no antipathy toward the supernatural – in fact, I would love there to be supernatural explanations for things. When younger, I was fascinated with claims of supernatural events and effects and spent a lot of time exploring groups and traditions which claimed to have special knowledge and/or special abilities in that direction. I am still keen on reading fantasy books for relaxation, and have a weak spot for superhero narratives. The trouble is, almost universally I came to the conclusion that in the world which we inhabit, supernatural forces are not at work. The most I can say is that we do not yet fully understand all of the natural forces which exist. That, tempered with the occasional desperate hope…

Mind you, in studying “the supernatural”, I very much took the view that it needed to have theories of how it worked, and experimental techniques, and confirmatory experiments – and all this would actually have reduced the supernatural to another set of natural forces, just ones which didn’t operate by the set of rules we currently have in science. The personal God would, in addition, have a character, and that could be analysed.

In other words, in doing theology, we are attempting to establish sets of rules by which supernatural events and effects operate, with a view to controlling their effects on ourselves. If we view God as having, in any sense, agency (i.e. being able to act in the world other than as an impersonal force), theologians are attempting to psychoanalyse God, to establish what God will do given a particular set of circumstances – and as time has gone by, they are less willing to accept a view of God as arbitrary and unpredictable (faithful, steadfast and just are frequently used terms, while philosophical theologians have arrived at terms such as unchanging and immutable). The gods of (for instance) Greece, Rome or the Teutons or Norse were hugely unpredictable, and historically they lost ground very rapidly to a God conceived of as being rather more reliable.

If we view God as being more akin to an impersonal force (which is broadly speaking the deist position), it is still possible to analyse how it is that this force operates in the world. Finally, if we end up in the position of God as “ground of all being” or “the condition for the possibility of existence”, analysis will still take place, although among philosophical theologians rather than what we might call “practical theologians”. The unpredictable is anathema these days (it wasn’t in the days of, say, the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods, who could be incredibly arbitrary and unpredictable), and most of us instinctively agree with Einstein when he said “God doesn’t play dice” – though, at a subatomic level, it now seems that this is exactly what everything we see depends on.

In this connection, I think it’s worth mentioning two approaches to conceiving of God. One is that of the philosophers, starting in the West (as far as our records show) with Plato. There is a splendid set of lectures by Professor Keith Ward outlining this general approach. The trouble is, the God outlined by the philosophers is usually a long way from both the interventionist picture of God and from the personal picture of God enshrined in Christian scripture. But then, I think that reasoning towards God from first principles is a fundamentally flawed idea; to me God is first and foremost an experiential reality, and any picture of God must be built up from that experience, and not from philosophical argument. In any event, these arguments end up with a God who is far more impersonal force than personal, relational entity, and I harbour the strong suspicion that any suggestion that this is what God most fundamentally is is eventually going to come up against a new discovery of science which actually describes how that force operates.

Another (and it is to some extent part of the philosophers’ armoury) is the appeal to a first cause, something which set everything we know of in motion, called it into existence; the creator God. Of course, science has taken over most of the history of the universe, and from the point of view of physics, it is fairly settled what has happened since the extremes of the first second or so after the Big Bang (and there really is no place for a creator in that account). However, a source of constant wonder for scientists (myself included) is the fact that so many physical quantities are so precisely fixed as to create circumstances in which all of the immensity and complexity of the known universe could exist. There is a good lecture by Professor Ard Louis on this subject, which I think illustrates well how finely tuned physics actually is to produce what we see.

There are a few problems with Prof. Louis’ account. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult and deceptive to calculate probabilities for something happening which has in fact happened – after all, the probability of something happening which has actually occurred is 100% (or 1). In any event, it can readily be suggested that the anthropic principle is fundamentally flawed in that, in order for us to be observing this amazing coincidence of masses of constants, those constants in any case had to be exactly as they are; had they not been, there would have been no observer.

Some physicists extend this thinking and posit that on every occasion on which more than one thing might happen, actually all possible things happen and the universe splits into multiple almost identical “multiverses”. It’s worth mentioning that this idea, which would have horrified William of Occam, who inveighed against the multiplication of metaphysical entities, is also attractive to some theologians, who find in is a solution to the freewill -v- determinism issue – with multiverses, everything can be simultaneously totally determined and totally freely chosen. I rather recoil against it myself. After all, one of the fundamental drives of both scientists and theologians is to simplify things so that they can be understood, rather than complicate them to an extent approaching infinity!

However, there is as more substantive problem, and that is that physics does not have any idea of a mechanism by which such physical quantities might be fixed. This feeds back into my first point – if you don’t know anything about a mechanism, assessing the probability of one thing happening rather than another is perhaps foolish. Also, however, it leaves the age old hostage to fortune in being a “God of the gaps” answer. Science has filled a very large number of those gaps in the past, and this one might get filled in the future. Also, I am inclined to go along with the argument of Douglas Adams, in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” regarding the Babel Fish, an universal translator:- “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing. Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. “

Finally, of course, it doesn’t paint a picture which the authors of either the New Testament or the Old would have recognised as being God.

Of course, this is all at base because science answers the question “how does this happen?”, generally with the subtext of “how can I make it happen, or prevent it from happening, again?” or “what new and interesting things could I see once I understand how this happens?”. It does not answer the questions “what is the purpose of this?” or “what does this mean?” Those questions, at least arguably, only have validity in the space of thought.

And, of course, whatever science may explain away, it is undeniable that God exists in the space of human thought and, as our experience is always in that space, in human experience.






I am who I am…

There has been an interesting discussion on The Jesus Blog of the use in Mark 6:50 of the words “ego eimi” (in the Greek), meaning in a literal way “I am”. One might think that this is not a basis for much theological speculation, but this is a famous couplet which, in its use in John 8:58 is one of the relatively few places in scripture which people use to assert that Jesus claimed to be God (rather than that his followers claimed this). “Jesus said unto them,Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”

(Note – my links are to an online Greek-English interlinear, and there’s a need to scroll down to the last page in both cases).

I’ve written about this before, but now the identification of the use of what is, let’s face it, just the words “I am” seems to be spreading well outside that instance, I think it’s worth another look.

The issue is, of course, that in Exodus 3:14, it is stated “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’. And he said ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you”‘”. In the Hebrew original, the phrase is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” (and “I am who I am” is only one of several potential translations suggested for it; “I am who I will be” is also a popular version, and in the link I give next, the translation is “I am the being”). The Greek version of this in the Septuagint uses the words “ego eimi”. Actually the phrase is “ego eimi ho on”, which would naturally translate “I am the being”. “Ego eimi” is not, for what its worth, susceptible of quite as many alternative translations into English as is “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh”, but does capture some of the potential sense.

From this, theologians have long re-read John 8:58 as “before Abraham was, I am [I AM]”, making it a direct claim of identity with the God of Exodus. This has been particularly attractive due to the need to infer an extra verb (see the square brackets above). “Ego eimi” is used quite a lot of times in John; nowhere in the synoptics is there much language from Jesus stating what he is, but the Fourth Gospel has a particular agenda, made obvious by its preamble (John 1:1-18). It is THE wording used by proponents of Lewis’ trilemma, a tool of evangelism which I particularly hate.

Let me recapitulate my feelings about this passage. Firstly, if the natural meaning of the passage is indeed “I am God”, given that its context was in a discussion with scribes and pharisees, had Jesus said it, his life expectancy would have been measured in minutes rather than (as the gospel would have it) a year or two. At the most, therefore, the passage must have been seen as ambiguous by the writer; at the least, the extra verb to be inferred must have been “was” at the end, so it would read “before Abraham was, I AM [was]”; the inference to be drawn from that would then be that Jesus claimed particular knowledge granted to him by his God, who of course pre-existed Abraham and therefore knew the things in question.

In fact, however, I do not view the author of the Fourth Gospel as reporting Jesus’ actual lifetime words most of the time (and nor do a very substantial number of biblical scholars), I view him as reporting what he thinks Jesus might have (or ought to have) said in the circumstances reported. In the process, he is keen to show the priestly and scholarly elite countered and confounded by some clever wording and (in the case of the exchange with Nicodemus) ambiguous terminology. To use a phrase capable of multiple interpretations, one of which might indicate a high Christology but others of which might be entirely mundane, would be quite in keeping with the rest of his usage.

I do not in saying this, incidentally, suggest that the writer was fabricating in a deplorable way; I am quite confident, from the preamble, in identifying the author as a mystic with a striking similarity to the entirely Jewish Philo of Alexandria (much of whose thinking on the logos is recapitulated in precis in John 1) who is specifically a Jesus mystic. I see him as interpreting his mystical experience of God through the filter of identifying this as an experience specifically of Jesus (hence all the “I am” statements), and this is very much a cosmic Christ rather than a mundane Jesus. However, it is still not necessarily the case that the author saw Jesus as ontologically equivalent with the God of Abraham; he could have considered him as “principal agent” through whom God worked, or indeed as the material representation of that principal agent.

At the most, therefore, I see ego eimi here as being deliberately ambiguous wording.

What of the various scholars writing on or referred to in the Jesus Blog taking the use of ego eimi in Mark as indicating a far higher Christology than is normally associated with that gospel? I think that is a stretch, and a stretch too far. It is true that a recurring theme in Mark is that the apostles are completely missing the point of Jesus’ sayings and actions, but in expounding that, Mark is not using clever uses of ambiguous words, but parables and metaphors. It is a completely different technique.

The use of what is, on face value, merely the statement “I am” to designate godly status is one which would only potentially be valid if there were substantial other evidence that what was being set up in the wider context was a theophany, and while I was impressed by the argument that Jesus walking on the sea and stilling the waves does give that wider context, I think it falls short of establishing a sufficient probability. That way leads far too easily to seeing every use of ego eimi (and there are a LOT of those, many of which don’t refer to either God or Jesus) as theophanies.

We might even start seeing this as a theophany!

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In passing, eh’yeh asher eh’yey, I am that I am,  is perhaps the strangest thing identified as “the name of God”. It is echoed, however, in “He who is” (and “She who is” in Elizabeth Johnson’s book). I am not convinced that I can, in fact, see it as that – the usage in Exodus would, therefore, be a one-off, a singular usage not to be repeated and certainly not able to be echoed in John or Mark with that significance. I cannot, for instance, contemplate using it “to His face, if I was faced with Him in all His Glory”. It just doesn’t work as a name. As an avoidance of any naming in Exodus, however, yes…

Shattering the chandelier

One of my guilty pleasures is the blind auditions of “The Voice”. I’m less struck on the rest of the show, but the unseen singer and the chairs turning (or not) is a magic formula.

Saturday night saw the first blind audition of this year which I’ve thought truly exceptional (OK, most of the other acts this year I’d have turned my chair for, none of the judges liked…). The singer was Kevin Simm, once of Liberty X (which seems to have escaped my notice). I was sufficiently struck by his performance to want to listen to it again, and then to do a little digging about the song, which also had escaped my notice, apparently in 2014, written and recorded by the Australian singer Sia.

It more or less immediately occurred to me that the subject of the song lent itself to the more emotional (and painful) rendering which Kevin gave it than the electropop of the original; that wasn’t, I found, original to Kevin, as Jordan Smith had also got a four-chair turn with the song on The Voice America. However, reflection and some research indicated that perhaps Sia had seen it as ironic, which was borne out by the fact that one critic is recorded as saying that the song made him want to “swing from the chandelier”. The rest of the critics mostly seem to have recognised it for the rather dark piece it is.

” Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything, when will I learn / I push it down, push it down / I’m the one “for a good time call” / Phone’s blowin’ up, ringin’ my doorbell / I feel the love, feel the love”, then the refrain

” 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / Throw ’em back, till I lose count /
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier / I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist…”

then “But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes / Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight”. Feeling dreadful and shameful in the morning, and then “1,2,3,1,2,3…” Rinse and repeat.

Aside from the fact that by the time I got myself into a cycle like that, there was no swinging from the chandelier, just an ability to function somewhat normally for a while (and the period kept decreasing), I recognise this all too well. It’s about a slide into alcoholism, with a strong note of desperation. There’s the wanting to stop negative feelings there, the having to put on a front for the world, the suppressed misery and above all the feeling of helplessness and inevitablility all distilled into what are really very few lyrics – it’s extremely well crafted. And in the song, it’s decorated by soaring voice on the word “chandelier”, particularly beautifully sung by Mr. Simm (who deserves to do very well in the rest of the series).

That was some years ago now, and although I keep the memory alive through 12 step meetings, it’s usually very muted – “we shall not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”. This song, which has stuck in my brain as what we refer to as an “ear-worm” removes the muting, and makes the experience of 10-12 years ago vivid again. Though, unlike the critic, it doesn’t make me want to swing from the chandelier, more to run and hide from anything remotely like that. For the twelve-steppers, more like “1,2,3, don’t drink”.

The memory is still painful, it seems. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But please can the song stop running through the back of my mind for a while?