PONDERING THE WORLD THROUGH TWO RADICALLY DIFFERENT LENSES; NATURALISM VERSUS THEISM

I frequently ponder the stunning complexity of the world through two radically different lenses.

Sometimes I view the world through the naturalistic eyes of a good friend and brilliant philosopher who sincerely believes science urges us to conclude that nothing exists except a blind, materialistic, evolutionary process “governed” by random mutations. Sometimes, far more often, I view the world through my theistic eyes, which discern a gloriously intricate, purposely designed world created by a loving God. Those two fundamentally contradictory views stand side by side in today’s world. The first dominates our great universities, although substantial minorities of today’s best philosophers, physicists, and other scholars embrace the second. The second has been the view of both Christian laity and generations of brilliant Christian scholars for two millennia.

It is widely recognized that these two contradictory visions lead to momentous, contradictory views about persons and society. Christian theists claim that persons are made in the image of a loving, personal God who created them with genuine freedom to embrace or reject the universal moral order embedded in the universe, indeed even the freedom to say yes or no to the Creator’s invitation to life eternal in the presence of the living God.

If the naturalistic philosophy is right, persons are just complex machines that accidentally evolved. Many naturalists still somehow think persons have a special dignity and worth (we certainly are a lot more complex and intelligent) and argue for human freedom. But I do not think that persons, if made by a blind, materialistic process, possess the same worth and dignity they do if they are created in the very image of God. I also find it hard to see how human beings have any freedom in a world whose every part is determined by prior, exclusively materialistic causes and random mutation. At death, as Bertrand Russell dared to say bluntly, we die, rot, and disappear forever. Whatever worth persons may have, it lasts only for a fleeting moment and then is gone.

How is it that honest, intelligent people today genuinely searching for truth come to such radically different conclusions?

Christians should not quickly dismiss the secular view. We need to face the considerable evidence that people like Carl Sagan marshal (see his Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark).

 For centuries, careful (often devoutly Christian) scientists have been at work looking for natural material causes. They discovered that the earth was a tiny speck revolving around a small sun in a small galaxy in a universe with billions of stars in every one of more than a hundred billion galaxies. Scientists discovered natural, non-miraculous explanations for comets, plagues, and all kinds of other things formerly explained by miracle. Then Darwin caught a glimpse of how species evolved through chance mutation and survival of the fittest. An ever-growing body of fossil finds, DNA evidence, and scientific data about our ten-plus-billion-year-old universe confirm Darwin’s basic thesis. 

Of course, there are still substantial gaps, lots of things that contemporary scientists cannot yet explain, but is not the only “responsible,” “rational,” “scientific” conclusion that the scientific method will be able to explain everything and that nothing exists except this evolving materialistic world? Such a conclusion may—indeed does—force on us a painful, radical rejection of the traditional view of persons made in the divine image and called to life eternal in the presence of the loving Creator of the universe. The truth may be tough, but honest people will embrace it, no matter how wrenching its implications.

But difficult questions press in.

First of all, is there not a huge philosophical (ultimately religious) leap in the so-called “scientific” case for naturalism? All science does is show us with ever greater (breathtaking) precision how the natural, material world regularly works. No amount of scientific data could ever in principle tell us whether there is something more than the material world. More and more knowledge about how the material world regularly works tells us absolutely nothing about whether God exists. If God exists outside the material world as its Creator, God can perform miracles any time God chooses. An intelligent Mind could have chosen to use the long evolutionary process to which Darwin pointed to bring the detailed world we know into existence. It requires a leap of faith to bridge the gap between the scientific fact that a vast amount of what we regularly experience in the material world has natural, material causes and the atheist’s claim that only the natural world exists. The latter statement flows not from science but from atheistic religious belief.

Atheists disagree on how compelling the connection is between the vast amount of scientific data on natural, materialistic causes and the conclusion that God does not exist. Some think that continuing to believe in God is extremely irrational; others consider the question of God’s existence much more open. It would certainly be bad philosophy to argue that contemporary science demands a naturalistic worldview.

Second, and quite apart from current discussion of “intelligent design,” many of our best minds have thought the amazing complexity and order of the world around us points to some intelligent cause. Even the great skeptic David Hume wrote that “a purpose, an intention, or design strikes everywhere the most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it” (quoted in C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe?: Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God[Eerdmans, 1996], p. 35).

Third, in a random, materialistic world, it is hard to understand ethics as anything more than arbitrary and subjective. As the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Everything is permissible if God does not exist.” So why not rape, rob, or kill your neighbors if you are stronger and can get away with it? As Russell said, those who have the best poison gas will determine the “ethics” of the future.

In practice, to be sure, many ethicists do develop ethical systems and argue that right and wrong are more than subjective feelings. But it is hard to see how a solid foundation for a universal ethic can be derived from a blind materialistic process. On the other hand, it is easy to see how a loving personal Creator could make a world with universal moral norms and create human beings with some innate sense of that moral order.

Fourth, there is the problem of freedom. If everything is determined by prior materialistic causes, how do we explain the inner freedom that we all experience? Surely, materialistic determinists have to conclude that freedom is just an illusion, because it would seem impossible for genuine freedom to evolve from a materialistic process. And yet the materialists often acknowledge that moral responsibility makes no sense at all without freedom.

Finally, there is the historical evidence. Virtually all serious historians today agree that Jesus was a historical person who was kind and loving but also made some pretty outrageous claims. There is even pretty strong historical evidence that the crucified Jesus was alive again the third day.

How clear is that evidence? The person willing to look honestly at the historical evidence with an open mind finds it surprisingly strong (see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God). But it is not a mathematical proof. The preponderance of data points toward a real historical resurrection, but the evidence is not so strong that it totally overwhelms the rational mind.

There is a certain parallel to the other things we have noted. Design in nature, the sense of right and wrong, human freedom, all seem to find a better foundation in a theistic rather than a naturalistic view of the world. But none of the arguments—one by one or together—represent a totally airtight case. They leave room for human choice.

Why? Biblical revelation says the Creator shaped persons as free beings because he wanted us to love and obey him in freedom, not compulsion. If God had made the evidence for his existence so total, so clear, so omnipresent that every rational mind felt compelled to accept it in the same way we feel compelled to accept a mathematical formula, we would not be free in our relationship to God.

It looks as if the Creator left pretty clear calling cards scattered in nature, persons, and human history. But God chose not to make their message so abundantly clear that they would wipe out human freedom.

We are left with two radically contradictory views of the world. The theistic view, I think, makes better sense of all we know than the naturalistic view. But, finite beings that we are, we must all, on both sides of this divide, keep looking honestly at all the solid data that human experience (science, history, self-reflection) provide. Unless we do that, we fall into dogmatism, rather than continue an honest search for truth.

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