Scientific Pantheism and the God of the Physicists


(system) #1
How some New Atheists aren’t necessarily atheistic
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/scientific-pantheism-and-the-god-of-the-physicists

#2

I can’t see the God of Physics being much different from the God of Philosophy. The God of Philosophy is pretty sterile and wouldn’t seem to share many aspects attributed to the Biblical God, particularly with respect to garment preference (e.g. mixed vs. single-component weaves).

It would be difficult even to make the case that the God of Physics has an inordinate fondness for beetles. ‘Dark matter’, possibly, but ‘beetles’ seem too specific. :slight_smile:

I think it was useful to distinguish the various types of pantheism. As noted, some interpretations of pantheism readily overlap with atheism.


(George Brooks) #3

@Argon

I agree with that general view. That’s why I find Deism so unsatisfying as well. While I’m not equating Deism with Pantheism, Deism doesn’t allow for a divine mind that interacts with humans in Real Time.

It’s rather dull. And so are some forms of Pantheism.


#4

I suppose a pantheistic God could generate locally-scoped Deistic and/or Theistic demi-Gods. That situation is certainly not incompatible with the God of Physics.

Terry Pratchett was right: It’s turtles all the way down. :alien:


(Matthew Pevarnik) #5

I think there is something beautiful about those encountering something beyond the physical and we can just let it be. To be greatly moved by the Pale Blue Dot, must we throw Christian theology all over it or just let Sagan encounter what we call ‘God.’ There is something greatly beautiful about the world revealed through modern science as even a deistic god must be remarkably powerful and wise. I say let these guys encounter God without the baggage of Christian language which they view in a very negative light. Maybe I am breaking too many rules of the New Testament in even writing this but I think encouraging such figures in their pursuit of this indescribable encounter with the divine as opposed to poking at their dogmatic Atheism.


#6

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #7

I see the question of pantheism as focusing on the philosophical nature of reality.

Pantheism clearly sees the nature of reality as One. God is all and all is God. In a real sense atheists are pantheists where God is matter/energy and matter/energy is God.

The problem is the Mind or the Rational. Panentheism seems like a dualistic pantheism where God has a Mind which is separate from the universe, while God’s body is the universe.

The problem is the mind. The physical cannot think. Science says that Nature to be impersonal because it cannot think, but if Nature is impersonal and cannot think, then it is radically different from humans, who are personal and can think. Thus it follows that humans are “Wholly Other” from Nature, and Reality is not one, but two, Physical and Rational.

This is the position basically as I understand it of Western dualism, Physical and Rational. The problem here is that this view confuses and conjoins the rational/mind with the spiritual/spirit. They are related as are the physical and the mental and the spiritual. This makes three aspects of Reality instead one or two.

This triune relational understanding of reality provides something for everyone. Science gets the unity and diversity it needs and the importance of the4 physical. Philosophy is rescued from irrelevancy and given a new life. Theology resumes its position as the queen of the sciences, which it must take with real humility.

A God Who is impersonal is Wholly Other, and is not YHWH, God of the Bible. YHWH is not Absolute or Wholly Other, but is Relational, Personal, and God With Us. God is not One with the universe, because humans are not God, The Universe is not Two, because God loves us.

Christians are in the World, but not of the World. God is in Christians through the Holy Spirit, but Christians are not God. We are physical, mental, and spiritual.


(Stephen Snobelen) #8

The “God of the Philosophers” or the “God of the physicists” has played an important role in Christian apologetics from the time of the Church Fathers onward. In an even vaguer sense, one might argue that the Apostle Paul does this in Romans 1:20 and in his speech on Mars Hill as recorded in Acts 17. Here is it noteworthy that the speech not only takes place in Athens, but that two Greek philosophical schools are mentioned by name: the Epicureans and the Stoics (17:18). What Paul does in this speech is interesting and similar to what he says in his shorter speech at Lystra (Acts 14:14-18).

At Mars Hill he appeals to the Greeks’ indirect sense of God both by noting signs of God’s providence (“the God who made the world and everything in it”) and quoting two of their writers in the lines “In him we live and move and have our being” and “For we are indeed his offspring”. In both quotations the reference is to the Greek high God Zeus.

But Paul doesn’t merely do this. Although there is no specific mention of the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul is here not ultimately describing the God of the Philosophers, but rather the God of the Prophets. Thus, the statement “the God who made the world and everything in it” is unquestionably a summary of the forming and filling of the Genesis Creation (see especially the wording of Genesis 2:1). Similarly, the description of God as “Lord of heaven and earth” is rooted in the Creation account as well as other biblical passages (e.g., Genesis 14:19; Isaiah 37:16; Jeremiah 33:25) and likely the mention of God giving “to all mankind life and breath and everything” (cf. Genesis 2:7), but also Job 12:10; Isaiah 42:5 and Daniel 5:23. In all of this, Paul is also using biblical language to point to monotheism.

So, without mentioning the Bible, Paul preaches biblical theology to the Greeks after offering a bridge with their vague glimpses of monotheism through their polytheism. Paul also criticises the anthropomorphism of the Greek pantheon, and the Hellenic (and Roman) penchant for representing their gods in human form in statue (17:29). For more background on the speech in Acts 17, see:

http://spindleworks.com/library/rfaber/aratus.htm

For the Christian there is a possible bridge in appealing to the God of the Philosophers at an early stage in apologetics. This would involve considering such things as fine-tuning in the Cosmos. The idea of God creating using number, weight and measure (as stated in the Apocryphal but still conceptually biblical and Hebraic passage Wisdom 11:20) is not incompatible with the God of the Bible, but it is not the entirety of the God of the Bible, who isn’t merely a grand geometer but a personal God who desires relationships with human beings. The French philosopher and believer Blaise Pascal famously recognised the difference between a mere God of the Philosophers and the God of the Prophets in his ecstatic Memorial of 1654. For the full text, see:

http://www.users.csbsju.edu/~eknuth/pascal.html

Although Pascal played an important role in the history of science (e.g., his study of air pressure from which we get the unit pascal), and saw science and religion as compatible, the Memorial reveals a deep Christian and biblical piety that goes beyond the language of science.

To sum up: at the level of apologetics, the God of the Philosophers has long been used in natural theology and for discussions with non-Christians. Conceptually this idea is not at variance with the God of the Bible if it is recognised as one aspect of God rather than the totality of his being.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

Turtles all the way down – after the initial four elephants that is.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10

Steve,

Thank you for pointing out that Paul used Greek thought as a bridge for Greeks to understand the gospel. The early Church Fathers continued this process by safeguarding the Gospel through the Trinity, while making it intelligible to Hellenistic people through Biblical and philosophical ideas.

The problem as I see it is that Christians have depended on traditional philosophy, primarily Aristotle, for the philosophical basis of our theology. This has resulted in Western dualism, which has served the West and Christianity well in the past, but no longer does. Even though I do not agree with the conclusions of Dawkins and Hawking concerning traditional philosophy, their criticisms have validity.

In terms of Christianity more and more people are seeing that it is relational, even though this goes against the traditional understanding of Reality as Being. It seems to me that we can continue to affirm traditional Western dualism, even though this cannot be defended, or try to develop a new cosmology on a new relational foundation, which is much better for Christianity, Science, and Philosophy.

The latter is not an easy task, but that is what I see God calling me to do, and I hope others could be of assistance.


#11

I agree. I’m not sure the marriage of traditional philosophy and theology quite works out. I can see how it would help appeal to the intellectuals at the time with Hellenistic viewpoints and now, because of a continuous tradition plus some ‘philosophy envy’. I’ll come back to this later when I have the time, but the notion that the Philosophy God is one aspect of the Christian God is hard to demonstrate. It’s not even clear if the attributes of either can properly align. Granted, the attempt to conjoin the two has along history in apologetics, but it remains one of those unresolved issues of philosophy.


(Doug B) #12

Excellent article and discussion. I hadn’t appreciated the borrowed, emotive language they used. Bonhoeffer’s work Creation and Temptation says it well:

“The place where the Bible begins is one where our most impassioned waves of thinking break, are thrown back upon themselves and lose their strength in spray and foam.”


(John Dalton) #13

I don’t really understand the point of saying that scientific pantheism exists as a concept. It seems to boil down to that:

The cosmos is the ultimate thing as far as we can see
The cosmos is majestic, and in that regard sometimes described using language generally used by religion

Isn’t that really about it?


(GJDS) #14

This is a good point; my reading of orthodoxy indicates the Church Fathers were confronted with a Hellenistic philosophy that worked against the Church Creed, particularly when speaking of one God, and also of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The pagan view of the times inevitably insisted on many gods, and this was overlaid, or used, to criticise the Christian faith. The problem was further compounded by the controversy on the nature of Christ as human and divine.

However we may err if we believe Christians turned to Hellenic philosophy. The education of the time was more or less centred (or based)on the Athenian schools, and Plato (Academy) and Aristotle were the dominant ones. Greek was the language that was widespread - and thus the one and many, being and non-being, were fundamental to educated people. Often I get the impression that because theology was spoken and written mostly in Greek, people assume it relied on Hellenic philosophy.

There are interesting views on these matters, including the influence of Platonic thought in later centuries and Aristotle in Western Christianity. Yet I remain convinced that Patristic writings, and Orthodoxy, were not influenced beyond the use of Greek terms.

The central feature of a personal God who sent His Son for our salvation permeates all orthodoxy.


(Darrel R Falk) #15

I appreciate the way in which this article addresses the emergence of pantheism in the physical sciences. Just like Paul at the Areopagus it does indeed open the door for discussion of the powerful Christ-centered alternative to Einstein’s god. Is there an equivalent biologist’s (pantheistic) god, I wonder? Until recently modern biology was so enamored with reductionism that few of the leading thinkers moved beyond defining and characterizing the reductionistic forces at the micro level (the bottom up approach) to think about the unique aspects that one detects by starting at the planet’s biological higher levels and working down. Over the past few years this has been changing and there are many fine books that summarize the results so far. As they do this, some are beginning to emphasize the spiritual dimension to life. In proceeding however, there is more of a tendency to look to Buddhist thought for this spirituality than what Christianity has to say (see books by Denis Noble or Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, for example). Like the pantheistic physicists, the pantheistic biologists almost go out of their way to distance themselves from Christian theism. There is so much need for solid Christian theology to be moving into this space. Like the reductionistic biologists, we Christians have been too myopic–too focused on word-by-word details and not the big picture. Both biology and biblically-centered theology can now be freed up to to explore–together–the ramifications and theological richness of what it means to say that all things were created by, and all things are held together in, Christ.

Recently here in San Diego, the Dali Lama spoke at the UCSD graduation to a highly packed-out audience. May the day come when it is Christian thinkers, not Buddhist ones, who are sought out by the wisdom seekers of society.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #16

Bro. Darrel,

Thank you for your apt comments.

There are reasons for this. The primary one is a reaction against Western dualism, which I have said is no longer tenable. Thus people are looking for an alternative and Christianity is not seen as an alternative.

Of course Christian theology is the alternative, because it combines the One and the Many in a dynamic way monism and dualism cannot in the Trinity. Sadly no one else seems to want to even e4xplore this alternative, as if Western dualism is sacrosanct, which it is not.

Do you or anyone else have any suggestions as to how we can get people to look at a cosmology that combines unity and diversity, one and the many? I would appreciate any and all suggestions.


(Darrel R Falk) #17

Roger,

At the risk of sounding trite, I keep reminding myself of the following, even as I keep forgetting it.There is one important difference between a project like this and all secular projects. The task ahead cannot turn into a human endeavor alone. The church has survived, thrived even, despite massive human bumbling for two millennia for only one reason–God’s Providence. Our task as individuals then, is to express our understanding of the issues as clearly and lovingly as we can. In so doing we seek to usher in the kingdom of God in our own sphere of influence, no matter how small (or even futile) it seems; the rest is up to the Spirit. When all is said and done we can take peace in this knowledge: “For thine is the kingdom…the power…the glory…forever and ever. Amen”. It is, after all, God’s church.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #18

Bro, Darrell,

I respect your response, but I do not share your conservative point of view.

To se sure the Church has survived in all its many forms because of God’s Providence, but I would say that it is also because of the faithfulness of God’s people. God has created the Church as a partnership, even as God is the Senior Partner. If God is our Leader, humans must follow.

The problem with the evangelical tradition as I see it is that it has made humans passive followers. The Bible as written is the Truth and our task is to live and understand this limited theology on our world.

The Bible depicts a changing world and how God’s people were faithful and unfaithful in this changing world. Today it appears that evangelicals are rejecting todays world, and are desperately trying to turn back the clock. Their faith has been turned into a legalistic ideology and has been captured by a political ideology and manipulated its own purposes.

The Church is in sad and precarious state. Our country is in a sad and precarious state. The answer is Jesus Christ Who condemns these human ideologies. Of course I understand that you do not as far as I know accept these ideologies. My point is that today we need spiritual leadership like that of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr. to make God’s Kingdom more evident in our world.

God has given us the Logos, Jesus Christ. It is up to us to find the Logos in God’s physical world. God has given us an answer to the failure of Western dualism in the Trinity. Now we must follow God’s leadership. God shows us the way, but God will not do our thinking for us. The same as YEC vs Evolutionary Creationism.


(Stephen Snobelen) #19

Here is the perspective of someone who, although known professionally as a historian of science, has also been working in Church history since his undergraduate days–the early Church, the Medieval Church and Christianity in the early modern period.

Let me begin by recalling a pithy summary of Church history I heard on Christian radio in the early 1990s (or at least this is how I remember it):

When the Gospel was first preached, it was about a relationship
When the Gospel reached Greece, it became an idea
When the Gospel reached Rome, it became an institution
When the Gospel reached North America, it became a business

(Actually, I heard ‘America’, but since I’m a Canadian I’m broadening it to include similar dynamics north of the border).

For the first time since hearing this on the radio, I checked the Internet for a source. Here is what I found:

http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/when_christianity_came_to_america_it_became_a_business

So one possible source is Richard Halverson, a chaplain to the U.S. Senate. The bit missed out of the version I heard on the radio, or that I somehow didn’t heard or perhaps haven’t remembered, is:

When the Gospel came to Europe it became a culture.

That’s a rather important one.

These little summaries of course don’t capture the complexities of history, but in this case there is at least a germ of truth.

The relevant bit is the point about the Gospel becoming an idea when it came to Greece, that is, when it came into contact with the Hellenistic world.

The late historian of science David Lindberg had this to say about the early centuries of Christianity:

… Christians learned to read the Bible with Greek, particularly Platonic, eyes; and Christian theology became thoroughly imbued with Greek metaphysics and cosmology. The extent of this mutual transformation was probably unrecognized by the participants, and unwanted; but unless we take cognizance of it, we cannot begin to understand the subsequent course of Western theology, philosophy, and science.

My reading of Church history is also that the role of Greek thought in the early Church is significant. But this conclusion needs to be qualified as the engagement with Greek thought was of various sorts. So, on the one hand some of the early Church theologians were converts from Greek philosophy and brought some of their Greek ideas into their writings. On the other hand, there are early Church writers who engage with Greek thought, but strive to maintain the distinctiveness of what we might call the original Hebraic ideas of the New Testament. To do these, they needed to be knowledgeable about Greek thought and deploy some of its philosophical categories and rhetorical tools. One of the more famous examples of this second category would be Tertullian and his text “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In this text, he criticises Greek philosophy, but uses Greek rhetorical tools in so doing.

For some more Platonically-inclined early Church theologians like Clement of Alexandria one argument that held appeal was the idea of the “theft of the Greeks”, that is, the argument that what was good in Plato was stolen from the ancient Jews (Clement, The Stromata, ch. 16). This was a way of baptising Platonic ideas. A related concept is the praeparatio evangelica: the idea that Greek philosophy was a schoolmaster to bring the Greeks to Christ, just as the Torah was a schoolmaster to bring the Jews to Christ (Galatians 3:24) (Clement, The Stromata, chapter 5).

Hellenism in the form of Platonism and Aristotelianism continued to play a significant role in Medieval Christianity. One thinks of Anselm’s ontological argument, which owes a great deal to Plato. Or Aquinas’s cosmological argument, which similarly owed a great deal to Aristotle (although it arguably coheres most closely with biblical ideas).

This year is of course the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. George Huntston Williams, in his day the leading historian of the Radical Reformation, made an astute observation about the role of Hellenism in Church history. He argued that early post-Apostolic Christianity went through a process of acute Hellenisation and that the Reformation brought about a process of acute Hebraicisation (or we could say re-Hebraicisaton). (This, despite the use of Hellenic learning including Aristotelianism by many Protestants in the early modern period). Again, these summaries do require qualification, but they do capture real dynamics.

Now it should be said that there is a range of views among Christians over whether Hellenism is a good thing. I’ve just noted that Clement of Alexandria believed it was.Others believe it is important to sort out what is originally part of the Gospel and what is part of the accretions since then. A current example of this view is N T Wright, who argues that Christians need to read the Gospels through ancient Jewish eyes (a reverse of what Lindberg noted happened in the early Church):

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jerrybowyer/2017/06/23/worlds-leading-new-testament-scholar-on-who-really-killed-jesus/#5e3053b203fc

There is a useful analogy in all of this in Christianity’s relations with science. The Christian will want to determine what in science is consistent with the faith, what is compatible with it but indifferent in terms of the content of the faith, and what is inconsistent with it.

All of this takes a little work, but the exercise is well worth it.

Best wishes,
Steve


(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

I hadn’t heard this before. Thanks for sharing it. While our predominant inclination might be to read this as a criticism of all the latter “accretions” or “corruptions”, it strikes me that this could also be read in a more neutral sense of observation that the gospel impacts each new culture by intersecting with the things found important by that culture. That intersection is a necessary thing and must necessarily bear good fruit (if the gospel is in any meaningful sense retained and not lost). But the intersection produces a big body of things complete with warts as well as good works. We see this in our subcultures too where science is the intellectual currency in use.

Perhaps one could also add to your list: “When the Gospel reached scientifically-oriented cultures, it became a mechanical proposition to be tested.”

More thoughts in an added edit here …

I will go on to add that I think we find in Scriptures and underlying endorsement of each of these as well as a warning against idolatry of the same thing. The ideas of the Greeks fit well with an orderly Creator of an intelligible creation. But lean not on your own understanding! Institutions and governments also find their sanctions in passages like Romans 13. But we see the dark underbelly of this turned idolatrous too, thinking of Nazi Germany, and to lesser extremes nearly any of us in our more nationalistic moments. When it becomes a “business” in our capitalistic cultures, there is great sanction for work ethic and respect for the notion of other people’s property. But it too has its idol of Greed run amok. And finally science too with its emphasis on the material world --finds its own sanction in Scripture where God’s creation is spoken of as worthy of study and indeed exhibiting the faithfulness of the creator. And of course we know where that leads too when materialism is put on the throne. Just some more thoughts added – thanks again for those insights, Steve.