Note from CM: Today we welcome yet another “Mike” to our group of iMonk authors. J. Michael Jones. Mike blogs at J. Michael Jones, where you can also find information about his books.
Here is a brief bio:
You can quickly link to Amazon for two of Mike’s books on our right sidebar under “IMONK AUTHORS.”
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Finding a Christian (metaphysical) View of Nature, Part I
by J. Michael Jones
The concept of nature and its adjectival derivative, natural, have been on my mind for several years. The origin of my personal interest is multifactorial. I have two main watersheds of my personal curiosity. The first one is moving from practicing medicine at Mayo Clinic (a very evidential environment) fifteen years ago, to the Pacific Northwest, where it seems like everyone wants only “natural treatments” for their ailments. The pinnacle of this interaction was when I had a patient who was refusing life-saving antihypertensive medication because he was, “very health-conscious and never puts chemicals in his body.” A moment later, not being of a judgement mind but pure astonishment I said, “Is that a pack of cigarettes in your shirt pocket?” To which he answered, “Yeah. They’re natural.” He pulled out the pack and right on the package cover it read, “Organic and Natural Cigarettes.”
The second, more substantive, experience was during a ten-year study of philosophy, when it became apparent to me that metaphysical notions of nature were often central topics of each system of thought. I came to realize, that likewise, the Christian’s view of nature isn’t just one trivial subject of many possible Christian perspectives, but it may be the essential substratum of them all. Even very practical things, such one’s political orientation, approach to sin and godliness, all can pivot on one’s subliminal view of nature.
Before I can even start the discussion, I must first spelunk deep into the caverns of semantics to find a definition of this subject matter that I, and the reader, can agree upon. There are few words more emotionally laden and with such diverse meanings than nature. I will first eliminate those topics of nature that I’m not talking about.
I suggested to my church once, that I do a Sunday School on the topic of, The Christian View of Nature. Like all my previous suggestions, it was quickly rejected. But during an afterthought, it dawned on me (from the questions I was being asked), that the Sunday School director was making assumptions about the meaning that I did not intend. She appearently assumed that it was the most superficial understanding of the Christian interaction with nature. Simply, that what I wanted to do was to show beautiful slides of nature scenes, such as our local North Cascades, and then have us meditate on its beauty. Maybe, if I was really creative, I would then add a verse, such as Isaiah 55:12, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” I would call this the aesthetical layer. It is like the outer-most doll of a set of Russian nesting (matryoshka) dolls.
The next layer or doll would be the moral consideration of nature. This is where we ask the ethical questions such as, is it a sin for the Christian not to recycle? Once again, a discussion at this level, while interesting, is not addressing the fundamentals.
The next, innermost doll would be the theological consideration of nature. While this is of greater intrigue and does touch on what I want to talk about, it still is not enough. We can ask theological questions about God’s intention with nature, how original sin influenced nature, the impact on our view of nature on eschatology, and the working out of redemption in the real, natural world. However, the Christian philosophical view of nature is the underpinning of all other Christian views. This is the monolithic baby at the center of the matryoshkas.
My evangelical friends would argue at this point that one must first build a foundation of correct theology before one can venture into philosophy. Some would even argue that to dabble in philosophy at all is a form of depravity. Those of such a view would quote Colossians 2:8 for support, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” But one’s philosophical footing determines the bias of their exegesis, with which they extract theological positions from the written words of scripture. Yes, it can and should flow the other direction as well, where one’s philosophical perspective is shaped by their theology, which had been formed by their exegesis. However, if we were honest, we would see that it usually flows in the former direction. Our philosophical orientation is most often determined by the culture in which we are exposed, which in turn has been fashioned by tradition, which is built upon the writing and thinking of people of philosophy, some Christian, while many not.
“True Philosophy” is simply the love of knowledge. It is in the same spirit of Solomon, where he asked God for wisdom or knowledge, and God was honored by his request. That the whole idea of “being dumb for Jesus” might sound “special”… but is a grave mistake. Being “learned for Jesus,” is much better.
I will therefore establish that the core of the matter, the solid baby at the center of the matryoshka dolls, is the philosophical concept of nature. At this juncture I must shed the word nature completely in the same way that Mr. Rogers took off his outside jacket and put a cardigan. We do this as we come inside and enter the world of philosophical concepts. The philosophical word I will use is material, although true students of philosophy may cringe at my over-simplification.
Francis Schaeffer was able to use the word Nature, with a capital N. I considered using that word here too, yet there has been too much “natural” water under the bridge since the 1960s when Schaeffer did most of his writing.
Anytime you use the word nature, it becomes easily misunderstood, just like with our Sunday school director or the guy buying the natural cigarettes. I must therefore define my use of material.
I was tempted to say that the material is the seen, (vs the unseen). But much of the material universe is unseen. So, a better definition is that the material is that which can be measured by units of math. For example, anything with weight, height, depth, frequency, lumens, volts, mass, force, speed, or etc. would be considered material. Concepts, such as romantic love cannot be measured (although thousands of beautiful song writers and poets have attempted to). As a Christian, I personally feel very comfortable with the term creation, however, the connotation of that word is not in the philosophy lexicon and may mean different things for different people.
“Material,” as I will use it, falls under the philosophical subject of metaphysics, and specifically in the area known as Ontology, which deals with the questions of being or existence. I want to discuss six major possible viewpoints on the material and then next time discuss the very practical application of some of them.
Solipsism. I will use Solipsism as the philosophical theory to represent the first perspective. In this view, the material world is not real and that our measurement of it is just an illusion. At least, its existence is not provable. It could be just a mind projection as in something like the movie The Matrix. In this thinking, the only thing that we are sure exists, is our self. Even Plato and Pythagoras dabbled in this type of thinking at times. This is very different than Descartes’ statement, “Cogito, ergo sum,” which was an exercise as a starting point for logic. He certainly believed in an observable, real material universe.
Platonic Dualism. For the next position, I will pick Platonic Dualism, as the archetype. Other philosophical views are related. In this view, the material world is probably real (however, there is overlap with Solipsism), but like a vapor or mist. Plato uses the example of the material being like a two-dimensional shadow cast on the back part of a cave, where you cannot see directly out through the cave’s entrance. In this perspective, there is a more real world than the material, which is the world of ideals outside the cave. In this—more perfect—world, which Plato believed existed up in the ether, are things like mathematical concepts, beauty, love, spirituality, and the human soul.
Not only is this non-material world more real for Platonists, but superior in value and on a much higher plane that what we see with our eyes, smell with our noses, and touch with our hands (or measure with our math).
Unfortunately, this view was very popular in the Greek society by the first century. This Hellenistic culture was the canvas upon which the Church was painted. This view became the dominant perspective of the Church by the Middle Ages, and remnants of that thought continue today. This was the type of secular philosophy that Paul was warning the Colossians about… but it happened anyway.
Pantheism. This philosophical base of several religions would best represent the next perspective. In this view, God or gods are woven intimately with the material as well as the immaterial. God is neither above nor below the material, but one with it, all of it, both evil and good. To experience the material or the immaterial is to experience God. This philosophy has insidiously seeped into Christian thinking staring in the early twentieth century. The pantheistic Christian, so influenced, might say that all religions and philosophies are the same, leading to the same place. The pantheistic Christian might also say that they can find “God in nature.”
The Biblical-centric Christian (can’t think of a better term right now) on the other hand, would say they can learn a lot about God by studying the material or nature, but not find God in the material. As an example, they would also say they can find out a lot about an artist by studying his/her paintings; looking at the brush strokes, the style, and the subject matter. These things tell you about what was on the artist’s heart. However, the former position would say there is no artist, that the painting itself is also the artist and EVERYTHING you could ever know about the artist is within the painting.
Pantheism is so attractive because it offers a temporal peace and avoidance of conflict as well as the relativism of truth. The merging of many great cultures and religions within the Indus Valley (mostly of what is now Pakistan) became the incubator for pantheistic ideology over 4,000 years ago, because it allowed for the merging of opposing ideals as waves of invaders came across the Khyber Pass. This why it is so attractive in our ever shrinking, multicultural world.
The Biblical View. This brings me to the next school of thought and is what I will call the Biblical view. I don’t like that term at all and searched for another. It is so abused, often twisted to support whatever view you hold dear. But I use it only as it applies to the very fundamentals of this topic. If you try to divorce your mind from other secular philosophical contaminations, we could all agree that the Genesis account is quite simple. The God-head created the material, and most likely the immaterial (although only implied) outside of themselves, through their power and it was good. That original sin injured the material, leaving it still good but imperfect. We humans have been charged to bring God’s redemption to our kind and to all the material in general. Toward the end of scripture, in Revelation, chapter 21, it is implied that God is not finished with the material creation but is committed to fixing it and making it part of our eternal destiny.
One of the ways that the Christian has allowed philosophies “built on human traditions rather than Christ,” to seep in, is by mixing Platonic Dualism with the Biblical view of the material. In that case, it is assumed that the material was created inferior or dirty, and that only the “spiritual” has merit. The spiritual is transcendent of this material world. This material world, in all its nasty-evilness, will be destroyed in the end. While the Church fought against this idea through its great councils (addressing the Christology of it, stating clearly that Christ was material AND immaterial, and still perfect) it allowed (wrongly) the adoption of Platonic Dualism in other areas because it empowered the Church. If your job, chores, and daily activities of your miserable little life were part of your disgusting material existence, and the Church was the only doorway to the, far more important immaterial, then the Church would have complete domination over your life, your society and whole world.
Rousseauian Naturalism. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was the son of a Calvinist preacher. His father, like most Protestants of the time, had a blended Biblical and Platonic view of the material. I will start to slip and call the material in this case, nature, because that was Rousseau’s term.
Due to the Platonic influence, the Calvinists believed that the material was inferior even before original sin had entered it. That nature was wild, dirty, and dangerous. They believed the role of the Christian was to bring redemption, but that redemption was to not to restore nature to its original glorious form, but to subdue it, tame it, and exploit it. Rousseau rejected this popular Christian view and took the position that nature was originally pure but became contaminated by human touch. The less human influence the better nature could be. This idea has become the backbone of the modern view of nature in the West, including the man with the natural cigarettes. The word “natural” now just means less human touching.
The psychological basis of Rousseau’s view of nature was formed out of political necessity. It was during a time of total oppression and domination of the masses by the King (Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette) and the Church of France, (read A Tale of Two Cities to feel that oppression) that he adopted this new view of nature. Rousseauians believes that it is the influence of humans, which contaminates the material world. This made Rousseau the philosophical architect of the French Revolution. Like I said earlier, the philosophical view of the material (or nature) is the center matryoshka doll, around which all other layers of thought are developed.
Therefore, you can conclude on the outer, political or social, layer, that if you rebel and destroy the established human institutions of oppression, the monarch and the Church, that it would be liberating, and human can return to its natural, good form in an anarchical society. This would make sense if the root of all evil was humans interfering with nature. However, as you can read in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, it did not work out so well.
The Impersonal Universe. What I mean by this is that the universe had no personal beginning, no God, gods or god force. It was a complete fluke, maybe where, for no reason, matter and antimatter suddenly parted, forming the Big Bang. From that point, incredible energy coalesced into spots of material, following laws of physics, written by no one. This spontaneous and undirected evolution of events ended with the universe as we now know it. In that model, there is only the material and there can be no meaning, morals or value. Of course, no one can live that way, so most atheists, illogically and artificially, inject meaning by using pantheistic terms (think of the Force in Star Wars) as having intent or personalities, which they exhibit in such silly statements as, “As nature intended.”
I will next return in Part II, to discuss the very practical manifestations of each of these views of the material on modern society, including the Christian societies.