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.
30 thoughts on “J. Michael Jones: Finding a Christian (metaphysical) View of Nature, Part I”
To go deeper into the Eastern Christian view, it is hard to discuss without a separation of the “essence” and “energies” of God, but yeah, panENtheism is a huge and ancient part of christianity lost mostly in the west to the enlightenment and the fact it is hard to discuss in algebraic terms. =)
I would turn it the other way. The fact that we humans are so deeply teleological makes believing in a meaningless and directionless universe is a leap of faith.
–> “This promises to be an interesting series that will stretch my cognitive ability.”
I think mine already exploded. 🙂
‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ are innate traits in humankind, more vivid when we are children perhaps, and so very much connected to curiosity
I wonder what Sagan would have made of St. Francis of Assisi whose theology embraced the idea that all creatures are united in the depths of their being by the fact of being creatures?
This promises to be an interesting series that will stretch my cognitive ability. Some say the mind is like a muscle and must be exercised but I quit going to the mental gym so my mind is out of shape. Someone alluded to Homer and of course I immediately went D’oh and thought of Homer and the mythical Mr. Burns.
I am hoping Mr. Jones will be able to follow up with a recap his articles with a I Monk for Dummies book which I will add to my collection.
I am looking forward to the series .
Yes but let’s not get the cart before the horse. You can define awe and wonder and even reverence at the overwhelming grandeur of the the universe as “religious” if you want but don’t forget the awe and wonder and reverence came before the religion and, as Einstein pointed out, is probably its origin.
The concept of nature being infused with God appears to be one of the great themes of poetry among mankind universally . . .
a favorite example is this:
“For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. ”
(excerpt is from Wm. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey)
Not sure Hug, I didn’t see that but it sounds really good.
Agreed on your number 2
Of course, as the atheist around here, I have “views” on the subject. 🙂
But surprisingly, I am somewhat sympathetic to panentheism- I do admire Spinoza. But it becomes a matter of definition- as I see the Multiverse as non-linearly deterministic, I can see how one can think of the Cosmos as being divine. But at the same time, I am, as stated in my old “deconversion” posts, sympathetic to Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe. Our “god” is a non-linear algorithm…
(or considering my current obsession, maybe that should be “(yay)”.
I remember his old blog and handle “Christian Monist”, and years ago was in off-and-on email correspondence with him. Still think his two-parter short about future Christians in a Virtual Church (“Church of Trafalmadore”?) had potential, with the addition of one final scene.
Like the BBC’s Connections did regarding science, technology, and worldviews of same?
I remember that.
He got ribbed as “Reverend Sagan”, in the pulpit of the “Spaceship of the Imagination”.
And it sparked a short-lived fad in SF convention masqureades/costume shows — Carl Sagan impersonations. Come out dressed as Sagan from Cosmos, with a spacy look of awe on your face. For a couple years, some cons even had a special category for “Carl Sagan Impersonators”.
It was said of the man himself that “science filled the niche in his personality that religion fills in most people.” And that in person he was a bit of a jerk (coming across as very full of himself) and communicated in writing much better than he did in person. The guy could write, and could coin phrases like Kipling, though not as prolific — remember “Cosmic Connection”? “Night Freight to the Stars”?
I’m carefully comparing the assertions made in this post to the assertions found in my Funk & Wagnalls. Hmmm
Pantheism sees “God” as being the same as creation. God does not exist apart from.creation and creation does not exist apart from God: neither is conceivable without the other. God is as it were the mind or overall structure / organising principle of creation. An analogy might be between a person and the bits that make that person up – all the individual bits of creation are like the cells, limbs and organs of the one body, and God is the person they all go together to make up.
Panentheism, in the Christian sense, at least as I understand it, is somewhat different. It derives from the principle that God created creation out of nothing. Because creation is created out of nothing it cannot exist apart from God. God did not form creation out of some stuff that already existed independently apart from himself, and which could happily continue to exist apart from him if he left it alone, and neither did he magic creation into existence some immeasurably long time ago so that it now has its own independent existence apart from him. Rather, God’s creation of the universe is an ongoing, continuous act, creating and sustaining the universe minute by minute and second by second such that it has no existence apart from the ongoing creative act of God. It is God that is responsible for operating its physical laws etc and keeping it in being. Everything real we see, hear and feel is a manifestation of God’s own one continuous creative act.
Consequently, God is manifest in and contained in everything, and everything is contained in God, but, crucially, unlike pantheism, God is not to be equated with the universe or creation, but is utterly distinct from it and eternally outside and independent from it, and infinitely greater. The universe is all God, but God is not the universe. In God we live and move and have our being, but God does not live, move or have his being in us.
My point is seen in the late Carl Sagan. I was a great admirer of his. He was a wonderful communicator and full of knowledge about our universe. He was also very close to being an atheist (per his own report). But watching Cosmos for so many years, (and I loved it) I saw the routine introduction of meaning, where there can be none. Sometimes it was in almost a religious tone. I argue that atheism if you follow it to its logical conclusion, should always end up in nihilism. I’ve had this conversation with many atheists, who usually vehemently deny this thought, but I still stand by it. I’m not saying this as a criticism of the atheist (which I had come close to becoming at times in my own life) but as a statement of logic. I respect atheists, having flirted with it myself 30 years ago.
Yes, see our previous post — https://internetmonk.com/archive/81958, on God’s good creation
–> “I don’t think they’re being silly at all, anymore than when Christians use the metaphor of God’s fatherhood, though when understood literally that can easily be made to sound silly.”
Or how about we being the bride of Christ? That one, taken literally, is equally silly, if not more so.
I find myself diving into the philosophers every few years to shake the cobwebs and get me out of my easy chair. A book I recently found quite compelling was The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnas. It is a sweeping synopsis from Homer to the post modern mind but far from being a mere retelling or simple history it shows the relation of one phase of thought to the next in a curious and insightful way. From that perspective it read like a novel. Looking forward to your series.
Please feel free to expound on this. Four years ago, when I was writing Butterflies in the Belfry, I was very lucky to have N.T. Wright review my manuscript and discuss it with me. This was also one of the major points he brought up (distinguishing between pantheism and panentheism). I have grossly over-simplified many concepts there and here for the sake of brevity. But please add more if you like.
Wow lots of meat to chew on here! So just a couple three points.
1.There is no real solution to the problem of solipsism. It could all be an illusion or a simulation. My issue would be an aesthetic one. While it would make me responsible for Beethoven and Shakespeare, I would also get blame for child cancer and the Holocaust. You could argue that you can’t have one without the other but it does give me pause before I take credit for everything!
2.I’ll let Klasie hold up his end if he’s of a mind but I will point out that a “impersonal” view doesn’t preclude morality; it becomes an evolutionary mechanism arising from the group interactions of a social species. A constant negotiation rather than a series of imperatives. Of course it’s hard to separate this out from a resolutely deterministic view so morality and value becomes descriptive rather than prescriptive.
3.Seems to me there is a interesting paradox here. No one actually living in a “state of nature” will ever idealize and romanticize “nature” in the way that folks (like us) living largely free from the vagaries of “nature” do. A farmer who works all year and has his crop destroyed two weeks before harvest by a storm is not going to rhapsodize about the wonders of the natural world. The struggle of civilization has been to free itself from the vagaries of nature. Having mostly done this now we have the luxury to rhapsodize. The recent destruction wrought by Hurricane Flo is an example of one of the few times we encounter natural forces somewhat beyond our control. And even here we had plenty of advance warning because of computer simulations and satellites.
There are dozens of passages in Scripture that use the beauty and wonder and mystery of the natural world as a way of describing and praising the attributes of God. It’s clear that many of the Biblical writers, particularly the psalmists and the prophets, had a deep appreciation for nature. They also saw a clear link between the flourishing of the natural world, human flourishing, and human obedience to God.
So, I feel like your description of the “Biblical” view leaves something out. You describe nature as a broken thing that we are called to fix, but I think that valuing the natural world and appreciating its beauty, and seeing God reflected in God’s creation.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
(Gerald Manley Hopkins)
I think pantheism and polytheism have been.mixed here. Pantheism is the belief that the whole of creation is a single World / Cosmic Soul (or similar) and is therefore to that extent monotheistic. A pantheist may or may not also believe in individual gods / goddesses etc but however powerful, ancient and wise, and whatever their role in forming or running creation they are quite distinct from “capital-G” God as the world / cosmic soul and created by / derived from / part of it in the same way as ourselves and every other created thing.
I am not sure how religious “all paths lead to God” relativism has anything in particular to do with pantheism. It does rely on traditional Christian monotheism, in that it assumes God to be a cosmic / universal God responsible for and omnipresent in the whole of creation, rather than a specific local actor as tribal God for a particular group of people or cult, and its base assumption is that if there is only one universal God, anyone referring to the universal God (even from a different faith tradition) must be referring to that same God, and then (perhaps more questionably) assuming that the experiences reported of God in other faith traditions are therefore indeed genuine encounters with that one God.
I really believe a view of nature condenses into two. You are either porous- that being open and vulnerable to the outside( even the possibility of enchanted). Or buffered- that being insulated and of your interior mind. As to Christianity, the former is incarnational and the later is excarnational. Excarnational is a process by which spiritual is dis-embodied and de-ritualizes, turned into a belief system. Incarnational is a process of embodiment, turned into a tangible form from ideas. To me when contemporaries talk about the natural world, they are talking of meaning, significance, and “fullness” sought within the world. It’s a type of enclosure. And this thought is an expression of “what speaks to me”. A result of being buffered. And humans have sought to be this, sort of a way to not be vulnerable. And God knows, when you just consider the latest of hurricanes or many other scenarios- Oh baby it’s a wild world.
The article does not seem to distinguish between pantheism, which equates nature with God and panentheism, which asserts nature as being infused wuth, and the expression of and ongoing creative action of God, but nevertheless asserts God as being distinct from.it. Panentheism, far from “insidiously creeping into Christianity start g in the early 20th Century” is found in the thinking of the church fathers, is widespread in some Catholic thought and in many mainstream Protestant traditions since their inception, and is central to the theology if the eastern Orthodox church.
I think it would be good to cut atheists a break here, and acknowledge that it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible not to speak metaphorically about these matters. When they use such phrases as, “As nature intended”, thoughtful atheists are not attributing volition to nature, but using common linguistic metaphorical shorthand for the purposes of facilitating discussion. I don’t think they’re being silly at all, anymore than when Christians use the metaphor of God’s fatherhood, though when understood literally that can easily be made to sound silly.
Welcome to Internetmike… uhh… monk. Nice, consise summary, I look forward to your exposition of these categories. I have been accused of panentheism before, for my notion that since we humans can reflect and medidtate on the meaning of nature, and discuss it with each other; that is prima facie evidence that the cosmos is an expression of the mind of God. I think it all right to start with panentheism as long as you end up with Jesus; the living Lord, both material and divine, who is the full expression of what and who God is i.e. the Logos. Looking forward to the discussions.
Keeping in mind your definition of the word material, I would say that I’ve settled into the understanding that the material is good, but unfinished and afflicted. I’m driven to this conclusion by my experience and observation of the pervasiveness of something that is not material, and that cannot be measured scientifically, the existence of suffering and agony, as it relates to my theologically based trust that the God and creator of the material and non-material world is good, and would does not want his created world forever left in a state pervaded by and bound to agony, suffering, and death.
If you haven’t already, you should check out Jon Garvey, who is right in the middle of a series on Theology of Nature.
You guys could get a great – and incredibly important – conversation going!