The Terror of History: Lecture 1: Escaping the Terror of History

There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent, untill at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is for ever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”

According to Nietzsche, the Greeks were the first to recognize the meaninglessness of life (tragedy) so they created the gods of Mt. Olympus in order to live. The gods justify the life of man.

We are always caught between two forces. On the one hand, as part of our cultural and intellectual heritage, there is the Apollonian, the sense and desire and need for order and to “know thyself”. On the other hand, there is the Dionysian, the need to get out of the self and become one with the world.

How do we deal with the terror of the world? Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), says we do so in three ways:

  • Religion. Religions are culturally specific. In the west, there has been a tendency for magic to become religion. Magic is a way to try to control nature and keep terror at bay. Magic might work for a little while, but not all the time. Primitive man creates this sort of religion. It is an acceptance of the way things are. Another way religion works is by shifting the responsibility of the way things are to God. As cruel and as inconceivable and unacceptable, it is God’s wishes. This has worked for centuries. There is a supernatural entity who is now responsible for the terrors of the world. In the Western tradition, this is a patriarchal figure that takes care of you and solves all your problems. The first answer in the West to problems is religion, and it works. There is an empowerment that comes to those who surrender to God. But not everyone is willing to accept this answer.
  • Embracing the material world. An example is Bush telling us to go to Disneyland to forget our troubles after 9/11. You can go shopping at the mall, get lost in the wonders of food, traverse the world. But does it work? Like magic, it doesn’t last. People tend to get bored with it after a while.
  • Embracing the aesthetic world. Seeking beauty and knowledge as a way to make sense of the world.

According to Ruiz, the escaping of the terror of history is the making of meaning.

Faith, Interrupted by Eric Lax

I sincerely appreciated Eric Lax’s Faith Interrupted although I don’t entirely relate to Lax.  He was the son of an Episcopalian minister and grew up with an unquestioning faith.  My family was far less religious and I was constantly questioning what I was being taught in church, when we went.  But in a sense, I was also unquestioning.   All my questions were within a certain boundary that I didn’t dare go outside.  For the past five years, I’ve been venturing beyond those bounds and it makes my relationship with institutionalized religion extremely uncomfortable.

Lax wrote:

I still felt connected to the Episcopal Church and closely followed its internal doings through clergy friends and my parents, but it was more an institutional attachment I felt than one that connected me with God.  I derived a sense of inclusion and security from my relationships with the bishops and clergy I knew well and liked, and who liked me.  I felt part of the Church, an insider in a genteel and socially prominent faith.  Unfortunately, this meant I found comfort more in feeling connected to the establishment than to the Holy Spirit.

That’s how I feel about Methodism.  I feel a profound loyalty to the institution and have several friends who are Methodist ministers. But feeling a loyalty to an institution is far more materialistic than it is spiritual.

I was in a Spiritual Directions group in our Methodist Church which was incredibly uncomfortable for me, even though the members of the group were amazing, lovely women.  Spiritual Direction is supposed to be about exploring your own spirituality without judgment or condemnation, but I felt judged because the members were so intent on trying to get me to adopt various versions of a personal God.  I simply can no longer believe in a personal God. That’s not to say I don’t think God can be personally experienced.  I have had a very personal experience of what I call God. But a personal experience of God is not a personal God.  The two are very different.  The overwhelming advice was to realize that God considers me His precious child.  It was a sort of mantra – “I am a precious child of God”.   I know the women are trying to shift the idea that we are sinful to something more positive, which is undoubtedly beneficial.  But I simply cannot understand God in this way, anymore.  God doesn’t create sinfulness and preciousness. We do. God transcends human egoic judgment.  But how can you explain this to “believers” without judgment or condemnation?  You really can’t, because they tend to view it as a negation of God even though it’s merely the realization that our ideas of God are not God.

Maybe I’m more like Eric Lax’s friend Skip, the Episcopal Minister, than I am like Lax.  I’m extremely comfortable with mysticism, contemplative prayer, and Father Keating.  I don’t struggle with that like Lax does.  It makes sense to me. But I repeatedly try to find a place within institutional religion and I just can’t seem to find one beyond a social connection.

Easter, Ostara, Cybele

We joined a church last November, but it’s Easter and we didn’t go to Church.  I typically love Easter.  It’s the celebration of resurrection, renewal,  reawakening, rejuvenation, regeneration, rebirth, return to life…

Did you know that Easter is derived from the Old English Eostre, which comes from the Old High German Ostara? Ostara was the Germanic Pagan goddess of fertility who had a two day festival celebrated in April. The Christian Easter celebration very likely has ties to Ostara.

The Christian tradition may be even more closely related with the Cybele Cult that existed in Rome on Vatican Hill in 200 B.C. (The name, Vatican Hill, existed prior to the existence of Christianity.) The cult worshipped the fertility goddess, Cybele, who had a lover, Attis. Attis was the god of ever reviving vegetation. Every year, he died and was resurrected. The cult had a festival that started as a day of blood and Attis’ death, and ended 3 days later with rejoicing Attis’ resurrection.

Some historians claim that the Attis resurrection story was added to the Jesus story as a way to make Christianity more palatable to the pagans. Do you think this is true? If it is true, does it lessen the importance of Jesus’ resurrection?

Cultures undergo resurrections and re-awakenings, too, and the stories must adjust to reflect these changes. But we seem to be kind of stuck on the old stories. Conservative Christians often refuse to acknowledge the evolutionary nature of their religion by continuing to insist on the literal truth of the stories. Progressive Christians may recognize the evolutionary nature of the religion but have a tendency to get stuck in historicity. And many atheists reject religion altogether as “fiction.”

It makes me think of Nietzsche’s madman who ran into the streets exclaiming “God is dead and it is we who killed him.” When he received blank stares, he told the people that it would be 300 years before they finally realized God was dead. He was speaking to atheists. Why would it be necessary to tell atheists, who don’t believe in God, that they don’t yet realize God is dead?  Because atheists adopted a theistic mindset by trading God for rationalism as the ultimate, absolute authority.  After addressing the atheists, Nietzsche’s madman ran into the churches saying, ”what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?” If you keep the stories alive, but don’t acknowledge their past or give them ample room in which to grow, you are nailing the coffin shut on God. Nobody, not the theists or the atheists, realize God is dead. Some mystics can see through it, however. I think Nietzsche was a mystic.

Why do we assume there is an absolute truth? And assuming there is an absolute truth, why do we assume it can be known? The fight over how it can be known gets old and is improvable, anyway. If you insist the Bible is the literal truth and thump the Bible to prove it, you are engaged in a circular argument. Likewise, if you insist that it is only the rational mind that can establish truth and thump Empiricism to prove it, you are engaged in the exact same circular argument (same form, different content). Maybe we should quit insisting that there is a knowable, absolute truth and move on?

God on Trial

The film God on Trial from PBS’ Masterpiece is fantastic. I’ve watched it several times now and have tried to capture the major arguments…

There is a legend that God was put on trial by a group of prisoners at Auschwitz. The people involved in the trial were from all walks of life: a criminal lawyer, a law professor, various professors of other disciplines, a glove maker, a rabbi thought to be a saint, many other rabbis, a physicist and other scientists, Torah scholars, college students, They are observant Jews, nominally observant, atheists, agnostics, etc. They run the gamut.

The prisoners decide to put God on trial after a “selection” has taken place. The prisoners know that many of them (the selected) will be killed the next day. They are trying to make sense of their excruciating suffering.

God is charged with breech of contract.  The Jews have an agreement with God and God broke the deal.  In the desert, Moses made a covenant with God.  He said the people would obey God’s law, and God said for this obedience, the Jews would be his own chosen people.  “No enemy shall be able to outwit him, no wicked man overcome him, I shall crush his enemies before him and strike his opponents dead.”

Those in defense of God say that the prisoners are being tested by God and that they must pass their test.  Before they blame God, the Jews should look at themselves.  Perhaps it isn’t God who has broken the covenant but the Jews.  “Because of our sins.” It is in the covenant that God reserves the right to punish the wicked.

But why did he choose to punish good, obedient people rather than Hitler?  In law, the punishment has to be proportionate to the crime.  What crime can justify the sort of punishment the prisoners are experiencing?  What punishment does the innocent child who is sent to the gas chamber deserve?

In defense:  The mistake is to make it personal.  God does not act against the individual.  His covenant is with the entirety of the Jewish people.

But what use is a God who is not personal?  A God like that is nothing more than weather.

In defense:  Put aside the idea of punishment.  Instead, think of God as a surgeon who has to remove the entire leg to get rid of the gangrene.  It isn’t personal, it is a purification.

But is this purification in the covenant?

In defense:  The first purification was the flood, the second the destruction of the temple by Nebucadnezar when the Jews were driven into exile in Babylon.  The Jews took their knowledge of the Torah and the one almighty God out into the country.  If they had stayed as they were, they would have been a tribe in the desert, nothing more.  It was painful, but it was also beautiful.  What if some great good is to come of what the Holocaust prisoners are suffering?  Perhaps there is a reason why a good person is taken and not an evil man. The good person is a sacrifice.  A holocaust.  The suffering is therefore meaningful.  Man’s sacrifice is the most beautiful.  The suffering of the prisoners at Auschwitz is related to the story of Masada – rather than be taken as slaves, some of the best Jewish warriors decided they would rather be killed.  These Jews fled to Masada where the Romans surrounded them.  10 men were selected to kill the other men and one man to kill the last 10. After the 10 were killed, the last man killed himself.  Two Jewish women hid from the slaughter to tell the story.  The goal of the Romans was to take the Torah away from the Jews so they could be Romanized.  Today, the Jews and the Torah are still here, but the Romans are dust.  The conclusion:  Suffering is a privilege if it is part of God’s plan.  Those suffering are fortunate to be purifying the people through their pain.  People will die, the war will end.  But the Torah will live.

So suffering is God’s way?  Hitler is working for God?  Is that right?

It’s possible.  Going back to the gangrene metaphor.  You can hate the knife, but love the surgeon.

But if Hitler is doing God’s work, then logic says that to stand in Hitler’s way is to stand in God’s way. Is it wrong to take arms against Hitler?  Is that not insane?

In defense:  The fellow prisoner who has been put in Auschwitz because he is a criminal and has been placed in charge of keeping the other prisoners in line says he doesn’t know whether he will be killed or not.  But his sole criteria is to stay alive as long as he cans which means he has to please the people who can kill him.  He agrees that he is doing God’s work because if “the bastard” (the God of Abraham) gave a damn about the Jews, he wouldn’t have given the Jews to him.  He has no problem allowing others to die if it means a few more days for him.

So in the end, if the only people who survive are people like this criminal in command (the vicious, the cunning, the shameless, the pitiless), what kind of Israel would want these as their people?  And if God can do all things, why can’t he purify his people without gassing them. If God is all powerful, then how can he be just?  Either he is all-powerful, or he is just.  He can’t be both.

In defense:  The answer is free will.  There is always a choice.

Free will?  What about the Jewish father who is forced to choose which child will be killed or which one will get to live?  The father doesn’t want free will.  He wants his sons.  Where was his will when he was forced to choose between the lives of his children?  What choice did he have?  The officer who forced the choice had free will.  Not the Jewish father.

In defense:  The war will end.  Hitler will die.  The people and the Torah will survive.  And the father would like to believe it is somehow beautiful.  Even though the father doesn’t understand him, he knows God is here.  Maybe God is being gassed,  Maybe God is suffering with them?

But who needs a God that suffers?  They need a God who sends the enemy of death.

Defense:  Maybe God is not all powerful.  Maybe God needs us to be all powerful.  You can ask,

“where does all the evil come from”, but where does all the goodness come from? Job 38:12.  “Have you ever given orders to the morning? Or told dawn it’s place that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?”

But God is guilty because in the covenant, he assures the survival of the people, but the survival of the people is no longer certain.  The Physicist among them tells them there are 100 thousand-million stars in our galaxy alone.  And God’s whole attention is focused on one little planet?  And not just on one little planet, but just on the Jews?  This God signed a contract just with the Jews?  And not all of the Jews, because certain Jews don’t count.  If he loved the Jews so much, why did he make so much besides the Jews?  The Jews come along and claim there is only one God.  They create a society in which all the powers are created in the hands of one king.  It’s an efficient society and it helps them to believe God loves them more than anyone else.  But then the Christians come along with a better idea.  Yes, there is only one God, but he loves everyone, not just the Jews.  People convert.  They conquer everyone.  One cult, one king.  It’s all about power and struggle.  Now Hitler has a better idea.  There is one God, and it is Hitler.

Defense:  Where does it get you to deny God?  What do you gain by denying God?  Those who claim they see a truth that those who believe in God do not see, what does it get them?  They end up in the same place as everyone else.  They are no better.   Even if God doesn’t exist, don’t let the Nazi’s take away your God.  He’s your God,  It’s your covenant.  Don’t let them take that away from you.

But be realistic.  The punishment that God laid upon the innocent – the children of Egyptian slaves during the plague, etc. were every bit as gruesome as what the Jews are suffering now.  God has never been good.  He’s only been on our side.  Why did he flood the earth?  What could human beings have done that was worthy of such a horrible punishment.  On the belts of the Nazi’s is written, “God is with us.”  So whose side is God on?  God has made a new covenant with someone else.

Where do you go with this?

At the end of the trial, God is found guilty.  The response?  Prayer.

And yet, good “exists”.  A father sacrifices himself for the life of his grown son and when his grown son realizes it, tries to sacrifice his life for that of his father’s.  A mother starves in order to feed her child.  We experience good, whether God exists or not.  And if he does exist, then good “exists” whether God is good or not.

So was their prayer answered?  The Jews are still here.  The Torah is still here.

Science and Religion: Lectures 10-12: Evolution, Fundamentalism and Science and Theology


The idea of evolution had been around a long time before Darwin wrote about it. What was new in Darwin’s theory was the idea of natural selection. The problem with natural selection is that it makes God’s direct interaction with humanity unnecessary. The God of the gaps of the natural theologians was being squeezed out of yet another gap.  But it’s important to note that this specifically challenges the supernaturalist position (that God acts directly on all things rather than delegating his powers to natural things), not all of religion. It seems likely that if the English speaking world had not created two centuries of Natural Theology and had not come to rely on it so heavily for proof of God’s existence, then natural selection wouldn’t have provoked such a strong religious response.

Religious philosophies that were not reliant upon Natural Theology were primarily concerned about Darwinism from the standpoint of materialism, presented by thinkers like biologist Ernst Haeckel:

The cell consists of protoplasm, composed chiefly of carbon with an admixture of hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur.  These component parts, properly nursed, become man. With this single argument, the mystery of the universe is explained, the deity annulled, and a new era of infinite knowledge ushered in.

This is materialism, atheism, scientism all wrapped up into one (and with astonishing arrogance, according to Principe).   From the religious perspective, many theologians were not bothered at all by the thought that man might have evolved from the ape. In fact, a new natural theology developed in accordance with natural selection – the world was evolving all according to a pre-determined blueprint.

Darwinism rejected progressivism (that evolution means constant advancement). But the ideals of advancement worked perfectly with the Victorian ideals of social and political progress and this sometimes found its way into natural theology, too. Natural selection was interpreted in two ways: monogenism – origins from one species. And polygenism – origin from several species. Polygenism was very popular to imperialist England because it supported the idea that some species had the right to rule over others species based on origin.  This was a position rejected by the Catholic Church but supported by much of Protestantism (polygenism was used to support slavery in the American South).

Acceptance of Evolution became a way for intellectual theologians to distinguish themselves from non-intellectual theologians. Accepting Evolution was a mark of being a modern and enlightened theologian. Of course, whenever you create one group, you create another group of those on the outside of the group you have created. The less formerly educated formed opposition to this elitism through opposition to Evolution. Opposition to Evolution became a badge of membership. (Many recent American sects define themselves in practice as much through opposition to evolution as to adherence to specific religious doctrine.)

Most of the opposition to evolution has has been Protestant, not Catholic. Catholicism had a different reaction to Evolution. Catholics were typically neither Biblical Literalists nor Natural Theologists. What Catholics rejected was specifically polygenism and materialism. Pope Pius XII allowed communication between theologians and scientists, but noted that Evolution was a hypothesis. Pope John Paul II noted that there was enough evidence that Evolution was no longer a hypothesis.   A hypothesis is a provisional statement, a supposition in the process of being tested.

John Paull II called Evolution a “theory”.  This is different than a hypothesis.   Theory doesn’t mean a guess or supposition.   A theory is not something waiting to be proven.  It is far greater than a fact could ever be.  A theory is a well-supported explanatory structure capable of explaining and predicting a range of phenomena.   A fact is just an isolated tidbit of knowledge.  A theory organizing facts, concepts and predictions into a functional, scientific framework.   The theory of gravity is a theory.  But nobody ever says that the theory of gravity is “just a theory”.  So what John Paul II was doing was updating Pious XII’s statement. Evolution is no longer a hypothesis, it now holds the status of a theory – a powerful, organizational structure for biology.

Evolution created a religious equivalent of theistic evolution which said that evolution was a natural process guided or directed in some way by God. This was developed by scientists.  Evolution is what made humanity what it is, but it is God who gave man “soul”.


I find this extremely interesting – there is more religiously motivated opposition to Evolution in America today than there was at the start of the 20th century. By 1900, Evolution had gained wide acceptance within both the scientific and theological communities. Literal interpretations were becoming things of the past. But by the 1920s, literalism came back with a huge bang in the United States.

Fundamentalism is an American product. The Fundamentals, by A.C. Dixon (1910-1915) were mass produced. It was in opposition to modernism which is a movement towards new theological perspectives in Protestantism (particularly within Episcopalianism and Methodism). Fundamentalism is a reactionary movement and was primarily Baptists and Presbyterians who responded to the fundamentals.

Fundamentalism can be divided into two groups: theological and socio-political.

Fundamentalist theological beliefs:

  • naive literalism
  • biblical inerrancy
  • 19th century millenarianism

The idea of the rapture developed from millenarianism. The rapture is the notion that the supposed faithful would suddenly disappear at the start of the millennium. This was a belief totally unheard of before the start of the 19th century.  Biblical innerancy and naive literalism became a natural consequence of these sorts of beliefs.

This shift was also social. The U.S. was undergoing a shift from an agrarian culture to an urbanized, industrialized one.  There was also a lot of immigration. So there was a lot of anxiety. The trend toward Biblical exegesis also added a lot of stress because unless you were an intellectual, you couldn’t follow this trend. The Ku Klux Klan sprang from similar social consequences, too. People suddenly began to realize they didn’t have a privileged place in an increasingly pluralistic America.

Fundamentalism developed around negativity. A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something. What they are angry about has changed over times. Early on, the anger was toward Higher Criticism, not Evolution. The anger toward Evolution started with WWI. This was the first technological war and suggested that something had gone fundamentally wrong with Western Culture and its promises of progress and enlightenment.

1900-1920 witnessed an unprecedented growth in high schools. America’s rural populations were suddenly exposed to modern thought and science for the first time. This was intelligentsia invading rural America.

Improved education in 1957, thanks to Sputnik, launched another overhauling of public education – especially in terms of text books. But this improved education, which used Evolution as an organizing principle, set off new attempts to ban Evolution.

Anti-evolutionists turn to a new strategy – equal time strategy. This is when creation science becomes a legally promotable evolution alternative. The Creation Science Society was founded in 1963, after the publication of The Genesis Flood (1961).  In 1987, Creation Science was recognized by the Supreme Court as a religious doctrine and not science.

Creation Science is a minority view and should not be confused with that of orthodox Christianity. It’s from young earth creationists. Virtually every mainstream Christian denomination, Catholic and Protestant, voted to strike down the equal time law.

The next generation from Creation Science is neocreationism. This is the abrupt appearance theory: new life forms abruptly appeared. This is creationism without mentioning God. This was not a successful adaptation. A more successful adaptation is Intelligent Design.

In American public education, the strategy has been to downplay evolution in order to keep upsets to a minimum.  Textbooks have minimized their coverage of evolution for the same reason.  If you want to learn about evolution in America, you need to attend a Catholic school or another private school not set up by a fundamentalist curriculum.

Science and Theology

Science and Theology share a great deal in common:

  • They are both human strivings for knowledge: operating by the cooperative exercises of faith and reason
  • They are both activities of human beings and both expressions of human desire – especially our human desire “to know”

Theology developed some of the methods and approaches that modern  science takes for granted and sometimes thinks to be it’s own creation. Theology developed within Western culture, a culture of dispute. Try to imagine good science without dispute. The same is true for theology. The foundations of naturalism for science lie with the medieval theologians who realized that only secondary causation is really comprehensible to the human mind. Therefore only secondary causation has any explanatory power.

Theology, no less than science, is a search for the truth. It is not just about opinion. Christian theology has proven itself remarkably flexible in its ability to adopt, adapt, and explore new scientific findings – to see what they mean.

It used to be that the only way to become a theologian was through elite training. It would take years of training to become a theologian. On the other hand, it used to be that being scientist only required observation. Anyone with a keen sense could consider themselves a scientist.  But trends have changed. To be considered a scientist today requires elite training, yet theologians abound who have no training whatsoever.

The current theological conflict involves whether Genesis 1 should be read literally or not. Intellectually speaking, it is very difficult to find this trivial and non-interesting compared to earlier issues. If this is all the general public is exposed to, it’s no wonder the status of theology is in decline.

Historical religion tells us that the issue of biblical literalism and evolution is a non-issue. Old-time religion isn’t a problem. It is current Biblical inerrancy that raises the issue. But even the person who first advocated Biblical inerrancy (Warfield) was open to the idea of Evolution!

While some fundamentalist justifiably warrant conflict and create the error of collectivism, but so do some scientists.  Hawkins, Sagan, Hoyle, Dawkins, and their tribe create good reason for anxiety. These people promote the gospel of materialism and scientism.  Very often the claims these folks make are full of philosophical naivism, arrogant sarcasm and arrogant disdain.  This does not promote productive discussion.

The battle between science and religion is a battle of extremists. Extremist views are simple and easy to feature in a 15 minute soundbite. They alienate the more moderate viewpoints. Extremists want the division between science and religion, but this division doesn’t really exist.

Things are not always what they are now.  It is important to understand history, historically – not according to modern understanding.

Science and Religion: Lectures 7-9: Mechanical Philosophy, Natural Theology, Geology and the Big Bang Theory

Mechanical Philosophy

It’s interesting to consider that the replacement of the traditional cosmology (earth is the center of the universe) with the Copernican cosmology (the earth revolves around the sun) did not have near as far reaching affect on philosophy and theology as did the mechanical philosophy which envisioned the universe as a an immense and immensely complicated mechanical clock (atoms).

Individual organs became mechanical devices.  The heart is a pump; the kidneys are filters; and the whole body is a mass of plumbing.   It was understood that underneath everything that can be seen were even smaller mechanical clock systems which brings us back to the problem of hidden causation.

The mechanical philosophy caused some problems for theology. If everything natural can be proven, then miracles could be more easily proven, too. And if everything in the world is mechanical, then there must be a divine craftsman.   But a God that is a divine craftsman did not support the orthodox understanding of God. It suggested that God created the world and then stepped back and let it happen. The other problem the mechanical philosophy created was the belief that matter is all there is – there is nothing spiritual.

Medieval religious writers argued for subtle understandings of the trinity, free will, divine providence, etc. 17th century religious writers made a shift to apologetics and the trivial – arguing simply for the existence of some sort of deity. This shift should not be underestimated because we are still dealing with it today.

Natural Theology

Theology came up with an idea of a sort of “God of the gaps”.  If nature can be explained, then whatever cannot be explained claims that God is the cause. But the problem with this is that invariably, all gaps are a result of our incomplete of the understanding of the natural world, not actual gaps.  A God of the gaps is constantly being replaced by natural explanations.

Argument for design says that the smooth functioning and intricate contrivance of natural objects implies a designer.    But this understanding of God doesn’t necessarily lead you where you want to go if you are a monotheist because it  could be an organization of designers (polytheism).  The problem is, an argument for design depends on an argument from design. Therefore, arguments for design, ultimately rely upon appeals to ignorance. And this leads to an argument for a God of the gaps. Arguments for design are not rational arguments. They appeal to our emotions.

Originally, natural theology was specifically for believers. Understanding the natural world could only strengthen a belief in God, but eventually, natural theology became an attempt to convince non-believers. While natural theology can strengthen a belief in God, it can’t create a belief in God!  That’s where the weakness lies!

There is something very English about the image of a proper, well-ordered world governed by a magnificent sovereign.   The natural theologian’s image of the world and the projected image of the English state and crown is extremely “English”. Also, you are far more likely to buy into the idea that the world has been perfectly designed by a beneficent deity if you are wealthy than if you are a peasant who has experienced the death of many of your children by the age of ten.

A recent development of natural theology is Intelligent Design. First, this theology says that intelligent causes have a crucial role in the origin and design of the universe and of life and its diversity.  Second, design is empirically detectable in nature.

But when we claim that something is inherently inexplicable in terms of natural causes, we are asserting that ordinary secondary causation is inadequate and therefore that primary causation (a designer) must be invoked. But primary causation, by its very nature, is incomprehensible. So, the recourse to primary causation explains nothing in the usual way we understand the term “explain”. When we rule out the usual functioning of natural causes, we are left with only two causes: (1) direct primary cause acts without mediation (the creation out of nothing); (2) the first cause acts through secondary causes in such a way that their usual action is altered. We call such events “miracles”, but we can only label it as such. If we could explain the miracle, it wouldn’t be a miracle. Therefore, the promise that the designer might literally explain something is vain.

According to medieval philosophy, on the other hand, primary causation is literally incomprehensible. Primary causation doesn’t help you if you want explanation or understanding. All we can comprehend is secondary causation – that is all we have to study.  Only secondary causation provides true explanation.  A designer might be behind the secondary causes, but we can never know for sure and in a practical sense, it doesn’t make any difference for our explanations because all we can ever observe are the secondary causations.


The Medievals had little reason to believe the Earth was more than a few thousand years old. There was no physical evidence for this.

Given a homocentric cosmology (a view of the earth and universe as created for mankind), it made no sense to think that the Earth would have been around for aeons without mankind. The belief in these times were not held to religiously, there was simply nothing around to contradict them.  After fossils and statification were introduced, the flood of Noah’s Ark became a geological event for the first time because it was theorized that the food created the stratification.

While Natural Theologians in England were harmonizing geological findings with Biblical narratives, there were thinkers in France who were using geological findings to discard Biblical narratives.  A practice of studying the Bible for historical purposes became popular – but these findings were used both for and against the importance of Biblical narratives. It was a confused mess in the 18th century.

In 1807, geology became professionalization. A group of people termed themselves “philosophical” geologists which was defined by a focused attention to geology per se, not its religious ramifications.  By default, the creation of this group created another group, the “Mosaical” geologists who endeavored to conform scientific findings to literal readings of Genesis. They wanted to oppose the rhetoric of eternalists like Hutton and to express the moral horror of the French Revolution which they felt was exemplified by French deists. The Mosaical geologists were being shut out of Biblical exegesis by “the higher criticism”

In the middle ages, theologians were the most highly professionalized groups. However, with the rise of Protestantism came the notion that anybody could interpret scripture. Then around 1800 with the advent of Higher Criticism, which required the knowledge of ancient languages, the reading of scripture was becoming professionalized, again.

For those who become excluded from increasingly complex esoteric and professionalized scientific and theological communities, one response is retrenchment. Mosaical geologists returned to late 17th century styles of Earth histories as though the 18th century hadn’t happened. And they preferred naive readings of Genesis as though the Higher Criticism hadn’t happened.

There were clergy and devout Christians on both sides of the philosophical/Mosaical geologists divide. The division was not science vs. religion. The division was social and it was enforced by how the groups treated geological knowledge publicly. Mosaisists directed it to apologetic purposes akin to natural theology. The philosophical geologists frowned with this use. Even if some of the members attempted to harmonize Genesis with geology, this was not to be done publicly. A strict adherence to natural causes was maintained, but this adherence was not about private belief.  It was specifically a boundary created for professional discussion and publication. The split was not a science/religion split. It was a social split between those with elite training and a popular group.

Big Bang Theory

In the 20th century, the big discussion was steady state theory vs. big bang theory.   The Big Bang theory was first presented by Georges Lamaitre, a Belgian Priest.  Einstein and others initially rejected it because they said it sounded too much like Christian dogma (it maintains that there is a definite beginning and it is out of nothing). This presents a twist – discomfort with a new theory because it sounds too much like Christian dogma. Einstein was finally won over and the steady state theory was eventually rejected.

Fred Hoyle was the most boisterous opponent of the big bang theory (he coined the term). He was an avowed atheist, anti-clerical and especially anti-Catholic.  He maintained the steady state theory.  Ironically, while he linked the steady state model to an atheistic campaign, others interpreted it theologically. They said the the steady appearance of hydrogen molecules within empty space was evidence of God’s continuing activity in the physical world.

That the Big Bang theory is currently the prevailing theory and shows that when theological and scientific perspectives are at odds, theology isn’t always the “loser”.

In every instance of scientific finding, theologians have found ways to include the findings within their theological interpretation. Theology is not diametrically opposed to science.

Science and Religion: Lectures 5-6 – Galileo Affair

In 1543, Nicholas Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelstium (On the Revolution of the Heavenly Orbes).  Copernicus said that the sun is at the center of the universe (heliocentrism) and that the earth is in motion (geokineticism).  It turns on its axis and moves around the sun. His idea was not accepted because it violated common sense experience; it threw out 2000 years of astronomical theory; and it subverted fundamental principles of physics. It also presented a biblical problem because Joshua supposedly had made the sun stand still.

Galileo had become convinced of Copernicus’s hypothesis. Many had accepted Copernicus’s views as a sort of fictional hypothesis because they were useful in mathematical equations for determining astrological predictions, but they didn’t think of them as fact. Galileo’s ideas were called into question by the Inquisition but were quickly dismissed.    What got him into trouble was a reinterpretation of the Joshua story in terms of  heliocentrism. His theological grounding is firm, but he did this during a hypercharged period within Catholicism because of the Protestant Reformation.  Protestantism called for individual interpretation and this individual interpretation was creating a lot of extremely mis-directed Biblical understandings (even Martin Luther agreed with this).  So the Catholic church was coming down extra hard on Biblical interpretations that did not have the backing of the Church fathers. Obviously, heliocentrism did not have this backing, but Galileo also claimed that his Biblical interpretations were not just alternative interpretations, but better interpretations than the theologians interpretations. He also tells theologians to stay out of natural philosophy. This didn’t make him particularly popular.

To be fair, Cardinal Bellarmino was willing to interpret the Biblical passage according to heliocentrism if proof of the earth’s rotation around the sun could be established. Galileo claimed he had a proof and Bellarmino denied his proof.  In this case, Bellarmino was right.  Galileo’s proof wasn’t proof.  It could all be explained by geocentric means, too.  He was ultimately correct about heliocentrism, but he wasn’t able to provide proof.

Bellarmino and Galileo agreed on harmonizing Biblical interpretations with scientific knowledge.  Where they differed was on who would do the the reinterpretation and when. Bellarmino was cautious, Galileo was potentially overly enthusiastic. It’s also likely Galileo got caught in a power struggle between the Dominicans and the Jesuits. The Jesuits were replacing the Dominicans as the intellectual force of the Catholic Church. Some of the Jesuit Universities had even begun teaching Copernicus’s theories. Galileo’s accusers were Dominicans.

We are not free to engage in collectivism. The actions of specific churchmen cannot be turned into a general statement of Galileo vs. “The Church”. Galileo went to see the Pope in 1616 and said that he was well-received. The Pope acknowledged Galileo’s enemies and said Galileo could feel safe as long as the Pope lived. In May of 1616, Bellarmino gave Galileo a certificate stating that he had not been condemned but had simply been warned that he should not defend Copernicus’ hypothesis as literally true.

Galileo’s friend became the new Pope (known as Urban VIII). He gave the OK for Galileo to write a new book on the tides. It was to be published in Rome and had been Ok’d by Roman censorship, but the University he had originally planned to publish his book through collapsed. Then the plague broke out so he could not send his book to Rome without it being placed in quarantine. Gallileo became frustrated and decided to have it published in Florence, but the book had not been OK’d by censorship, there. The issues that Galileo went through to get his book published are those we still deal with today.  You could say that books today require “peer reviews” rather than the review of the church, but that’s a modern understanding of how things worked in Galileo’s time. Galileo’s book was sent to a mathemetician who was also a churchman. (Copernicus had been a churchman.)

When Galileo’s book was published, it was immediately praised, but rumors began to emerge about it. The Pope was an old friend of Galileo’s so you would think that the rumors could have easily been stopped, but the opposite happened. Urban VIII exploded in anger at Galileo. Why? Why did he claim he had been deceived?

Galileo probably made two injudicious moves. The Pope had required that Galileo include the limits of human knowledge in The Dialogue. Galileo did include it, but how he did it was enough to injuriate Urban VIII. Galileo put the Pope’s argument on the very last page of the book and in the mouth of a fool. The Pope also found out that in 1616, Galileo had agreed not to defend the Copernicus’ hypothesis but never bothered to tell the Pope about this agreement.   Urban had supported and protected Galileo and his reward was embarassment and insult. Urban VIII may have forgiven Galileo, but this  was the last problem Urban VIII needed at the time. He was dealing with problems with the Spanish over the Thirty Year’s War.  His reputation was already under attack and his friend embarrasses him when his attention needed to be elsewhere. Urban VIII let the Inquisition deal with Galileo and made and example of him.

Galileo was treated very well, unlike the stories that are told. He had lots of friends in church circles. He stayed in the palace of the Tuscan ambassador.  He wasn’t arrested. There was a document found in the Inquisition files that doesn’t fit with the certificate that Bellarmino gave Galileo. What was in the files said that Gallileo was forbidden to discuss the Copernicus hypothesis and it was unsigned. Bellarmino was dead so couldn’t resolve the issue.

What the Inquisition sought to address was very specific.  In writing The Dialogue, did Galileo violate his agreement with Bellarmino from 1616?

Galileo was asked why he never mentioned Bellarmino’s warning to the Pope. Galileo’s response isn’t convincing. He said he never imagined that his book was actually defending heliocentrism so he thought Bellarmino’s warning didn’t apply. He also said he didn’t really think that heliocentrism was true, anyway, that he was just playing around trying to make a weak argument look strong. This seems a big stretch, but the Inquisitors accept it. They then presented a plea bargain: Galileo would admit to inadvertently breaking his agreement. Galileo did this – basically said he had gone too far. That should have been the end of it but the Pope wouldn’t allow it to be the end. He demanded that Galileo be formally arrested and that the book had to be banned.

Galileo was formally Inquisitioned and presented surprising humility.  That should have been the end of it, but three cardinal’s refused to sign which makes it seem that the trial was really for show and that the Pope didn’t actually support it.

Split between a realist and an instrumentalist view of science was just beginning to emerge during the time of Galileo.  Realism says that scientific theories are true depictions of the world.  Scientific ideas really do describe the world as it objectively is. Instrumentalism says that scientific theories are simply useful tools for saving the phenomena.  Saving the phenomena means that if we see some set of phenomena, the goal of science is simply to propose a coherent model for describing and predicting these phenomena. Whether or not the theory is literally true of objective reality behind the phenomena is irrelevant.

Most modern scientists are realists.  So were Copernicus and Galileo but this was extremely unusual for their day.  Bellarmino, Urban VII, and many of the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano were instrumentalists.

The instrumentalists likely held the theological position of ex suppositione:  “by supposition” – you take a position suppositionally for the sake of the argument and see where it leads. Bellarmino and Urban were likely confused that Galileo insisted on the literal truth for his notions.

The realist view of modern science is based on an optimistic faith statement:  The human intellect can ascertain true causes and we can work backwards from observable to true causes and recognize them as such.

We have decided that  science is supposed to get at true causes and not rest content with workable accounts usable for prediction and explanation, but do not make claims to objective truth.

In practice, most scientists don’t follow the realist road all the way to the end. Philosophically speaking, we cannot ever tell that we have discovered ultimate causes or even that we are able to uncover them. In this sense, Urban VIII and Bellarmino were right.

But modern science does one of two things. It either makes the leap of faith that human beings can ascertain true causes or it assumes it can. Science has been successful, but success is not an argument for objective truth.