Thursday, April 30, 2015

Filling the gaps with Silly Putty

This is, in part, moving in tandem with what Anthony is posting just now.  It is also, in part, just my reading of Armstrong's The Case for God.  Last night I got to the section on Newton, which makes me want to research a question I'd never thought before to ask:  "When did God become omnipotent and omniscient?"

Because the answer may end up being:  Newton.

That is, he continues from age to age, and is present from infinity to infinity; he rules all things and he knows what happens and what is able to happen.
That is not Newton speaking of Newton; or Newton speaking of the scientist.  That is Newton describing God, a God he asserts because it explains the mechanical universe Newton has "created."

First, a word of explanation.  Newton, in Karen Armstrong's telling, unified the theories of Kepler (on planetary motion), Descartes (on physics) and Galileo (on terrestrial movement).  He understood gravity as "the fundamental force that accounted for all celestial and earthly activity."  (Armstrong, p. 202).  Mechanics, argued Newton, was the model which explained all the functions of the universe.  But to be truly universal, mechanics must explain ALL the phenomena of the universe.

Though these bodies may, indeed, continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits themselves by these laws.

Newton, quoted in Armstrong, p. 203.

Newton was a genius, but he wasn't omniscient.  Still, he wanted an answer to all questions, and he thought he had it.  See if this doesn't sound familiar today:  "When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe in a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more than to find it usefull for that purpose."  The mathematical balance of the universe "forced [Newton] to ascribe it to ye counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent...very will skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry."  Gravity "may yet put ye planes into motion but without ye divine powers, it could never put them into such Circulating motion as they have about ye sun."

Inertia held the planets in motion, yet they "must have required a divine power to impress them."  And what put the Earth so perfectly placed around the sun and set it spinning on its axis so well that the planet neither burned from too long a day, nor froze from too long a night?  The only answer Newton had was:  God.  Newton was less interested in establishing a scientific explanation of the universe, than he was in establishing what we would now deride as "intelligent design."

None of this is to say Newton got his theology right. In fact, he got it all wrong, because he reduced God to the universe humans could find an explanation for. As Armstrong puts it:  "God's existence was now a rational consequence of the world's intricate design."

Before we go much further, let's just consider what this has to do with God's omniscience and omnipotence.  The latter is a consequence of God's presence in the universe.  God, said Newton, is "omnipresent not virtually only but substantially."  Gravity was not just a force of nature, but the action of God.  Moreover, the God who "continues from age to age, and is present from infinity to infinity," and who "rules all things," is a God of dominion.  This is not a God who is other, or kenotic; this is a God whose primary characteristic is "Dominion," (Newton's term), and such a God must have "intelligence, perfection, eternity, infinity, omniscience and omnipotence."  (Armstrong, p. 204.)  Because without it, how can such a God keep the universe operating?

(Sidebar that belatedly occurs to me:  I remember a seminary professor talking derisively of people who imagined Jesus of Nazareth being both human and God, eating and drinking while also busily keeping all the planets spinning in their courses.  I only know understand the concept he was mocking was Newton's, not Christianity's.  Well, not until Christianity adopted it; which soon after Newton, some did.)

It's easy to retroject this back onto God in the Scriptures.  The problem is, God is not omniscient in the Hebrew scriptures, and it's unclear whether even Aquinas thought God to be as Newton required.  Two examples from the Hebrew Scriptures will suffice:  "The heart is devious, beyond all fathoming. I, God, test the heart," says Jeremiah.  The other, and perhaps most famous, example, is God finding Adam and Eve in the Garden and learning, belatedly, that they have eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which, if ever a story in scripture was meant to be an allegory based on a metaphor, surely this one is it!).  Literalists will tie themselves into knots trying to explain how an omniscient God can be surprised.  But maybe the problem is in our concept, not in the story.  Maybe the problem is, as Karen Armstrong argues, that we decided God was not "other," but was so familiar he could plan out our lives for us, and even give us what we ask for if, like Joel Osteen, we just ask for wealth and happiness (which comes from wealth, apparently, first and foremost).

It seems the "God of the Gaps" was born, not from theology retreating before science's approach, but from science's encroachment into theology.  And when that went sour, science blamed theology.  Nice work if you can get it, and get it science pretty much did.

I'm beginning to reappraise my discomfort with Bultmann's efforts to "demythologize."  I still agree with Armstrong, that mythos (as she defines it, and she doesn't define it all that well) is essential to human existence, because we are religious beings (religion is innate to human beings, not imposed upon them.  Jefferson will get a rather thorough trashing before we are finished, if only because he is the poster child for many modern atheistic misunderstandings.  By the way, per Armstrong, Jefferson was a Deist, not an atheist.  We'll get back to that, because there is a thread from Newton to Jefferson we have to follow.).  But to understand mythos correctly, it may be that we need to demythologize in order to get there.

Those comments may seem a leap, but Armstrong goes on to describe the God of Newton, and more importantly, the Christianity of Newton.  Nature replaces revelation, the Book of Nature replacing (almost) the Scriptures.  In The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, Armstrong says Newton argued that "Noah had founded a faith based on the rational contemplation of nature.  There had been no revealed scriptures, no miracles, and no mysteries." (If you can't already see the connections to Jefferson and the Deists, be patient; connections will be made.)  This faith had been "the true religion till ye nations corrupted it," and science was the only means for properly understanding the sacred:  "For there is no way to come to ye knowledge of a Deity but by ye frame of nature."  The fundamental religion had been corrupted with "Monstrous Legends, false miracles, veneration of reliques, charmes, ye doctrine of Ghosts or Daemons, and their intercession, invocation & worship and other heathen superstitions." (Newton, quoted in Armstrong, p. 205).

Do you now hear Newton echoed in Jefferson and the other Deists of Revolutionary America?

Such things were superstitions not just because they offended scientific reason, but because they offended the clockwork universe.  Miracles are, by definition, disruptions in the natural order.  The God who is the mechanical universe cannot disrupt the natural order; that's asking God to violate God's self.  The idea offends reason.  Which explains why Jefferson cut all such stories about miracles out of his "Jefferson Bible."

But Newton didn't accomplish this by overwhelming the theologians.  The church, or some leaders of it, embraced this idea as the new and rational theology the world needed. Not surprisingly (well, unless you think of Cotton Mather as the caricature of a Puritan rooting out sexual desire and witches his entire life*), Cotton Mather took to Newton's theology.  Puritans were already strongly anti-Papist (they were "Puritans" because they wanted to purge, or "purify," the Church of England of it's liturgical trappings and Roman Catholic ideas).  He liked it because it seemed, like the Puritans themselves, to return the church to an original state; and because Puritans liked nothing more than to condemn anything even vaguely connected to Rome as superstition (and so they banned Christmas celebrations, or even the observance of Christmas, for as long as they could).

Intelligent design, springing from Newton, became the standard of science itself.  Robert Boyle, physicist, chemist, and founding member of the Royal Society, thought the mechanistic universe proved the existence of a celestial Engineer.  Richard Bentley, in his Boyle lectures, argued that:

almost everything in the World demonstrates to us this great Truth; and affords undeniable Arguments, to prove that the World and all Things therein, are the Effects of an Intelligent and Knowing Cause.
(Quoted in Armstrong, p. 207)

The problem is obvious.  As Armstrong observes:

Where Basil, Augustine, and Thomas had insisted that the natural world could tell us nothing about God, Newton, Bentley, and Clarke argued that nature could tell us everything we need to know about the divine.  God was no longer transcendent, no longer beyond the reach of language and concepts.  As Clarke had shown, his will and attributes could be charted, measured, and definitively proven in twelve clear and distinct propositions.
(Armstrong, pp. 207-208)

If I wanted to look at this from a distinctly historical perspective I'd link these Newtonian theologians back to the Scholastics of the late medieval period, who made much the same claims, only without a clockwork universe to base them on.  That these claims have fallen apart, thanks to the very science they were based on, is obvious.  The question now is:  with what Renaissance will we recover from these neo-Scholastics?

* a corrective for that which even Armstrong overlooks is the work of Mather himself.  It seems rather clear from his accounts of life in Salem that the witch trials, much as he may have helped foment them, took on a life which controlled his rather than he controlling them.  It's likely Mather learned a few theological, and pastoral, lessons from those events.  It's clear he wasn't a McCarthy-esque figure, rooting out witches until some finally shamed him into standing down.


  1. Armstrong details how the clockwork God of Newton completely fell apart, though, because Newton (among other things) assumed that matter was incapable of motion without an outside force working on it. Inertia, in other words, could not be overcome without some Prime Mover to provide the first impulse.

    The Big Bang Theory alone provides us with a modern concept of an endless cycle of collapse and re-creation which doesn't require a "spirit" to motivate the action. The very concept of geological time is sufficient to allow that life can arise and conform to given conditions. I don't think I'd argue from "design" that God must be real, since "design" makes the presumption that life can only exist as we know it on this planet, under these conditions.

    Alter the conditions slightly, it is perfectly reasonable to assume life would still arise, albeit differently than we know. I still hear variations on the argument that the universe is too carefully balanced not to be the product of at least an "intelligence;" I just don't find them very persuasive.

    Newton's clockwork also, as Armstrong points out, appealed to an intellectual elite and put God in a very tight box. The elite liked it because it meant reason alone was enough to apprehend God, and God was fully apprehensible by reason (small wonder the intellectual class liked that idea). But was explanations for the natural world moved further and further away from Aristotelian restrictions, God also shrank more and more, until it was quite easy to discard God.

    It isn't the wonder of the mechanics that is religious, in other words. The wonder is human reason which can understand and comprehend it, however imperfectly. That was another argument: if God was fully subject to human understanding, and yet human understanding could not possibly understand the whole of the universe (something chaos theory is putting on a mathematical footing, as I understand it), then we can't possibly know all about God. Newton wanted a God fully comprehensible; he wanted mystery erased entirely. If that isn't possible, then how tenable a concept is the Newtonian God? And if God is merely a concept, why can't it, like any human concept, be discarded?

    Armstrong's thesis is that the strength of religion is in the acceptance of an apophatic theology; that God is in the creation, if we mean the God of Abraham, but not of it. Newton rejected such a concept; and if you throw out that bathwater, you can't but throw out the baby with it.

  2. "Armstrong's thesis is that the strength of religion is in the acceptance of an apophatic theology."

    It is certainly one strength. But I don't see that it is absolutely necessary to have to choose between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

  3. Individually, certainly not.

    And I'm not sure apophatic theology is the saving grace Armstrong thinks it is. Still, there's a great deal of mischief involved in reducing God to a necessary principle in a scientific cosmology.