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For My Atheist Friends – Nominalism, Atheism, Modern Christian Confusion

A great change occurred in the late medieval era that had the effect of domesticating God, at least in the minds of some. Whereas God was understood to be transcendent and incomprehensible, but still knowable through participation, the domesticated God of modern deism, atheism, and christian fundamentalism is merely one being among others, though of greater power and proportion. Brad Gregory describes this philosophical change, which resides at the core of so much philosophical trouble.

According to Aquinas, God in metaphysical terms was, incomprehensibly, esse-not a being but the sheer act of to-be, in which all creatures participated insofar as they existed and through which all creation was mysteriously sustained. In Occamist nominalism, by contrast, insofar as God existed, “God” had to denote some thing, some discrete, real entity, an ens-however much that entity differs from everything else, a difference Occam highlighted by emphasizing the absolute sovereignty of God’s power (potentia Dei absoluta) and the inscrutability of God’s will within the dependable order of creation and salvation he had in fact established.30 When combined with an either-or categorical distinction between natural and supernatural plus nominalism’s heuristic principle of parsimony known retrospectively as Occam’s razor-the idea that explanations of natural phenomena “ought not to multiply entities beyond necessity”-the intellectual pieces were in place, at least in principle, for the domestication of God’s transcendence and the extrusion of his presence from the natural world.31

Brad S. Gregory. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Kindle Locations 550-555). Kindle Edition.

Incidentally, many Christian squabbles over issues such as predestination vs. free will, etc. arise from this philosophical development, though I’ll need to explain why in a later post. In the quotation below, Gregory sheds a little more light on the classical understanding of God.

The difference between Christian and other ancient views of God (or gods) is more fundamental than is often recognized, and goes far beyond a distinction between monotheism and polytheism. According to this Christian view, God is not a highest, noblest, or most powerful entity within the universe, “divine” by virtue of being comparatively greatest. Rather, God is radically distinct from the universe as a whole, which he did not fashion by ordering anything already existent but rather created entirely ex nihilo.8 God’s creative action proceeded neither by necessity nor by chance but from his deliberate love, and as love (cf. i Jn 4:8) God constantly sustains the world through his intimate, providential care. Although God is radically transcendent and altogether other than his creation, he is sovereignly present to and acts in and through it. There is no “outside” to creation, spatially or temporally, nor is any part of creation independent of God or capable of existing independently of God. Such a God is literally unimaginable and incomprehensible…

Brad S. Gregory. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Kindle Locations 427-429). Kindle Edition.

In the quotation below, Gregory explains why the classical understanding of an utterly transcendent God cannot be proved or disproved by empirical investigation. The classical understanding of the Triune God is not incompatible with science. When either atheists or Christians proceed as though a great conflict exists between the two, this suggests that a domesticated understanding of God is presupposed.

It is self-evident that a God who by definition is radically distinct from the natural world could never be shown to be unreal via empirical inquiry that by definition can only investigate the natural world. To posit any link between science and the unreality of God therefore presupposes that God is in some sense being conceived as part of the universe-or, in Christian categories, that God and creation have been in some way combined, conflated, or confused. Seemingly unaware that this is what he is doing, the philosopher Charles Larmore, for example, writes that “to explain something in terms of divine action or Providence always amounts to placing God among the finite causes we have already found or can imagine discovering.”18 This is not so. With the conception of God just discussed, it simply implies an assertion that the otherly other, transcendent creator is active in and through his creation. Similarly, to think that science has falsified or could falsify claims about God’s presence in and through the natural world presupposes that scientific explanations about causality in the universe exclude any possible simultaneous or supervening divine presence. That is, it assumes that natural and supernatural causality (to use the categories of a terminological contrast devised in the Middle Ages) comprise a zero-sum game, a sort of competitive, either-or relationship between God and creation.19 In short, it presupposes that Christianity’s sacramental view of reality is false-that if God is real, he does not or cannot act in and through his own creation, the natural world.

Brad S. Gregory. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Kindle Locations 466-469). Kindle Edition.

In another recent book, David Bentley Hart makes an argument similar to Gregory’s. Of course, I could provide an extensive bibliography for anyone wanting to read more about this issue.

Yet, the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God – especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side – is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe , or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, pg. 32

It wouldn’t hurt if atheists actually studied the religious thinkers before making wild claims about the impossibility and irrationality of belief in God.

As it happens, the god with whom most modern popular atheism usually concerns itself is one we might call a “demiurge”(demiourgos): a Greek term that originally meant a kind of public technician or artisan but that came to mean a particular kind of divine “world-maker” or cosmic craftsman….It is certainly a demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God. And the same is true of all the other new atheists as far as I can tell.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, pg. 35-36.

Stephen Hawkings should stick to physics or at least acknowledge that it is unwise to speak authoritatively about a subject without actually studying that subject.

“Hawking’s dismissal of God as an otiose explanatory hypothesis, for instance, is a splendid example of a false conclusion drawn from a confused question. He clearly thinks that talk of God’s creation of the universe concerns some event that occurred at some particular point in the past, prosecuted by some being who appears to occupy the shadowy juncture between a larger quantum landscape and the specific conditions of our current cosmic order: by “God,” that is to say, he means only a demiurge, coming after the law of gravity but before the present universe, whose job was to nail together all the boards and firmly mortar all the bricks of our current cosmic edifice.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, pg. 35-36.

God can be known, but only from the inside. See my previous post for a little more thorough explanation of Hart’s quotation below.

All the great theistic traditions agree that God… is essentially beyond finite comprehension; hence, much of the language used of him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence. All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known: that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with a fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, pg. 31

Atheists are not fighting with classical Christianity or any form of classical theism. Rather, they are fighting against an unfortunate often fundamentalistic caricature of the Triune God that emerged in very recent times. The supposed war between science and christian faith is as much the responsibility of modern christian misunderstandings as it is the fault of atheists who do not bother at all to investigate the writings of the great Christian thinkers.

It should be noted, though, just out of fairness, that the emergence of fundamentalism in the last century was not some sort of retreat to a more original or primitive form of faith. Certainly the rise of the Christian fundamentalist movement was not a recovery of the Christianity of earlier centuries or of the apostolic church. It was a thoroughly modern phenomenon, a strange and somewhat poignantly pathetic attempt on the part of culturally deracinated Christians, raised without intellectual or imaginative resources of a living religious civilization, to imitate the evidentiary methods of modern empirical science by taking the Bible as some sort of objective and impeccably consistent digest of historical data. It is of course absurd to treat the Bible in that way – though, frankly, no more absurd than thinking that “science shows that God does not exist” – but it is also most definitely not the way the Bible was read in the ancient or medieval church.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, pg. 24-25.

If anyone is interested in evidence to substantiate the above claim, Hart goes on for another page or two in order to provide quotations from the likes of Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, John Henry Newman (19th century), and others. These issues are very well known among Christian scholars today, which makes it very difficult to understand why so many contemporary Christians are so easily persuaded by the very recent arguments of fundamentalist biblical literalists.

What we can say, however, at least with regard to Western culture, is that it was not until the modern period (and really, not until the late modern period) that a significant minority of believers became convinced that the truth of their faith depended upon an absolutely literal – an absolutely “factual” – interpretation of scripture, and felt compelled to stake everything on so ludicrous a wager. Now the Bible came to be seen as what it obviously is not: a collection of “inerrant” oracles and historical reports, each true in the same way as every other, each subject to only one level of interpretation, and all perfectly in agreement with one another….this was largely the result of a cultural impoverishment, but it also followed from the triumph of a distinctly modern concept of what constitutes reliable knowledge; it was the strange misapplication of the rigorous but quite limited methods of modern empirical sciences to questions properly belonging to the realms of logic and spiritual experience.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, pg. 27.

In summary, modern atheists and christian fundamentalists (young earth creationists, etc.) are arguing about the existence of a God that bears no resemblance to the Triune God of classical biblical faith – the God Whom Christians through the ages have claimed to believe in and Know. Both of these modern errors are rooted in a philosophical nominalism that conceives of God in domesticated terms.

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