Sunday, June 01, 2008

Phillip Johnson, Put Down that Kool-Aid!

There are a couple especially noteworthy articles in the May Touchstone. First L.P. Fairfield writes a review of a book on panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism).

"Panentheism" means "God in everything" and conversely, "everything in God." Unlike pure pantheism, it does not merely identify God one-for-one with the sum total of everything in the cosmos. But unlike biblical Christianity, it does not separate God and the universe either.

Well that's one common strain of understanding of the word, but there is also a Christian understanding of it. The Wikipedia article on the subject matches with the understanding of the subject imparted to me by some good theologians:

The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches have a doctrine called panentheism to describe the relationship between the Uncreated (God, who is omnipotent, eternal, and constant) and His creation that bears surface similarities with the panentheism described above but maintains a critical distinction.

Most specifically, these Churches teach that God is not the "watchmaker God" of the Western European Enlightenment. Likewise, they teach that God is not the "stage magician God" who only shows up when performing miracles. Instead, the teaching of both these Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all.

I wish I could do better than an inadequately sourced Wikipedia article, but I'm not an academic theologian by any means. Whatever the definition of the word, suffice it to say that when I talk about panentheism, I do not intend the new-agey meaning described in the review, but the understanding of the Orthodox and Oriental Christian Churches that I've just reviewed for you.

The second article I'd like to mention is surprisingly related. Phillip E. Johnson disputes the "God-in-the-gaps" argument against Intelligent Design (ID) theory:

[The] point [of theistic evolutionists who warn intelligent design theorists against committing what they call the “God of the gaps” fallacy] is that it is futile to rely on “gaps” that the theory of evolution has not yet explained as places where divine acts might be necessary, because those gaps will inevitably be filled as science progresses. Eventually, God will be squeezed out of these spaces, with consequent embarrassment to the cause of religion.

That may be the reason some or even most theistic opponents of ID theory give for their opposition, but there is a more subtle danger. What ID proponents fall into is giving the idea that God can only work in the same mode as natural causes. In reality God's ways of operating far transcend natural causes, including human ways. Whereas humans make new things by pushing around matter that already exists, God creates, that is, He brings something from nothing. The fact that there is a natural order at all is His work. Human making relies on a pre-existing order, but God is responsible for the entire order that pervades his creations, including the possibility of generating further order. As Thomas Aquinas wrote:

Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship. (Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268; h/t Mariano Artigas)

So my objection to ID is not that it exposes religion to embarrassment, but that its proponents leave unchallenged a materialist premise that implicitly denigrates God and overlooks the most obvious evidence of His action.

Of course, this isn't necessarily so. Johnson and other ID proponents could very easily add to their writings something like this caveat: "Of course, even if ID were proven wrong, that wouldn't disprove God's action in creation, because the very order of nature presupposed by science manifests God's action. This order is evident to every man without the mediation of special scientific techniques."

But they don't write that. They insist on giving "scientific" materialists home-field advantage. They answer the atheist charge that God can't exist because he doesn't make (the way humans do) by shouting, "Oh, yes He does!" They leave unchallenged the atheist premise that creating is just like making, and in doing so, they leave their readers to tacitly accept that faulty premise.

In a sense it's like boys arguing about whose father is smarter. One boy asserts, "If your father's smarter than mine, he'll beat him right now in checkers." The second boy, instead of resting secure that his father is a Nobel laureate, instead responds, "My father will too beat your father!" Maybe the second boy's father doesn't think playing, let alone training, in checkers is worthwhile, or maybe he's simply got something better to do at the moment. God's action on nature is farther beyond human action than a Nobel laureate is beyond the neighborhood checkers champion.

It is sad that Johnson and many good people who fight for belief in God get so caught up in the dispute with atheists that they imbibe (or at least allow others to imbibe) the subtle and deadly materialist premises of their interlocutors.

L. P. Fairfield, "Review of Unreasonable Force Panentheism: The Other God Of the Philosophers—From Plato to the Present by John W. Cooper," Touchstone (May 2008), 33-34.

Phillip E. Johnson, "Science Futures," Touchstone (May 2008), 9-10.


Mike Flynn said...

the teaching of [the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox] Churches is that God is not merely necessary to have created the universe, but that His active presence is necessary in some way for every bit of creation, from smallest to greatest, to continue to exist at all.

This is precisely what Cardinal Schoenborn wrote in his latest book, Chance or Design? It is called creatio continuo and goes back at least to Augustine. His former professor, Ratzinger, now the B-15, once wrote that it is misleading to compare creation to making artifacts; the proper image is that of conception.

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks for your comment, Mike. I haven't (yet) read the Cardinal's book, though I hear it is very good. Would you mind providing a reference or even a quotation from Augustine?

I think I see what you mean by conception (the start of something new), but I wonder if you could elaborate a bit.


Rick said...

Thank you for the references to the articles.

Re: panentheism, it was also used by Rev. Arthur Peacocke, the biologist and Anglican priest, though for some reason I often got the sense that his writings reaked of naturalism and Process thought. He came to lecture to one of our classes, and I remember that he did not like the concept of "person" applied to God, stated that he found it "limiting" and he offered no elaboration on that statement. I am not stating that others who evoke panentheism hold Peacocke's views. Other than the Cardinal's book, one of the clearest presentations of Thomistic natural philsophy I have read is Fr. Emonet's trilogy on Being, Person and God which I think would be consonant with the defintion you offer above regarding panentheism. Through out the texts, he uses the images of poets and artists in combination with metaphysics to show God as the divine artist in creation. In this sense, the analogy of conception is apt.

In the Cardinal's book, he references creatio continua as part of God's primary causality, though no explicit reference is made to Augustine. Ironically, Peacocke made a similar reference to that term, though I do not think he was using it in the same sense as Cardinal Schonborn.

Mike Flynn said...

I am on the road and without my Schoenborn, so a precise quote must wait a week or so.

Under_the_moon said...

Thank you, Dr. Cage, for an informing article. I think you hit the nail right on the head here.

I have studied the position of Peacocke's panentheism a bit, and I have seen the reference made to him by Rick. I think I could clarify a bit on both Saint Augustine and Peacocke.

First, Saint Augustine had the cosmic vision of the world as embedded in God as a "sponge in some vast sea" (Confessions). This vision is directly comparable to modern day panentheisms, which see God as transcending and penetrating the world at the same time. But the insight of Saint Augustine is all the more astonishing when one considers that he acknowledged that time equals motion, and before creation there would be no time at all (Confessions). These statements, when taken together, equals what some panentheists envision as a block-universe with a "sponge" in a "vast sea".

Peacocke did not subscribe to the notion that God knows the future, but he rejected this notion on theological grounds. In this respect Peacocke seems to adhere to Process theology. But it is not correct to claim that Peacocke rejected the notion of God as personal. In fact, he assumed that God would be "at least personal", and that "personal" is the least misleading way of describing God. He preferred term was that of God as "supra-personal". This view can be clarified, I think, if one considers that by talking of God as "just another" person, one does not do justice to God as the source of all persons.

Rick said...

In terms of speaking of God as personal, the sense of the term "person" as used by Chalcedon and later councils applied primarily to God as a subsisting relational subject. So, to refer to God as supra-personal seems to deviate from the standard Christian orthodox position. I suppose that if one holds to the God of Process thought, as Peacocke does drawing from Hartshorne, one is bound to use such terms since their concept of God is rather unorthodox. For instance, Peacocke holds that God suffers in the kenosis of creation, such language and thought is highly problematic in its ontological underpinnings since this God is somehow subject to change and motion in terms of potency and act.