Monday, June 15, 2009

God and Nature, or, Calvin on the Sacraments

I haven't written much in a while, but I am happy to say I am now taking a two-week vacation, so I am much freer to write more often. Hooray for more thoughts that are probably only interesting to me.

Indeed, this post might be on the more esoteric side, but hey, anyone who reads my blog knows my interests are a little out there. Math, science, theology, and politics are usual fare here, so what can you expect?

I was reading through John Calvin's chapter on the sacraments in Institutes of the Christian Religion, originally because I was having a heated discussion about infant baptism. Being the good Presbyterian that I am, I decided to look to Calvin for some wisdom.

But then I got interested in Calvin's general idea of sacraments, and I couldn't help but look at it from the point of view of a mathematician interested in the relationship between God and nature.

Here's a rather long excerpt from the Institutes, Chapter 14, section 18:
The term "sacrament", in the view we have hitherto taken of it, includes, generally, all the signs which God ever commanded men to use, that he might make them sure and confident of the truth of his promises. These he was pleased sometimes to place in natural objects ...

...[W]e have an example, in his giving the tree of life to Adam and Eve, as an earnest of immortality, that they might feel confident of the promise as often as they ate of the fruit. Another example was, when he gave the bow in the cloud to Noah and his posterity, as a memorial that he would not again destroy the earth by a flood. These were to Adam and Noah as sacraments: not that the tree could give Adam and Eve the immortality which it could not give to itself; or the bow (which is only a reflection of the solar rays on the opposite clouds) could have the effect of confining the waters; but they had a mark engraven on them by the word of God, to be proofs and seals of his covenant. The tree was previously a tree, and the bow a bow; but when they were inscribed with the word of God, a new form was given to them: they began to be what they previously were not. Lest any one suppose that these things were said in vain, the bow is even in the present day a witness to us of the covenant which God made with Noah, (Gen. 9: 6.) As often as we look upon it, we read this promise from God, that the earth will never be destroyed by a flood. Wherefore, if any philosophizer, to deride the simplicity of our faith, shall contend that the variety of colours arises naturally from the rays reflected by the opposite cloud, let us admit the fact; but, at the same time, deride his stupidity in not recognising God as the Lord and governor of nature, who, at his pleasure, makes all the elements subservient to his glory. If he had impressed memorials of this description on the sun, the star, the earth, and stones, they would all have been to us as sacraments. For why is the shapeless and the coined silver not of the same value, seeing they are the same metal? Just because the former has nothing but its own nature, whereas the latter, impressed with the public stamp, becomes money, and receives a new value. And shall the Lord not be able to stamp his creatures with his word, that things which were formerly bare elements may become sacraments?

The emphases in the above quotation are mine. They point to an idea that is near and dear to my heart, the idea that there are two dimensions of creation that are firmly intertwined. The first dimension is physical existence, and the second is what I usually think of as meaning, though perhaps one could even call it spiritual existence.

I think these two dimensions are sufficiently intertwined that one cannot exist without the other. For instance, in the Lord's supper, Christians always use bread and wine (or grape juice), even though some might say the meaning of the Lord's supper can still be conveyed through other elements. Christians still insist that using bread and wine is important, not least because it's just intuitively wrong to use, say, chips and coke, as if such things could ever represent as faithfully the body and blood of Jesus. It would be as if a man offered his fiancee a necklace instead of a ring to signify their engagement--the meaning of the thing and the physical nature of the thing cannot be separated so easily.

The reason all this is important to me is that we live in a scientific age, and I fancy myself something of a scientist. As a Christian, I have to grapple with the question, does science have any theological consequences? If so, do those consequences hurt or help Christianity?

I think the idea I've just described implies that yes, science must have some theological consequences. Learning about God surely cannot be separated from learning about His purposes in the world, and if what I've said above is correct, then learning about purpose cannot be separated from learning about the physical reality of nature. So science should have theological consequences.

But also this Christian way of understanding the natural world should give a powerful integrating framework for science, so that scientists need not find themselves studying the world for no particular reason. With a "sacramental" view of nature, we have a theological motivation for doing good science, and doing it carefully under sufficient ethical constraints.

This ability to integrate science into a broader framework also acts as a natural argument for the existence of God. I have read plenty of authors talk about how the Judeo-Christian view of nature laid the foundations for doing modern science, and I whole-heartedly agree. Is this not a testament to the strength of a belief, that it can open up greater understanding of the world we live in?

But it seems Christianity has been so obsessed with the "spiritual" as a separate category from the physical that it has lost ground in the scientific world. Most scientists today are not Christians, and I think this is because Christians have simply thrown away the philosophical fruit of their own worldview: creation is good, and its physical nature and purpose fit together beautifully in God's world.

This failure on the part of Christians is evident in our lack of clear moral leadership on crucial environmental issues (climate change, sustainability, etc.) And on bioethical issues, where I believe Christians do show impressive moral leadership, the world is not willing to listen, because we have sacrificed credibility on more general scientific questions.

Personally, I think understanding the natural world deepens my understanding of God. And not only that, but just experiencing the natural world deepens my relationship with Him. Music, for example, is fundamentally just a collection of sounds; we hear sounds occuring randomly every day, but when they are placed together in rhythm and harmony, these sounds become a means of conveying meaning. The physical nature of the sounds and the meaning they convey are inseparable. Music to me has always been an experiential proof of God's existence. I think most religious people can attest that they, too, have something in the natural world that "proves" God's existence to them.

In the ongoing battle between science and religion, I find it necessary to call Christians to simply embrace their own theological heritage and incorporate scientific knowledge, by which I simply mean greater familiarity with the natural world, into an ever-expanding view of who God is and what He is doing in the world. We should not be fearful that a greater familiarity with nature will distract us from knowledge of God, because I think just the opposite is true--understanding nature will deepen our knowledge of God.

This is too big an idea to iron out in one blog post, so I'll let it sit for now, and maybe come back to it tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. No. God doesnt like math.

    Also, I think a lot of people (particularly scientists) get very closed-minded and try to stuff the natural world, which was created by God, into this mold that makes practical sense to them. Hey, has it ever crossed anyone's mind that God didnt HAVE to do things a certain way???


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