Despite an Occasional Verbal Flourish

The second part of Hart’s book is his positive statement of “Divine Victory.” The first section of this second half sets the pieces on the board for us.

“To behave or live according to nature is for some of us the very definition of sagacity, sanity, or even virtue” (p. 45).

This is what the ancient pagans sought to do, and what erstwhile pagans today think they are doing. But for most of us, in the backwash of modernity, the natural world around us remains “a disenchanted world” (p. 46). Following the mandate of Francis Bacon, we have dedicated ourselves to mastery over the natural world. We now have the luxury “of being able to render the ‘natural’ at once remote and benign” (p. p. 47). But of course, every once in a while, nature “surprises us by vaulting past our defenses” (p. 47).

Paganism sought to live in harmony with the world, with the natural world as the standard, and see Aristotle. Modernity began to think of the natural world as simply so much stuff that needed to be conquered. In contrast to these approaches, Christianity revealed the world “to be the work of one creative and redemptive will” (p. 48). Christians did not deny that the cosmos was animate, but insisted that all the animae were creatures.

If Christians had remained steadfast to this “discarded image,” a lot of compromises with modernity that have continually plagued us since would have left us unaffected. From the age of the cosmos to the nature of it, we allow secularists to dictate to us what is and what is not acceptable. Hart genuflects to modernity himself — “the extraordinary fecundity and beauty of the northeastern rim of the Indian Ocean is in large part a result of countless millennia of volcanic activity and tectonic strife” (p. 52). Countless millennia, aye.

But Christians began to surrender piecemeal to the dictates of Enlightenment deism, and did not dig their last redoubt around the contents of the Apostles’ Creed until the 1920’s here in America. So a lot of Christians have the same basic view of nature that the evolutionists do — and Hart is included in that number. But he still describes the problem well.

“What had never yet arisen in imagination was ‘nature’ in the modern sense: a closed causal continuum, conceived (by theists) as the intricate artifice of a God whose transcendence is a kind of absence, or (by atheists) as a purely fortuitious event concerning which the absence of any God is the only ‘transcendent’ truth” (p. 49)

In other words, the theists and atheists now differ about the clockmaker. They have come to agree on the clock.

“The problem, of course, with constructing a theology around the bare casual relation between a cosmic machine and its divine artisan is that any analogy between the two becomes extremely perilous for the theologian. What sort of craftsman, after all, do the internal mechanisms of nature declare” (p. 49)?

They declare, of course, a genius of infinite and glorious aesthetic majesty. But if we look away from the frozen portraits and landscapes in order to see the thing in motion, as though it were a story, which it is, something else intrudes. This glory is “everywhere attended . . . by death” (p. 50).

“It is as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory, a single great organism nourishing itself upon the death of everything to which it gives birth, creating and devouring all things with a terrible and impressive majesty. Nature squanders us with such magnificent prodigality that it is hard not to think that something enduringly hideous and abysmal must abide in the depths of life” (p. 50).

Hart wants to argue that the Christian is not required to see nature “as we understand it; in fact, it renders the very category of ‘nature’ mysterious, alters it, elevates it — judges and redeems it” (p. 54). This is all quite striking, but Hart does not explain in any detail what he means by it, and he has already skated right by some difficult bits in the story.

Now I need to say here that I believe him to be exactly right about the clockwork theists and their collision with the clockwork atheists. The world is not a clock; the world is a story. But — and this is the key point — the world is not a story told by the creature. It is a story enacted by the creature, but not a story told by us. God is the one who put every comma on every page. Every hair of every head in the history of the world is numbered, and every scale on the back of every fish shimmered and glinted the way it did because of God’s creative Word before all worlds. And this is why Hart’s criticisms of the mechanism world do not apply at all to the story world.

And further, his attempts to mumble through parts of the story that he believes will scare the kids are susceptible to criticisms from the likes of Ivan that would shut this whole discussion down.

Allow me to intrude an autobiographical comment here. Despite the big words I use from time to time — words like delicatessen and basketball — I really am a simple man. My big words are nothing like Hart’s — we in the modern world do not with amulets and rites hold numinous critters “at bay with apotropaic charms” (p. 46), and “we do not walk in terror of delitescent fiends” (p. 46). Well, I certainly don’t. So despite an occasional verbal flourish from me, pirouetting along the semantic banister of the mezzanine of life, I try to keep things generally simple. Why is this relevant?

In reply to Voltaire’s taunt about whether volcanoes were entirely necessary, Hart responds by saying:

“if one grants the deist his watchmaker God, the answer seems inevitable. Of course, volcanoes are necessary; but for them, and the tectonic instabilities needed to create them, and the seismic shocks that follow from these instabilities, and the oceans of fire that form the earth’s mantle, the planet almost certainly could not produce and sustain the atmosphere that incubates and shelters terrestial life” (pp. 51-52).

Please note that Hart is not saying that volcanoes were necessary. He is saying that they were necessary for the watchmaker God, which is of course transparently false, even on the principles of good deistic watchmaking. Whatever could prevent an omnipotent God from making a decent atmosphere without blowing up a bunch of stuff?

But let’s return to my simple-mindedness. I am here in this fallen world where things can go terribly wrong, and as a Christian I am in a covenanted and personal relationship with God of this fallen world. And when something in my life is going off the rails, like the psalmist, I would talk to God about it, and if I have learned to speak to Him as a Christian, I will speak to Him as one who has the power to do something about that problem, no matter how great it is — tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes, wars, genocides, or all of them together. This means I must speak to Him in such a way as to prevail upon Him to exercise that power and deliver me, or in such a way as to reconcile myself to my role in this difficult part of the story He is telling, trusting the later outcome to Him. There are no other biblical options. My prayers will either move God to act, or will move me to rest. They will never move Him to remove His signature from the title page of the story He is writing. Excuse me, but I don’t want to live in that book.

This is not trusting an abstract “plan” or a detailed schematic diagram of the universal “clock.” It is holding God to His word by faith. When the ultimate eschatological denouement comes, the “all things” that will be revealed on that day as having worked together for good will be inseparable from the cross and resurrection. How could they not be?

Theology That Bites Back



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