Order, order, everywhere

Goodness me, I thought blogging once a week about a book would be no trouble at all, but somehow I got quite busy and missed two posts! (Also, it turns out it is in fact rather difficult to summarize 50-page chapters in a much smaller space in a way that is still, I hope, useful.) Getting back on schedule then, here are some thoughts on Chapter 5 of Alister McGrath’s book A Scientific Theology: Volume 1: Nature. Come for the Augustine quotations, stay for the David-generated chatter.

Chapter 5 is titled “Implications of a Christian Doctrine of Creation”, and I just want to share two big thoughts. McGrath says that the Christian doctrine of Creation means that…

1. We can reasonably expect to find some of the attributes of God expressed in Creation, most especially order and beauty. (Both of these, but especially the ordering of all events in the universe is exceedingly important for science, but also inexplicable by science.)
2. We can reasonably expect that we will be able to perceive this order.

Let me start with the second point first. In Genesis 1:27, we read (ESV),

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

One long and still debated question has been – what exactly does it mean to say that man, unlike all other creatures, is created in the image of God? One popular answer, and so far as I can tell the answer McGrath prefers, is that the imago Dei can primarily be identified with human reason, which corresponds with divine rationality. He quotes Augustine,

The image of the creator is to be found in the rational or intellectual soul of humanity… Although reason and intellect may at times be dormant, or may appear to be weak at some times, and strong at others, the human soul cannot be anything other than rational and intellectual. It has been created according to the image of God in order that it may use reason and intellect in order to apprehend and behold God.

That secondary point – that the, er, reason God gave us reason is so we may apprehend him – is important too, for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a rebuttal to the now-common but unprovable suggestion that man was inclined to believe in a God, and so we made him up, we invented religion (and there is no God). Mais non, it is just as reasonable to say that God implanted within us a desire to seek him – we are inclined to believe in him because he exists. Augustine again,

To praise you is the desire of humanity, a small piece of your creation. You stir humanity to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

Yes, I also can hear Audrey Assad now.

Second, if we can apprehend God by our reason, then let’s do it of course, in every way, including, in this context, by studying Creation.

Before we get there – McGrath offers one sort of special case of the reason God has given us – the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Mathematics, often called the language of the universe because it has been so successful in describing the observed world, is also something you can study, abstractly, alone in your bedroom with the windows to the outer world firmly shut. So why should it be at all useful in the sciences? Astronomer Johannes Kepler thought that this was because mathematics came from the mind of God,

In that geometry is part of the divine mind from the origins of time, even from before the origins of time (for what is there in God that is not also from God?) has provided God with the patterns for the creation of the world, and has been transferred to humanity with the image of God.

(I love how earlier scientists had no problem infusing their scientific work with theology.)

This does bring us to our other big point – that the attributes of God are expressed in Creation, especially his order and beauty. Quoting McGrath,

One of the most significant parallels between the natural sciences and Christian theology is the fundamental conviction that the world is characterized by regularity and intelligibility.

Indeed, we assume this in the natural sciences literally all the time. We assume there is some orderly, intelligible explanation for everything we observe.

And, McGrath quoting Paul Davies,

…in Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature.

Thus Christians have a reason for the order irreligious scientists can only marvel at. Specifically, we might expect to discover laws of nature which are the manifestation of this order. Paraphrasing Paul Davies, McGrath says that most scientists would agree that laws of nature have four features,

1. They are universal.
2. They are absolute (they do not depend on the nature of the person observing them).
3. They are eternal.
4. They are omnipotent (nothing is outside their scope).

Says McGrath,

It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that these attributes which are, by common agreement and convention, applied to the ‘laws of nature’, show remarkable affinities which those which are traditionally applied to God…

After discussing the order of Creation, McGrath goes on to discuss the beauty of Creation. Beauty is a more difficult concept to articulate than order, but I think most scientists have indeed felt that true scientific theories also tend to be beautiful ones – truth and beauty converge. There is even the famous quotation by Paul Dirac that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment”! Could this not be another expression of God’s character in Creation? Quoting Augustine again!

I loved beautiful things of a lower order, and I was sinking down to the depths. I used to say to my friends: ‘Do we love anything other than that which is beautiful? Then what is a beautiful object? And what is beauty? What is it that charms us and attracts us to the things that we love? It must be the grace and loveliness which is inherent in him; otherwise they would in no way draw us to them.

God put beauty in the universe as a reflection of himself and in order to draw us to him. C.S. Lewis makes a similar and quite well-known comment,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.

Ah, everyone must love Lewis.

McGrath closes the chapter by pointing out that what we have learned here is that there is a high correlation between what we would expect to observe based on the Christian doctrine of Creation, and what we actually observe – but this doesn’t prove the doctrine. Christians who accept the doctrine do, however, themselves gain a framework for engaging with the world, a framework McGrath will surely employ in subsequent chapters.

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 4 – in Vetere Novum latet et in Novo Vetus pater
Chapter 3 – Nobody knows what “nature” is
Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”