What natural theology does for personal piety

Our friend Bruce Charlton has recently devoted several posts (they are all worth reading, but see especially here) to arguing that the tenets of classical theism can be bad for the faith of ordinary Christians.  He claims (and who could really deny it?) that discussions of the divine attributes are opaque and abstract, while the Christian faith should be accessible to simple folk and children.  He also claims that philosophical theists have insuperable problems squaring an omnipotent being’s benevolence with the world as we see it.  In contrast, Bruce proposes a limited God, neither omnipotent nor omniscient, part of the world rather than above it, who is too weak to remove evil from the world and is thus not responsible for it.

It is no unhealthy thing for natural theology to be called upon from time to time to justify itself to those who recognize that communion with God is the only ultimate good.  This is a good thing for traditionalists “in good standing” to be discussing.  Nevertheless, I think Bruce has misjudged the classical doctrine of God, whose purpose is not to confound the faith of simple folk but to justify it.

Does one need to know that God’s essence is His existence in order to get to heaven?  Does one need to know that He is atemporal, or that His causal influence takes place on a different order than that of creatures?  No, certainly not.  We may hope that millions of illiterate peasants have ascended to the company of angels without troubling themselves with any such matters.  They believed in God and trusted in His Son.  Neither God nor His representative on Earth ask any more.

In what does this simple faith consist?  For a simple, spontaneous faith, it is better to speak of a general attitudes than of articulated beliefs.  One sign of a proper relationship to God  is gratitude.  The pious man is grateful to God for every good thing he enjoys, whether it comes to him in an obviously miraculous way or through ordinary means, meaning he senses that the natural order itself and even his own efforts within it are ultimately gifts from God.  The pious man also feels contrition for his sins; he asks forgiveness of God as if God were Himself the primary wronged party in any moral transgression.  God is for him the face of the moral law.  Conscience is His voice, and guilt is an echo of His wrath.  While he may not use the word “omniscient”, he knows that no wrongdoing escapes God’s notice, and no ignorance of circumstance ever makes His judgments incorrect.  Not least, the pious man feels awe, reverence, fear of the Lord.  He does not regard God as a being who can be for any purposes set on a level with others.  God is not one interested party whose voice might conceivably be outweighed by others’.  He cannot be indebted to anyone else; no one could have a claim on Him.  His presence defines the world’s center and high point.

I claim that, if God is a limited being inside the world, these attitudes are unjustified.  If matter exists and acts independently of God, then He deserves no thanks when we, though our own effort, bend it to serve our purposes.  If you say that creatures acting without divine coercion only do evil, I would ask you what evidence you have to hold such a low opinion of them.  And in any case, why should we be thankful to God for tyrannizing over creation so as to make it act entirely against its own inclinations?  If God is just another being, then morality doesn’t essentially have anything to do with Him.  The Euthyphro dilemma cannot be unthought, and if God is in the world, that is the only sensible solution.  If you wrong someone, apologize to that person, but God should have nothing to complain about.  Why should His voice always carry the day anyway?  Just because He’s stronger?  In order to absolve Him of all charges of negligence against us, He must not be very much stronger.  Perhaps with a concerted effort, we could end His despotism.  But He is a loving Father, you will say?  Well, I already have a loving father, and I don’t feel the need for a second one.  And anyway, if the universe has some sort of independent existence, why posit the existence of God at all?

In other words, rejecting the God of theism leads by a short road to atheism.  Does this contradict what I said above about natural theology not being needed to get into heaven?  Not at all.  No one is obliged to start thinking about how God is related to creation and to morality.  But if you do start asking these questions, you will probably end up either accepting something like the theistic God, in which case the simple faith with which you begin will have been vindicated, or you will conclude that your simple piety was an error in reasoning.  Even those theistic personalists who think they have a viable alternative to classical theism should acknowledge the value of theism in avoiding the latter calamity.

The man who accepts God as pure Act, as subsistent Being, Truth, and Goodness will see that the peasant’s attitude was entirely proper.  God is the sole ultimate creator, sustainer, and goal of all that exists.  Their existence is a participation in His act of being; they are ultimately intelligible only by reference to Him.  Just as the moon only shines by reflecting the light of the sun, and its spectrum only differs from the sun’s by not reflecting perfectly, so our existence is nothing but a reflection of Him, and our perfection is to reflect Him more perfectly.  The theist cannot separate his love of neighbor from his love of God, because being a fellow participant in God is the ultimate truth about his neighbor.

Classical theism also gives the correct response to the question of how God could allow evil in the world.  It is the same response given by simple persons and by sacred scripture.  The answer is this:  “How dare you presume to ask the Lord to justify Himself to you, you pitiful, impudent worm?  If He wishes to prepare vessels of wrath for destruction, what is that to you?  Pray that you are not one of them!  Where were you when He laid the foundations of the world?How can you imagine that you know anything about His plans?”

32 thoughts on “What natural theology does for personal piety

  1. He does not regard God as a being who can be for any purposes set on a level with others.

    I wouldn’t be so sure of this. The research on just what the common believer believes (which Bruce knows) is rather eye opening. You should read David Slone’s book Theological Incorrectness or at least Razib Khan’s commentary on the web.

  2. Oh boy…I smell the stink of heresy.
    Bruce is going down the “dehellenize Christianity path”, that way lies ruin. Just look at the devastation it’s german adherents wrought. The dehellenize Christianity movement was the founding basis for the quest for the “historical Jesus” insanity that still plagues us to this day (and that is just one of the many bad things it did).

    I read some of Bruce’s stuff before…and there was always a bit of it that seemed on the, um, how shall I put this, ‘creative’, side. I know he is a recent convert, but perhaps the Anglican Church was not a good place for him, too much (theological/doctrinal) leeway I think. Perhaps, for his faith’s sake alone, if nothing else, he should have made the jump to Rome through the anglican ordinariate, or joined the Orthodox he so loves and admires. If he is really intent on this nasty “limited God” business , then I, like one of his blog commenters, fear for his faith. I can’t see anything good coming about by walking down that road.

    • I agree. Charlton, though he says he is asking questions like a child, isn’t accepting answers at all like a child who trusts his loving father.

    • “that way lies ruin”

      I think to a significant extent it’s coming from his reading on Mormonism. Mormonism is one of the most robust religious traditions in the U.S. right now.

  3. Pingback: A response to “What natural theology does for personal piety” | semel traditae sanctis

  4. On the face of it, I find it difficult to believe that the Creator of the universe is incapable of interfering in Earthly affairs.

  5. So if I understand this, Dr. Charlton might be said to be arguing for a demi-urge, which we can only call good because we have some higher standard — call it “the Good” — by which we can judge this demi-urge.

    “In other words, rejecting the God of theism leads by a short road to atheism.”

    Indeed. Even setting aside the theological & metaphysical arguments, it’s difficult to see how one could deny that history is against Charlton here, what with the degeneration of Deism into atheism, and of Hegelian pantheism into Marxism. It’s always a bad sign when somebody suggests that all these years we’ve been exagerrating or overstating how impressive God is.

    • “it’s difficult to see how one could deny that history is against Charlton here”

      Except it comes significantly from his reading of Mormonism, which is one of the most robust religious traditions in the U.S. right now.

      Indeed, Mormons on average seem to be happier, have larger families, and be more ‘traditional’ than other major religious denominations in the States.

      • If Mormons are “happier” then why does Utah lead the nation in suicides and anti-depressant use?

      • No caffeine, either. I wonder if the analgesic compounds that contain caffeine sell proportionately more in Mormon country than elsewhere.

      • Utah is also the Nigeria of the US, in that it leads the nation in Nigerian-type scams and fraud.

        That is not a manifestation of a healthy religious tradition.

      • They’re “happier” because they follow the standard patriarchal family structure that was common everywhere in the West until a few generations ago. That they haven’t gone mad with feminism (yet) is not a token of divine blessing. What low bars we have set!

        Charlton has fetishized fertility rates. There are many marks of societal sanity, among which is definitely a celebration of life. There many good fruits that good trees should bear, including charity, mercy, holiness, and wisdom. For whatever reason, Charlton has zeroed in on one area in which Mormons are good (which would have not been considered noteworthy just a short time ago) and disregards matters of doctrinal consistency and philosophical coherence. He criticizes Orthodox lands for their fertility rates after they just suffered generations of theomachist totalitarianism. Amazing.

  6. Indeed. The Vendeans may not have been students of the Angelic Doctor, but they certainly earned their place in the Mansion of the Lord.

    This sort of philosophically lazy/dishonest reasoning (no offense to Dr. Charlton), which seeks to turn away from the classical theism of the Philosopher and the Angelic Doctor, is nothing but an affront to He who is Truth Himself. Reading through the essays of Kristor, Feser or Bonald can be as sublime (albeit on a much grander scale, in an ‘everything falls just into place’ sort of sense) as the praying the Liturgy of the Hours.

    I do think that the primary strategic purpose of classical theism in the arsenal of the Church is, as the Angelic Doctor himself put it, “contra Gentiles”. And, as Pascal (I think) said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary.”

    But, as Dr. Feser said,

    I can already hear some readers protesting at what I have said. I don’t mean the New Atheist types, always on the hunt for some ad hominem nugget that will excuse them from having to take the actual arguments of the other side seriously. (God Himself could come down from on high and put before such people an airtight ontological proof of His existence while parting the Red Sea, and they’d still insist that what really motivated these arguments was a desire to rationalize His moral prejudices. And that their own continued disbelief was just a matter of, you know, following the evidence where it leads.)

    No, I’m talking about a certain kind of religious believer, the type who’s always going on about how faith is really a matter of the heart rather than the head, that no one’s ever been argued into religion, etc. It will be said by such a believer that my change of view was too rationalistic, too cerebral, too bloodless, too focused on a theoretical knowledge of the God of the philosophers rather than a personal response to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    But the dichotomy is a false one, and the implied conception of the relationship between faith and reason not only foolish but heterodox. As to the heterodoxy and foolishness of fideism, and the correct understanding of the relationship of faith and reason, I have addressed that set of issues in a previous post. As to the “heart versus head” stuff, it seems to me to rest on an erroneous bifurcation of human nature. Man is a unity, his rationality and animality, intellect and passions, theoretical and moral lives all ultimately oriented toward the same end. That is why even a pagan like Aristotle knew that our happiness lay in “the contemplation and service of God,” whose existence he knew of via philosophical argumentation. That is why Plotinus could know that we “forget the father, God” because of “self-will.” While the pagan may have no access to the supernatural end that only grace makes possible, he is still capable of a natural knowledge of God, and will naturally tend to love what he knows.

    As Plotinus’s remark indicates, that does not mean that the will does not have a role to play. But that is true wherever reason leads us to a conclusion we might not like, not merely in matters of religion. And once you have allowed yourself to see the truth that reason leads you to, what reason apprehends is (given the convertibility of the transcendentals) as good and beautiful as it is real. If you find yourself intellectually convinced that there is a divine Uncaused Cause who sustains the world and you in being at every instant, and don’t find this conclusion extremely strange and moving, something that leads you to a kind of reverence, then I daresay you haven’t understood it. Of course, there are those whose heads and hearts are so out of sync that they cannot follow both at the same time. But we shouldn’t mistake this pathology for an insight into human nature.

    Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much. When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. [Francis Bacon: “It is true, that a little Philosophy inclineth Mans Minde to Atheisme; But depth in Philosophy, bringeth Mens Mindes about to Religion.”] As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.

    • Dr. Feser is dead wrong. The God of classical theism creates all sorts of aesthetic problems that are quite evident in attempts to represent him. The more limited God of the early parts of the Old Testament makes for much better storytelling and is much more relatable being than the more abstract being of the later books and God the Father in the New Testament. Basically, how do you tell stories about, or make interesting, a being who doesn’t change.

      Mormon theology, such as it is, is basically an interpretation of the New Testment through the lense of the earlier books of the New Testament.

      We may not like how Dr. Charlton resolves these issues, but the fact is that there are real issues he is pointing to, ones which are not really resolved by theology.

      • Not that I am trying to minimize the philosophical problems with the more naive view.

      • Classical theism arose as a way of addressing the problems of naive theism – philosophical problems that generate immense stumbling blocks for the life of faith. That classical theism is difficult to understand is no impeachment of its verisimilitude. It is difficult to understand classical theism because it is difficult to understand God. Theology is no different in this respect than quantum mechanics or metaphysics, or mathematics, or music theory. Their objects are just inherently difficult to understand, so any body of doctrine that takes even a baby step toward adequacy is likewise going to be difficult (not that it must be inelegant; on the contrary).

        The aesthetic challenge such subjects pose to those who have not studied them enough to have approached comprehension is due, not to any defect in the theories, but in their own understanding.

        This can obviously be a problem for evangelization. There are all sorts of doctrines of the faith that cannot but seem crazy to one who is unfamiliar with the categories and terms in which those doctrines are couched, and in their general presuppositions and axioms. And learning all that can take years. The Fathers figured it took at least three years of hitting the books to be prepared for baptism – to know what one was even saying, in uttering the baptismal vows, and so to know what one was getting into in undertaking a commitment to them. To begin such a course of study is itself a major life commitment. Thus there is a place for naive theology, theology for beginners and the simple, that would appeal to their untutored minds so as to incline them to begin their catechesis. One must crawl before one walks; one must start with milk, not with meat.

      • The aesthetic challenge such subjects pose to those who have not studied them enough to have approached comprehension is due, not to any defect in the theories, but in their own understanding.

        Nonsense. Absolute nonsense. The proof is in the pudding. The stories featuring naive theism are just way better.

        I would strongly advise you to take a look through some of the literary criticism of C.S. Lewis, where he deals directly with these issues. For example, he talks about how much of an advantage it is in Norse mythology that the gods can actually die.

      • I think “The Man Who Was…” has a point. In fact, I’m having trouble even thinking of stories where the theistic God is an active character. Christians have produced good literature, of course, but it works best when God is just in the background. It is true that with the coming of theism, the focus of drama shifts entirely to the mortals.

      • It is difficult to understand classical theism because it is difficult to understand God.

        Understanding is not the issue. In fact, the God of classical theism sometimes seems to be too comprehensible, and hence rather boring.

      • In fact, the God of classical theism sometimes seems to be too comprehensible, and hence rather boring.

        I’ve heard this objection before and just don’t get it. The God of classical theism is an irreducible and eternal act of love. What about that even approaches comprehensibility?

      • [Lewis] talks about how much of an advantage it is in Norse mythology that the gods can actually die.

        Last time I checked, this was a feature of Christianity, too. The difference is that in Christianity it is the eternal Creator of the Universe that dies, while in Norse myth it is just a godling, Balder, or else his father, Odin. The Christian version is way spookier – indeed, terrifying – and much less tidy and easy to take on board. In the Norse mythos, evil triumphs permanently at Ragnarok, and all the good of creation is extinguished: all the gods and men die, and with them likewise both Asgard and Midgard perish. In the Christian story, everything dies with the Creator, and with him all the good bits of everything rise to everlasting life. The Christian story has just as much blood and guts as the Norse, but it ends with victory for the good guys. Theology doesn’t contradict the naïve stories. It fleshes them out, fills in the blanks, and (via metaphysics) grounds them in such commonsense quotidian realities as what it is like to be alive, and what it means to be alive.

        … the God of classical theism sometimes seems to be too comprehensible, and hence rather boring.

        To paraphrase Bohr, if you are not shocked by classical theism, you have not really understood it. 😉 I jest, but many a truth is told in jest. The more I grapple with classical theism, the wilder and more mysterious it gets. It’s like peeling an onion, except that as you go in toward the center, each successive layer of the onion has a larger diameter.

        Boring? The mystical ascent is boring?

        Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
        In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
        Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
        Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

        Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
        Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
        Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
        Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

        To all life thou givest to both great and small;
        In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
        We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
        And wither, and perish, but nought changeth thee.

        Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
        Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
        All laud we would render: O help us to see
        ‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.

        This is boring?

      • This is boring?

        Comparatively, yes. Even Dante had trouble with it in the Paradiso.

        Last time I checked, this was a feature of Christianity, too. The difference is that in Christianity it is the eternal Creator of the Universe that dies, while in Norse myth it is just a godling, Balder, or else his father, Odin. The Christian version is way spookier – indeed, terrifying – and much less tidy and easy to take on board.

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but God the Father didn’t and couldn’t die. Obviously, the universe wasn’t without a God during the three days in the tomb. Especially according to the doctrines of classical theism.

        A lot of this is, of course, the source of all sorts of ideas about how Jesus wasn’t fully God. In any event you should read Lewis’s thoughts on Christian vs. Pagan mythology.

      • I’ll also note that that poem, while it keeps telling us God is great, awesome, etc., it doesn’t actually show God being great. Which is precisely the problem with classical theism.

      • Thursday writes:

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but God the Father didn’t and couldn’t die.

        Yes; but the human body of God the Son, the Eternal Logos, without whom was not made anything that was made, did die. And this was a death of just the same form as those of Balder, Odin, Adonis, and Dionysus: the body of the god died, but the god did not. The difference between the death of Adonis and the death of Jesus is that in the latter, the god that did not die was God. This changes everything. The story of Jesus is at the same time far more concrete, historically integral with our own lives as we live them – thus more truly heroic than the Pagan myths, as the heroism of a real soldier is more heroic than that of some character in a novel – and also ultimate and cosmic, indeed supracosmic, in a way that the sacrifice of Balder could never be. It has just as much blood and guts as the story of Dionysus, right down to blood and water gushing out of the wound and drenching the legionary. And it has greater transcendent significance than any merely creaturely event.

        You don’t need to understand how the Passion redeems the world in order to feel in your heart that it does, or to partake of that redemption. But if you do need to understand – whether because your defects of understanding fail to remove scandals that prevent you from the Marian assent, or because, having assented, you are fascinated with your Bridegroom and want to find out everything you can about him – you have no alternative but to wade into the deep end of the theological pool.

        The bottom line I guess is this: if you want thrills and chills, don’t read theology; just partake of the mystery of the Atonement. If you have the thrills and chills, and you are partaking of the mystery, then you can make your participation even more thrilling and chilling by studying theology.

        But you don’t read an analysis of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion to get what you would get from attending a performance. That would be a flat misprision. True, you’ll get more out of your next experience of the Passion if you have read a bit about the piece, the composer, the period, the theory. Even so, whatever the experience might be, you don’t turn to an analysis of the experience in order to have the experience.

        Theology is not itself a myth, not a story. The theology of the Gospel is not itself the Gospel. It is an analysis of the Gospel story, that can help you make sense of it, and understand better what it means.

        The performance, the story, the experience, the experiment, the adventure, the fact, the event, these all show; the analyses thereof tell.

      • Doth thou, frail, mortal, “pitiful, impudent worm”, imagine for a second that the entirety Mighty and Ineffable God, Eternal Author of All Creation in All its Majesty, who is Pure Actuality, whose Essence is His Existence, could be grasped by thine puny intellect!? How much more clearly the Sublime Greatness of the Lord is shown by the simple recognition of the fact that his Grand Majesty can barely be comprehended piecewise by the greatest of mortal minds? Is not the vastness of the body of doctrine and its harmony in spite of said vastness but a hint to the vastness of the Creator Himself?

    • Hi John,

      I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Charlton’s views are an affront to God. He’s clearly not trying to blaspheme or belittle the Creator. If the angels had eyes, I’m sure they’d be rolling them when reading my own writings on God. My purpose was not to attack Bruce’s beliefs, but to defend mine–which are also the beliefs of the great doctors of the Church. Bruce now claims that our belief is illogical and morally monstrous. I disagree, but I don’t claim that no other understanding of God might be logically coherent and emotionally compelling. (I would, of course, claim that any other incompatible understanding would be to that extent incorrect.) What’s more, it seems to me that the theistic model of God avoids a number of atheist objections to which a limited God model would be vulnerable. Perhaps Bruce thinks that he can answer these objections, in which case he’d better try, because they are as serious as the ones that are currently worrying him.

      • I don’t accuse him of blasphemy either, but I still maintain that he does not do justice to the Majesty of the Creator (and by “does not do justice”, I mean he downgrades God’s Majesty, not in degree, but in kind). Emotionally compelling his views may be, but true they are not (which is the more major affront, methinks).

        Oh, and here’s another little problem: the cosmological argument (which is, to the best of my knowledge, ironclad), shows the existence of an entity prior to creation. If the God we worship is within creation, then who or what is this entity?

  7. One thing I do not understand about Dr. Charlton: one one hand, he seems to have a great deal of respect for the saints of the Church, and will often explicitly defer to their wisdom on account of their greater virtue and holiness, and simply leave it at that.

    Except when it comes to the God of classical theism: these holy saints upheld and defended (often vigorously) the conception of God as that of classical theism, but in this particular case, the wisdom of the saints is apparently not enough for Dr. Charlton.

  8. As per Ian’s comments, and the others here….
    Has Bruce been doing this stuff for a long time now, or is this a recent development. By ‘stuff’ I mean denouncing the God of classical theism, in favor of….something else.
    I read some of his stuff before and it seemed pretty good, so I’m having a hard time believing he could turn down this foolhardy path so easily. Guess he’s not the same old Bruce anymore?

    • Charlton is simply brilliant, and he respects his readers enough to allow them to see his intellectual developments. What troubles me and evidently several readers here is that we are witnessing his personal recapitulation of modernity’s experience with theology. I sometimes wonder how such brilliant men in “the age of Enlightenment” (sic) could choose to go down such foolhardy paths, and, yet, with Charlton, we are witnessing the same process in a single soul. He decries theology about an eternal God and chooses to embrace an unthinking pietism or even a reversion to naive paganism. He argues that traditional theology renders God too abstract for most people, and yet he certainly must know that religious devotion among all classes and educational levels was greatest when men were arguing within the scholastic paradigm in the West and in Palamite language in the East. He states that he was once a Platonist, and yet he approaches “abstraction” as an Anglophone analytic philosopher for whom more general classes involve a whittling away of content rather than the Platonist understanding of ever richer and fuller degrees of being. If he truly had adopted the “Platonist, Orthodox” view of God’s relationship with the world, then he would appreciate the iconic quality of creation. The peasant in the field as well as the philosopher see God insofar as they see the world — through a glass darkly. There is no cold, bloodless abstraction to it. High theology is in vivid color.


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