(This is the final post of three on science and theology on the natural knowledge of God.)
What is an appropriate theological appraise of John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis? How does he see this sense of the divine? What critique does he offer? And what is the proper place of the sensus divinitatis for a scientifically informed ecclesial theology?
Calvin continued his reflections on the sensus divinitatis by offering some caveats:
Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with a new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawings of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the godless themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind. Institutes 1.3.2The phrase “some idea of God” is instructive—Calvin emphasizes that the sense of the divine is ephemeral and elusive; he also writes that this sensus divinitatis is “fleeting and vain” (Institute 1.3.3). This is not a sturdy foundation for faith. It is the general awareness of a Supreme Being, God’s “eternal power and deity” which Paul describes in Romans 1. Though universal and powerful, this general sense of God has a remarkable malleability.
Along with Michael Welker in Creation and Reality, I argue that this sense of the divine, however, remains powerful but problematic. Welker cites Job 19:6, 8, God “closed his net around me…. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.” This vague sense of deity can even terrify. As Calvin writes,
The most audacious despiser of God is most easily disturbed, trembling at the sound of a falling leaf. How so, unless in vindication of the divine majesty, which smites their consciences the more strongly the more they endeavor to flee from it. They all, indeed, look out for hiding-places where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord, and again efface it from their mind; but after all their efforts they remain caught within the net. Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawing of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the wicked themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind. Institutes 1.3.3
From this vague concept (“some idea of God”) human beings can never distinguish between fears and fantasies and true knowledge. They may continue to develop a neurotic piety: “Those therefore, who set up a fictitious worship, merely worship and adore their own delirious fancies”—a piety that leads into idolatry—“indeed, they would never dare so to trifle with God, had they not previously fashioned him after their own childish conceits.” And later, “Even idolatry is ample evidence of this conception.”
Calvin’s language is characteristically strong and largely negative. (Calvin could never be accused of an inflated view of human nature.) Nevertheless, building a religious, or more contemporarily, “spiritual” practice from the sensus divinitatis has many of the elements of idolatry in that it often leaves human beings exactly where they started. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in an address to the Oxford Socratic Society, this vague sense of the divine can be highly manipulated and is even dangerous, pliable to all sorts of distortions. It cannot ultimately convert us to the good. Lewis responding to another paper, “The Grounds of Modern Agnosticism,” calls this a “minimal religion.” It leaves Nazis Nazis and altruists altruists, now with a veneer of belief and an assurance that what they already did is given divine endorsement. “The minimal religion will, in my opinion, leave us all doing what we were doing before. We therefore need more clarity for informed, and ultimately beneficial belief. It can be the basis of nature-worship, built on a sense of numinous natural world. It can be a brash, hedonistic worship of self, embodied in the basest forms of New Age spirituality. Even the Nazi’s propagated an appreciation for what “God is doing through the German Volk” and supported it with the powerful, but vague feeling of the Numinous working to renew the German civilization. It can also be named “transcendence” or channeled in a variety of ways.
Here I need to summarize: This sensus divinitatis opens us to belief in God. Nonetheless, it is a vague awareness that can neither prove God, nor can it give us fully developed attributes of God. And the specific problems of the sensus divinitatis reveal the more general weakness of natural theology. Nature gives us both stunning sunsets and devastating hurricanes, fertile farmlands and wind-swept dustbowls, impressive mountain peaks and deadly volcanoes. Nature’s supporting data present evidence of two incompatible visions: the gracious, loving God and an angry, evil deity. Pascal, who plumbed the depths of such natural proofs for God, grasped the essential weakness of this approach.
I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God. In a treatise addressed to infidels they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature… this only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of religion are very weak… It is a remarkable fact that no canonical writer has ever used Nature to prove God.
This sensus divinitatis, though part of our creation, leaves us open for God. It also, however, leaves human beings with a desire for clarity.
What then are the purpose of nature and this natural awareness of divinity in leading us to God? It is not a proof, but a witness, a support for the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We need to fill in our natural awareness of God with specificity. Only after we have heard God’s voice to us in Jesus Christ, then we are able to proclaim with the psalmist “the heavens are proclaiming the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). This is ultimately what Ian Barbour has termed, not a “natural theology,” but a “theology of nature.” “Instead of a natural theology, I advocate a theology of nature, which is based primarily on religious experience and the life of the religious community but which includes some reformulation of traditional doctrines in the light of science. Theological doctrines start as human interpretations of individual and communal experience and are therefore subject to revision. Our understanding of God’s relation to nature always reflects our view of nature” (Religion and Science). We see the world through our belief in a good Creator. Scripture, as Calvin concluded, becomes the “spectacles” by which we view the world.
Science acts in some ways, in describing this sensus divinitatis, to offer general revelation. Through general revelation, we can certainly find out truths about God, but those truths receive clarity through God’s special revelation in history, especially depicted in the pages of the Bible. For example, we can find the beauty of God’s design of the human body through scientific work—and thus be led to conclude that God is an incomparable Designer. We can, however, only know that God’s creation is Trinitarian through special revelation.
|Jesus (Just wanted to be sure that was clear)|
Ultimately then Christ saves natural knowledge of God from vagueness and potentially pernicious misuse. In fact, Christian believers are urged to take on that form of that christomorphic (by which I mean literally “formed around Christ) moment-by-moment. After developing his most elaborated christocentric theology in the book of Romans, Paul moves to the hortatory section. We can sure that when he calls the Roman churches to be transformed or meta-morphicized (to transliterate the Greek), he is urging them to take the form of Christ, who is also the goal of human yearning: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, italics mine). Consequently, the Church can be formed, as a community in worship and discipleship, from a vague, amorphous sensus divinitatis, into bearing the image of God to the world.