Reformation through naturalism: Bridging the gap between ancient and modern knowledge

Naturalism allows us to be realistic about the workings of our world while inspiring awe and appreciation for the miraculous mechanisms necessary to sustain life. Naturalism does not pretend things are better than they are or place human beings in an exalted position over the rest of creation. Naturalism insists that we develop and maintain rational explanations for where things came from, how they work, and where they might be going.

Some people insist that the knowledge we generate through naturalism is unnecessary because the Bible answers questions of origin and meaning in absolute and literal fashion. But a rational survey tells us this is simply not true. The bible provides a rudimentary record of life forms, an incomplete description of how things work and a highly symbolic swipe at explaining where the world might be going. Naturalism fills in the blanks and gives people information they need to function in this world.

The intellectual pursuits of naturalism and science do appear to be converging on the notion that our existence is dependent on an apparently miraculous order of material processes. We may be approaching the point where convergence of this order can be used to reconcile religious and scientific worldviews. We are stringing more ropes across the chasm and nailing some steps to the rope bridge leading from one side of history to the other.

The ultimate bridge across this chasm will likely occur through means other than straight science or religion, instead turning to the healing power of metaphor and language (indeed, the Word of God depends on such things) to communicate the full spectrum of human endeavor. Using the Bible as literature as well as scripture can provide tools to breed more tolerance as people search for answers to the mysteries of the universe.

We do need to be more patient with ourselves on many of these issues. Rushing the argument to a cultural vote over ideologies such as creationism, intelligent design or empirical science helps no one. A healthy convergence in thinking can only occur if science is allowed free reign to discover the extremes and limitations of human knowledge on its own. If no limits are found, then we can still choose to thank God for a universe of infinite knowledge. Use science to prove the Bible right if you will, but do not expect science to yield to the Bible to protect an anachronistic worldview that says observational knowledge is bad.

Assigning tricky labels to old ideas does not help us either. Some people seek to describe universal complexity through a metaphysical theory known as “intelligent design.” But intelligent design theory is nothing more than a stamping of scientific unknowns with the label “miracle” to give religion a place at the scientific table. Granting miracle status to a series of unknowns does nothing for us in terms of progressive knowledge. If had we written off the mechanical chemistry of DNA as unknowable due to its apparent complexity, we might never have discovered the truth about the workings of genetics. Choosing miraculous explanations over practical theory is therefore irresponsible and wrong.

We could just as easily concoct a theory called “stupid design theory” and blame God for billions of mistakes in creation. Are we to consider God a poor designer because vestigial organs such as leg and feet bones lie buried in the flesh of a whale? Examples like these prove we may be looking for supposedly intelligent meaning where there is none. The naturalistic explanation provided by evolution––that whales likely evolved from land creatures that ultimately lost the need for rear appendages due to a marine life––suffices much better.

When people ask questions such as “What is God’s role in running the universe?” this much is clear: There is a high degree of chance afoot but there also seems to have emerged an order that works in relatively consistent ways. What are we to make of this idea that apparent order came from chaos? The answers may be surprisingly direct, at least in terms of what our senses allow us to perceive.

We can draw a straight line from the random processes of the universe to the moral concept of free will. And we can draw an equally straight line from the apparent order of the universe to the moral code of ethics given us in the Bible. These parallels address the most pressing challenges of the human condition: What do we do with free will in the universe and how do we seek to find order through that thing we call God?

The natural balance between chaos and order is reflected in almost every call to faith known to the human race. We might illustrate this point by considering the symbol for the yin and yang.

Yin and yang symbol.

The meaning of this symbol is manifold and impossible to summarize in just a few sentences. But for our purposes we shall use it to document a primal recognition that complimentary and contradictory forces are at work in this world; dark and light, female and male, winter and summer, spring and fall.

All are potent examples that religion draws on nature to help us comprehend reality. In a specific sense, the symbol for yin and yang illustrates the seasonal flow and confluence of the earth’s solstice patterns. These major rhythms appear in the religion and culture of almost every civilization known to human history.

Sun worship and seasonal ceremonies are celebrated in religious constructions such as Stonehenge, the Mayan temples of Central America, pyramids in Egypt and the artistic and cultural creations of Native Americans as well as aboriginal tribes of Australia. Indeed, also in the early faith of the Judeo-Christian tradition, God appeared through naturalistic means, and often in contradictory ways; love and anger, darkness and light. Human cultures long ago recognized that elements of the material world have deep significance to our lives and faith. Cultures have long sought to reconcile this interaction between the external world and our inner selves.

As cultures progressed in both size and complexity, this effort to balance our perceptions about material realities necessarily grew more abstract to accommodate the obvious need for portability. We see the power of abstraction in the realization by early monotheists that God was not trapped inside a temple. This basic change in ideology enabled the Judeo-Christian tradition to “carry” its faith both geographically and culturally around the world. Through this device of ideological portability, religion unleashed itself from the anchor of material expression and spawned ideologies such as mysticism and enlightenment that are primarily pursuits of the mind.

This new precedent also had the ironic effect of separating the human race somewhat from its natural and material origins. But that was just one effect. When religion became more portable it may also have become more dangerous in the sense that people could suddenly use their will alone to promote and wield the power of God. The Bible evolved as a means for human beings to carry God around with them. And so the God of monotheism departed the locked gates of the temple and migrated to the open pages of the Bible. With God now emanating from a book, the Bible itself can become an idol of sorts. And so the risks travel with the rewards. A bible may free human beings to encounter God on their own but it can also be used to dominate and persecute those who do not worship the book in the same way. That sort of bible turns into a weapon of faith. One could say the same thing of the Koran of Muslim faith. And indeed, fundamentalism based on selected texts of the Koran continues to haunt that faith as well.

The practical value of the Bible or the Koran is that they contain a code of ethics designed to help us balance our behavior against the material realities and desires of the world. We might say that God invites us to use holy texts to govern our lives with purpose. God is also there to comfort us through these books, to counsel and show order through the confusing maze that is free will. Even if we accept that the material world is governed by the random principles of chance, we have the moral order of God to give our lives order, meaning and purpose. Such is the yin and yang of faith. The purpose and meaning accorded us through knowledge of God stands in balance to the apparent randomness of nature.

Bearing this dichotomy in mind, we can conceptually accommodate material theories such as evolution without giving up our faith in God as the spiritual and moral order of the universe. That means the worldview of naturalism is no threat to faith. Instead it gives us valuable insight into the breadth and nature of our material lives.

Using naturalism to better understand the world is not the same as placing love of creation over love of the creator. It is instead important to learn as much as one can about how things work so that we might better appreciate the why. At the same time we should have confidence that the moral wisdom contained in our holy texts can withstand comparison to the knowledge developed by an evolving, progressive world.

Therein may lie the solution to the cultural condition known as “post-modernism,” the contention that modern ideas are somehow responsible for casting modern society into the sea of ironic consequence brought on by relativism and the supposedly failed dreams of idealistic nation-states. This cynical portrait of the world fails to take one important consideration into account: That we have not collectively or effectively reconciled ancient wisdom to modern. The reason we live in a post-modern world is that religion has been dragging its feet. Scriptural literalism is directly to blame for our post-modern cultural hangover. Society continues to suffer the effects of a prolonged binge of scriptural anachronism.

There is a fix for this ugly state of consciousness, and it can work to everyone’s benefit. Because whether you believe your holy book to be the divine product of authors inspired by God or simply a product of an advance in human culture and literature, it can be agreed that religion plays a significant and important role in human culture. What we need to find is a new way to examine and employ what religion has to offer. In so doing we hope to resolve the unnecessary gap between ancient and modern wisdom. That is a big challenge considering a significant population of the Christian and Muslim worlds appear to be stuck in reverse, chased away from modern knowledge by the cabal of religious authorities who contend there is no path to heaven but the one laid out by scriptural literalism. And so they crusade against one another, and against the world in general.

It is vital that we begin to demand full accounting for the manner in which these brands of religion arrive at their conclusions about truth. Similarly we must learn to manage the nature of authority derived from said faith. Scriptural literalism deserves scrutiny against these standards of accountability. Just because a huge chunk of the population has a bad habit in belief does not make it the right and authoritative will of God.

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