This is more or less my teaching from last Sunday. It will appear in a different form in a chapter of an upcoming book, Connecting Faith and Science: Philosophical andTheological Inquiries (Claremont Press, 2018). I'd be interested to know what you think.
of the places I absolutely love is Lake Tahoe. I believe I’ve literally been
there every year of my life. And so, in a way, it’s part of me. The beauty of
its azure lake flanked mountain peaks is stunning. It’s also a place where I
sense something deeply spiritual. My mother, who most of her life was not a
particularly religious person—she was even anti-religious at times—told me once,
as our family would be sitting along Tahoe’s shores: “Here’s where I can see
God.” At the time, I let the remark stand without further comment, but it
definitely stuck in my head.
what I mean by the title “our awareness of divinity.”
phrase “awareness of divinity” comes from John Calvin, for whom the
appreciation of nature was a key part of his spiritual life. In his vastly
influential 1559 Institutes of the
Christian Religion (1.3.1) Calvin wrote this:
“There is within the human mind,
and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”
beauty in the book of nature
This summer I’ve highlighted the idea of “Reading the Two Books,”
that is, we read both the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Christians
have noted that we read both books because they have one Author and therefore
they don’t contradict, though their insights may enhance each other. One of the
ways to read the book of nature, as I’ve mentioned before, is to see the beauty
leads me to ask, What is beauty? If we were to Google beauty—especially for
images—it’s almost entirely feminine physical beauty, along with products like cosmetics
and shampoo, and events like beauty contests. Is that what I’m talking about?
denying that physical beauty is one form of beauty, but ancient thinkers talked
about a broader transcendent beauty. Plato offers three markers for beauty:
order, symmetry, and proportion; similarly, Thomas Aquinas, highlighted integrity,
consonance, and clarity. Theologian Thomas Oden offers this: “Beauty is that
quality or combination of qualities within a thing that gives pleasure to the
senses or pleasurably exalts the mind of spirit.”
theologians see this beauty pointing back to God. So do many poets. As Gerald Manley
Hopkins, the profound nineteenth century poet intones:
“Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to
God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Golden Echo”).
There is a similar experience of beauty as scientists read the book of nature. In Adventure
of Ideas, the Harvard scientist and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead
pointed to this in scientific as well as artistic pursuits.
“Science and art are the
consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty.”
It is beauty that lures us and that makes truth worth
And this brings us to the "awareness of divinity" because we see beauty around us, and we
want to know the origin of this beauty. The Psalmist declares that he desires God’s
“One thing I asked of the
Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of
my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm
seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician
Blaise Pascal offered a proof for God based on our inherent yearnings: “By
nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? Pascal wrote, “Some seek the good in
authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.”
He continued by observing that all these various potential sources for
happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what
What else does this craving, proclaim but that there
was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty
print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him…
since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable
object; in other words by God himself.
The twentieth century Oxford literary professor C.
S. Lewis echoed this conclusion about three hundred years after Pascal with a
simple, logically compelling, phrase:
I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only
logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” C. S. Lewis
And there are poets today in the world of rap music that are telling us the same thing, that no matter how hard the contemporary music scene tries, it can’t entirely let go of God. I start my Introduction to Religion class on Tuesday at Chico State with a reflection on God and spirituality in three of the most prominent rap artists today, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper. They all talk about, and struggling with, faith in God. Chance, for example, appeared on The Tonight Show and produced a moving live rendition of his song “Blessings,” which includes the lyrics, “I speak to God in public," and "Are you ready for your blessing? Are you ready for a miracle?”
That is one way to express our natural awareness and yearning
for God. A readings from the book of Scripture as most Protestants know it, as well as a text from the Catholic Bible--both from around the 1st century AD, offer similar insights. The context, by the way, is idolatry, the worship of creature rather than Creator. Both texts direct us back to the Source of all that is. Having said that, these verses seem clear enough to me. So I'll let them stand on their own without further comment.
119 For what can be known about God is plain to
them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal
power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and
seen through the things he has made.
135 For from the
greatness and beauty of created things
comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
CSR and the awareness of
This inherent “awareness of divinity” has also been
studied by cognitive scientists, as they read the book of nature. What can
evolutionary science teach us about this “awareness of divinity”? Justin
Barrett, through his work in developing a Cognitive Science of Religion, uses
the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue that evolution has developed
human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events, or are predisposed
“Evidence exists that people
are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered" (Justin Barrett), which naturally
leads to belief in a Creator.
For example, preschoolers “are inclined to see the
world as purposefully designed and tend
to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design.” Some use
this tendency to impugn belief in God—i.e., we cannot help but believe—instead
I am arguing here that it is part of God’s creation. We are created through evolution with an
openness to belief.
Another area of
research suggests that evolutionary pressures, particularly the human need
toward cooperation as it leads to survival, produces a common stock of
morality; “a recurring theme is that humans seem to naturally converge upon a
common set of intuitions that structure moral thought,” such as “it is wrong to
harm a nonconsenting member of one’s group.”
According the the Cognitive Science of Religion, we have
then, deeply imprinted on the structures of our mind, an intuition of purpose
and of morality. These together offer a sense of a moral Creator.
similarities with Calvin’s “awareness of divinity,” which points to a sense of
the numinous, powerful and brooding. “Where can I go from Your presence? Where
can I flee from Your spirit?” cries the psalmist in Psalm 139. It is the
feeling of being out in a forest at night, knowing that no one is there, but
feeling something. Often this
experience can frighten us. And yet it also provides a witness to the natural
knowledge of God. To be clear, God has used the process of evolution to implant
this natural awareness.
Sense of the divine
clarified by book of Scripture
There is a danger to this “awareness of divinity” if
we only read the book of nature. It can leaves both Nazis and altruists
unchanged, except with a veneer of belief and an assurance that what they
already do now has divine endorsement. An “awareness of divinity” can be the
basis of nature-worship, built on a sense of the mysteries of the natural
world. It can be a brash, hedonistic worship of ourselves, embodied in the basest
forms of contemporary 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. (This also seems to be the case for today’s
U.S. white supremacists and neo-Nazis.)
of Scripture offers clarity and directs this natural awareness of God. It describes
Jesus as the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians
1:19). Science acts in some ways, in describing this “awareness of divinity” as general revelation, 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 in the natural world
through scientific work—and thus be led to conclude that God is an incomparable
designer. We can, however, only know that God has created all humankind in the
divine image and that God has redeemed all humanity in Jesus Christ through the
book of Scripture.
always been taught to ask, So what? What
do we do with this? We might simply enjoy reading the book of nature today
and noting how it quite easily leads us to ponder the presence of God, something like my
mother’s experience at Lake Tahoe’s shores, “Here’s where I can see God.” And
in that we can thank our Creator that we are imprinted with this “awareness of
divinity.” I hope that seems like a good start.