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Finding the divine in the everyday

Michael Raposa

By Michael Raposa

The Rev. Eliphalet Nott Potter was a member of Lehigh's first faculty, appointed in 1866 as professor of mental and moral philosophy and of Christian Evidences; he was also the university's first chaplain. Most relevant here is his role as instructor in "Christian Evidences." In the 18th and 19th centuries, theologians in Great Britain and America were eager to mimic the natural sciences, to claim for their discipline a prestige comparable to that which the empirical sciences were rapidly acquiring. Biologists, chemists, geologists, and physicists appealed to various kinds of data to support their claims.

For the theologian, there seemed to be two primary sources of evidence for the truth of Christian beliefs: miracles and the apparent design of the natural universe. And so "arguments from design" flourished in Christian theology during the post-Enlightenment period. Earlier theologians had spoken of the design and purpose displayed in the cosmos as bearing on the truth of Christian theism (Thomas Aquinas, for example, in the 13th century). But the logic of these arguments was different, the burden placed on design as evidence for the existence of God being far less significant than it would later become in modernity.

Ironically, the Scottish philosopher David Hume had already rendered all such arguments problematic with a devastating critique in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, published in 1779. Since no one has ever witnessed the creation of a universe, Hume remarked, no comparison is possible between what we observe in this world and in other instances; thus, an argument from analogy cannot possibly succeed. But even if it were possible to frame such an argument, Hume contended, the principle that a hypothesized cause should always be commensurate with its observed effect must be respected. Why, given the vastness of the universe, should we assume the existence of a single Creator rather than (more plausibly) many gods? Why, given the existence of enormous suffering and evil in the universe, should we not conclude that God, at the very least, is limited in power and wisdom; at worst, is evil and sadistic?

Empirical arguments for the existence of an "intelligent designer" are scientifically illegitimate because they are not, in principle, falsifiable. But my concern as a scholar of religion is with their theological rather than their strictly scientific utility. And even here it seems that their value is limited. Any theology grounded principally in an argument from design must be prepared to run head-on into the problem of evil. To make God's visible design the centerpiece of one's theological perspective is also to underscore the significance of every instance where no such design seems apparent, where evil reigns, where the innocent suffer terrible pain, etc.

Of course, any thoughtful believer in an all-powerful and loving God -- Christian, Muslim, or Jew -- will be obliged to take that problem seriously, never to shrink from it, and never blithely to explain it away at the awful risk of trivializing human suffering. But there are religious resources for coping with evil and suffering that are not primarily philosophical or argumentative. And there is an ancient tradition in all of these religions of insisting on the essentially mysterious nature of God (consider Job's encounter), in contrast to this Enlightenment version of the Deity as a clever architect whose purposes are translucent to the scientific intellect.

Now anyone who believes that God both created and continues to care about the world will tend to perceive the beauty, order, and purpose displayed in creation as tangible signs of their Creator. But for the person of powerful religious sensibilities, the religious mystic for example, these signs will be ubiquitous. They are not limited only to those effects that seem to require some extraordinary, miraculous, supernatural cause.

Since God is the creator of all of nature, classical theists have always assumed that God can and does work effects through natural causes. The rising and setting of the sun, the power of a storm, and the gentleness of a summer breeze, the smile of an infant, an act of human creativity or of love, even the generation of new species through a natural process of evolution -- all of these, potentially, are of religious significance, all potentially miraculous.

To perceive intelligent design only in those rare instances where the appeal to natural causes for explanation seems unsatisfactory or incomplete is to invest one's faith in a "God of the gaps." For the religious believer, this is doubly dangerous. Such a God is threatened with extinction as soon as natural explanations are discovered or repaired. Moreover, the predisposition to find God only in the spectacular exception risks spiritual blindness, the failure to recognize the divine in all of those mysterious yet tangible and everyday occurrences that signify its presence.

Michael L. Raposa is associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Arts and Sciences. A professor of religion studies, and the E.W. Fairchild Professor of American Studies, he joined Lehigh in 1985. Raposa's primary research and teaching interests fall within the areas of modern western religious thought and the philosophy of religion. He is the author of Meditation and the Martial Arts, Boredom and the Religious Imagination, and Peirce's Philosophy of Religion.

Next: The courage of faith

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Winter 2006

Posted on Friday, January 20, 2006

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