RPM, Volume 19, Number 17, April 23 to April 29, 2017

Nature as God — Naturalism

Psalm 24:1-5

By Reverend Brad Mercer

Let's pray before we begin. Lord God, we do thank You and praise You for the privilege and the opportunity. We also recognize the fact that we are needy. We are not self-sufficient. We need You. We need Your Holy Spirit. We pray that You would come, by Your Spirit, illumine our hearts and minds, shine a spotlight on your Word, and as we wrestle, think about, consider alternative world views that challenge—directly challenge—what we know as the truth, You would give us insight, boldness, courage and perseverance as we seek to live our lives to the glory of Jesus Christ. And we pray these things in His name. Amen.

Psalm 24, beginning at verse one:

The earth is the Lord's, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it. For He has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers. Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

God bless to us His Word.

Alternative worldviews ?

Unfortunately, there are alternative views to the view we just heard. And those alternative views are everywhere, one of which is this: "In the beginning was mechanistic matter. And the matter was formless and void, and the darkness was over the surface of the deep, and there was light. The heavens were gathered into one place, and dry land appeared, and we call the dry land Earth, and the gathering of the waters, seas. The waters teemed with swarms of living material entities, some with fins, others with wings. And the Earth was full of large and small organic machines, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged, material entity after its kind. And they were fruitful and multiplied. Then chemically complex bipeds emerged, and they asserted dominion over the other material entities, and they multiplied. We see the world, and behold, the mindless, non-rational system of events called Nature goes on and on of its own accord." That is Naturalism.

Several weeks ago we introduced the concept of worldview. We said that a worldview is a set of presuppositions or assumptions we hold about the basic make-up of the world, and everyone has a worldview, and it radically affects how we interpret our world. One person thinks he sees a ghost; another person thinks he sees a reflection of light. His worldview drives him to interpret what he sees, what he experiences, what he reads, what he knows, what he perceives, what he reflects upon in one way or another.

G. K. Chesterton once said, "If you marry the spirit of the times, you will soon be a widow." The spirit of the times changes, and this is particularly true of naturalism. Naturalism in many ways, in a very real sense, has given way to Pantheism: God is the cosmos. Or, Animism: the cosmos is full of spiritual beings. But Naturalism, unlike Deism, has had certain staying power. In Deism, where God is limited or reduced, in Naturalism He loses His very existence. This is a worldview that champions a bottom-to-top inductive method. Facts and figures proceed upward, and they proceed into abstract conceptions. Just as a doctor would evaluate empirical data, or a jury gathers evidence, we start from the top down with what we see and experience and observe, and we rule out the supernatural. And in the process, science itself is deified. We idolize science. The idolatry and ultimate authority of science. Empirical observation reigns.

Paul Kurtz wrote a series of documents called The Humanist Manifesto, and says this: "To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from the naturalistic explanation. On this ground, to invoke an intelligent designer or creator is inadmissible. Surely the …"...now, hear this!... "...surely the Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century was so impressive because it sought naturalistic explanations for a biological phenomenon. This is what we look to for our worldview...", he is advocating.

I. Naturalism?

So what is naturalism? First, as we said a moment ago: matter. Nothing comes from nothing. Either God always existed, or matter always existed. There are no supernatural beings, and matter has always existed. Nature is the sum-total of what can be observed and what can be evaluated through the natural sciences. You remember, we quoted from Carl Sagan. Some of you remember him, with his "billions and billions of years ago". "The cosmos is all that is, ever was, or ever will be" sums it up. The cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be.

Unfortunately, not only scientists will advocate this view, but we have the well-known, very popular heretic who you can find everywhere. His books are everywhere. John Shelby Spong, who's now the retired Bishop of New Jersey, and also, interestingly, a lecturer at Harvard. And whenever I hear that, I always remember that the original motto of Harvard was Veritas pro Christo et Ecclesia, "Truth, Christ, and the Church." And now this man is calling for a new reformation, and he puts forward twelve theses—I'll just give you a couple of them…. He says this: "The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is a pre-Darwinian mythology and a post-Darwinian nonsense." Another thesis: "The Virgin Birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible." "The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity." A couple more: "The view of the cross as the sacrifice for sin of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God, and must be dismissed." This does not at all resemble the other Reformation.

One more: "The story of the ascension assumed a three-tiered universe, and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of this post-Copernican space age."

I'm not sure what he's advocating, but I know what he's against. This is a man who wears the cloth says that, and advocates that we should look to Darwinism, and that matter is eternal. In other words, "In the beginning, matter."

II. The universe exists as cause and effect in a closed system.

In other words, it's all in a box! And there is nothing outside that box. There's no transcendent being that created the box, there's no transcendent god who superintends, who works, who providentially guides the box, and there are no human beings that make real choices. It's all cause and effect. Here's what one writer says: "The beautiful regularity of the seasons is not the effect of a divine plan, but the result of gravitation." There again you see the perspective. Jesus Christ Himself is a product of the same evolutionary cause-and-effect processes as the rest of us. There is nothing divine about Him. He's inside the box. He didn't come from outside the box.

III. Human beings are simply complex machines.

Complex, yes, but organic machines. The universe at its most basic level is mechanistic. The basic substances of the physical world are pieces of matter. If we want to know truth, we've got to know physics. We've got to pursue physics. The laws applying to matter apply also to human beings. When rocks fall from mountainsides, they don't avoid people if people are standing there. They fall on them. A human eye is structured mechanistically over time to evolve to the point that enables us to see. Human brains—a human brain—is mechanistically structured in such a way that it eventually, over time, produces rational thought. But it's again at the most basic level, the ground floor of reality is purposelessness, chance, mechanistic.

One writer says—again, an excellent example—"The brain secretes…"... and this is sad… "The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. Hopes, dreams, thoughts, beliefs, love are ultimately brought about by the movement of matter." And that's it. "In the beginning, matter." Yes, human beings are complex; yes, they amaze us; yes, we haven't figured it all out yet, but again, at the most basic level the universe is mechanistic.

IV. Death is the extinction of personality and individuality.

In other words, the logical consequence of all of this is, when you die, you're gone. You're dust, literally. The Humanist Manifesto says this: "As far as we know, the total personality is a function of the biological organism transacting in a social and cultural context. There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body." Bertrand Russell, famous atheist, says this: "No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual's life beyond the grave." When you die, you die. You cease to exist in any kind of form whatsoever. Back to dust.

V. There's no purpose to history.

There's no goal. There's not a goal of Christ's returning, or any other kind of goal. When human beings appear and they evolve to the point of consciousness, they can look back in time and reflect upon what's happened in the past and give it a certain meaning, but history has no meaning, ultimately. History is what we interpret it to be, what we want it to be, what we make it to be. An example: our national poet—a man who's usually considered to be our national poet, wrote this in the mid-twentieth century. Robert Frost—and by the way, a 'heal-all', a heal-all is a flower. Listen to this. This poem is entitled "Design."

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
on the white heal-all, holding up a moth
like a white piece of rigid satin cloth.
Assorted characters of death and blight,
mixed ready to begin the morning rite.

Like ingredients of a witch's broth,
a snow-drop spider, flower like a froth,
and dead wings carried like a paper kite
What had the flower to do with being white?
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?

What brought the kindred spider to that height, then steer the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall, if design governed anything so small."

He's looking at the details of nature and saying 'there's no design here. These are characters of death and blight. As I look at a spider carrying a moth, killing a moth, destroying a moth, eating a moth standing on a flower, there's no design. Look at it! "Assorted characters of death and blight." There is no purpose. There is no design to history, to time.

VI. Ethics is only related to human beings.

Morality is not revealed or discovered, it is made. Morality is not revealed or discovered, it is made. Early naturalists, living on borrowed capital, still talk in many senses a Christian ethic. And that later fell away. But values…values are man-made. Whatever makes most people happy. Whatever helps most people to co-operate. Whatever brings us world peace. So, why not same-sex marriage? Why not abortion? Stem-cell research? Why not advocate evolution, some form of humanism that is secular? Why not euthanasia…if it seems to benefit the most people? We're making the rules as we go along. There is no standard outside of the box we live in, the mechanistic box we live in.

VII. Now obviously, there are problems, and I want to particularly emphasize three.

In answer to a materialist, why should a human being consider himself or herself unique? Spotted owls are unique. Gorillas are unique. Parrots are unique. We have all kinds of endangered species that are unique. Why should we consider man as an entity, a material entity, that has dignity and value? You remember last week we quoted from C. S. Lewis's wonderful little poem, Evolutionary Hymn. And just a snippet: "…wrong or justice in the present,/ joy or sorrow, what are they? / Well, there's always jam tomorrow/ while we tread our onward way. / Never knowing where we're going, /we can never go astray." There is no purpose, design, there is nothing unique. There is nothing unique about a human being. So, how can we say…how can a naturalist argue…issues of the problem of evil, pain and suffering, a sense of right and wrong? Why is it that human beings long for something "out there?" Why do we have a desire for something "out there" and apart from us, and transcendent from us? We would argue, because we're made in the image of God, and he reveals Himself through His creation to us. Where does conscience come from? Human beings have no value from a naturalist worldview perspective, and we need to point that out. They have no unique value.

Can we trust the validity of our own thinking? Now, I have a hard enough time trusting the validity of my own thinking, being a Christian! But how can a naturalist trust the validity of his or her own thinking if…if…mindless, non-rational, physical forces are sort of the foundation for everything, how can we even trust the conclusions we come to? If I am part of a machine, how can I step out of that machine and reflect upon it and evaluate it, if I am part of the machine itself? How do mindless, irrational impersonal forces give rise to thinking, and reasoning and moral principles? One writer says, "If my mental processes…" now, hear this… "…If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of the atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true, and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain is composed of atoms." A consistent naturalist cannot even trust his own reasoning processes, because of their "origin." Because of their accidental, chance "origin."

Finally, what about moral consciousness, a sense of guilt? A sense of right and wrong, a sense of sin…what do naturalists do with "should" and "ought"? What can a consistent naturalist do with a "should" and an "ought." Again, Paul Kurtz says this: "If there is no evidence for a divine plan of the universe at large, then humans are responsible for their own destinies, individually and socially." Naturalistic humanists maintain that it is possible to reconstruct our ethical values in the light of rational, scientific inquiry. But remember again the foundation, the bottom line, the starting point is the movement of matter. How do you get ethics, morality, conscience, right and wrong, from the movement of matter? Now, people can be moral without believing in God. They can have healthy marriages, they can have well-adjusted children, integrity, honesty—they can be hard-working. That's not the issue.

The issue is the foundation for being moral. How do they justify being good? How do they justify making right choices? The issue is why a person should or ought to live in one way rather than in another, and not base all of what they do simply on their personal preferences…or will. When a naturalist feels that Nazi's shouldn't commit atrocities, or mass murderers should be arrested, or terrorists hunted down, or my neighbor not stealing my car, upon what does he base that? What is the foundation for that view? How do mindless, non-rational, materialistic forces give rise to legitimate moral principles? They don't! God reveals His truth to us through His Word and through His world.

As G. K. Chesterton again says,

"This is a theory that everything…" ... and hear this… "...this is a theory that everything has always perpetually gone right by accident. It is a sort of atheistic optimism based on the everlasting coincidence far more miraculous than a miracle." "Based on an everlasting coincidence far more miraculous than a miracle."

Who knows the truth? Who is most irrational? Obviously, Romans one. I'll close with this: "For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made. So they are without excuse, for even though they knew God, they did not honor God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened." Praise God, praise God, that He has revealed Himself to us; that He sent His Son to live and to die and to conquer death, and to ascend and intercede for us, and to send the Holy Spirit, that we don't have to live in a world standing up and declaring 'in the beginning matter…that's all that is, was, or ever will be.' Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, our only hope and Savior. Let's pray.

Lord God, as we have faced a worldview that is not uplifting—sad and dark, lost and hopeless—we pray that more than anything we would be motivated as others have been, upon whose shoulders we stand, to go out and not run away…but to go out in our own particular vocations and callings and live for You. Live faithfully for You. Whatever You are calling us to do, wherever You are calling us to go, we pray that we would be wise, discerning, regarding the ways of the world. Not so that we might win arguments and score points, but so that we might show people the way, the truth, and the life: our Lord Jesus Christ. In whose name we pray, Amen.

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©2013 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

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