On Sunday morning, I attended church at Anaheim Vineyard to hear Dr. J.P. Moreland speak on anxiety, an issue I’ve dealt with repeatedly the last eight months. In his sermon, he argued that Darwin and the adoption of scientific naturalism has led to an irreconcilable difference between our need for permanence and transcendance (see: funerals) and the impossibility of any such concept in a cosmological framework that denies teleology. In other words, without purpose to events, there’s no purpose to life.

On Sunday night, I found (thanks to Timothy Sandefur, who is currently blogging on Jon Rowe’s site) a blog post addressing that exact issue. Larry Arnhart, author of Darwinian Conservatism, points out Leo Strauss’s (a man that I can trace my intellectual lineage back to, though I do not consider myself a ‘Straussian’) contention that the concept of natural rights as developed by Aristotle depends upon a cosmological teleology that modern science rejects. While I have not read Arnhart’s book, nor does he elaborate, he claims that he tries to bridge the gap between a comprehensive natural science (i.e. modern science that lacks teleology) and the inherentally teleological structure of the ‘science of man.’ He does this by advocating an ’emergent naturalism’:

I recognize the irreducible complexity of nature in which novel properties emerge at higher levels of organization that cannot be reduced to lower levels, so that the uniqueness of human beings comes from the emergent properties that distinguish the human species–most notably, the size and complexity of the frontal lobes of the human brain as a product of primate evolution.

This would directly oppose Moreland’s (non-Straussian) argument that purpose depends upon theism (or deism). I’ll reserve comment until I can read Arnhart’s book (or until he clarifies his position a bit more). Metaphysical questions are lurking, but Arnhart’s attempt to preserve teleology from an atheistic perspective is interesting and definitely worth reading.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

16 Comments

  1. As you know I see the use of Greek philosophical terms and concepts as a hindrance to the understanding of my faith, and worry that Christianity and the other faiths of the Book have suffered and will suffer further decline as a result of the melding of the two.

    That being said, I was stuck by the post you linked use of seems. The problem is that the ancient Aristotelian idea of natural right seems to depend on a teleological conception of the universe that has been refuted by modern natural science., Modern natural science, however, seems to deny natural teleology by explaining natural phenomena as determined by mechanical causes that act without ends or purposes.

    So Aristotlian natural right seems dependent on what natural science seems to deny. If I unload Aristotlian concepts as a basis for understanding my faith then I unload the problem altogether.

    Given the rate of scientific progress I am fairly confident that our understanding of the universe and natural science is limited at best, and will undoubtedly change so much that current scientists will appear quite a bit less imposing in their pontifications than they do now to us. They are quite cofident about a universe that they cannot observe ninety percent of on a cosmological scale, and can detect poorly at best, in quantum quantities.

    You might enjoy if you haven’t read it, Timothy Ferris’ “The Whole Shebang”. He wrote “Coming of Age In the Milky Way”, as well. He has noted the strangeness of carbon atoms and the delicate balance in a star required to make them, and Hoyles and others amazement at those criteria. He also notes that design implies a purpose, which duly notes that we humans assume it is to allow for our existence, and or for for the benefit of our existence, etc. I do not find this concept in the Bible at all. I do see the Hubris of man in the antropic principle however. We may claim that Christ came and died for our salvation, but I await the Scripture that points out that God made the Heavens and the Earth for mankinds purposes. Since the univers was first, I would think that we are designed to fit into it, not that it was designed to fit around us.

    Reply

  2. EZ,

    Christianity and “other faiths of the Book?” Eh?

    Also, you should start your own blog. I’m curious to know what you do think the Bible teaches. Or would it simply be a list of direct quotations?

    Reply

  3. Matthew, thanks for the quick response, and suggestions. I’ll give it some thought.

    If Jews and Muslims are willing to acknowledge Christians as “people of the Book,” then I am willing to acknowledge them as such as well. If it gives Christians an opening to either discussions or peaceful coexistence with such an obviously emotional aspect of human existence then I think that we should use the phrase as such.

    In a nutshell the Bible teaches us that if we love mankind as God loves mankind we shall find our own salvation as well as help those we come into contact with to find theirs as well. To borrow a phrase from John Ciardi, the Bible teaches us “How does Love mean?”

    Reply

  4. I’m curious to hear your ideas about Christ, Smirkz.

    Most “Christians”, at most places, in most times draw significant dividing lines around what a person believes about Christ.

    That same cloud of witnesses claims (with the backing of Scripture) that salvation is by Christ alone (John 14:6).

    Jews and Muslims definitely share much of our same heritage, but they certainly don’t believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.

    So I’m curious to hear what one with your mindset is inclined to believe… Who was Jesus Christ?

    Are the Jews and the Muslims saved by their great love for their brothers?

    Reply

  5. thompson, I am not interested in what most “Christians” think about a lot of things, quotation marks duly noted. I think hostility towards other people of whatever belief is a defining characteristic of “Christians”. I try to counsel those “Christians”, that the measuring line that they measure out will be measured out to them.

    Joh 14:6 Jesus said to him, I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

    This Scripture does not support your contention that salvation is by Christ alone.

    Mat 19:25 And His disciples were exceedingly astonished when they heard this, saying, Who then can be saved? Mat 19:26 But having looked at them, Jesus said to them, With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

    Since all things are possible with God, then who am I to think I can limit his power of salvation?

    Jews and Muslims definitely share much of our same heritage, but they certainly don’t believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God.

    Jews for Jesus may disagree with you. As for Muslims they acknowledge Jesu as the Messiah, but not the son of God.

    Are the Jews and the Muslims saved by their great love for their brothers?

    Are Christians saved despite their lack thereof? Who do you think your brothers and sisters are that your love for them should work no evil towards them? How does this comport with your understanding of the great commission?

    As for who I think Christ is;

    Col 1:3 We give thanks to God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying continually about you, hearing of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love toward all the saints, because of the hope being laid up for you in Heaven, which you heard before in the Word of the truth of the gospel, coming to you, as also in all the world, and it is bearing fruit even also among you, from the day in which you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; even as you also learned from Epaphras our beloved fellow-slave, who is a faithful minister of Christ for you, he also showing to us your love in the Spirit.

    Col 1:9 For this cause also, from the day in which we heard, we do not cease praying on your behalf, and asking that you may be filled with the full knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, for you to walk worthily of the Lord to all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work and growing into the full knowledge of God; being empowered with all power according to the might of His glory, to all patience and long-suffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has made us fit for a share of the inheritance of the saints in light, who delivered us out of the authority of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the remission of sins; who is the image of the invisible God, the First-born of all creation.

    Col 1:16 For all things were created in Him, the things in the heavens, and the things on the earth, the visible and the invisible; whether thrones, or lordships, or rulers, or authorities, all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and all things have subsisted in Him. And He is the Head of the body, the assembly, who is the Beginning, the First-born out of the dead, that He be preeminent in all things; because all the fullness was pleased to dwell in Him, and through Him making peace by the blood of His cross, to reconcile all things to Himself; through Him, whether the things on the earth, or the things in the heavens.

    These passages refute and support both Arian and Athanasian doctrines so I do not believe either philosophy as doctrine is valid, and so reject them both. You are free to understand them as you wish, from my point of view, since my concern is only that you do the things commanded you by the Christ and so obtain to salvation, not how you reason these things out that you might do so. I cannot judge other people as to salvation, but I can judge their works. After two thousand years the world today speaks clearly as to the fruitage of mankinds works, “Christians”, and otherwise.

    Reply

  6. MatthewLee,

    To try to steer the comment train back to the topic of your post, I would question whether Moreland’s contention that belief in God is the only foundation for meaning sets up a false dichotomy: God is the basis for meaning, and non-God is the basis of nihilism.

    The dichotomy seems false because it seems possible that some believers in God–deists, say, or tormented Calvinists–might lack meaning in life. But, more fundamentally, this psychological apologetic seems flawed because it requires the unbeliever consciously to recognize the meaninglessness implied by his own philosophy. If he already recognizes it, he may nevertheless be convinced that it’s true; if he doesn’t recognize it, he’ll disagree that it implies meaninglessness.

    I think Aquinas and Dante would also question this approach. (This will sound odd to those of you who know the Aristotelian-Christian dictum that God is the summum bonum and all men necessarily seek the good, and in so doing, consciously or unconsciously, seek God.) Man has two ends, a natural and supernatural. The natural end consists of living a fruitful human life within a just community, where fruitful is understood in terms of bodily health, good relationships, and habituation to virtue. Aquinas would admit that this natural end isn’t ultimately satisfying, but so would Aristotle! The difference between the two is that the Stagirite thought that the natural end was all we had, whereas the Dominican affirmed the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting.

    Reply

  7. Smirkz, I appreciate your reply.

    I hope to take these things one at a time since it seems there is a large gap between you and mainstream Christianity when it comes to the question of salvation.

    So I’d like to follow the first line of questions – do scriptures say that salvation is by Christ alone?

    From one who grew up in the Evangelical tradition of the church, I really fail to see how 1) John 14:6 does not support the idea of salvation by Christ alone; and 2) How John 14:6 and Matthew 19:25,26 (the scriptures you quoted) are in any way in contention with eachother.

    “How then shall we be saved?” “What is impossible with man is possible with God” – All things are certainly possible with God, but scripture reveals (in passages like John 14:6) that God has chosen salvation to be through absolute miracle of the incarnation and sacrifice of His Son. How are these at odds?

    Reply

  8. dthompson,

    Will an aborted fetus receive a resurrection?

    Reply

  9. Smirkz,

    That isn’t a question I think the scriptures are very clear on.

    Most forms of orthodox Christianity, the catholic church included, answer that there is an age of accountability at which a person becomes accountable for their sins.

    I hope that mainstream orthodoxy is right concerning this question. I think there is good reason to believe that it is.

    However, that doctrine is a side note (an emotionally charged, volitile side note) dealing more with the question of personhood in salvation than the question of means of salvation.

    The question about those in the Jewish faith, and those in the Islamic faith — the question of how John 14:6 and Matthew 19:25,26 are in contention — still stands (unless you hope to convince me that they are all mentally and spiritually unaccountable)…

    Reply

  10. dthompson,

    The question you now refer to in the singular was questions in the plural previously. It is a nice rhetorical slight of hand but nothing more than another change of subject, or in the spirit of your responses, a red herring.

    Reply

  11. It would be a very poor rhetorical slight of hand. I have no intention of introducing red herring in a search for truth. Both questions still stand to you.

    1) How does John 14:6 not support the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone?

    — Even if we allow for the resurrection of unborn children and those under an age of accountability, surely Christ meant something when He said, “I am the way…”

    2) How are Matthew 19:25,26 and John 14:6 in contention?

    Excuse the confusion of rhetoric. I’m suspicious of your views as they don’t mix with what 2000 years of Christianity teaches us. Whenever we stay from orthodoxy we should tread carefully. However, the questions are earnest.

    Rhetorical tricks are suitable weapons for business deals, but make very poor tools in a genuine dialog. I hope I’m a little beyond that at this point.

    Reply

  12. By the way, as always, anyone is welcome to join this discussion — by all means, Ward, Matt, Keith, Selby if you have differing opinions you’re welcome here.

    As for red herrings — I’m not offended that this line has two distinct conversations running through it as long as our hosts will allow it. I do think the two threads are related if not directly so.

    While your conversation about whether teleology is possible outside a theistic mindset is interesting I think it will ultimately be fruitless as long as you’re content to throw out anything that bothers your vision of christianity — on the one hand you have interesting philosophical ideas about christians and teleology, on the other you want to unload “Greek philosophical terms” and “Aristotlian concepts as a basis for understanding [your] faith”. On one side you’re happy to embrace a scripture like Matthew 5-7 where Christ calls us to love, on the other you’re content to do away with long established doctrines like salvation by Christ alone.

    Like Matt, since you’ve engaged yourself in conversation here, I’m curious to know what it is that you do believe. At the moment it’s nebulous.

    Your post (#3) about what the Bible ultimately teaches sparked the line of questioning we’re still persuing now. No need for red herrings (unless you’d consider this whole thread a red herring, distracting from questions of theism and teleology). I’m challenging your contention that the Bible’s ultimate message is

    “if we love mankind as God loves mankind we shall find our own salvation as well as help those we come into contact with to find theirs as well.”

    Reply

  13. dthompson,

    First off their are indeed errors in my thinking and the way inwhich I proceeded in responding to your posts. Let me clarify and set things right, hopefully in the spirit of Christ.

    I should have just stated that Jesus Christ is the living son of the Living God, by whom and through whom God has provided salvation to mankind.

    In the second error I should not have stated that John 14:6 does not support your contention, because I am sure that it does. All of us have Scriptures that we prefer to use to support our understanding, and frankly I forgot that, and would have been wiser to have explored how it fit more fully into your understanding. Intertwined with this error is my own perception of your hostility, which true or not, the faith counsels me to be always ready with a response in mildness.

    I should also expect you to be suspecious of my views, as I am of yours. Two thousand years of Christianity should not have have resulted in the world we are living in. The problem is not in the faith and the Good News as delivered by the Christ and the Apostles, so it is subsequent to them, in the teachings of the Church. I do not see any improvement in any of the more modern denominations, sects, movements, or whatever else they are termed by more mainstream denominations.

    I do not see any contention between John 14:6 and Matthew 19:25,26 but clarification. My understanding of John’s cite is pretty much in line with Barnes Commentary on it. As such it is a much more complex statement than you allow it to be. If He is the Way then we should all be following in his footsteps. Since no one is doing so, nor can do so completely in my opinion, then it is reasonable to expect that no one would obtain to salvation, hence Matthew 19:25,26. I cannot exclude Muslims and Jews from salvation because they are guilty of the same failures as I am. If any Christian is walking in the way then they are indeed doing all that Christ commanded them to do. I see no evidence of this here in America or in the world. All the philosophical concepts and mental knowledge in the world cannot change the reality on the ground. As far as I can discern no one will be judged by what they thought or their inderstanding of what is being said in the Scriptures. They will answer for what they have said and done.

    If you and your church are even doing what was commanded in the Sermon on the Mount then please enlighten the rest of us how to do so as well, so that we may pass it on to the Jews and Muslims, but especially our fellow Christians who are obviously failing so miserably to do so.

    As far as I know that is the summation of my contention with the Church. I neither condemn nor condone any theological concepts, but I can judge the fruitage of their trees. I am not just looking for something edible to eat, but something edible that I might share with you and others as well.

    Reply

  14. Tom wrote: “To try to steer the comment train back to the topic of your post, I would question whether Moreland’s contention that belief in God is the only foundation for meaning sets up a false dichotomy: God is the basis for meaning, and non-God is the basis of nihilism.

    The dichotomy seems false because it seems possible that some believers in God–deists, say, or tormented Calvinists–might lack meaning in life. But, more fundamentally, this psychological apologetic seems flawed because it requires the unbeliever consciously to recognize the meaninglessness implied by his own philosophy. If he already recognizes it, he may nevertheless be convinced that it’s true; if he doesn’t recognize it, he’ll disagree that it implies meaninglessness.

    I think Aquinas and Dante would also question this approach. (This will sound odd to those of you who know the Aristotelian-Christian dictum that God is the summum bonum and all men necessarily seek the good, and in so doing, consciously or unconsciously, seek God.) Man has two ends, a natural and supernatural. The natural end consists of living a fruitful human life within a just community, where fruitful is understood in terms of bodily health, good relationships, and habituation to virtue. Aquinas would admit that this natural end isn’t ultimately satisfying, but so would Aristotle! The difference between the two is that the Stagirite thought that the natural end was all we had, whereas the Dominican affirmed the doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting.

    Tom,

    I don’t think the ‘psychological apologetic’ is what Moreland was arguing for. The question isn’t about what the non-believer is conscious of, but rather about the intellectual foundations for meaningful existence. It seems a useful apologetic strategy to argue that outside a theistic conception of the universe there is no intellectual basis (which is an argument, not a psychology). Let the other person’s psyche either accept the argument or not. (Note: I haven’t made this argument very clearly or persuasively, but I think it can be made).

    Notice, however, that you have to appeal to the Aristotelian tradition for this argument–the problem with that is that the modern worldview rejects the teleology inherent in Aristotelianism. I admit above that purpose may exist in a Deistic framework because Deism can be teleological (see Aristotle). The more central claim is that sans teleology (which modern science a la Darwin rejects), no purpose.

    In other words, this sort of argumentation would only work with someone who has adopted a Darwinian conception of the universe. Is that any clearer?

    Reply

  15. Matt,

    Okay, suppose Moreland isn’t making a psychological appeal. I guess I’m still left wondering what it means for a worldview to be a good or bad intellectual basis for one’s sense of meaning in life.

    After all, a Christian can go through periods of despair or cynicism, two anti-Christian conditions that don’t follow from his creed. Likewise, a Darwinist can go through periods of joy or hope, though these don’t follow from his creed.

    Perhaps we are working with equivocal uses of “meaning,” mine a subjective sense and yours an objective. The Christian worldview supports an objective sense of meaning, say, inasmuch as it implies certain ideal ways of (meaningful) life. If this is what you mean (and what you take Moreland to mean), then I concede. But I would feel the force of an objection such as, “Why should it be important to me to have a worldview that implies objective meaning?” To which I can only respond that such a state itself gives one a deeper sense of (subjective) meaning. And then we’re back to the psychological appeal.

    I suppose (to play devil’s advocate) one might go with a “pragmatic teleology”. On this view, one wouldn’t care about the metaphysics of personhood or final causality. One would simply seek to discover (empirically) what it is in general that gives humans a (subjectively) meaningful life? A virtuous person is able to have a stable and harmonious domestic life, hold down a good job, be a good friend, etc. This is “Aristotelian,” in that it seeks to identify patterns of human behavior that in general contribute to a happy life, but it has none of his metaphysics.

    What say you? (By the way, your last paragraph seems like it is missing a word or has a word that should be another word. If it is as you intended, then I may have failed to understand your whole post.):)

    Reply

  16. Tom,

    I think your analysis of our use of ‘meaning’ spot on. However, intellectual foundations for meaning are crucial. Without them, it’s impossible to live a cognitively whole and healthy life (i.e. a life without cognitive dissonance). That’s clearly psychological, but I also think it’s detectable. I’ve been hunting for a Pscyhology Today article on the concept of the ’empty self’ but can’t find it–essentially, it argued that there is a widespread feeling of emptiness and unhappiness in American culture. Partly I think this stems from the cognitive dissonance most people experience.

    The ‘pragmatic teleology’ is certainly an option–it reminds me of the last chapter of Orthodoxy, where Chesterton claims that modern man has been forced to be pessimistic about the cosmic things, but optimistic about the little things. I’m still not exactly sure how to respond to this point other than to question the possibilty of such ’emergence’ theories. I’m highly doubtful of non-reductive physicalism, especially if causation is only directed one way (i.e. the physical causes mental states, etc). So it seems like to introduce teleology without metaphysics is to lend to cognitive dissonance.

    Additionally, it seems like (objective) meaning is somehow related to permanence–see the Homeric quest for eternity through heroism or Solomon’s quest for meaning in the permanence of nature in Ecclesiastes one (Moreland contends that Solomon takes the perspective of an atheist, limiting himself to only what is ‘under the sun’). Solomon’s case is interesting because he examines nature to find meaning since it seems more permanent than he is, but yet fails to find it there. So he turns to learning and pleasure and finds both empty as well. Philosophical naturalism (interestingly) says the only permanence in the universe is in nature–I think (and Moreland argued) that this leads to a radical emphasis on environmentalism, as the environment is more important and meaningful than any individual person (or group of people).

    That’s not very clear, but before I add more confusion, I’ll stop. I might revisit this later today to try to clear up what I’m attempting to say! : )

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *