Genesis cosmos and cosmology

The splash continues from David Bentley Hart’s recent First Things essay, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws.” Responses and related reflections have followed from Rod Dreher (here, here, and here), Alan Jacobs (here), Peter Leithart (here and here), Edward Feser (here and here), Steven Wedgeworth (here and here), and Alastair Roberts (here). Anna Williams notes some other contributions in her First Things roundup.

The discussion is a very old one about the existence and knowability of an objective moral order in the world. Are there objective, self-evident, universal moral truths and norms? Are these truths and norms accessible, and if so, by whom, and by what means?

Two claims have surfaced in the various posts. One is that there is an objective moral order in the world (“natural law”); but since not everyone agrees that it exists, the only way to argue for it is from scripture, from “thus saith the Lord” (in Leithart’s words, “the only arguments we have are theological ones”); the problem being that “only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find [such biblical, theological arguments] cogent.” Those who don’t accept the Christian view of reality have no reason to find Christian ethical reasoning persuasive.

Others disagree, claiming that God’s creation (including the moral order of the world) is what it is, even if we never heard Him say anything about it. “As long as we exist within the creation,” says Alastair Roberts, “we are besieged by God.” To be in the created moral order is not only to be bound by it, but at some level to know it. Edward Feser is supremely confident about this: he believes “objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition,” precisely because human reason is part of the created order, teleologically oriented to it, and unable “in principle . . . to will anything other than the good” to which the created order itself is teleologically oriented. Objectively true moral conclusions can therefore “in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments” without resort to divine revelation.

What shall we say to these things?

My interest in the conversation stems in part from the fact that I’m finishing a sermon series in Genesis 1–11 in which I’ve tried to identify the big pieces of the Genesis cosmology. Two features in particular have stood out. First, Genesis tells us the cosmos we’re living in is deeply enchanted. Everything we perceive with our senses is freighted with unseen realities, not least the Word and Spirit of the Creator who upholds, fills, and animates all things – in Him we live and move and have our being. All visible things are full of deep invisible magic (if I may so express it), filled with the presence and power of the invisible God. On one hand, this supplies a basis for expectation and prediction as we engage the natural world and the flow of history: we rightly anticipate a certain order, because the visible realms are ruled by the invisible God. On the other hand, the world’s enchantment supplies a basis to expect the unexpected. The world has a wonderful (sometimes bewildering) unpredictability about it, for the simple reason that God remains wholly free in relation to His world – “He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Daniel 4:35).

Second, Genesis tells us our cosmos is deeply eschatological. Everything we perceive with our senses is freighted with ultimate purposes (the eternal purpose of God). As surely as there is a transcendent dimension to everything we observe, there is a teleological dimension to every creature and to creation as a whole. God made all things with a given nature for certain purposes (both proximate and ultimate), and part of the human adventure is to discover and work out these purposes.

These two big pieces – enchantment and eschatology, transcendence and teleology, the giftedness of the world and the givenness (or, as Ken Myers likes to say, the “grain”) of the world – are fundamental to the cosmology of Genesis. But I think the recent debates have reminded us to be careful of a misstep here. The world is not this way because Genesis says it is; the world is this way whether or not Genesis was ever written, and whether or not anyone ever reads Genesis. We must not confuse Welt and Weltanschauung; we mustn’t collapse the cosmos of Genesis into the cosmology of Genesis. The world is deeply enchanted and deeply eschatological whether or not we happen to look at it through the lenses of deep enchantment and deep eschatology. The way the world is doesn’t depend in the slightest on the way we look at the world (as my friend Peter Escalante puts it, “Reality isn’t up for vote”).

This isn’t true only in the realm of reality; it’s also true in the realm of human knowledge. As creatures who are part of (inextricably embedded in) the world as God created it, we know the world is enchanted and eschatological – we cannot escape transcendence and teleology, even if we devoutly wish to in the realm of our conscious reflection. Reality is what it is, and deep down we all know it. This is obvious when you listen to ethical discourse: all such discourse regardless of the participants operates on the assumption that some behavior is morally reprehensible, that there is some irreducible distinction between good and evil. Take away this self-evident truth, this sine qua non, and ethics ceases to be rational. People may differ radically in what they identify as moral or immoral, but they’re not in disagreement about the existence of morality itself. Thus moral reasoning is possible even between those who profess faith in the God of the Bible and those who profess no faith whatsoever. We Christians know objective moral truth exists because the Bible tells us so; but we need to remember that our unbelieving neighbor knows it too, whether or not he or she has ever opened a Bible. It comes with being made in imago Dei.

I think we need to recognize how high the stakes are in this ongoing discussion. If we surrender the metaphysical ground that man is made in God’s image and that as such he is (though fallen and in dire need of God’s Word and Spirit) both subject to and at some level aware of the moral order of the universe, we leave ourselves in a position where we can, in fact, only thump our Bibles – and worse, our biblically intelligent hearers will recognize that we have actually given up on what our Bible says. If they hear us cite the Bible, but see that we have no confidence that God’s moral order is operative within them and they within it, or that His moral order is known to them (in other words, if they see that we have accepted their moral autonomy as real), then we have yielded not just the authority of natural law but also the authority of the Bible. Needless to say, that would be a bad thing. We’ve ceded enough ground to the myth of a naked public square, to the myth of moral autonomy. We must not yield another inch to those who scorn either the cosmos or the cosmology God has given us.

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