“Being understood by the things that are made”
As I read through the Bible once quickly, I try to take it as an interpretive principle—which is just an extension of the principle of charity—that I should try to understand the text in a way that will make it come out true, on the theory that that is more likely to be what the author meant.
Now I recently began reading the Epistle of Paul to the Romans. In the first chapter, I came across this very famous, philosophical text:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who [d]suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is [e]manifest [f]in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and [g]Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like [h]corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.Romans 1 (NKJV)
I had read this passage several times before, being one of relatively few texts in the Bible that contain something approaching an explicit argument for the existence of God. Even more remarkable is the claim that the unbelievers and pagans “are without excuse” because they “knew God” who is “understood by the things that are made.” In the past, I always frowned at and moved on quickly from this startling claim, as something it is unlikely I am able to understand, if indeed there is anything to understand. Frankly, it sounds absurd: atheists surely do not understand God through the creation, let alone “know God.” Nor do polytheists understand the nature of a personal monotheistic deity through the creation, surely.
But this time I asked myself, “Suppose this is true. What could Paul possibly have meant?” So I looked out the window at “creation,” and there I saw some bare March trees and yellow-green grass and patchy grey clouds, and I asked myself what it would be like to see the creator in that. I saw a sort of stark beauty. It was easy enough to remember more spectacularly beautiful scenes. Of course, such scenes are not God. But if Paul is right, perhaps he means that our reaction to them—one of pleasure, joy, delight, sometimes awe and wonder, and even sublimity—is a reaction, in some sense, to God.
Our sense of beauty is something we are well aware of, but of course we might deny that it is a reaction to God. And yet Paul writes that God is known in some common way, no doubt “both to the wise and to the unwise” (1:14), and hence it is not likely that the manner in which we come to know God (if we do) is something particularly intellectually challenging, knowable only to scientists and philosophers, for example. It is more apt to be something emotional or “spiritual.” If “what is known of God is manifest in” us “by the things that are made,” then it seems likely that indeed the beauty of the world is that through which, Paul claims, we come to know God.
That is very interesting; it is as if aesthetics were a key to metaphysics. Through our sense of beauty, we come to know God—that, I suggest, is what Paul is saying. But if so, what could that possibly mean?
The text itself is not silent; it does give us a clue. It says “His invisible attributes are clearly seen…even His power and Godhead,” and moreover, the proper reaction to such an act of perception is glorify god and to be thankful. What we experience as beauty (or sublimity) is our quite natural and even universal reaction to the “attributes” of the godhead, with the one attribute being his “power.” We witness the works of great power indeed with awe and pleasure at beauty; and we witness evidence of the greatest power with a sense of sublimity. The experience of sublimity in the presence of the awesomeness of nature just is the experience of God’s power. And you are without excuse, Paul says, if you do not immediately conclude that God is there—that the creator of the universe delights in, intends, and is responsible for the beauty that you see.
Some philosophers will be quick to say, “Of course that does not follow.” That would be the category of philosopher I have been in. But if you stop there, then perhaps you will not understand what Paul is saying. For his part, Paul says you are a fool if you do not understand.
Let me suggest that Paul might not be merely doctrinaire and bigoted (and arguing ad hominem) when he says such “wise” philosophers are “fools” for failing to see God in the sublime beauty and power of the creation, something that the “unwise,” even (or especially) little children, are perfectly capable of seeing. Again, let us be charitable and try to come up the very strongest construal of his point of view. What could he possibly mean, that would make him turn out to be right, perhaps to the consternation of the philosophers?
He would mean not that we understand some analogy, some design argument, since the philosophers probably do understand such arguments well enough, as far as they go. It would have to be something more basic. And what leaps to mind here is something very basic indeed: there is what, in epistemology, we call a direct perception of God in certain states of affairs in the world. A sense of beauty or sublimity, the thing we cannot deny, is not a reaction to a random configuration of stuff. You can try to reductively explain it, perhaps, in terms of such things as balance and color and whatnot, but even then you still have not explained the gestalt, the overall impression we have of a beautiful scene, let alone why the aspects of a scene should strike us, or some of us, so profoundly.
For some reason, I always think of my childhood piano teacher when I think about “seeing God in nature”: she said she believes in God because of the design evident in the creation. I always thought she was endorsing a design argument. But no, not necessarily. The reason many people believe in God, even deists who do not believe in the Bible, is not that they draw a conclusion from their perception of divinity in nature, but rather because of the perception itself. In other words, it is not a conclusion. It is, as two much-admired philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and the late William Alston, put it, a basic belief, rooted in something very much like a perception of God. Alston even wrote a book called Perceiving God. Now I have a better idea of what he meant. This belief is based, Paul suggests, on the direct, unreasoning witnessing of God’s power in creation, something we naturally react to with delight and awe, and which we should react to with reverence and gratitude. God, Paul tells us, made a sort of very basic knowledge of himself, the power behind what is observed, available to even to little children. We can see God in creation, he says, as plainly as we can see the trees, grass, and clouds.
But we can, of course, deny this knowledge. “Wise” fools do, Paul suggests; they simply deny this fact staring them in the face, which of course they may do.
So that is approximately what Paul meant in that passage from Romans, I think.
I will leave you with this question. If the creation does naturally (again, if we let it) leave us with reverence and gratitude at God’s power, how might that natural reaction help to cultivate the humility, moral ambition, and faith in this power that the Bible wants us to have? Are these things connected? It seems that they would have to be if the God we see in creation is also the God of the Bible.