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Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 3: Deism

The first step away from Christian theism was the belief system we call Deism. This was motivated largely by the change in authority for knowledge about the divine from Scripture to reason and intuition. Platonic theories of knowledge that had held sway during the middle ages argued that a person becomes what they study. Because God is good and holy and the material world was considered irrational and less than good, scholars rejected the study of the natural world in favor of God. However, biblically minded scholars started to recognize that everything is part of God’s creation and though corrupted, is of value. They also recognized that because God is a rational being his creation must be orderly. Armed with these assumptions, scientists subsequently found that the world operated like a giant machine where all the parts work together. Scholars, however, began believing that God’s nature could be discovered through studying nature. They rejected the notion that God could reveal himself through Divine Revelation and special acts in history. God could only be known through Nature which, because it functioned as a giant clock, made God the clockmaker. This also elevated the place of reason from a necessary condition to a sufficient condition for knowing God. As we begin to answer the worldview questions, we will also see how Deism served as a natural transition to naturalism, and learn some helpful approaches to those who might not realize they are Deists.

 

1. What is prime reality – the really real?

God, under Deism, is reduced to an impersonal, distant, uninvolved creator who created the universe and then left it to run on its own. He does not care for what he made and does not involve himself in any way in the affairs of humanity. He is simply reduced to being the first cause, the explanation for why things exist and work the way they do. Mankind is left floating through an indifferent universe. A God who is distant and uncaring is practically the same as one who is not there at all! Not only is God distant, but according to Deism is ultimately unknowable. Because the Deists denied God could reveal himself through divine revelation, the only information they could gather about him was from creation. This meant that they were unable to form prior expectations about what he was like or what he would do. Not knowing what he would do, however, makes it impossible to draw conclusions from what he actually did. God could have created the universe because he was lonely, or because he enjoys seeing people suffer. Either way, it is impossible to decide what is true.

 

2. What is the nature of external reality?

The cosmos is a closed system where everything is determined and no miracles are possible. God is not interested in what happens to his creation and even if he was would never interfere with it. If he did, it would suggest he had not set up the clockwork-like universe correctly in the first place. If the universe is like a determined clock, events within it are a part of a network of causes and effects. To introduce real change one would have to transcend this network, an act which is impossible for finite humans. Is it still possible to have freedom if everything around us is determined?

 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are personal beings locked into the clockwork of the universe. They do not have any special relationship with God and are not made in his image. Hence, humans have no free will. If God had created mankind with the capacity for meaningful self-determination then they would also be able to choose to sin and deviate from the perfect plan. Humans, under Deism, are puppets, dancing to their DNA and environment, incapable of making meaningful choices and lacking anything that can be meaningfully called personality.

 

4. What happens to a person at death?

Deism, by denying the possibility of Divine revelation, precludes the knowledge of anything that happens after death since the supernatural by definition is beyond the natural. Besides, why would a God who does not care at all about what happens inside his universe concern himself with the eternal destiny of those living in it? Humans have no special relationship to God but are merely parts of a giant mechanical system ticking away. The logical conclusion of this is despair; if I am going to die and have no reason to believe in an afterlife, then anything I do now does not matter. The result is the same.

 

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

Because the universe operates according to how it was designed, we can learn what God is like by studying it. However, as mentioned previously, any other source of knowledge that is not based on our study of the external world is rejected. Here we see beginning hints of the “scientism” of our modern era. So many people today, especially those who study empirical subjects, believe that unless something can be demonstrated by science or logic, it cannot exist. Take the Deist David Hume’s famous quote:

    If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Unfortunately for Hume, this statement is not based on conclusions made using logic or experience and thus, by its own definition, ought to be committed unto the flames. According to their reasoning, the Deists ought to have rejected the notion that only knowledge obtained through the natural world is legitimate. However, to do so would have been to destroy the very foundation upon which their entire system was based.

 

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Not only does the Deistic worldview pose problems for the idea of knowledge, but also morality. If God as the creator is revealed through the external world, then his creation must reflect what he is like. This leads to the destruction of ethics since the universe itself says nothing about what is right and wrong. Whatever exists is right and there is no difference between good and evil. Though one may make subjective distinctions between good and bad, there is no real difference. Because deism denies that man was special (neither created in the image of God nor loved by him) the original deists had no reason to trust any of their moral beliefs. In spite of this, many of them still affirmed Judeo-Christian values, directly contradicting their belief in a distant indifferent God. Their failure to live consistently with what they espoused also demonstrates the difficulty of living out a belief system that directly contradicts reality.

 

7. What is the meaning of history?

The course of the universe was set at creation and follows a linear path implying that all events occurring after the beginning are determined. For this reason, history, to the Deist, is not important since God is discovered through nature, not revelation or divine intervention. The Deist God acts using general rules and the universe is closed to external interference.

Deism as the dominant worldview was short-lived but briefly powerful, dominating the intellectual world of France and England from the late seventeenth through to the mid-eighteenth centuries and serving as the transition between Theism and Naturalism. We have already seen some of the naturally arising objections above like the inability to affirm human value and freedom or to ground morality in objective reality. Even so, many people today present themselves as Deists unknowingly. When asked about the nature of God they will describe him as an energy or force, who explains the existence of the universe but who is also distant and not involved. How many people do you know who believe in a God like this? Useful approaches to “modern-day Deists” could be to touch on some of the points above by asking questions like: “Does God love you? Where do right and wrong come from?” You may find they have never really thought it through. Ask questions, and be curious. Don’t be too aggressive. If you ask these sorts of questions long enough, you may just find an opening to be able to share with them why they ought to consider Christianity.

While Deism as a worldview is no longer very popular, it helps us to understand the roots of Naturalism, the worldview which argues all that exists is matter and energy. A universe with a God who created it and then disappeared is no different, practically, from one where there is no God at all. If God could be replaced by some natural phenomena that did not require an explanation, then he would no longer be necessary and could be dispensed with. Naturalism, as we shall see, was the natural next step for all those who became unsatisfied with Deism.

 

Photo Caption

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake killed between 10 and 30 thousand people and significantly damaged the Portuguese economy. The French enlightenment philosopher and deist Voltaire used it as evidence that there could not exist a deity who cared about and intervened in the affairs of mankind. The painting is Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake, by João Glama Strobërle.

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 2

Imagine arriving in a foreign city without knowing anyone, speaking the language, or even having a map. You would be lost, forced to ask for help by waving your hands and wander around hoping to gain a sense of direction. The same is true of this life. To be able to navigate life one needs a guide or map which explains where you are, why you are here and where you need to get to. This is a worldview, the set of answers to the big questions of life like ‘why we are here’, ‘what is real’, ‘what happens after death’. Everyone, whether or not they have given much thought to the topic, has a worldview through which they see the world and form their opinions. In addition, it is not possible to jettison one’s framework of beliefs in order to become objective. Rather, the goal is to make sure that the assumed worldview corresponds with reality since the closer a worldview is to reality, the more it enhances one’s ability to find the truth.

In my first article, I introduced seven questions that help us to identify and define a worldview. By defining the Christian worldview in this article using these questions, my hope is that before progressing further, we will understand what we believe. Before we can make a defense of Christianity, we must first know it. Using these seven questions, let’s have a deeper look at the Christian faith.

1. What is prime reality?

God, the only being that exists by the necessity of its own nature, is prime reality. He is an infinite, personal (triune), transcendent yet immanent, omniscient being who is sovereign over all and perfectly good. God is infinite and beyond all measure in His qualities and attributes. He is the only self-existent being (Exodus 3:14, Psalm 90:2). God is also a personal being capable of both self-reflection and self-determination, able both to think and know Himself and take action. 

The key to understanding the personal nature of God is the fact that He is tri-personal, one being who exists in three persons. This means that each member of the Trinity stands in an eternal relationship with the other members. Furthermore, because human beings are personal like God, we are also able to have a relationship with Him (as first demonstrated by Adam and Eve in the garden). As a personal being, God is also capable of choice; He chose to create the universe and to send Christ to this earth to die for our sins. 

God as the Creator of the cosmos is both beyond and set apart from it. This is known as the transcendence of God. Yet at the same time, He is present and causally active at all places within it. These are the attributes of immanence and omnipresence. It is possible for God to be immanent and omnipresent in the universe because He is Spirit. This is not possible for us because we are physical beings, confined to finite points in time and space.

In addition to being omnipresent, God is also omniscient. He knows everything, the beginning from the end (Revelation 22:13), and is wise above all things (Job 38:1-18, Psalm 139). Because God is the creator of the universe, He is fully sovereign over all that happens within His creation. Nothing exists outside of His interest or beyond His control and authority. Finally, God is not an evil creator who made His creation to torture for His own pleasure. He is good, and His goodness is expressed through his holiness and love. He is holy since there is no evil in Him and loving because He seeks the good of His people.

2. What is the nature of external reality?

God created the universe from nothing (Genesis 1) to operate as a finite open system with uniformity of cause and effect. The universe is finite since it has a beginning and is made up of a limited number of atoms, and open in that it is possible for God to reach in and change things. A closed system cannot be externally changed or re-ordered. The universe is not an illusion but is real and operates in a structured orderly way (Isaiah 45:18-19). This regular operation makes it possible to discover laws that describe how many things work and which allow us to predict what will generally happen. Every time you put a mug on your desk you do not expect it to float up to the ceiling! Finally, because the universe is an open system it is not determined. Both God and people (to a lesser extent of course) can interact with and re-order it. 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1) and inherit from Him personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness, and creativity. Humans are personal because God is personal, and thus we are able to know ourselves (self-consciousness) and are able to make decisions without coercion (also known as self-determination). In a limited way, we can transcend the world around us. We are aware of our own existence and are able to shape our environment to a degree that other animals in the world cannot. The difference between our transcendence and God’s is that God is transcendent to the ultimate degree. In addition, we are able to reason and possess knowledge, distinguish between good and evil, form social connections and networks, and act in creative and novel ways. God also created the capacity in humans to know both Himself and the world around them.

Humans were created good but when they rejected God, fell into corruption. They became limited in freedom and ability and were alienated from themselves, each other, and God. However, through Christ, God made a free offer of redemption. Because people were created with self-determination, they were able to reject God at the beginning by choosing to live separately from Him. The offer of redemption Christ makes to each human today is also something we can either receive or reject. See Romans chapters 1-6 for more.

4. What happens to a person at death?

Death is either the way to eternal life with God (John 3:15-16) or eternal separation from Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Heaven is the fulfillment of the desire of those who wish to be with God, while hell is God respecting the decision of those who do not wish to be with Him. God will not force those who reject Him to spend the rest of eternity with Him.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

As we saw previously, God created man with the ability to transcend their surroundings and with the ability to reason. Because man possesses the capacity for self-determination, it is possible for him to gain real knowledge. Man is not a biological machine that is pre-programmed to arrive at a given conclusion. In addition, it is possible to gain an actual understanding of how things work using the five senses (sight, touch, taste, sound, smell) because the external world is real and follows laws.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Right and wrong are absolute and transcendent values, based on the character of God. We are made in God’s image and have no choice but to live under moral categories of good and bad, right and wrong (Romans 1-2). Any time we get angry at injustice or praise kindness, we show that by our actions we affirm their existence (see the moral argument for God’s existence here). Moreover, we just know some things are “right” and others are “wrong”. One challenge to the existence of objective moral standards could be that what we think we “know” to be right is just what our culture believes—what was considered moral a century ago may no longer be. For example, slavery was legal until as recently as 1833 in the United Kingdom, yet today purchasing and owning slaves is not only illegal but also universally condemned. This cultural shift, however, does not show that there is no right and wrong, but that cultural perception of right and wrong changes.

However, because morality is grounded in the being of God who is eternal, morality is absolute. God has revealed the moral law not only through the conscience but also through His revealed word.

7. What is the meaning of history?

History is a linear, meaningful sequence of events that leads to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity and through which He has revealed Himself. God does so most obviously by acting directly on our world. For example, He stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ by taking on human nature, and by performing miracles when he judged the Egyptians and parted the Red Sea (see Exodus 14). God does not only act through direct interventions however but also on a larger scale. He chooses from the almost infinite collection of possible events the set that will bring about his purposes. Right from when Adam and Eve fell, God set a chain of events in motion that would culminate in the birth of Jesus Christ. From the call of Abraham to the exile of the nation of Israel and even the Roman domination of Palestine, everything was preparing the way for Christ. From this, we can also see the past has meaning because it is a record of how God works to accomplish his purposes. God reminded the Israelites never to forget what he had done for them so that they would never turn away. By remembering what God has done, we affirm what he has done and are filled with confidence about what He will do.

There is much more that can be said here, but this article should serve as a brief overview. By answering these questions according to the Christian worldview, I hope to have shown that Christian beliefs not only fit together as a logical and coherent system but also correspond with how the world actually is. If a belief system is internally consistent and empirically accurate, there are strong reasons to believe that it is actually true. 

In my next article, I will be taking a look at a Non-Christian worldview which I hope will give you a chance to gain a deeper understanding of these seven questions as well as practice at identifying worldviews that are not true.