Thursday, September 4, 2014

The scourge of classical theism: atheism and determinism

PTL pose the question: how could the philosophically reasoned conception of God particular to classical theism have excited much of modern atheism (An Introduction to Christian Theology, p. 100), ignoring for the moment the controversy of that claim? They suggest the following:

The recipe is quite simple, and the ingredients are as follows: if one conceives of God primarily in the category of causality (the world as an effect of the First Cause); and if one places that transcendent Cause of the world in eternal timelessness; and if one considers God's will and plan toward the world to be absolutely immutable (because everything in the divine being is unchanging, since there is no movement in God, given that God is one, simple, single thing); if one puts these ingredients together as the controlling features of the doctrine of God, what kind of relationship do we get between God and the world? The answer is: one characterized by determinism. So conceived, whatever God timelessly wills toward creation will, as an inexorable cause, work its way out in the world. . . . 

This classical theistic determinism was largely what provoked the most general protest of modern atheism, whose overarching complaint was that there was no room in Christian theology for the true freedom and dignity (i.e., relative autonomy) of the human person. With the rise of modernity and all the various, even religious, influences that contributed to secularization, there was a new emphasis on human responsibility in a less cosmologically and more historically conceived world. . . . 

Likewise with the protest atheist Camus, who objects to a God who appears existentially indifferent to (and therefore metaphysically aloof from) the absurdities, injustices, or suffering in the world, a conception of God reinforced by the classical attributes of immutability and impassibility. For Camus such indifference renders the notion of God unbelievable (pp. 100-1).

There are a number of ways a classical theist could respond to this; there are a number of problems with the supposed atheistic objection to classical theism that are worth noting.

In the first place, we might note that a significant number of modern atheist philosophers were determinists and denied human freedom, such as Baron d'Holbach. Obviously their rejection of the existence of God cannot have been motivated by classical theism's implied determinism, since they were themselves determinists.

On the other hand, there were classical theists who were determined defenders of human freedom of the will against determinism and predestinarianism. Origen is one example. Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis makes the repeated point that ancient Christian defenders of the doctrine of universal apokatastasis such as Origen, Bardaisan, Gregory Nyssen, and others were faithful defenders of human freedom. (In fact they often argued for universalism and freedom of the will within the same documents.) They were all undoubtedly classical theists who affirmed God's immutability, his impassibility, etc.

We might furthermore respond that, even if classical theism threatened human autonomy and freedom, this wouldn't suffice as a refutation of classical theism, and it wouldn't warrant rejecting it. It may just be that human persons are not autonomous in the ways desired. John Martin Fischer speaks in an article about "metaphysical megalomania," wanting more metaphysical power or ability than we could plausibly have. The answer to the problem of freedom, says Fischer, is not insisting on our metaphysical megalomania but adjusting our expectations to the reality we encounter. In order truly to refute classical theism, the atheist has to address the arguments proffered in its defense -- the exact thing that PTL never relate the modern atheists as doing.

Now I want to suggest an even stronger point. Modern protest atheism's concerns are best met by classical theism, and not by any other form, precisely because of the "determinism" that the former suggests. Classical theists insist again and again that God causes no evil and that his purpose and goal in everything is good. Plotinus and the Platonists use the language of the One's drawing all things to itself, and Aquinas ascribes the intrinsic teleology by which everything seeks its own good as being grounded in God himself. The classical theistic tradition insists that God always causes what is good, and never what is evil, and that his purpose is always good.

If this is so, and if God is impassible and immutable and the rest, then classical theism should prove very attractive to the protest atheist. The same omniscient and omnipotent God who is provident over the universe intends its good in everything that happen, and nothing could ever change that. Now that is optimistic! That is empowering! It was precisely this optimism of classical theism that inspired religious ecstasy in figures such as Isaac the Syrian.

Of course PTL cite Ivan Karamazov, who rejects providence on the basis of innocent suffering: And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price ... I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it ... Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much. And so I give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return the ticket to Him (quoted at p. 99). PTL summarize: Ivan's main point is that human freedom does not appear worth the price we pay for its misuse given the history of human suffering (p. 98).

But to Karamazov and PTL we may respond: We don't know why things happen as they do. It may be that we are not in a position to understand why things happen thus, and our proposed theodicies often do not satisfy. But the arguments for classical theism remain, their premises are true nonetheless, and in fact they give optimism that things do not happen senselessly or pointlessly in the world. To refuse to accept reality as it is makes no sense. My friend Derek Rishmawy has made a good point in this respectBack when I was an anti-Calvinist, and even now, when I shudder to live in an Open Theist’s world, I have this thought: “Well, either God is that way or he isn’t. If he is, then that’s God and God is the standard of goodness.  In which case, I’m wrong about the nature of reality, and for me to refuse to worship, love, and acknowledge his goodness, to call him a devil, and so forth, is frightfully close to explicit blasphemy light of my own fallibility and sin.”

On the other hand, compromising the providence of God does not help and even makes things worse. If God knew what would happen, if he knew the state into which the world would fall before he made it, then you must grant that he had sufficient reason for creating nonetheless. On the other hand, if God does not know, then you are confronted with a grave number of objections: why hasn't he taken control of things, seeing that everything is going haywire? why doesn't he stop the evil from misusing their freedom? why doesn't he intervene in more obvious and frequent ways? A non-provident God seems weak, impotent in the face of evil, and can offer the protest atheist no help. Such a God would likely protest alongside us, but seems hardly able to help us in anything; he might as well not be there.