Throughout many centuries philosophers have tried to explain the nature of reality and the order that exists within the universe around us. The purpose of this paper is to first trace the developments that led up to modernity. Next I will react to the claim made by Fredrick Nietzsche that “God is dead” from a Biblical perspective. Philosophers have attempted to answer that question of what reality is and how to answer the questions that everyone faced. The first philosopher Thales held that water was the source of life and death. This is how the earliest philosophers explained the cycle of life and death that they saw happening all around them.
Heraclitus later thought that fire was the prime element, and Democritus believed it to be atoms. Pythagerous once said that, “reality isn’t captured in the physical world, it lies in the mind.” He thought that everything could be found in numbers. Pariminides simply explained that true reality was found in “the one.” Plato then added the spiritual realm to the equation of true reality. For Plato, true reality existed in the spiritual realm, and the reality that is empirically observed is only a shadow of the spiritual reality. Life’s goal was to escape the physical reality and enter into spiritual reality, although the spiritual realm could be known about through the use of reason. He added that life was bad because it prohibited the soul from reaching the spiritual level, and death was good because it allowed the soul to escape the body.
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Aristotle tried to fix the gaps left by Plato’s assessment of reality by saying that the dual nature of reality was to be explained by form and matter. Plato said that achieving form was the goal of matter. Matter was potential; form was fullness of being. Form and matter existed in pure form only in the ideal world; they could never be completely isolated. Everything existed in some sort of cycle that continually went on between form and matter. Life was good only because it was moving closer toward form.
Death was bad because it was moving toward matter and the end of the cycle. Augustine picked up where Plato left off and incorporated his ideas into Christianity. He claimed God was found in the spiritual world, and one could enter that realm by thinking God thoughts, which were reasonable, logical thoughts. Augustine’s philosophy was the dominant philosophy of the dark ages. Thomas Aquinas became the next great philosopher in Greek history, and he chose Aristotle’s philosophy as his model. Since reality functioned in the physical world, science was justified, unlike Plato and Augustine’s systems.
While Aquinas did not deny the spiritual realm, he did recognize that there was a genuine reality that operated in the physical world, therefore the physical sciences had some value. According to Aquinas, God revealed Himself in physical reality; the supernatural invaded the natural. Aquinas did not create a closed system, but rather a reality that operated on a physical level according to laws, but did not except supernatural intervention. Moving on we now reach the birth of modernity with the philosopher Francis Bacon. Bacon felt that he needed to totally disregard everything he had previously learned in order to arrive at the truth. He said that the only way to learn something was by experience.
He also made an important transition in the way he formed logic. Philosophers in ancient times used inductive logic, and Bacon used deductive logic. Bacon was followed by Descartes who once ventured into a cave to find what truth really was on his own. He once said, “I think therefore, I am.” This statement sums up the entire theme of modernity.
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He doubted everything but the self, even the existence of God. After “discovering” the self, he concluded that since he could think there must be a God who created him to think in the first place. Descartes’ whole philosophy revolved around knowledge. He felt that once you attained the knowledge you then had the power that would come with that knowledge. These two great philosophers caused a major trend that would impact the face of western culture beyond measure. Bacon relied heavily on observations to reveal truth about the external world, which was called Empiricism.
However, Descartes started the movement known as rationalism, which said that the mind revealed truth about the external world. The next great philosopher to follow Descartes was David Hume. Hume was best known for his skepticism. He felt that there was no way to prove correspondence between the idea in your mind and external reality. Kant soon followed Hume.
His main goal was to overcome Kant’s skepticism. He separated the external world into two parts: phenomenal and nominal. The phenomenal world had no order and was just an appearance. The nominal world was where reality really was and where god existed.
Kant’s version of god was that of an enforcer of morality. As humans we could not possibly know that because we don’t really know reality. Before we examine Nietzsche’s claim we must look at the framework that has already been laid. Let’s start by taking a closer look at what exactly has been done since empiricism and rationalism have been introduced. In modernity, empiricism and rationality functioned hand in hand as the order of the universe was explored and interpreted through the use of reason. Science became the dominant discipline, and theology was relegated to a personal, subjective discipline.
Traditions became irrelevant, and the autonomous self reigned. Science was the answer for all problems. Reality really existed in two levels, that of the scientific, rational, objective, and that of the personal, subjective world of the autonomous self. Before I examine Nietzsche’s claim about God I will examine the claims made from the books of Clouser and Berry.
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Berry’s book Life is a Miracle is in part a reaction against the willingness of modern science to accept the possibility of a miracle, or anything that cannot be explained through empirical, rational evidence. Life cannot be mechanistic, for people are not the predictable machines science views them as, neither is mankind totally autonomous: “No individual life is an end in itself. One can live fully only by participating fully in the succession of generations, in death as well as life.” (8) Berry seems like the pre-Socratic philosophers in his understanding of death: “An idea of health that does not generously and gracefully accommodate the fact of death is obviously incomplete.” (146) Death is not a part of health, unless you ” re referring to the dropping off of dead skin cells or such the like. Death is not a part of the original plan of the universe.
Modern science is not wrong to attempt to dissuade death. It will never succeed, but nonetheless, death should not be “gracefully accommodated” as the natural course of existence, because it was never meant to be a part of nature. He reacts against the modern notion that science can solve all problems, and argues that it has in fact created more problems than it has solved. It seems as though Berry feels that the “science-industry-and technology” as he calls it, is largely useless and unnecessary; being conducted merely for its own sake, not for the benefit of people.
He states, “It seems clear that humans cannot significantly reduce or mitigate the dangers inherent in their use of life by accumulating more information or better theories or by achieving greater predictability or more caution in their scientific and industrial work. To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it.” (10) He is extremely concerned that science and the resulting industry and technology has done irreparable damage to the environment, and that if any attempts are made by science to clean up its own mess, those attempts will merely create new problems. He writes, “Modern humans typically are using places whose nature they have never known and whose history they have forgotten; thus ignorant, they almost necessarily abuse what they use. If science has sponsored both an immensity of knowledge and an immensity of violence, what is the gain?” (91).
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He goes so far as to state that the Amish are to be commended for their adherence to the sanctity of the ecology by their avoidance of technology, which I believe is far from the reason the Amish avoid technology, and even a casual observation of the Amish will probably yield this conclusion.
Clouser in his book entitled Knowing with the Heart, Religious Experience & Belief in God tries to examine if we can truly know God is real. He is motivated by the responses of some of the early modern philosophers like Descartes and Bacon. Clouser first attempts to give a definition of what a religious experience is. Defining “religious experience” isn’t an easy task. “On the one hand, if it fails to cover certain beliefs that are obviously religious, then it is too narrow; on the other hand, if it covers all religious beliefs but also applies to clearly nonreligious ones, then it’s too broad. These difficulties can often baffle our best attempts.” (14) His final definition of a religious belief is .”..
(1) a belief in something as divine or (2) a belief about how to stand in proper relation to the divine, where (3) something is believed to be a divine provided it is held to be unconditionally non dependent.” (24) Clouser counters that there are many different faiths that could qualify being a “religious experience” from his definition, but many of the people associated with the different faiths don’t even know what they really believe or what their faith tells them to believe when asked. Another issue Clouser tries to address the issue of self-evidence. He rejects all three traditional theories about self-evidence. “It does not attach only to beliefs in math and logic, to beliefs agreed on by everyone and to beliefs that are necessary truths; it also attaches to contingent beliefs and memory beliefs.” He concludes that, .”.. the role of self-evidence is indispensable to knowledge and is experienced over the entire range of human experience.” Clouser reacts to Pascal’s statement that, “The heart has its reasons the mind will never know.” It leads to self-evident knowledge which can become compellingly certain without being inferred from any other knowledge. Clouser uses the traditional term “intuition” for such recognition of truth.
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(72) Clouser finds that God can be found but not through rational thinking. Nietzsche once said that, “God is dead.” Was his claim correct? Fredrick Nietzsche’s comment was in part a reaction to what philosophers like Bacon and Descartes had built in the years preceding. Bacon and Descartes had placed an emphasis on the self, and created two different realms in which we could discover truth about the external world. Nietzsche claimed that to know God you would need to find Him through logic. Since the only way to find God was through the modern world was through logic, there was no need for a god in our culture. The only thing we are left with from Nietzsche’s perspective is the will to power.
He even went as far as to say that Jews and Christians made up God just so they would feel better about themselves. I believe Nietzsche’s statement to be true. Our society today is based on the individual rather than the community. Now the culture we live in today is said to be “post-modern.” Post modernity is not just relativistic; it is simply a critical response to modernity. As Christians, we must attempt to answer the questions post-modern thinkers are asking from a Biblical response. The best option is not to become part of it, but to transform.
Isn’t that what Paul wrote about to the church at Rome? We shouldn’t just buy into the consumer mentality of the day; we must seek to be salt and light in an ever-changing culture.