Nature’s God

Of the American concept of God, Henry Steele Commager, in The American Mind, amusingly wrote:

Confident that God was vitally concerned with their affairs, they solicited His participation in their most trivial activities, inviting Him, as it were, to give a weekly editorial commentary on the vagaries of their society. In defiance of all history they explained away the Devil and ignored Sin.

The world minus the devil and minus sin is the world that did not fall. It might be thought an improvement of our lot, but it is not the lot we have been given. Modern political philosophy has, in fact, been a work of seeking to reproduce a world in which neither devil nor sin existed, however tenaciously these two unwelcome guests managed to stick around among us.

With few exceptions early American settlers from Europe were Christians. In the eighteenth century, when the descendants of the first settlers separated themselves from England, they explained their action in philosophic terms eloquently addressed to all nations. In the Declaration of Independence, they spoke of “nature and nature’s God.” Many who signed this Declaration and the Constitution were Protestant Christians, some of whom founded Bible societies in their spare time. Several of the most famous founders, including Jefferson, whose phrase it is, were mainly concerned with ethics. Jesus was a model of moral probity, not the Word made flesh. Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush on April 22, 1803:

[Jesus’] parentage was obscure; his condition poor, his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, & of the sublimest eloquence.

Jefferson does not seem to have been perplexed by the man of “null” education who possessed, somehow, “sublime” eloquence.

Jefferson rejected revelation; that is, he had problems with miracles. His view was rather dogmatic. His theory did not allow miracles on “scientific” grounds. He did not take the broader, equally scientific, view that would not a priori reject miracles but would wait to see the evidence in each case. But Jefferson did hold some argument from design for God’s existence. The complexity of the given world required an intelligent source, not unlike today’s “intelligent design” thinkers, who find significant order in the universe so that it difficult to say that it could have “happened” by chance, even given endless time.

Nature’s God, however conceived, was the cause or source of a natural order that included a human order, a law of nature. Many of the founders were learned men, good men. Reading them today, one is struck not by their lack of interest in God-questions, in moral questions, but rather by their deep concern with them. Most of these men had considerable sympathy for Christianity. But they were worried about political controversy.

The Founders wanted to “privatize” religion for political reasons. They knew Hobbes. They wanted folks to live together without worrying about their theological differences. But, paradoxically, they thought that this “living together” was possible only with an ethic that looked much like that in the New Testament. Whether we could live together without thinking together became a major issue. It is still with us.

Catholicism uses the expression “nature’s God” gingerly. God is not a topmost part of nature. Nor is God all of nature. The order of nature is not put there by nature itself as if nature were an intelligible principle of its own making. God would be God even without the world. But the world would not be the world without God. Yet God is not the world. God is complete without the world. He does not “need” it because He is missing something which the world supplies. His Trinitarian life is already complete in itself.

At the basis of much modern thinking about nature is the proposition: “Out of nothing, something comes.” If we say, “But there is something, therefore it must have come from nothing,” we are imposing a theory on our experience. We are not deriving a truth from experience and reflection, as Aquinas taught us to do. In other words, the world without a first intelligent cause that is not the world is incoherent. This same principle is likewise true of ourselves as rational beings finding ourselves in the world, but somehow not of it.

Man is not the “measure” of all things. His mind is “measured” by what is, the intelligibility of which indicates a measure not of his own making. This “having been measured” includes man himself. His being he derives from nothing in his own making powers. “Nature’s God” displays an order that transcends nature itself. Man’s existence as a rational being announces this truth to the one being in nature that is free to understand, the one being that is not himself the transcendent God.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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