With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Of Pantheism and Pigs

Ross Douthat had an interesting piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago about the creeping pantheism and the cult of nature in American popular film. His critique is, I think, fundamentally right. The deification of mother nature is certainly one attempt to fill the void of transcendence following the downfall of traditional theism's cultural relevance, and its manifestations are legion. Even the radical shift in inquiry, in the kinds of questions asked about God, is evident. No one seems to ask the well-worn Scholastic question: what exactly does it mean for the being of God to claim that He (She, It) is the aggregate of all created things, or of the spiritual energies of trees, or the spirit of the earth, etc.? Except, of course, for the naturalists. And this is precisely why, as Douthat points out, this recurring pantheism "represents a form of religion that even atheists can support."

Here then the deifying-move reaches its fulfillment in the pit of immanence. Ultimately, we have the trans-(or de-)formation of religious language in its restriction to the contemplation of cosmic beauty; the autonomous "machinery of nature." In it there is mystery, there is ecstasy, there is sublimity. This dynamic bears witness in the end to a more honest realization: we have only retraced the intrinsic teleology of paganism, as a guise for the varieties of atheism. All we can get from this attempt to fill the void is immanence masquerading as transcendence; and the final acknowledgment by the naturalists like Dawkins that all we have ever had is this masquerading. If this is to be intelligibly referred to as "religion" in modern culture, then perhaps Christians and other theists should refuse the appellation.

This is why natural theology is so important. It seeks to demonstrate that the cosmos is a collection of beings constituted in a causal network from which they derive not only their existence but also their intrinsic value. Accordingly, the most interesting question that Douthat raises in his piece is: "whether Nature actually deserves a religious response." The natural theologian (and by this one presumably means anyone who analyzes things metaphysically and follows the bread crumbs) is compelled to ask: if Dakwins and company are correct in their rejection of transcendence, then is there any real ground for their religious sentiments toward nature? This is where my sympathies for Milbank come to the fore. In truth, if nature is not "suspended" in its causal, participatory relation to the First Cause, then its life-line of intrinsic value and relative autonomy is severed. Any claims to enduring value, beauty, and goodness are like ghosts hovering over the void.

For the natural theologian, the autonomy that naturalism posits is a sheer impossibility; a kind of prodigal son lashing out against its father and claiming what still belongs to his father to spend it as he sees fit. But eventually he will come to realize that he is wallowing with the pigs: he has nothing, and nothing has him. All of the good that creaturely autonomy can derive flows from its connection to its Father. Without Him, there is simply nothing.

It is only because there is a First Cause that atheism and naturalism are possible. It is only because there is a Being who imparts autonomy and value to the cosmos that that cosmos can be the object of even the most exclusive and idolatrous worship. It is only because there is a First Truth that people can claim there is no such truth. The natural theologian sees, as if with miraculous prescience, the ultimate logical outcome of a pantheistic-naturalism. And it is his very difficult and complex task to attempt to show the pantheistic-naturalist that he is wallowing with the pigs; that the outcome is nihil.

Pax Christi,


Post a Comment

<< Home