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Christian Realism, Universals, and Natural Theology

Paul Tillich once said that “medieval realism is almost the exact opposite of what we call realism today.” To medieval realists, it is what you cannot physically see that is really real: i.e., God, and all the transcendent meanings and intrinsic qualities and purposes that God has gifted to creation. Superlatively real truths were called the transcendentalia by the medievals, which are the essential, timeless, and universal qualities of Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and Unity. Equally, spiritual realities – the soul, angels, prayer, demons – and more commonplace wonders – love, thought, peace – were the true and important realities of life. By the sharpest contrast, what we modern people now call ‘real’ is only what you can see. Reality is now thought of as the tangible and contingent world of sensory appearances and human logic, and of instrumental power.

By a long historical process, we have entirely flipped the old Christian realist understanding of reality on its head. We now even wonder if God ‘exists’ – i.e., we wonder (heretically) if God is an empirically detectable being in the space-time continuum, and we want to know if God’s existence can be decisively demonstrated in the categories of human science and rationality. Modern “realism” is now embedded in an entirely anthropocentric understanding of knowledge and power. A modern political “realist,” for example, believes that only physical things and natural forces are real, and that if a stronger party has superior means of applying force, it is only natural that they will always use their power to get what they want. To a “political realist” there are no real moral truths about how power should be used.

Realism and Natural Theology

Whether we are medieval or modern realists will make a decisive difference in what we think we are doing when it comes to natural theology. The natural theologian who is a modern realist will seek to move from tangible and value-neutral material “reality” – using empirical and logical demonstration alone – to the “reality” of a supernatural theological truth, or to at least show how the belief in supernatural truths are not incompatible with modern natural realism. Whether we are medieval or modern realists will make a decisive difference in what we think we are doing when it comes to natural theology. Click To Tweet

Modern natural theology cannot work. If you start from the premise that “reality” is merely physical and has no knowable intrinsic or transcendent meaning, your conclusions will also be without any intrinsic, transcendent, or theological meaning.

The British atheist and science fiction writer Douglas Adams humorously illustrated the problem with modern natural theology by imaginatively positing the existence of the Babel fish. Pop this fish in your ear and you can understand any language in the known universe. This unique creature so obviously defies evolution by random natural selection that it destroyed any need for faith, and hence, God vanished in a puff of humanly constructed logic (this is a modern natural theology argument for the non-existence of God). The basic problem with any natural theology argument is ‘garbage in, garbage out’; if you think you have succeeded in reducing divine reality to the modern naturalist categories of human empirical and rational demonstration, you have made a mistake in human logical and empirical knowledge processing, and you have a totally theologically impossible idea of who God is.

Medieval realists had their own distinctive natural philosophy problems, but they never tried to do modern natural theology. The medievals were, for example, wrong about geo-centrism and the Aristotelian theory of gravity, but medieval Christians were able to do genuinely viable natural theology because they reasoned from the starting place that material creation was entirely dependent upon the immaterial Creator. Starting from the revealed spiritual truth that creation declares the glory of God, you can look at nature and be drawn to the worship of God. Medieval realism’s ontological priority of the divine, the spiritual, the eternal, the qualitative, and the intellective over the human, the material, the temporal, the quantitative and the tangible, meant that nature could be read as a partial revelation of transcendent truths. But if we assume the modern phenomenological definition of reality as a function of reductively ‘natural’ human knowledge alone we will never get any natural theology insights from the world. This alone is the great sola of the Enlightenment ‘overcoming’ of religious superstition and metaphysical speculation, and it makes Christian natural theology impossible. Unsurprisingly, when medieval realist natural theologians moved from nature to God, they never presupposed that tangible things and logical demonstrations about the natural world were theologically self-standing realities.

I think it is clear that, theologically, medieval realism is a viable species of Christian realism, which made natural theology possible in the Middle Ages. Further, it seems clear that modern ‘realism’ is not compatible with Christian realism, and no viable natural theology can be done under the conditions of modern ‘realism’. How, then, did we move from Christian realism to its opposite? How then – if we want to do natural theology today – can we recover a viable Christian realism? Modern ‘realism’ is not compatible with Christian realism, and no viable natural theology can be done under the conditions of modern ‘realism’. Click To Tweet

Platonic Forms and Christian Realism

The medieval “problem of universals,” as tied up with questions around divine and natural illumination, is integral with how our view of reality itself became inverted in the West. We must go back in time in order to understand how we lost a Christian outlook on reality if we are to try doing viable natural theology again. We shall start with Plato and Augustine.

Plato noticed that we do not learn things unless we already in some sense know what it is that we are learning. Meaningful and true cognition is, in effect, a form of recognition. We re-cognize a truth that, in some way, we already know, when we see it. This is apparent when we think about mathematical truths (see Plato’s dialogue Meno). The astonishing leap of insight from a specific geometric illustration to a universal principle which is true for all classes of the same sort of geometric operation, is not contained in the specific illustration itself. The grasping of universal insights in the mind are not directly supplied to our knowledge by specific tangible illustrations. This mind insight that transcends the particularities of our experiences is not limited to mathematics. The recognition of the quality of beauty is not contained or exhaustively illustrated in our experience of any beautiful thing, but somehow the knowledge of beauty comes to us, or is already within us. And Beauty is expressed in so many ways, and yet there is something in common shared by all beautiful things. Plato sees this ‘something in common’ as the transcendent and essential quality of Beauty. Goodness, Truth, and Unity are of the same super-sensible, qualitative, and universal (more than particular) nature. At a more ordinary level, any recognition of a class of things moves from a particular instance (this cat) to an essential nature (what the universal idea of ‘Cat’ is) shared by different individuals of the same sort. Where does this universal, essential, and (regarding the high transcendentalia) qualitative knowledge come from if we only live in a particularized and quantitative world?

To Plato, the tangible world of particulars and quantities is not self-standing. Rather, the transitory visible world is ontologically dependent on invisible and eternal reality, which is the true home of universals, of reason, and of qualities. It is also obvious to Plato that true knowledge is of the universal and qualitative realities, whereas the particular and quantitative apprehension of our immediate and tangible context is less than true knowledge (though it is, of course, useful opinion). Plato thinks that Forms/Ideas – which are the immaterial source of essential meanings and transcendent qualities – alone really are, and that all becoming and unbecoming living creatures of the material world gain their partial intelligibility and qualitative significance by virtue of being derivatives of essential being. That is immaterial Ideas have real being and can be dependably known, but transitory material ‘becomings’ (such as any given person) are situated in the contingent and fluctuating process of birth-change-death, and hence fail to really and permanently be.

For as Saint John points out, Christ is the eternal Logos that creates the cosmos and gives meaning and significance to all creatures. Click To Tweet Our mind is in some sense a native of the intellective and transcendent domain of being, so Plato has confidence that the immaterial mind will survive the death of the body. Yet, philosophy is not simply a preparation for death (the return of the mind to the domain of intelligible reality). Plato is very interested in how the eternal, universal, and qualitative domain of true being relates to the temporal, particular and quantitative domain of material existence. But significantly, the notion that spiritual qualitative meanings are Real, and realer than simply earth-bound concerns about daily life, links the outlook of Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism with the high theology of Hebraic thinking, and with the New Testament. For as Saint John points out, Christ is the eternal Logos that creates the cosmos and gives meaning and significance to all creatures. And as Saint Paul points out, the Christian does not walk by sight, but the walk of faith as enabled by the Holy Spirit allows us to traverse the unseen spiritual domain of divine truth, however much mere flesh and blood may oppose us. Platonic realism and Christian realism – where divinely originating transcendent qualities and true meanings partially expressed in the spatiotemporal domain, are Real – thus have obvious points of contact from the beginning of the age of the Christian church.

As with all philosophical insights, Plato’s understanding of Form raised further and harder questions, and so a range of responses to Plato’s outlook – both pagan and Christian – animated the intellectual life of the Greco-Roman and Late Classical world. By the time we get to the late fourth century AD, the great African saint, Augustine of Hippo, has incorporated a range of key Platonist ideas with Christian theology that will deeply shape the next 1000 years of Western thinking.

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Paul Tyson

Dr. Paul Tyson is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland (Australia), and author of Returning to Reality: Christian Platonism for Our Times (Cascade, 2014), and A Christian Theology of Science (Baker, forthcoming 2022).

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