Thinking Christian

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Earth, Air, Fire, Water—and God

Posted on Aug 27, 2011 by Tom Gilson

Several years ago my wife and I were hiking in the Anaheim Hills when we heard a drumbeat ahead of us. Our first thought was of a Boy Scout troop, but it turned out instead to be a pagan circle chanting their praises to earth, air, fire, and water. I can’t help thinking about that this week. We’re feeling the approach of Hurricane Irene this morning. It will be my second experience with a serious hurricane, but it’s the first one that has come the same week as a nearby earthquake and a swamp fire that’s been burning for weeks, smoking up the air as far as a hundred miles away. We’re got all four troubling us: earth, air, fire, and water. (Or Earth, Wind, and Fire, as some friends with musical tastes similar to mine have put it.)

We live in a natural world. It’s ironic that one effect of our studying nature has been to distance ourselves from it. I don’t mean separating ourselves from its charms and beauties. Our family paddled canoes nine miles down the Little Miami River a couple weeks ago, and it was as beautiful and refreshing as it could be, especially when I saw a bald eagle swooping down into the trees by the river. What I mean is that the more we’ve learned about the natural world, the more we’ve built an artificial and controlled one.”It’s terribly hot in here, honey, would you please turn down the AC a degree?”

Sometimes nature intrudes upon us anyway, though, and when it does, it’s very impressive. It’s more than a pun to say that the earthquake rattled people near here (not so bad at our house, but a friend of ours had a chimney fall over onto the roof). Our winds are only in the 20-35 mph range at the moment, but we’ve tied everything down, expecting gusts up to 65 mph tonight. (We’re praying that will turn out to be some breathless forecaster’s over-hyped scenario.) We’re outside the flood zone, but many of our friends’ homes will certainly be inundated tonight. We’re making quick-evacuation plans laid in the unlikely event a tree falls on our house. We have drinking water set aside and camping gear prepared to get us through several days without electricity. We expect we’ll be living in something a little more like nature for a while, because nature is forcing itself upon us.

It gives just hint of former days, when the summer temperature was whatever it was, when tomorrow’s weather was little more than a guess, when earthquakes were even more mysterious than they are now, when health or disease seemed just capricious—and when the stars were absolutely glorious every cloudless night, and cool breezes were a delight to savor, and we had a sense of place in the natural world. If I use my imagination this morning, with the wind whistling around the house, I can almost appreciate the human urge to deify earth, air, fire, and water.

I suspect this is one reason atheism seems more credible than it used to be. I don’t think for a moment that science supports atheism. Rather, technology has provided us more psychological room for atheism. The more we think the world is ours to manage, the less we’re going to turn to God or to gods. Science and technology have brought us into our wood, steel, brick and glass cocoons, and shut the deities outside.

I said I could almost appreciate the urge to deify nature. Skeptics will often tell you that monotheism evolved out of nature religion or other primitive forms of polytheism. I seriously doubt it. When it first sprang up in the Hebrew tradition, it sprang up whole, in remarkably advanced form. Plato and Aristotle reasoned from first principles to something vaguely resembling one God, but the Hebrews beat them to it by centuries. They ascribed personality to their God, including holiness and love. This is not what springs immediately to mind when I look out the window this morning.

There are philosophical arguments for a personal God—William Lane Craig draws that conclusion at the end of his Kalam argument—but there are few such arguments, if any, for a just and loving God. It’s really hard to imagine the ancients working out even the Kalam in their tents, in the constant forceful presence of nature. They saw what the world was like. They didn’t need anyone to tell them it wasn’t always good, and that it didn’t always make sense; yet some of them concluded anyway that it was the work of a good and rational God.

Is there something strange about Jews and Christians believing in miracles? Isn’t monotheism itself a miracle? The very belief in one God is evidence of one God.

Today God calls me to worship him, as the psalmist worshiped him in Psalm 46.

God, I don’t understand all that I know about you, but I give you praise. Thank you for your massive power, your deep justice, and your unconquerable love. Thank you for a day to experience you in a new way today. Please grant your protection and safety to all of us who are facing this wind and rain.

[Update August 28: How we fared]

25 Responses to “ Earth, Air, Fire, Water—and God ”

  1. Victoria says:

    Very profound thoughts, Tom.
    I experienced a full hurricane myself, in the Bahamas, so I can relate.

    Trusting you to God’s loving care…

  2. GMpilot says:

    Sorry, but atheism does not deify earth, air, fire, and water. in fact, atheism doesn’t deify anything at all. Science and technology have indeed brought us into our wood, steel, brick and glass cocoons, and shut the deities outside…because for most of human history, most of said deities have been either hostile or indifferent.

    The Hebrews ascribed personality to their God, including holiness and love. They ascribed jealousy and vengeance as well, turning their deity into a super-powered patriarch, as even a cursory reading of the Old Testament will show. A pat on the head here, a smiting with the fist there; just the sort of thing one might expect a tribal chieftain to do.

    “Is there something strange about Jews and Christians believing in miracles?”
    No. It’s irrational, but it’s not strange. Other people in other faiths believe in miracles too, but you don’t believe in them, do you?

    “Isn’t monotheism itself a miracle?”
    No. Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) of Egypt made worship of one god the state religion in the 14th century BCE, but the concept did not survive his reign, probably because he imposed it by decree. Obviously the Egyptians liked to subcontract the universe to a multitude of gods, as most nations have done. I’d always been told that a “miracle” was something that defied a known law of nature; snakes speaking in human language, stuff like that.

    “The very belief in one God is evidence of one God.”
    The very belief in Bigfoot is evidence of Bigfoot. It’s just that easy, is it?

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    GMpilot,

    There is much unfortunate ignorance and unthinking prejudice in your comment. It makes me sad.

    Did I say atheism deifies anything?

    Did I not offer some reason to think belief in one God is evidence for one God, unlike your silly Bigfoot caricature? Did I overstate the value of that evidence?

    Do you really believe the Egyptians were monotheists? No, but you tried to use something like that belief to rebut me anyway.

    Do you have any conception of what God’s jealousy was about in the OT? Or do you think jealousy is always and only a moral fault?

    Do you really see a close parallel between God and the everyday tribal chieftain? Don’t you think you could learn a bit more about God, and more accurately, if you would bother to give the OT more than a cursory reading?

    Do you have such a limited conception of “known laws of nature” that you can’t recognize a significant anomaly in human history? Do you have so little curiosity that you will regard such an anomaly as uninteresting, as long as it violates no physical laws?

    Is it possible that you have deified “known laws of nature”? I expect you’ll resist that suggestion even more than all the rest that I gave made here. Wooden literalism, and a lack of normal human imagination will do that to a person.

    Do you deny that technology has opened up psychological room for atheism, and do you deny that that has any relevance?

    Is there some reason you ignored what I said about the advanced form in which monotheism first sprang up?

    If this seems a harsh response, it is because your comment reflects atheist unthinking smothered in smugness, and that deserves no respect whatever. I grieve for your hubris.

  4. Victoria says:

    That’s the trouble with a cursory reading of the Bible – it leads to erroneous conclusions; if one wants to understand it the way it was meant to be understood, one has to be prepared to read it carefully, deeply, and most of all humbly.

  5. GMpilot says:

    There is much unfortunate ignorance and unthinking prejudice in your comment. It makes me sad.
    Ignorance is not a crime; it simply means that I don’t know. Enlighten me.
    As for prejudice, I have some experience with that—I have almost felt the frost that radiates from some people when they find out I do not believe as they do. Shall I, then, return hatred for hatred? That’s no good, especially since you claim to feel sadness, not hate. Cheer up.

    Did I say atheism deifies anything? No, but reading “…I can almost appreciate the human urge to deify earth, air, fire, and water. I suspect this is one reason atheism seems more credible than it used to be”, what conclusion would you reach?

    No, I don’t believe the Egyptians were monotheists. Not then, anyway. I mentioned Akhenaten to point out that the concept of monotheism was not unique to the Hebrews, nor that it had to wait for the Greeks to develop it.

    I don’t think jealousy is always a moral fault. Some find it flattering to have a loved one be so possessive. But when that jealousy leads to destroying the loved one, well…yes. One would expect an all-powerful God to be a better moral example to his followers. Love does not dominate, it cultivates.

    Did I not offer some reason to think belief in one God is evidence for one God, unlike your silly Bigfoot caricature?
    No, you did not offer some reason. You attribute its development to the Hebrews, but you did not say why, nor why they developed it. A single overseeing god is probably better than a committee of gods; I do not know. But I didn’t see any reasons listed. All you did was say so.
    Someone as learned as yourself must know that belief does not equal evidence.

    Do you deny that technology has opened up psychological room for atheism, and do you deny that that has any relevance?
    No, and no again. I happen to agree with that. But there was psychological room for atheism long before technology developed—the two are not inescapably linked.

    As for your expectation, I’d be willing to abandon my ‘deification’ of “known laws of nature” as soon as it can be shown that my knowledge of them is wrong. Possibly you are one of those who does not believe that everything in the Bible is literal, and that its message, not the stories that convey it, are what matters most. But a miracle has always been used in the Bible to describe events unknown to and unrepeatable by men; talking animals, dead men rising, water from a rock (well, maybe not that one), and others. Any of these would represent a ‘significant anomaly’. That’s how a miracle was always described to me. So…was it my bad interpretation, or was it badly presented to me?

    My comment represents no thinking except my own. If you regard that as hubris, I accept it, but I have heard harsher responses. I do not ask for your grief.

  6. Victoria says:

    Hi GM :)
    You said

    Did I not offer some reason to think belief in one God is evidence for one God, unlike your silly Bigfoot caricature?
    No, you did not offer some reason. You attribute its development to the Hebrews, but you did not say why, nor why they developed it. A single overseeing god is probably better than a committee of gods; I do not know. But I didn’t see any reasons listed. All you did was say so.
    Someone as learned as yourself must know that belief does not equal evidence

    Did you follow the link that Tom provided?
    (see here: http://www.thinkingchristian.net/2010/05/the-two-most-overlooked-apologetics-verses-in-the-bible/) That’s a start…

    If anything, the Bible suggests that monotheism was the original worldview of mankind ( read Genesis 1-11 ), and that polytheism was a later development. By the time of Abram (Abraham, the ancestor of the Hebrew people), God had to call him out of a polytheistic culture and call him back to a worship of Himself, as the true God, the Creator that Adam knew. In Romans 1:18-3:1, the apostle Paul explains the why of polytheism. Equally, this part of Paul’s letter explains what Tom meant by the ‘deification of the laws of nature’ – in Christian Theism, the laws of nature are understood to be created things themselves – they are not self-existent or self-sufficient explanations of the created order. Metaphysical naturalism, on the other hand, says that the laws of nature are both necessary and sufficient to explain everything. From the Christian point of view, this is exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping a created thing rather than its creator.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    GMPilot, you say,

    No, but reading “…I can almost appreciate the human urge to deify earth, air, fire, and water. I suspect this is one reason atheism seems more credible than it used to be”, what conclusion would you reach?

    What conclusion would I reach? None, from the way you pulled that out of context. I would read more carefully and comprehendingly than that. I would notice that the two sentences were in different paragraphs, not run together as you have quoted them here, and I would look for the antecedent of the pronoun “this.”

    No, I don’t believe the Egyptians were monotheists. Not then, anyway. I mentioned Akhenaten to point out that the concept of monotheism was not unique to the Hebrews, nor that it had to wait for the Greeks to develop it.

    That wasn’t monotheism, GMpilot.

    But when that jealousy leads to destroying the loved one, well…yes. One would expect an all-powerful God to be a better moral example to his followers. Love does not dominate, it cultivates.

    Cultivates what? That’s not a flippant question. It’s important.

    But there was psychological room for atheism long before technology developed—the two are not inescapably linked.

    You misunderstand if you think I said they were inescapably linked, or if you think my point required that they be.

    As for your expectation, I’d be willing to abandon my ‘deification’ of “known laws of nature” as soon as it can be shown that my knowledge of them is wrong.

    What do you know about them? What role do you think they play in reality? Another important question.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    By the way, I agree that ignorance is not a crime. Smugly feigning knowledge is not technically a crime either.

  9. GMpilot says:

    Good evening, Victoria.

    Yes, I did go back and read the link. I have a better understanding now.

    The laws of nature are understood to be created things themselves in Christian Theism. Obviously I do not subscribe to that. The ‘laws’ governing, say, the speed of a falling object were not established by a human committee or by divine fiat—and the laws don’t even apply strictly unless you add the words ‘on this planet’. Long before we got to the moon, we knew that things fall more slowly up there.
    The things we call laws of nature aren’t laws at all; they are things that we have discovered and observed, and found to be inherent to reality.

    Worshipping the creation or the creator is rather silly, IMO. One is quite indifferent to our feelings about it, and the other seems to madly obsess over it.

  10. Victoria says:

    @GM
    Hey, we are giving you the Christian, Biblical viewpoint here (something that you probably missed from a cursory, superficial reading :) ).

    What we are referring to as the laws of nature are actually God’s implementation of His general providence – the regularity of the way His creation works; and yes, this regularity was established by His wisdom and His word – they are inherent to reality by His command.

    and the laws don’t even apply strictly unless you add the words ‘on this planet’

    If you are referring to the specifics of motion near the earth’s surface – of course that is a special case of a general model…Newtonian dynamics with a Newtonian gravitational force law (which in turn is a first order approximation to General Relativity…); One of the amazing successes of astrophysics and cosmology is the assumption that the ‘laws of physics’ apply ‘out there’ in the same way that they apply here. This has been a very fruitful assumption in understanding astrophysical processes, for one thing.

    Perhaps, and quite very probably, our mathematical formulations of the properties and dynamics of a physical system are not the same as God’s formulations, but He and we would agree that there is an objective reality that can be so described.

  11. Holopupenko says:

    GMpilot says:

    The laws of nature are understood to be created things themselves in Christian Theism.

    Really? Smugly feigning understanding based on this kind of nonsense IS a “crime” against critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. Perhaps you can provide a verifiable reference for us that shows Christian Theism promoting a univocal scientific definition that the laws of nature are “created things” …

    And this:

    The… laws of nature… are things that we have discovered and observed, and found to be inherent to reality.

    More atheistic nonsense. Okay, let’s play their scientistic game: show us, GMpilot, the “things… discovered and observed” to which you refer. I, as physicist, have never seen one. Perhaps you can taste, smell, touch, hear, or see a “law of nature” which you assert is an “observable thing.” Surely, per your own words, you should be able to measure some property of these Platonic invisible friends you believe in and upon which you so emotionally depend (see @5 paragraph 7). Please, enlighten: show us a “law of nature” and do it NOW: put it in a test tube for us to fawn over and praise.

    What? You’re going to point to a falling rock and tell me “that’s the law of gravity”? Really? Where? That’s like pointing to printed notes on a page of music and asserting “THAT is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20!”

    Don’t worry, GMpilot. You’re in the company of a large group of non-thinking luminaries… like Steven Weinberg who: “described himself in an e-mail as ‘pretty [strongly] Platonist,’ saying he thinks the laws of nature are as real as ‘the rocks in the field.'” [NYT, 18 Dec 2007] Perhaps you can enlighten Weinberg as to how he may be able to stub his toe on such rocks?

    Maybe, just maybe, if you weren’t so smug in your ignorance, you could try explaining to yourself why the world is intelligible in the first place or why there is something rather than nothing at all or why contingent beings behave in regular, consistent, predictable ways (i.e., why science works). Predicting where a falling rock will be at a given time is very easy, and perhaps atheists are happy spinning their anti-God screeds at that level. But, explaining why there is regularity in Nature for all material objects and physical phenomena is for critical thinkers. It’s too bad one cannot easily think of atheists belonging to the latter group.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    I think what we’re dealing with here, Holopupenko, might be someone who has heard only one side of the story. And who still has a lot of learning to do, even about such things as whether the law of gravitation applies on the moon as on earth.

  13. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:

    Perhaps… and I’m more than willing to accept that. But trying to score points as animated by ignorance? Ignorance, as GMpilot correctly noted, is no crime… but acting upon that ignorance? And atheists are supposed to be, uh, “brights”? Puhleez…

  14. Victoria says:

    @Holo
    Actually, the quote of GM’s that you refer to is a snippet that he took from my post…unfortunately GM did not include the full context, which was
    In Romans 1:18-3:1, the apostle Paul explains the why of polytheism. Equally, this part of Paul’s letter explains what Tom meant by the ‘deification of the laws of nature’ – in Christian Theism, the laws of nature are understood to be created things themselves – they are not self-existent or self-sufficient explanations of the created order. Metaphysical naturalism, on the other hand, says that the laws of nature are both necessary and sufficient to explain everything. From the Christian point of view, this is exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and worshipping a created thing rather than its creator.

  15. GMpilot says:

    …in Christian Theism, the laws of nature are understood to be created things themselves – they are not self-existent or self-sufficient explanations of the created order.

    That is what Victoria said to me, Holopupenko (see post #6, paragraph 2). If you have an issue with that interpretation, perhaps you should take it up with her.

    What? You’re going to point to a falling rock and tell me “that’s the law of gravity”? Really? Where? That’s like pointing to printed notes on a page of music and asserting “THAT is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20!”

    Are you going to point to a gorgeous sunset and say “That’s God!” Believers tell me that their deity is everywhere, yet none of them seems willing to point to a butterfly, a snowstorm, or even a rock, and say “That’s God, right there.”

    …explaining why there is regularity in Nature for all material objects and physical phenomena is for critical thinkers.

    True; yet the very post that brought me here included the following quote:

    God, I don’t understand all that I know about you, but I give you praise. Thank you for your massive power, your deep justice, and your unconquerable love. Thank you for a day to experience you in a new way today. Please grant your protection and safety to all of us who are facing this wind and rain.

    If there is regularity in nature for all physical phenomena, is prayer to a deity regularly going to alter it? Perhaps I’m not the only smug one here.

  16. G. Rodrigues says:

    @Tom Gilson:

    Your Christian charity is highly commendable and I mean that, seriously. But do you remember the last time this blog saw an *informed* atheist critic? I have been commenting regularly here for only a few months, and leaving aside for the moment the regular commenters on the atheist camp, do you remember any recent atheist comment that is not largely based on smug ignorance? Just look at GMpilot precious opening comments:

    Sorry, but atheism does not deify earth, air, fire, and water. in fact, atheism doesn’t deify anything at all.

    Many atheists view themselves as the stalwart paladins of reason, staunch free thinkers that have broken the bonds of superstition and ignorance by sheer dint of their intellect, but are not many of them the most shameless of idolaters? You will surely understand what I mean by “idolater” here, but GMpilot will probably misunderstand and take the word literally, just like he took the word “miracle” literally when you referred to (Jewish) monotheism. And if he really believes that Christians are irrational because they believe in miracles why even engage in argument with them? It is not like one can convince an irrational men with rational arguments. And what about lumping together Jewish monotheism with Akhenaten’s religious ideas? What should we do, besides recommending him to go and read a decent book on the history of religion? And the consistent derogatory innuendos like the comparison of belief in God with belief in Bigfoot? And I bet that if he comments again we will hear more of the usual rot: the scientism, a complete blindness to his own philosophical prejudices, the one-size fits all polemics, etc.

    Note: while typing this post, GMpilot commented again. He *completely* misunderstood Holopupenko’s comments. His response is so wide off the mark, that one wonders if he can even read…

  17. Cathy Cooper says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I found this post so amusing, it inspired me to write one of my own..:)

    http://aisforatheist5760.blogspot.com/2011/08/of-hurricanes-and-god-and-power.html

  18. Victoria says:

    @GM
    You should look up Psalm 19 and reread that quote from Romans 1 that I referred you to; Biblical Christianity does not equate created entities with God Himself; we don’t look at a sunset or a rock or a butterfly and say ‘That is God’, rather, we say ‘That is God’s handiwork’.

    God is also sovereign over His creation, so He can alter the His general providence in either very subtle ways (Special Providence: introducing or altering the normal flow of cause and effect in ways that accomplish His purposes, like answering the prayers of His adopted children), or out-and-out Miracle – effects that are completely beyond the design of General Providence.
    You should take the time to read C.S. Lewis’ book on Miracles.

  19. GMpilot says:

    I shall withdraw.
    I agree with the points that I have done precisely what I dislike. I’ll try to correct that.

    “The very belief in one God is evidence of one God” sounds self-evident to me—namely, believing in something is evidence that it exists. Is that so hard to (mis)interpret? If you agree with that statement, Mr. Rodrigues, then I hope never to have you as a juror if I’m facing capital punishment.

    I also admire your forbearance, Mr. Gilson, but I’m not sure I have heard only one side of the story. I heard much of your side as a child, and didn’t know of alternatives until I was almost twenty.

    Victoria, thank you. I have read Lewis, but not that book. I will do so, and when I come back I will lurk and observe, as I should have done. I will also parse my words with great care.

  20. Victoria says:

    @GM
    Sounds good – I’ll look forward to hearing back from you and continuing the discussion :)

  21. G. Rodrigues says:

    @GMpilot:

    “The very belief in one God is evidence of one God” sounds self-evident to me—namely, believing in something is evidence that it exists. Is that so hard to (mis)interpret? If you agree with that statement, Mr. Rodrigues, then I hope never to have you as a juror if I’m facing capital punishment.

    Why you are addressing this to me, when I did not even mentioned the matter of evidence in my comment?

    No, I do not agree with that statement if you understand it literally, forgetting the context in which it was made. And yes, you are misinterpreting Tom Gilson. Put that sentence back into the surrounding context, read again the whole post carefully and you will understand what he is driving at. Nature forces itself upon us with such power and might that it is absolutely understandable to deify it (and no this has nothing to do with atheism as you implied in your first post). In that context, coupled with the very specific story of the Jewish people, Tom Gilson’s rethorical question was, is it not strange that instead of following the path of the neighboring peoples and deifying nature, they have come up with a unique God that, and this is absolutely crucial, is completely apart, over and above the natural world? It is in that sense that Jewish monotheism is a miracle and an evidence of a unique God — because either the Jewish people *did* receive a supernatural revelation or they had the most singular and original genius for coming up with such an extraordinary invention. Tom Gilson was not proposing this reflection as a knock-down evidence for God’s existence; it was just a reflexive impression, originating in his own personal experience, the current events and his memories.

    Do not take this as an insult, but you really should read things more carefully instead of jumping into facile conclusions.

    @Tom Gilson:

    If I have misread you in my explanation above, my apologies and feel free to correct me.

  22. Tom Gilson says:

    That’s an outstanding summary. Thanks!

  23. Tom Gilson says:

    Cathy Cooper,

    I assume you will let my answer appear on your blog, in its entirety. You complained there that your comment here was blocked, and yet your blog did the same to mine.

  24. Tom Gilson says:

    That answer, which she has not yet released from moderation, included a reference to Genesis 1:1 in answer to her claim that the early Hebrews made Yahweh the chief God from among all their tribal gods. I also wrote,

    “If you have any credentials at all as a professor of religion or philosophy, why don’t you make them public?” She has long made that claim, it has always been unbelievable on the basis of the quality of her writing, and she has never said where she was teaching.

    Further on the quality of her writing. The post she linked to above included,

    What made me laugh was the faux pas the author made when he said, “THEY (the Jews) ascribed personality to their god, including holiness and love.” Yes, folks, he admitted that the Jews gave their god certain attributes–god had nothing to do with it!! I’m still laughing…… This is no different than what other groups did with their gods. Zeus is a storm god, just like Yahweh, and he too was “ascribed his personality” by his followers. This can be said for any god or goddess, as people create them in their own minds. And some Christians it seems, can finally admit that.

    It seems she does not know the definition of “ascribe.”

  25. SteveK says:

    I wouldn’t be taking philosophy/religion classes from a college professor who writes nonsense like this.

    It (the Bible) advocates rape, incest, murder, war mongering, among others, and most Christians, especially in the Capitalist matrix where selfishness and greed prevail, are not concerned with the rights of anyone except their own.

    Take slavery for example. The bible advocates slavery, so Christians of course thought it was well and good to treat their fellow man as animals–all for the almighty dollar. Then they forced the religion that made Africans slaves–down their throats. Blacks in America remain enslaved by Christianity, while their African roots are a far and distant memory…

    It comes as no surprise to me that she wishes to remain anonymous. Embarrassing.

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