Foundationalism Natural Theology And Revelation

Descartes himself, although he uses proofs of God to cement the structure of his intellectual foundation of human knowledge, does not involve himself with any implications his epistemological programme might have for theology. His anxiety to remain a loyal son of the church while establishing the bases of science, precludes such an extension of his programme. It fell to those who followed him to discern these implications. They were radical. The first was the severance of the two key parts of the traditional philosophical supports of faith inherited from St Thomas Aquinas: instead of seeing natural theology as providing grounds for judging it rational for us to accept the claims of revelation, many thinkers who still practised it decided that it undermined those claims, and that revealed religion should yield to natural religion. The second was a progressive scepticism about the possibility of natural theology itself.

Proofs of God's existence abounded. Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz use the ontological proof; Descartes and Leibniz use the cosmological argument, which receives its best expression in the work of Samuel Clarke (1738). In an era when the establishment of the credentials of science was the core of philosophical systems, however, the popularity of the argument from design became greater and greater. It was inevitably changed from the teleological form it had taken in Aquinas' Fifth Way; while Kant could still call it the physico-teleological proof, it did not presuppose the Aristotelian natural philosophy, but came to represent a theistic inference from Newtonian physics. Its most famous version is that found in Paley's Natural Theology, where it is argued that it is as unlikely that the world's order, in particular the biological adaptation within it, is accidental as it is that the workings of a watch I find on the ground have come to be there without human contrivance (Paley 1838: vol. 1). The design argument only claims to establish intelligent design, not creation ex nihilo, but this limitation was commonly ignored. It is also merely probabilistic, but this was not seen as a limitation either, for two reasons: it is based on an inference that mimics the inductive procedure of natural science, and therefore attracts empiricist thinkers who question the a priori demonstrations; and the probability it established was considered to be overwhelmingly great. Indeed, it was the supposed power of the design argument that most of all fed the widespread consensus that atheism was intellectually unthinkable.

But it was natural religion, so-called, not revealed religion, that was the major beneficiary of this consensus (Byrne 1989). For the inherited supports for the rationality of revealed religion were the fulfilment of prophecies and the occurrence of miracles, and both these manifestations of the presence of an interventionist deity seem to contradict the mechanical uniformity on which the most popular case for God's reality now depended. As Pascal had foreseen in Descartes' own day, it was deism, not Christianity, that was the likely product of natural theology in the age of science (Pascal 1966: fragment 449).

We can see the shift to deism in the progress from Locke to his successors. In the concluding chapters of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke seeks to show that faith can be saved from 'enthusiasm' by being shown to be conformable to reason: a thesis which he argues at length in his last work, The Reasonableness of Christianity. He distinguishes in the Essay between propositions that are according to reason, which are those that can be inferred from the ideas of sensation and reflection or through 'natural deduction'; propositions that are above reason, because they cannot be derived in these ways yet are nevertheless fit to be accepted; and propositions that are contrary to reason, which are 'inconsistent with or irreconcilable to our clear and distinct ideas'. 'Thus the existence of one God is according to reason; the existence of more than one God, contrary to reason; the resurrection of the dead, above reason' (Locke 1894: vol. 2, 412-13). He specifically adds that the latter two categories contrast not only with rational certainty, but with probability. The implication here is that it may be rational to accept the improbable as a part of one's faith, without falling into enthusiasm:

But since God, in giving us the light of reason, has not thereby tied up his own hands from affording us, when he thinks fit, the light of revelation in any of those matters wherein our natural faculties are able to give a probable determination; revelation, where God has been pleased to give it, must carry it against the probable conjectures of reason.

But if we ask how this can be, we find Locke presenting us with his version of the traditional apologetic of prophecies and miracles. He insists that 'it still belongs to reason to judge of the truth of its being a revelation' (ibid.: 424); this means that revelation cannot contain what is contrary to reason, and that if it contains what is above reason, this must be discernible through more than the inner light of the enthusiast:

Thus we see the holy men of old, who had revelations from God, had something else besides that internal light of assurance...They were not left to their own persuasions alone, that those persuasions were from God, but had outward signs to convince them of the Author of those revelations.

The assent of faith, then, is rational for Locke, if we are able to supply it with what he refers to in picturesquely foundationalist language, in The Conduct of the Understanding, as 'bottoming' (Locke 1823: vol. III, 283). Faith, he tells us in chapter XVIII of the Essay, is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God, in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men, we call revelation.

This credit is something that can be vouched for by the fulfilment of prophecies and by miracles. Both are treated in The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Discourse of Miracles (Locke 1958). The authority of Jesus' preaching is attested by the fulfilment of prophecies that show him to have been the Messiah; and his authority is shown by the miracles he wrought (ibid: 83).

Locke was notoriously conservative in the number of Christian doctrines he thought to be authenticated in this way; but he does not depart from his position in the Essay that some of these are above reason, since this is what makes it needful to authenticate their acceptance by rational hearers. But Locke still insists that it is reason itself that determines what is above it, since 'reason must be our last judge and guide in everything' (Locke 1894: vol 2, 438). It is a small step from this to the view of his deistic successors that there is no place for mysteries above reason at all. The most famous treatises arguing this view were John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696), and Matthew Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730). Toland's work had as its subtitle: 'a Treatise Shewing that there is nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, nor above it: and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call'd a Mystery' (see Toland 1964; Daniel 1984). Tindal tells us that 'whatever is confused and perplexed, can never come from the clear fountain of all knowledge; nor that which is obscure from the father of inexhaustible light' (Tindal 1978:105). In the deists we find the view that the rational order that is the most striking evidence of the reality of God is an order that is inconsistent with the disruptive interventions that Aquinas and Locke had appealed to as grounds for the acceptance of mysteries. Mystery, therefore, becomes the obfuscatory product of 'priestcraft'; and if revelation retains a place at all, it is as a folkloric representation of moral lessons that the educated reason can discern in nature without it. Something similar had been maintained earlier by Spinoza, in his attack on Jewish orthodoxy in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, published in 1670 (Spinoza 1883). But the deists said these things in a nominally Christian context, and based them on an understanding of the nature of God that they claimed to support by the post-Newtonian version of the design argument.

The deists met their match in Joseph Butler, who argued in The Analogy of Religion (1736) that just as there are obscurities in nature that the design argument shows us must have a place in God's plan, so there may be a place in that plan for miracle and revelation: that the deist has no warrant for confidence when he tells us what God would not include in his governance (Butler 1900). This was an effective reply to the deists, but of course shared their premise that the design argument places God's governance beyond reasonable doubt. The second stage of disintegration of the post-Cartesian consensus on the rationality of faith was the rejection of that premise.

The main agent of this disintegration was Hume. While he is still more immediately recognized as the last of the great critics of belief in miracles, there can be no reasonable question that his greatest contributions to philosophical reflection on religion come in his destructive criticisms of the design argument and his introduction of the study of comparative religion. The design argument is shown wanting in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the main burden of which is the weakness of the popular inference from natural order to designing intelligence: the existence of God cannot be represented as a hypothesis confirmed by evidence (Hume 1947). In The Natural History of Religion, Hume offers a pioneering study in religious anthropology, in which he represents belief in God as a development from primitive religious forms that originate in humanity's fearful encounter with unpredictable natural forces. Actual religion, therefore, is the psychological product of a way of perceiving the natural world that is quite opposite to the supposed orderliness on which the design argument depends (Hume 1957). While acknowledging Hume's destructive criticisms of the design argument, Kant produces the classic refutations (or supposed refutations) of the ontological and cosmological proofs in the Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason, in which he represents natural theology as an illegitimate extension of intellectual activity beyond the realm of possible experience (Kant 1929).

The Humean and Kantian criticisms of natural theology, especially when combined with the development of biblical criticism that had been stimulated by the work of Spinoza and the deists, left the claims of revelation without the 'bottoming' that Locke had claimed to offer. Although the import of their criticisms was not fully recognized by apologists (Paley, for example, being satisfied to elaborate the design argument in detail without acknowledging the Humean criticisms of it—see Paley 1838: vol. 1), the progressive secularization of our culture, and the impact of Darwinism in particular, served to entrench a widespread perception that faith has no rational basis. This, indeed, had been asserted all along by some apologists.

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