Once upon a time it became fashionable to believe that humans evolved out of non-living materials and inch by painful inch they moved through protoplasm to organisms to sea creatures to amphibians to land mammals to full-blown humans. (It’s now becoming fashionable in surprising quarters.)
At first scientists rejected the idea but then (with a little help from insolent and ignorant religious leaders) the notion took off. The theory of evolution—the transmutation of species—prevailed; but there were those who thought that God somehow guided the process upward (de Chardin was big on that) but those in scientific quarters shook their heads and dismissed it because there was nothing of a scientific nature that could prove it. The non-theists insisted that as far as science was concerned there wasn’t a God in sight.
You understand, they weren’t saying there was no God, only that if there was, there was no scientific reason to believe he was acting in the evolutionary process. As far as they could tell it was happening on its own. Mystery was acknowledged, of course, but these scientists knew that by and by they would come up with the needed information and obliterate mystery. We’re still assured that an answer to everything is forthcoming. Scientists had begun to explain that the most amazing things were nothing more than “the way things worked”. They spoke of “natural laws” and they were able to explain about orbits and magnetic fields, geological formations and the paths of comets, what infection was and the astonishing nature of light. The explanatory power of their explanations increased when they were able to predict things (how did they know when Haley’s Comet would appear in the sky?) and they were able to demonstrate other things before our very eyes. They modestly insisted that they were only uncovering the truth about how things worked. They were demonstrating that about physical realities massive & miniscule and with it all they were demonstrating that you didn’t need God to sustain or guide the physical universe. The physical “laws” do quite well without his supernatural interference. Believers would say, flowers can’t make themselves and non-theist scientists would reply that that was the only thing they saw. Flowers kept making themselves.
Some very influential religious leaders took that seriously and then argued that it made perfectly good sense. The universe was like a giant clock and God was the clockmaker. A good clockmaker doesn’t have to keep messing with his clock to make it run right—he makes it, steps back and lets it tick away and it functions perfectly well without him.
This became the view of many leading thinkers and it had real advantages. For example, your religion and your belief that God exists never came under threat. No one that owned a splendid grandfather clock expected to wake in the night to find the clockmaker had sneaked into the house to adjust it. Just so, no one should expect God to sneak into his clock universe to tinker with it. No need to worry then that we couldn’t find proofs of his existence in the physical universe. It was all very simple and satisfying. Well…not quite! That view of God put a real strain on the notion of prayer. Exactly how would that work if God does absolutely nothing in the world? What’s the point of praying if the clockmaker never “interfered” or adjusted things or related to the praying one?
It certainly put a strain on the notion of “miracles”. If God created the raw material (including its “laws” which are part of raw material) and had nothing further to do with its operation, then he certainly didn’t come around tinkering with it, a miracle here, a supernatural nudge there, or a suspension or transcending of “natural law” elsewhere. He didn’t do that, so miracles had to go! Oh, but what of the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the resurrection, exaltation and coming again of the Christ? They all had to go!
And what of the Bible? Did God write that through humans? No, that idea had to go as well because that would be divine interference. And why not get rid of that notion, it was a troublesome matter anyway. More than that, given the clockmaker religion, it made good sense that the doctrine of divine inspiration should be dumped.
Look, if man evolved then his intellect, views, culture, religion and values all must have evolved with him. The Hebrew-Christian Bible is the product of evolving humans and we can hardly expect those ancients to speak with the knowledge of Enlightenment scientists and thinkers. The Bible is pre-scientific and its religious claims and proposals reflect man’s general ignorance as well as his growth. So we can’t depend on the Bible. When it tells us of a divinely guided history (say, from the election of Abraham through Israel’s election and on up to Jesus Christ) we have to recognize it for what it is—the beliefs of a pre-critical age that sometimes (not always!) talked nonsense. The cosmic clockmaker doesn’t do anything in the world so all talk about divinely guided history or divinely inspired Bibles or a divinely chosen People is generated by ignorance.
And the claims that God produced floods, earthquakes, destroying winds, droughts and famines are all nonsense. Everyone now knew that God in his sovereignty (whatever that meant exactly) didn’t do such things. These were random events, just mindless happenings, they simply happened; no one caused them—least of all God.
Besides, as if more proof were needed, take a look at some of the claims the Bible makes. God ordered the slaughter of innocent children and their grandmothers? Who can believe that? What kind of God would take away a child’s grandmother—its favorite babysitter and playmate? (Some years ago I listened to a preacher/professor make that very point in that very way.) Who would order the slaughter of witches and homosexuals and adulterers? What kind of God would claim he was raising up a fierce warrior nation to slaughter his (allegedly) elect people because they had grown tired of him and wanted to worship someone else? No, the Bible had to go and that was that.
For pity’s sake, we have to dump the Bible? Well…that was a hard pill for most people to swallow but what could they do? They wanted to hold on to Jesus Christ but there was nothing for it but to shape him in light of the established truth of religion and science. He became merely the finest man, a lovely human that cared for the oppressed and promoted gentleness and self-sacrifice even to the point of patiently enduring an unjust execution. And, of course, he’s still dead. But his teaching was fine though not extraordinary—he taught us all to be nicer to each other and he confirmed what every gentle-woman or man knew in his/her bones was right and good—and knew it without divine revelation. But as far as the dogmas about him went, well they had to go. His astonishing claims, his insistence that only through him could the world have life, that he would raise the dead & judge the world—all that sort of stuff—that’s what his ignorant disciples claimed. He probably didn’t make those claims; the disciples made them up.
So our clockwork religious leaders took from the Bible what they approved of and dumped the rest. The Bible wasn’t the judge of their views, they became the judges of the Bible. Of course they said the Bible was still the massive and throbbing center of everything—especially since it was there that they came across Jesus Christ.
But when you insist on taking only what you think is worthwhile, people soon recognize who you really think is the massive and throbbing center of everything.
So the man with the clockmaker religion shut God out. He had created it but he was now a prisoner outside the world with its “laws”; still, it protected the religion of the clockmaker religious man (or so he thought). It meant that he could still believe God existed and shrug at the scientists that said they couldn’t see God anywhere in this (alleged) “creation”. “Of course you can’t,” this kind of believer said. “That’s because he’s outside the world and doesn’t venture into it or interfere with it.” It had another tremendous advantage; it meant he didn’t have to explain the awful natural catastrophes that occurred in a world actively governed by the God that created the world. All he had to do was say, “You can’t blame God for these because he doesn’t govern the world—it runs all by itself. It’s simply ‘bad luck’ when these random events kill people. The awful Lisbon earthquake, for example, had nothing whatever to do with God.”
And so he shrugged and was pleased and then told people just to be brave and that while these catastrophes were “meaningless” it was up to people to “learn” from them. Learn to be brave, patient, sympathetic, grateful for current blessings and so invest them with “meaning”. Presumably he urged people to do this because if they didn’t do it the awful events would remain without meaning for God didn’t mean anything by them since he had absolutely nothing to do with them. They were as blind and mechanical and meaningless as the forces that mindlessly spewed them out. It’s all so simple! Shut God out of the world and he’s as innocent as a new-born babe in Job’s house.
But this religious outlook had its terrible price. If God is shut out then the Bible and all its major claims, leading up to and including its claims about Jesus Christ had to be jettisoned. Prayer was problematic in the extreme and certainly any divine activity in the world—a closed system, a world of unbroken cause and effect—was out of the question.
Some saw the cost as unbearable and wouldn’t pay it but they tried to sit on the fence. They shut God out and called catastrophes “random” (that is, mindless and purposeless chance happenings) but allowed him in to give blessings and bring good out of the catastrophes. They called tragedies and catastrophes random events because they produced pain and loss in the human family. They said, “See, these things can be explained altogether as the result of chance occurrences in wind and rain and other physical elements. God wouldn’t cause the deaths of little children and those they love?”
But non-believers saw through that immediately.
For the same people insisted that when “the righteous” prayed for rain for their dying crops that God very often answered their prayers and sent the needed rain. But how could they say God sent the rain? Rain comes by itself—even the semi-clockwork religious man insisted on that! (“Sunshine and rain—it’s all random,” he said.) “Check a rainfall out from its very inception to its end,” said the non-believer, “and you’ll find it’s a chain of unbroken physical causes and effects. A whole series of mindless and non-purposing forces come together to produce rain. This can be explained altogether as the result of chance occurrences and physical laws.” The non-believer reminded the fence-sitting religious man with a half-clockwork religion that the elements involved in alleged answers to prayers are as “random” as those in floods and storms. Shut God out from wind and rain and sun and elements and you not only cut him off from “cursing” you cut him off from “blessing”.
“But God is good,” said the ‘semi-deist’ and the blessings are from him and the pain and loss is not.”
“How do you know?” said the non-believer, “since one is as random as the other.”
“The Bible says God is good and blesses us.”
“The Bible also says God is good and sends calamities,” said the non-believer.”
“The Bible says God works to make the bad work out for good.”
“The Bible also says God is good and sends calamities,” the non-believer insisted.
“The Bible says God works good out of the bad calamities.”
“The Bible says God sends calamities—are you saying they are bad?” the non-believer asked.
“He used to send them but he doesn’t now.”
“Where does the Bible say that? the non-believer wanted to know.
“And if he sent then now would they be bad?” the non-believer asked.
“Yes, what kind of a God would cause the death of a child or take its Grandmother?”
“The Bible says God did kill children and grandmothers in the past. Was he bad back then?”