Is a flower primarily beautiful, and secondarily the scientific descriptions that model it? Or is it primarily those scientific descriptions, after which we assign the category of beauty to it? Mirroring this question is larger question: is this world the result of a telos which has an inherent claim on us or is it a blind system driven by mechanistic forces with no purpose, meaning, or any inherent claim on us, there being, for us, only desire and self-interest? This essay will examine these two positions, defending the Christian claim by appeal to the saturated phenomenon as a pointer to God; first in terms of the world, then in terms of ethics. It will then examine evil as a saturated phenomenon, claiming that it points to the reality of the demonic. I will then claim that the ideologies that deny the telos of creation are themselves, not only wrong, but evil.
In a 2004 article named “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists,’”1 Deborah Kelemen reviews cognitive development research, concluding that children tend to think of the world teleologically—in terms of function towards a presumed end—and tend to assume agency and mental states in nonhuman ‘agents;’ rather than thinking of the world as a collection of mechanically determined artifacts. This tendency to assign purpose to nature in relation to intentional nonhuman causation increases as the children develop from ages 6 to 10. Her conclusion is that children are “intuitive theists.” Over time this notion is repressed, not replaced, and only in the scientifically educated populations, and only partially so. What if the children, although scientifically uneducated, are—on a much deeper level—correct? This is largely a question of theism versus atheism, which is not a question of whether there is, in addition to this world, a God, but rather a question of the nature of this world. Either this world is the product of creation, caused by a will; or not. There is also a social level to the question: is there an inherent human telos which ought to order human relations and actions? Or not.
To address the issue of whether or not there is an inherent telos in the world, and whether or not the concept of the saturated phenomenon can help us in that regard, let us lay out two cosmological worldviews, one teleological (the Christian) and one non-theological (the Atheist). The Christian concept of creation is helpfully summarized by David Bentley Hart:
In truth, the motif of creation as a divine handiwork is not an analogy simply between a producer and a “product,” but between the creative delight and freedom of the artist and the expressive freedom of the shapes that are crafted by that delight, between the divine love that precedes each object of love and the Anwesen (so to speak) of these things that bear witness to that love by simply letting be that brings them forth in radiant and limpid form.2
The telos of creation, for the Christian, is love; the love of God out pouring in the beauty of his creation, and the sharing of that beauty with creatures. I will let physicist Sean Carroll represent the contrary view:
There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine; nor is there any cosmic teleology or transcendent purpose inherent in the nature of the universe or in human life.3
I will call the former worldview Christian and the latter mechanistic. The mechanistic worldview sees no ends in creation: all that exists are the mechanistic processes that blindly reproduce themselves; be they natural forces or self-reproducing genes. The Christian worldview includes the phenomena of natural forces, but insists that these forces are subsumed under God, who created out of and for love.
These two worldviews have their respective empirical supports. The mechanistic worldview has the fact that nature seems to follow—seemingly morally arbitrary and mechanistic—regularities, regularities that include suffering and death. These regularities are such that we can manipulate and control them to construct various technologies and systems that move to bring nature under our control. In a sense, a mechanistic adherent might say “just look around.”
The Christian might reply “yes but look closer.” Jean Luc Marion uses the term “the saturated phenomenon” to describe “an unconditioned and irreducible phenomenon,”4 one in which intuition gives immeasurably more than the observer intends, or even foresees;5 contradicting the Kantian notion that phenomenon only occur congruent within the observers a priori categories of knowledge, but perhaps similar to Kant’s notion of the sublime. Examples of this might be falling in love, experiencing overwhelming beauty in nature or artwork, moral judgements that impose themselves on you, religious experiences, or joyous ecstasy. In these moments, the world appears to us not as a set of mechanistically determined artifacts whose forces we are both subject to and can manipulate; but as something that presents itself to us. The relation is not that of an agent and artifact, but between giver and receiver. A gift is purposeful; it is personal. The saturated phenomenon overwhelms our intentions because it involves a larger intention, it is a gift from a giver.
One can account for a flower in terms of biological and chemical mechanisms, but, if a child says that the flower is there because it is pretty, and so that people can enjoy it; the child may be reaching for a deeper truth about the flower. If you could explain all the biological and chemical mechanisms of the flower, that would not exhaust its reality. Fundamentally, its beauty precedes its mechanisms. Even if you continue the mechanistic explanations, and explain the mechanisms that produce the brain states that correlate to the experience of beauty when seeing a flower, you still have not exhausted the beauty itself and the experience of that beauty. Any description is merely that: a description, but we do not experience descriptions, we experience phenomena. These phenomena can at times fit within descriptive categories; other times, they overwhelm them. This overwhelming is not a quantitative matter of lacking data for the models, it is qualitatively un-modellable and unquantifiable. Experiencing the flower as a saturated phenomenon teaches us that the beauty of this flower is a gift given to us: the scientific understanding of the flower would be only a limited description of that gift. So far this is only an assertion; but it is an assertion that can be verified by experience, if experience is taken seriously. The mechanistic worldview also depends on an assertion: that the only experience that is normative is experience that can be modelled mathematically and can thus be controlled, broken down, and manipulated. The explanatory ability of this assertion is often over-stated, as statistician George Box wrote:
All models are approximations. Assumptions, whether implied or clearly stated, are never exactly true. All models are wrong, but some models are useful. So, the question you need to ask is not “is the model true?” (it never is) but “Is the model good enough for this particular application.“6
A full evolutionary, neurological, chemical, and sociological, description of how two people fall in love will not exhaust, or even approach, the truth of that love, the truth of that love, is in the experience of love by the lovers, just as the truth of a flower is its beauty.
The Christian worldview has an ethic that suggests that what is “good” is that which agrees with love, the telos of creation. If love is the origin and end of creation, then we as creatures are either participating in that love, and sharing in the beauty of the world, or we are ordering ourselves against the telos of creation. In this view, what is “good” is so in reference to a purpose; just as using a hammer correctly is to use it to hit nails, living in the world correctly is to love and share in its beauty. Two ancient proponents of this ethic in the socioeconomic realm were John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea. John Chrysostom argued that property claims were vacuous in themselves, and that what one possessed is only possessed in so far as it is used properly, which—in the Christian context—means used for the dispensation of others and that when they are used for one’s own desires, they no longer are valid as property claims.7 Basil of Caesarea argued that either one is an atheist or one acknowledges the creator in what one possesses. Since God produced all creation and put mankind in it with everything being accessible to all to use in common, anything you have that someone else needs belongs to that someone else, and keeping it from them is wicked.8
Both thinkers grounded their concepts of socioeconomic justice on an understanding of the world as created. What it means for the world to be created is that its existence depends entirely on God’s will (Rev 4:11). This will—like any will—is ordered to an end, that end being love (1 John 4:8). Because love is the purpose of creation, the correct way to engage with it (and our fellow) is to be working towards love. John Ruskin sums up a Christian socioeconomic ethic thus:
There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.9
If wealth is the measure of value, and the truest value is love—the source and telos of creation—then the greatest wealth is the greatest love and the nourishment of life it entails. The moral impact here is not only socio-economic, but on all realms of life. Marriage in this model would not be merely a contract between two people, but an arrangement aiming at the telos of the world—love—having significance beyond the two people.
The mechanistic worldview also has the following ethic: there is no innate “good.” One finds oneself—in a world of mechanistic, blind forces—with desires, and other “selves” with competing desires, and one must orientate oneself to maximize one’s self-interest—ordered by these desires. This ethic is worked out in the socioeconomic realm by market theorists like Ludwig Von Mises. Mises claimed that the only telos for human action is satisfying desire determined only by one’s personal and subjective will and judgement.10 This desire has no independent standard and there are no higher ends or lower ends—the desire to live in affluence no different than the desire to not starve—all ends are the same.11 Social interaction and cooperation exist solely due to the individual’s self-interests to satisfy his own desires;12 therefore, the only appropriate means to mediate this interaction is the market: the ordering of competing self-interests through contractual arrangements.13 This requires property, in which the holder of property is absolutely entitled to all advantages and responsible for the disadvantages that come from it, through which he can maximize his self-interest by using his property to maximize profit through market mechanisms: the “rational” ordering of self-interests.14
On the ethical level—just as the cosmological level—the Christian view takes into account a deeper reality. Ruskin points out that what is called political-economy (such as the type Mises proposes) is akin to having a science of gymnastics with the assumption that people do not have bones, since political-economy does not take into account things like the human notion of justice, human affection and so on.15 These things, however, are a part of human experience; and they point to the fact that there is a higher telos than self-interest. Love and justice are experienced as saturated phenomena: they cannot be reduced to mechanically ordered self-interest, but instead impose themselves on us without our being able to subdue them; or more properly, God gives them to us unconditionally. Recognizing this, along with the fact that creation is created by God for the sake of love, imposes on us the kind of ethic formulated by John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea, and reflected throughout the scriptures, where all human desire is judged as good insofar as it is ordered towards a love that would lead one to put the flourishing of life above all else.16
A question that presents itself against the Christian teleological view of the world, is that of suffering and systemic evil. It may be true that beauty presents itself to us in an irreducible manner that points us to transcendent, but it is also true that children die of cancer, and in the end we all will suffer and die, presenting to us a horrific ugliness that challenges any beauty. We recognize that life and all that it entails contains such value, above and beyond personal accumulation or selfish gain, that it imposes on us an absolute moral obligation to that life; yet we are spend much of our lives serving avarice—endless accumulation, and profit—as a precondition to participate in society and access the means of life. Everything has been commodified and is held captive to the service of profits, whether we like it or not.
So how does one make sense of such a disjunction? Ephesians 2:1–2 says:
And, you being dead in your trespasses and sins, in which once you were walking according to this world’s system of things (αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου), according to the ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit now working in the sins of disobedience.17
Taken along with other verses in the Christian scriptures,18 we get the idea that this “age,” or this “world” is ruled by wicked forces, or a wicked force; sometimes named Satan, Devil, or Beelzebub. This is an idea found within earlier second-temple Jewish literature19 as well as in other early Christian literature.20 The general idea is that wicked spirit forces have gained control over creation and are intent on opposing God and undoing his creative work. These spirit forces are tied with the “rulers” or the “kingdoms of the earth” (Matt 4:8–10; Luke 4:5–6), and the “authority of the air:” all that we breath that surrounds us.
Outside of our contemporary secular/liberal/market culture, it is almost impossible to find a culture that did not assume malevolent invisible agencies at work, with many having mythologies involving an absolute spiritual power, along with inferior malevolent powers causing evil in the material world.21 Yet, it is now the default in western culture to believe in a disenchanted world (at least publicly). This is not the result of any demonstration that the world is bereft of spirit forces, but largely through cultural shifts in ideologies—largely within Christian theological thinking—leading to the development of mechanistic thinking.22 But would granting the possibility of such an apocalyptic worldview make sense of our world? If we live in a world where human beings can experience immeasurable beauty and love – yet this world is under the power of forces intent on negating that beauty and that love – what kind of a world would we expect?
On a social level, might we expect the dominance of an ideological framework insisting that human beings are inherently selfish? Would we expect that framework to demand that everything in the world become subject to, and ordered towards, avarice, to be bought and sold as a commodity, its value determined solely by a measure whose only telos is accumulation for accumulations sake: return on investment, rather than its value being inherent in its beauty? This ideology is enforced by a mechanism enticing those who go along with it—those who commodify all they can and who maximize accumulation over everything else—with massive amounts of wealth and power; and punishing those who do not or cannot with destitution and despair. This ideology pits man against man, not because man desires to be pitted against man; but because market competition, and investment for profit, demands man competes against man for market share and investment. This ideology takes the beauty of creation as creation and reduces it to artifacts to be valued only by what one can gain from them on the market. This includes both capitalism and materialist socialism, which largely accepts the axioms of capitalism: commodification, and the primacy of production.
When it comes to cosmological orientations, we would expect the primacy of a philosophy that reduces existence to mechanistic processes vacated of any higher telos, no room for intention, or sometimes even consciousness (some modern scientists and philosophers adhere to the mechanistic worldview to the point of denying free will and/or even consciousness), in which the truth of reality is thought to be held in mechanistic mathematical models; rather than the beauty and majesty of reality as it presents itself to us, and in which evils are “natural,” and therefore, not innately evils at all, but the necessary workings of a self-driving mechanistic system. We would expect t world where man longs for eternity (Ecc 3:11) but is beholden to decay and death (Rom 7:24),
Moral good and evil are both ultimately kinds of saturated phenomena. The absurdity, nihilism, and self-destruction of the ruling socio-economic systems, the horrors of what are called “natural” evils, all overwhelm our categories of comprehension. One cannot rationally explain why—although it is causing ecological disaster that threatens untold suffering and destruction, even of organized human life—the current socio-economic order cannot but accelerate its logic of endless commodification and accumulation. A child dying from cancer cannot be made sense of in any way that can be contained rationally or conceptually: the horror of such a thing overwhelms any category of understanding. One can describe the mechanisms of the illness but will still be left with “why?”. No amount of data will allow one to accept such an evil. Just as the mechanistic processes of the brain do not answer the “why” of human action, our drive to ask “why” to evil is a recognition that mechanistic process cannot fully account for evil. Yet, the reality of love, or the moral drive to justice, are likewise irreducible; unquantifiable, un-modelable. Their demands are absolute. Likewise, when being struck by beauty leaves us with a phenomenon no longer which we do not hold, but which holds us, captures us, making us more ourselves, more real, than we would otherwise be.
I posit that no evil is natural: every death is, in some sense, a murder in that it should not have happened. Death is a personal attack on God’s creative outpouring of love. That evil—the destruction of the fullness of life, of the environment, of beauty, of love—from human systems of enforced avarice and violence, and from decay, death in nature, do not merely result from measurable social dynamics of rational wills and mechanistic processes of causal necessity, but also from unhuman agencies undoing the creative outpouring of God’s love. If this is the case, and evil and suffering results from agencies opposing the created telos of the cosmos, then the inability we have to accept death, suffering, and injustice, is not only warranted, it is good.
To deny such a claim is to deny evil as evil, just as insisting that a flower can be fully explained mechanistically denies the beauty of the flower as beauty. Even if one takes the Augustinian position of evil as privation, this privation of goodness is a real privation: the difference between privation and goodness is objective. Evil is real. Systems and ideologies that oppose the fullness of life, are not natural, they are at their core demonic. Human decay and death are not natural, but are demonic. But every time we experience beauty in the world, every time we love, and every time we are driven to justice, we see the true telos of the world, and we participate in the divine.
- Kelemen, Deborah, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’: Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature,” (Psychological Science, 15.5:295 – 301).
- Hart, David Bentley, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 251.
- Carrol Sean, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe itself, (New York: Dutton, 2017), 11.
- Jean Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, 25.
- Jean Luc Marion, The Visible and the Revealed, 32.
- Box, G. E. P.; Luceño, A, Statistical Control: By Monitoring and Feedback Adjustment, (Hoboken: Wiley, 1997).
- John Chrysostom, quoted in Aquinas, Thomas, Catena Aurea, 3,1, 218.
- Basil of Caesarea, “I will pull down by barns and build bigger ones,” 7.
- John Ruskin, Unto this Last, “Ad Valorum.”
- Mises, Human Action, 14.
- Mises, Human Action, 19.
- Mises, Human Action, 243.
- Mises, Human Action, 280.
- Mises, Human Action, 650 – 651.
- John Ruskin, Unto this Last, “The Roots of Honour.”
- This Ethic is found all over the Bible, in the Sermon on the Mount and Plain (Matthew 5 – 7; Luke 6:20–49), the early Christian communism (Acts 2:42–47; 5:32–37); as well as biblical laws on lending, such as the Sabbatical year law (Deuteronomy 15:1–18); or the law banning the taking of usury or to make a profit on food (Leviticus 25:25–38; Deuteronomy 23:19), or the taking of collateral something which the debtor needs for living such as a garment (Exodus 22:25 – 27; Deuteronomy 24:6); or the gleaning laws (Leviticus 19:9–10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19–22), and many other places, from the prophets to the psalms to the New Testament: all of which function on the principle that human life, and its flourishing take priority over economic interests.
- My own translation.
- Matthew 4:8–10; Luke 4:5–6; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; 1 John 5:19.
- Testament of Solomon 16.3; Jubilees 10.7–8; 4Q491; 1QS I–II; Martyrdom of Isaiah 2:4; 1 Enoch 10:8;16:1.
- Ascension of Isaiah 10:29; Barnabas 18.2.
- Greg Boyd goes over examples of these mythologies in Boyd, Greg, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1997), 11 – 17.
- Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), chapter 9.