The Nature of Man


Man is the Only Animal that Blushes.  Or needs to.

—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar [1]

Thus far in this series of posts, we have looked mostly at the ways that the things we learn from nature through Science can inform and reinforce the things we learn from the Bible. Our journey is on a two-way street. Let’s go back the other way for a bit.

Modern Science came into existence during the middle of the last millennium in Christian Europe. Why there? I would argue that it was because Jews and Christians believe in a rational God Who created a rational universe that can be studied and understood. Hindus, as a counterexample, believe that the world is an illusion. Animists believe that nature is in the hands of fickle gods who might change their minds about how thing work. As scientific knowledge progressed and it became possible to make good predictions of the operation of physical systems, some began to feel that we were living a universe that was like a great clockwork—one that God had wound up in the Beginning and we were now watching wind down.

By the time of the Enlightenment, Science had begun to be defined as a predictive tool. When the great French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace went to present a copy of a book on celestial mechanics to Napoleon, the following exchange is said to have occurred. Napoleon, who had heard that the book contained no mention of God and who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, commented, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, “I did not need to make such an assumption.” Napoleon, somewhat amused, passed the comment along to the mathematician Joseph Louis Lagrange, who exclaimed concerning the Creator, “Ah!  that is a beautiful assumption; it explains many things.” Laplace replied, “This hypothesis, Sire, does explain everything, but does not allow prediction of anything. As a scholar, I must provide you with works permitting predictions.” [2] Here we see the first skirmish lines between those who only believe in their own understanding of nature and those who only believe in their own understanding of the Bible.

In one sense Laplace was correct. We do not need to be aware of God to be aware of the universe around us. The laws that govern nature may be seen by all. He was right in a purely mechanistic sense.

But men are not simply machines.

Over the century following Laplace’s exchange with Napoleon, many thinkers, very few of them actually scientists, slid down the slippery slope greased by Laplace’s view. It is as dangerous to misapply what we think we know from Science as it is to misapply what we think we know from the Scriptures. By the start of the 20th century, the presupposition that God was the starting point of creation had effectively disappeared from educated European thought. The process took longer in America, but the New World caught up with the Europeans by the middle of the 20th century. Ignoring God as Creator allows one to ignore Him as source of all knowledge, as the source of truth, as the source of morals—as the source of absolutes.

The rejection of absolute truth came is stages. The first area to slip away was Philosophy. Art, Music, and the general culture followed along. One of Laplace’s contemporaries was the German philosopher Georg F. W. Hegel. Hegel’s contribution to philosophy was his “dialectic” form of reasoning which works like this. Suppose you have two propositions A and not-A. Hegel would call A a thesis and not-A an antithesis. From the two would come a third proposition called the synthesis. This synthesis somehow contains all the contradictory properties of A and not-A by lifting them up to a “higher unity.”  It was downhill from there.

Then a funny thing happened. If there are no absolutes, then the words true and false have no meaning. Truth (in the sense of antithesis, the opposite of false) is related to cause and effect. If effects become disconnected from their causes, then the world is no longer a rational place, and we can no longer do Science. Yet, in the real world cause and effect does work, and sane men must live as if this is so. Only a mad man puts his hand into the fire expecting not to be burned. So many men live in an unnatural state of tension. On the one hand, they say that they believe in one or another philosophy that excludes the need for God and absolute truth. On the other hand, they must live as if the universe has rules that they are required to obey. [3] This unnatural tension has led to a breakdown in many peoples’ understanding of God, the nature of Man, and Mankind’s proper relationships to God and each other.

We find a real despair in many modern men, men who are desperate to find meaning in their lives.

He’s a real nowhere Man,
Sitting in his Nowhere Land,
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

Doesn’t have a point of view,
Knows not where he’s going to,
Isn’t he a bit like you and me? [4]

From Hegel to the Beatles and beyond, we see the futility of man trying to deal with his fallen state.

The Bible tells us that a personal God created man in His own image. What does that mean? Are we physically like God? No, God is spirit; the Incarnation of Jesus was exceptional. Are we like Him in intellect? Not hardly. How are we similar?

One similarity is freewill. We aren’t machine running by rote. We can choose our actions. Yet, this doesn’t distinguish us from all other creatures. I used to have a dog named Cosmos. She could choose to come or not when I called her, so there must be something else that makes us special among the other created beings. [5] The Psalmist put the question this way:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
what is man, that thou art mindful of him?
and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
and hast crowned him with glory and honor.

—Psalm 8:3 … 5 (AV)

I suggest that the thing that makes us special is our ability to communicate with God, to have some adequate level of comprehension of Him. Incomplete, but adequate. We are finite, and God is infinite, but we can still truly understand things that He tells us.

One of the things He has told us is that He is a person, and that as beings made in His image we have personality as well. Since we are not just overly complex machines executing a program based on our chemistry (as the Marquis de Sade would have it) or psychological factors (per Freud), He gives us the opportunity to take the same freewill choice that He has made, the opportunity to choose to love.

Before the Beginning, the Trinity existed. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all loved one another “before the foundation of the world.” [6] Love is not something that evolved because it served a useful function. Love existed from before the Beginning. God loves me and wants me to love Him. He can’t force me to love Him because love require a choice made with freewill.

Furthermore, since God made me in His image, He wants me to love my fellow creatures. I am made to love my wife and my child. I am made to love my neighbors. Indeed, I am to love and care for all creation.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet:
all sheep and oxen,
yea, and the beasts of the field;
the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea,
and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

—Psalm 8:6 … 8 (AV)

Mankind has not always been the best steward of the Earth. Especially when men have been motivated by materialist philosophies, there has been a tendency to overexploit resources, to foul our own nest. Adam was put in the Garden to tend it. The love that we should have for one another and the love that we should have for all of our fellow creatures should lead us to exercise care as we exercise dominion.

Yes, the world is in a pretty sorry state since Adam chose sin over love, but God still loves us. Let us remember, though, that God has given us a robust environment, and He has plans to make it new again in the fullness of time. [7] While we can obviously ruin portions of it, we can’t quite break it. [8]

Still, there’s no need to make things worse than they have to be.

NOTES

[1] Twain, Mark, Following the Equator, epigraph to Chapter XXVII.

[2] Laplace: Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.
Lagrange: Ah! c’est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses.
Laplace: Cette hypothèse, Sire, explique en effet tout, mais ne permet de prédire rien. En tant que savant, je me dois de vous fournir des travaux permettant des prédictions.

[3] Homer Simpson: Lisa! Get in here. [Lisa walks in, chuckling nervously] In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!

[4] The Beatles, “Nowhere Man,” Rubber Soul, Capitol Records 5587, 1965.

[5] I have a cat named “Bob.” He rarely comes when called—unless he hears his bowl being filled.

[6] John 17:24.

[7] Revelation 21:5a (AV): And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.

[8] Genesis 8:21, 22 (AV): … and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth: neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.  While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

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