20 July 2011 , Articles

A Review of “The Measure of God”, by Larry Witham, 2005, Harper San Francisco

Nidhal Guessoum
American University of Sharjah, UAE


When the wealthy Scottish judge and thinker Adam Gifford decided in 1887 to establish an endowment for yearly lectures at Scotland’s four great universities (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews) to encourage a lively and on-going discussions on science and “all questions about man’s conception of God and the Infinite”, he did not imagine that those Lectures would come to constitute not just a mirror of the 20th century’s great debates but a source of important novel ideas as well. Gifford asked that “able reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth,” believers, agnostics, skeptics or “free thinkers” take up the God question “as a strictly natural science.” What resulted was legacy that represents, as Witham puts it, “a window on a century in which natural science encountered biblical religion with full force.” (Indeed, despite the contribution of a few Jewish and Muslim thinkers to the Lectures, the project and its debates have largely remained a Christian story, but oh what a story!) This book relates the development of ideas at the intersection of philosophy, science, and religion during this past century as reflected in the Gifford Lectures given in the precession of the greatest minds of the times through the Scottish universities.

The author of our book, Larry Witham is an award-winning journalist and writer who has specialized in religion and science topics. His previous books include “Where Darwin Meets the Bible” and “By Design: Science and the Search for God.” He has a knack for presenting complex ideas clearly for lay readers and for showing the connections between some thinkers/ideas and others. The sheer ambition of the book’s theme, combined with Witham’s writing and expository talents make this tome a valuable contribution to the literature of religion, science, and philosophy. Indeed, for readers who are highly interested in this field but may not have substantial knowledge in theology or philosophy, the book constitutes no less than an introductory course.

Witham divides the Gifford century of ideas and debates into four periods: 1) a time of clash between theistic philosophies and growing materialistic science; our author refers to this period as “the end of philosophy”; 2) the age of dominance and expansion of materialistic science and the reactions of religious thought to it; 3) the “subjectivist” epoch, that is when rebellion took place against science and reason, and outright rejection of “natural theology” was advanced; 4) the era of resurrection of natural theology, after World War II. Indeed, the book can also be regarded as a story of natural theology in modern times with the ebbs and flows and fine-tuning of its arguments, as well as cyclic rise and fall as a philosophical paradigm.

The first period is described by our author as the time when “the great philosophical systems that included God clashed with scientific materialism, and as materialism seemed to prevail, the religious side of the West experienced an ‘end to philosophy,’ at least for a time.” That era’s discourse was marked by the dialogues between such towering figures as Hume and Kant (whose lasting contributions were made a century before the Gifford Lectures started), Hegel (whose philosophy was seen as theistic but difficult to understand), and Darwin (who made his revolution and died just before the Giffords were about to start). Well before Darwin brought scientific arguments to bear, Hume had deconstructed – if not destroyed – natural theology arguments on pure philosophical grounds. After much thought, Kant reluctantly agreed that “pure reason” could not come to know (that is prove) God, and that certain realities must be considered true in themselves. In other words, he rejected natural theology and favored faith on the basis of the moral law within us. Hegel, whose “secret” was never quite uncovered, was thought to have reconciled Christianity to philosophy by proposing a personal God that is at the same time everything there is. As to Darwin’s contribution to the debate, it was not just the evidence and theory he produced that shook the world and pulled the rug from under natural theology’s feet, it was in particular the whole change in the terms of the debate that he generated (the whole evolution-creation debate that goes on till today).

The second era is the coming of age of five scientific disciplines (anthropology, psychology, physics, sociology, and history) and their impact on religious thought. Indeed, with the sharpening of their methods and the strengthening of their results, these fields produced not only new food for thought and challenges to conventional religion, philosophy, or science, but also seminal works from all directions.

For example, Anthropology tried to determined where belief and religion came from, and as Witham summarizes it, its paradigm shifted from the “animistic theory” (God is constructed from an awe of natural phenomena) to the “original monotheism” (the belief in the One God was found to be the starting point in several of the most primitive tribes and cultures) and finally “from magic to religion to science”, where magicians tried to claim ‘a power’ from the gods but were quickly exposed as frauds and replaced by priests and prophets who claimed ‘a knowledge’ and ‘communication/revelation’ from God, and finally to modern science which attempts to replace all such supernatural claims by natural explanations of the world.

Psychology tried to explain “religious experience”, as in the seminal and historic work of William James “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902). In particular, this saw the emergence of the ex consensus gentium argument, according to which the widespread belief and religious experience of people is a “proof” for God. In the debate on the nature of mind and belief, Witham recounts the appearance of the “emergent evolution” idea (Conwy Lloyd Morgan 1921) after James Ward had rebuked Herbert Spencer’s agnostic views, rejected Thomas H. Huxley’s naturalism (describing the mind as nothing more than “the whistle on the steam engine”), and brought back spiritualism into the province. In this field, Witham also includes the important contributions of Henri Bergson, credited with the “élan vital” concept, which was to develop into Alfred North Whitehead’s process theology, so influential later that our author refers to it as a “small revolution”, and was to give Theilard de Chardin a basis for his evolutionary theology.

The development of Physics in the first part of the twentieth century, as well as its philosophical implications and influence, is a well-covered subject, especially for someone with my background. And Witham does a very good job at covering the main ideas and the essential protagonists, particularly those with a philosophical or somewhat religious propensity. He starts with Eddington, who was perhaps the first to realize (very quickly) that the new theories (quantum mechanics, big bang, etc.) brought “the greatest philosophical significance” (his words). Indeed, his Gifford lectures were published as “The Nature of the Physical World”, which, Witham tells us, “was perhaps the most widely read science text of [that] decade.” Witham also recounts the whole “Does God play dice?” debate between Einstein and Bohr, with various great scientists (Heisenberg in particular) taking one side or another, as well as the concept of “complementarity” that Bohr elevated from a purely quantum-mechanical idea to a fully philosophical vision, linking it to oriental conceptions of the world. One is then not surprised to learn that after Eddington, both Bohr and Heisenberg were invited to give the Giffords (and other physicists much later, including Freeman Dyson, Carl Sagan, John Barrow, Ian Barbour, John Polkinghorne, although the last two more as philosophers than physicists).

As Sociology began to acquire more definite features and characteristics of a science, it addressed an issue highly relevant to the “God question”, namely: Is God known only in Scripture (and Christ) or can he be found elsewhere and in different ways? This issue strikes at the heart of “pluralism” and will in the last part of the century become the central question. In his Gifford lectures (1932-34), the Anglican bishop William Temple advanced a “dialectical realism” concept of revelation, one in which Christ (i.e. prophetic revelation) is only one side of the coin, the other being a natural revelation; he said: “Unless all existence is a medium of Revelation, no particular Revelation is possible. […] Only if God is revealed in the rising of the sun in the sky can He be revealed in the rising of the son of man from the dead.”

The last great discipline to raise issues of relevance to religion was History, where the role of God was an obvious question to be addressed. In the worlds of Herbert Butterfield, the Cambridge historian: “If God cannot play a part in life, that is to say, in history, then neither can human beings have very much concern about him.” One obvious thorny problem, which was to preoccupy minds of many different disciplines, was that of “miracles”: did any of them occur at all, which ones, how exactly, etc. Another critical and sensitive issue was the “quest for the historical Jesus” (Schweitzer). Finally, here again the concept of pluralism forced itself upon the historians: Are “essential truths” and “acceptable” religions found in different cultures through history? Have “higher” religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) evolved over time?

The third era in the Gifford century of ideas and debates was the revolt against “the idolatry” of reason and science, or at least scientism. The “captain of this movement,” as Witham puts it, “was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. He would declare himself an ‘avowed opponent of all natural theology’ but give the Gifford Lectures nevertheless.” Barth brought a “theology of the Word”, in which the Bible defines the encounter” between man and God. More forcefully, Barth places God so well above one’s ability to understand Him, an ocean that could only be crossed by “a leap of faith”, akin to Blaise Pascal’s “wager”; indeed Witham relates Barth back to Kierkegaard (and before that to Pascal and even to Saint Augustine), Kierkegaard having represented the classic reaction of faith to rationality. Our author recalls the English poet and artist William Blake who had “rebuked the Enlightenment and its deistic attempts to figure out God;” indeed, Witham cites part of a famous Blake poem where reason becomes a god (“I am God, O Sons of Men! I am your Rational Power!…”); furthermore a Blake painting sarcastically representing God measuring the world with a two-pronged compass is used for the cover of the book. The successor to Barth was the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas (declared by Time as “America’s best” theologian), who perhaps making some diplomatic gesture toward Adam Gifford declared during his lectures in 2001 that Barth had “rightly understood that natural theology is impossible abstracted from a full doctrine of God.” He added that “Barth, in contrast to [William] James and [Reinhold] Niebuhr [who had essentially taken away the supernatural dimension from Christianity], provides a robust theological description of existence.”

The fourth and most recent period in the Gifford Lectures series reflects a revival of natural theology. Indeed not only does one find novel and more potent critiques of scientism, but new bold claims of the natural theology kind (“design”, “guided evolution”, etc.) start to appear; for example the chapter that opens the last part of the book is titled “A Designer Universe.” As a starting point, scientism and reductionism are shown not to represent the way scientists work, for instance both preconceptions and metaphysical principles (for example the idea of “beauty” or “elegance”) often play an important role in leading scientists’ thinking and discovery process. Furthermore, new criticism of Darwinism surfaced, for example by asking: “how did altruism and sacrificial behavior arise in a Darwinian world of ruthless self-preservation?” Moreover, new discoveries, particularly chaos and fine-tuning in the new universe, were shown to be very fertile for philosophical considerations. Finally, the conversion in 2004 of Anthony Flew from “the most famous atheist philosopher” to a believer in God on account of recent scientific findings (most particularly “fine tuning” and “life’s origins”) seemed to signal the official return of natural theology if not as a respectable paradigm, at least as a viable one.

To sum up, the two major theses of the book are: 1) the return of natural theology toward the end of the 20th century after a long, winding, rich journey through various philosophical and scientific developments; 2) the emergence of pluralism as a necessary basis for consideration of all theological, philosophical, and cultural issues in today’s world.

Indeed, after Christian Century magazine in 1960 declared that Christians were “theologically unequipped for living in the twentieth century, with its pluralistic mankind”, major efforts by Christian thinkers were made to address the new state of affairs. Still, as Witham puts it, “the clash of Christianity with agnostic science would seem like ‘child’s play’ compared to the gathering storm of pluralism.” And so a whole chapter of the book is devoted to religious pluralism. To give one or two examples of the Christian theologians’ endeavors in this regard, one may cite John Hick the British philosopher and Presbyterian minister who presented a “full-blown pluralist hypothesis” in his Gifford Lectures in 1986-87, which were published as “An Interpretation of Religion” and which Witham describes as a seminal work of the century. To put his ideas succinctly, Hick believes in two core values: a) the universalism of salvation, irrespective of religious affiliation; b) a humanistic approach to interreligious affairs. Not shying away from obvious problems such as the doctrine of the incarnation, Hick edited a collective volume titled “The Myth of God Incarnate.” Unfortunately, I must note that such pluralistic recognition and efforts have yet to appear in the Muslim world…

As to the resurgence of natural theology, Witham first cites the huge number of papers that were submitted to the first-ever Gifford conference on natural theology organized by the University of Aberdeen in 2000; Witham goes on to describe the “new” natural theology as “realist in nature”, that the world “reliably reveals a cosmos created by God”; he also names the new leaders of the field: Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, in particular. New pages of natural theology are being written today… for a future book.

For me the book was an effective, valuable, and delightful course in contemporary philosophy and theology, clearly presented and smoothly written, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the science-religion-philosophy discourse. I have only one criticism to formulate: despite its final strong emphasis of the need for pluralism, it barely mentions any non-Christian thinkers and their contributions to the debates. The great Muslim medieval philosopher Averroes, who wrote a whole treatise on the “concordance of science/philosophy with theology” is mentioned once among a list of thinkers, and his name does not appear in the index. As to the two Muslim thinkers who have so far given the Gifford Lectures, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Mohamed Arkoun, they are mentioned once each, and given one and two lines, respectively; and needless to say, no mention of their theses is made at all…

To end on a constructive note, I must say that I took urgent notice of the issue of pluralism, which I thought was one of the prime highlights of this book. Unfortunately, serious pluralistic recognition and efforts have yet to appear in the Muslim world, and there is no question in my mind that Muslim thinkers must put it squarely at or near the top of their intellectual priorities.