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Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who discovered the two laws of planetary motion named after him; Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who came into conflict with the Inquisition by advocating the Copernican heliocentric worldview; and René Descartes (1595-1650), who introduced radical doubt into philosophy, may serve as important representatives for the beginning of modernity. Though the beginning of modernity is often equated with the Copernican change from a geocentric to a heliocentric worldview, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), a canon of the cathedral chapter at Frauenburg, Poland, was more interested in developing a system which would reinstate the classical concept of harmony instead of breaking ground for a new view of the world. "He clearly had no intentions of abstracting his geometry from the actual motions of the heavens as such." Copernicus even sacrificed accuracy for the sake of desired elegance, and thus it was not at all unreasonable that Galilei was told to teach the heliocentric theory as a hypothesis only and not as fact. It was only Kepler, following his mathematics and revolutionist thoughts of astronomy, who allowed his sense of harmony to be reformed by observation.
According to the traditional notion of harmony which Copernicus still cherished, Kepler's planetary orbits with two foci were considered rather "monstrous." Eventually, however, the heavens that "declare the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1) were understood to declare it in terms of creation and not of divine perfection. This implied that creation was not of divine material but of earthly reality with a contingent, rational order of its own. With this change from Greek harmony to Judeo-Christian matter-of-factness the mood was set for regarding the material world simply as creation. Since there were no longer divine qualities discernible in nature, the suspicion could now be nourished by believers and unbelievers alike that this could lead to atheism.
The Reformation, with its preoccupation with God's Word addressed to the individual, was not an opportune time for the development of a theology of creation. While both Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64) emphasized the sovereignty of God, they did so to declare God not as creator but rather as the Lord of history. This meant that science could continue its course relatively unhampered by the salvational concerns of theology. Science did not seek out theology as a dialogue partner but pursued its task of describing nature's contingent, rational order, which it began to discover in ever greater detail. Once scientists discussed their findings in public, theology was taken by surprise and attempted to combat these "outrageous" theories. Galilei, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), and Kepler got in trouble with their respective churches when they, particularly Galilei and Kepler, asserted the supremacy of science in matters concerning nature, and also in Bruno's case when he hinted that God did not work alone. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex (Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies) by the cautious Copernicus included a preface by the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander (1498-1552) in which he stated the strictly mathematical intention of this treatise.
A bifurcation had already begun that conceived of God as no longer being situated within the natural realm but beyond and outside it. Kepler, for instance, was advised: "Do not trust too much in your reason and see to it that your faith is founded on the power of God and not on human wisdom." The Lutheran theologian Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was a refreshing exception. In his Vier Bücher vom wahren Christentum (Four Books on True Christianity) he showed in the fourth book, "The Book on Nature," that there is a correspondence between world and humanity, macrocosm and microcosm, since nature is pure spirit and a symbol of God's activity.
It was not until the late seventeenth century that an interest in nature was reawakened in theologians, this time in the trappings of physico-theology. By then, however, the mathematization of nature had made significant progress. Descartes, for instance, aimed for scientific explanations which would be entirely mechanical with final causation totally excluded so that mathematical physics would emerge as the fundamental science. Yet he still had problems with a total mechanization of nature. This became evident when he confessed: "To demand of me a geometrical proof in a matter which depends on physics is to want me to perform an impossible task."
In his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, begun in 1684 and published in 1687, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) used for the first time a single mathematical law to account for the phenomena of the heavens, the tides, and the motion of objects on earth. His mechanics guided astronomers and scientists in their search for natural knowledge. For Newton the mathematization of nature still revealed the glory of God. Thus he concluded his Principia with the assertion that "If the fixed stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being formed by the likewise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One.... This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all.... It is allowed by all that the Supreme God exists necessarily; and by the same necessity he exists always and everywhere."
Newton's conclusion, however, left many untouched: "To the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, Newton himself became idealized as the perfect scientist: cool, objective, and never going beyond what the facts warrant to speculative hypotheses. The Principia became the model of scientific knowledge, a synthesis expressing the Enlightenment conception of the universe as a rationally ordered machine governed by simple mathematical laws."
Even the fundamental principles from which the system of the world was deduced seemed to be for some, such as Kant, an a priori truth, attainable by reason alone. Initially, however, an optimism prevailed both in science and in relating scientific discoveries to the Christian faith. This mood seemed to be analogous to the optimistic reception of nineteenth-century Darwinian ideas in North America. One would have thought that the scientific penetration of nature would even more reveal the glory of God. For instance, the Dutch scholar, theologian, and administrator Bernhard Nieuwentyt (1654-1718) wrote in his monumental work Het regt gebruik der werelt beschouwingen (The Right Use of the Understanding of the World, 1715): "From all of this it follows that an accurate perception of that which we encounter in the physical world is a sure means of escaping the manifold causes of and opportunities for atheism and of perceiving the perfection of God in his works." Similarly, Charles Bonnet (1720-93) concluded in his voluminous Contemplations de la nature (Contemplations of Nature, 1764-65): "This creator worthy of adoration must be unceasingly sought in the unfathomable chain of the various works of nature in which his power and wisdom is reflected with so much truth and splendor. He does not reveal himself to us immediately, since his plan which he has conducted would not allow such. But he has commanded heaven and earth to proclaim to us who he is. He has arranged our insights according to this divine language and raised sublime souls who search out such beauties and explain them."
Yet all the different ichthyo- (fish), insecto-, litho- (stone), pyro(fire), and astro-theologies which were developed in the wake of scientific discoveries did not do away with the fact that gradually God became less and less necessary for a nature which largely was conceived as an arrangement of geometrical shapes and numbers. While Newton still needed God to keep the stars from collapsing into one mass under the influence of gravitation and to maintain the stability of the solar system in the face of planetary perturbations, the need for such a "God of the gaps" was ever more reduced.
When the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre Laplace (1749-1827) had finished his monumental five-volume work Mécanique céleste (Celestial Mechanics, 1799-1825), he summarized the issue in his famous reply to Napoleon's inquiry as to where the proper place for God was in his system: "Sir, I do not need this hypothesis." God was no longer necessary within a scientific worldview. The world made sense without any reference to God. Not even the hypothesis of the creator seemed necessary any longer. In 1842 the German physicist Julius Robert von Mayer (1814-78) formulated the first law of thermodynamics (or the law of conservation of energy), which states that within an energetically isolated system the amount of energy neither increases nor decreases. This law made it possible to endow the world with the attribute of eternity. Provided that the world is an energetically isolated system, it has no beginning and no end. It is eternal. Thus the starting point of a first creation and the God hypothesis of a first creator obviously become obsolete.
Once Charles Darwin (1809-82) had written his two epoch-making books On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), the origin of humanity could be explained as part of the continuous evolutionary process within our world. There was nothing peculiar to humanity or to its ideas; they were only products of the evolutionary process out of which they originated. Thus a completely homogeneous worldview in atheistic terms seemed unavoidable. The destiny of religion in general and of the Christian God in particular seemed to be decided. The German zoologist and enthusiastic follower of Darwin, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), summed up this sentiment in his book The Riddle of the Universe (1899; ET 1900). With an uncompromising monistic attitude he asserted the essential unity of organic and inorganic nature. Just as the highest animals have evolved from the simplest forms of life, so the highest human faculties have evolved from the "soul" of animals. Such cherished ideas as the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will, and the existence of a personal God were discarded. Haeckel suggested that those who still want to believe in God actually believe in a "gaseous vertebrate," gaseous because God is worshiped as a "pure spirit" but not without a body, and a vertebrate because of our anthropomorphic conception of God. In other words, Haeckel tells us that God is an impossibility, a contradiction in itself.
The Attack of Materialism
Approximately 150 years before Haeckel there emerged in France an atheism based on scientific and philosophical principles which soon had supporters in Germany and England and initially picked up on the atomism of antiquity. Some of the pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Democritus (ca. 460-ca. 370 B.C.), based their teaching regarding the world on the idea that there are atoms, meaning ultimate and indivisible building blocks of everything that is. According to Democritus, there is one uniform entity without any qualitative differences. It consists of smallest parts which are no longer divisible and therefore are called atoms. He explains the different qualities of things we feel as subjective impressions. They have no objective reality but only appear to us. Nature consists of atoms "which are thrown around in empty space." Even the soul consists of atoms, and our thinking is a movement of atoms. Epicurus of Samos (341-270 B.C.) and his school renewed the atomism of Democritus. They advanced the idea that there is an infinite number of ultimate elements, which were no longer divisible and solid, called atoms. They have no quality and are only distinguished quantitatively through form and weight. Moreover, there is an empty space in which these atoms move. With these two elements, bodies and space, Epicurus attempted to explain all being. Even soul and spirit are called bodies, but bodies which consisted of finest matter. While soul and spirit are divisible and therefore as mortal as the body, the atoms are from eternity and will remain in eternity.
This kind of materialism was further developed in modernity especially by the French physician and philosopher Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-51). In his book Man as Machine (L'Homme machine, 1748), he presented a naturalistic view of humanity and explained spiritual processes through physiological causes. The soul, for instance, originates from the organization of the body, and the higher development of the reasonable human soul is due to the larger and more intricate development of the brain. According to la Mettrie, this thoroughgoing naturalism necessarily leads to atheism. Already in 1745 in his History of the Soul (Histoire naturelle de l'âme), he rejected metaphysical dualism and explained the spiritual faculties through a motorlike power which resides in matter. The German baron Paul Heinrich Dietrich von Holbach (1723-89) offered similar explanations in his book System of Nature (Système de la nature, 1770). He described humanity as a product of nature which is subjected to the laws of the physical universe. Beyond that there are no further ultimate principles or powers. According to von Holbach, it is an illusion to consider the soul as a spiritual substance. The moral and intellectual attributes of humanity can best be explained in a mechanistic way through physical, biological, and social interactions. The empirical and rational exploration of matter provides for von Holbach the only possibility of understanding what a human being is all about. Nature is the sum of all matter and of its movement. Matter is actually—or at least potentially—in movement, since energy or power is a property innate in matter. The material universe is simply there. We need not pose the question concerning the creation of matter. There is neither accident nor disorder in nature since everything occurs out of necessity and in an order which is determined through the irreversible chain of cause and effect. The world in which we live is therefore not only interpreted in a mechanistic way, but von Holbach also believed it was subjected to a stringent causal determinism. This was the general mood at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Therefore it was no accident that in November 1793, in the wake of the French Revolution, God was officially abolished and in God's place the goddess of reason was enthroned.
Taking this brief summary into account, we are not surprised that the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) proceeded along the same lines in The Essence of Christianity (1841). He claimed to be "objective" and would use only "the method of analytic chemistry." For Feuerbach theology could no longer be understood ontologically or mythologically; he regarded it "as psychic pathology." Theology, religion, and God are the result of a sick psyche, because humanity creates an image of itself which it projects into another world and in which it believes and on which it reflects. God corresponds to wishful thinking by which humanity hypostatizes its own ideals and adores it. Feuerbach therefore concluded: "God was my first thought, reason my second, humanity my third and last. The subject of the Godhead is reason, but the subject of reason is humanity." Humanity produces reason and reason in turn produces God. Therefore everything begins and ends with humanity and that which can be analyzed and scientifically interpreted. Feuerbach did not want to understand religion and humanity in a vulgar and materialistic way, since he did not simply reject religion. But his idea of religion as "a human projection" decisively paved the way for Marx and Engels.
Friedrich Engels (1820-95) wrote: "All religion, however, is nothing but the fantastic reflection in men's minds of those external forces which control their daily life, a reflection in which the terrestrial forces assume the form of supernatural forces." Religion is for him a projection of the external world in which we live onto a believed-in super-world. Humanity is the originator of religion; it is religion that shapes humanity. Since humanity can project its wishful dreams onto a believed-in heaven or a hereafter, it is unable to change the conditions which make such projections necessary. Therefore both Karl Marx (1818-83) and Feuerbach and the later Marxists and communists who followed in their wake vehemently criticized every religion and all beliefs in God. Marx claimed:
The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. In other words, religion is the self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again.... Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress—and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe, the halo of which is religion.
Excerpted from Creation by Hans Schwarz Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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