The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism

by Phillip E. Johnson

Science is the supreme authority in our culture.

If there is a dispute, science arbitrates it. If a law is to be passed, science must ratify it. If truth is to be taught, science must approve it. And when science is ignored, storms of protest are heard in the media, in the university—even in local coffee shops.

While we may learn a great deal from


Science is the supreme authority in our culture.

If there is a dispute, science arbitrates it. If a law is to be passed, science must ratify it. If truth is to be taught, science must approve it. And when science is ignored, storms of protest are heard in the media, in the university—even in local coffee shops.

While we may learn a great deal from science, it does not offer us unlimited knowledge. In fact, most scientists readily acknowledge that science cannot provide answers to questions of ultimate purpose or meaning. So to what authority will we turn for these?

The deficiencies in science and the philosophy (naturalism) that undergirds it call for a cognitive revolution—a fundamental change in our thinking habits. And it all begins with a wedge of truth.

This wedge of truth does not "wedge out" a necessary foundation of rational thought. But it does "wedge in" the much-needed acknowledgment that reason encompasses more than mere scientific investigation. Johnson argues compellingly for an understanding of reason that brings scientific certainty back into relational balance with philosophical inquiry and religious faith.

Applying his wedge of truth, Johnson analyzes the latest debates between science and religion played out in our media, our universities and society-at-large. He looks to thinkers such as Newbigin, Polanyi and Pascal to lay a foundation for our seeing the universe in a totally different way. And from that base he then considers the educational programs and research agendas that should be undertaken&$151;and have already begun in some earnest—during this new century.


  • points out the limits of science in answering questions of ultimate purpose or meaning
  • shows why "reason" is not synonymous with science but encompasses far more, including philosophical inquiry and religious faith
  • bold
  • revolutionary
  • provocative, well-documented and well-argued
  • offers analysis of the latest debates between science and religion, including Intelligent Design theory
  • looks to thinkers such as Newbigin, Polanyi and Pascal
  • considers educational programs and research agendas that might follow from a "revolution of reason"

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Johnson (UC-Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial) has a reputation as a relentless critic of Darwinism, armed with a shrewd and engaging rhetoric comparable to that of evolution defenders Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Here, he addresses evolution-creation questions but also has a broader focus, looking at the often confused and confusing relationship between science itself and the naturalistic worldview prevalent among individual scientists and scientific organizations. Johnson takes issue with the way naturalistic allegiances come into play when Darwinian interpretations of evolution are defended with orthodox zeal in the name of science. A case in point, in Johnson's view, is the 1999 controversy surrounding Kansas state edu-cation standards for teaching evolution. Johnson argues that despite the high profile given to the dispute, the media generally missed the real story by indulging in "Inherit the Wind" stereotypes of heartland funda-mentalists, rather than dealing with the considerably more nuanced facts of the debate. Readers who are interested in the nuances, especially touching on the social, political and theological implications of evolution debates, should find this to be a helpful, or challenging, resource--depending on their own persuasion. Johnson makes no claims to be unbiased, and does not conceal his Christian agenda. But his appeal for both sides to see the "religious" commitments involved in the debate should have credibility even for readers outside his primarily Christian audience. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


How Can We Tell Reason
from Rationalization?

A Christian Goes to Harvard

In 1932 the Atlantic Monthly published Philip Wentworth's essay"What College Did to My Religion." Wentworth had entered HarvardCollege in 1924, where I became a freshman over thirty yearslater, in 1957. We both encountered an institution that had long agoabandoned its origins as a seminary for Christian ministers and waspursuing its current naturalistic faith with at least as much confidenceas the seventeenth-century Puritans had once had in the providenceof God. Wentworth says he came to Harvard with a strongChristian faith, which was then (to his surprise) undermined by theeducation he received there. We shall see whether that is the wholetruth, or whether there is reason to believe that Wentworth waseffectively converted to the Harvard faith before he ever left home.As for me, I had turned to modernist thinking in junior high school,just about the time I finished the confirmation class at my localchurch. I chose to go to Harvard for much the same reasons that anambitious Roman Catholic seminarian might choose to study inRome. It was the very fountainhead of the faith I meant to practice.

    Whatever differences there may have been between Philip Wentworthand myself, they are small in comparison to the qualities andexperiences we shared. While at Harvard we both encountered whatWentworth calls "the intellectual chemistry whichhas produced thiswholesale apostasy of the younger generation." Of course thatchemistry had produced the same apostasy for many generationsbefore Wentworth's time and for many thereafter. So when I tellWentworth's story (which you can read in its entirety at the AtlanticMonthly Web site), I am telling you a story that is representative ofthe experience of an entire culture of educated people over morethan a century.

God the Father

Wentworth grew up in a small city in the Midwest of the UnitedStates (as I also did) in a community where his father was a rulingelder in the local Presbyterian church, and the senior Presbyterianminister was the acknowledged moral leader of the community. Hisearliest memory is of his father leading family prayers after dinner,"giving thanks to God for all the good things we had enjoyed."Indeed, young Wentworth hardly seems to have distinguishedbetween his father and God, who was "merely the head of the worldas my father was head of the household." There was no room in thisbenevolent picture for the cross of Jesus, and accordingly Wentworthnever mentions even the name of Jesus, much less the radicalteaching in, say, the Sermon on the Mount, still less the agony atGethsemane and on the cross. This is no accidental omission,because the theology of the Wentworth family taught that salvationis earned by following prescribed rules, with no mention of any needfor atoning grace. Wentworth describes God as a sort of laboratoryscientist in the sky providing rewards and punishments to enforce apurely legalistic morality:

The world was created by God as a laboratory for testing human beings. In the Bible he had revealed his commandments, which were distinct, direct, and admitted of no argument. Obedience to these instructions was virtue, disobedience sin. The one meant honor and happiness and life everlasting; the other was the way to shame and disgrace in this word, and led to torments in the world to come.

    At any rate, that is what Wentworth says he was taught to believe.But did Wentworth's childhood mentor, the Presbyterian ministerwhom he describes as "a living monument to all the Christian virtues ... whosenever-failing kindness and charity made him universallybeloved," actually teach this caricature of the Christian faith?The optimistic religion of the time often did teach that following themaxim "What would Jesus do?" is the path to worldly success. JaroslavPelikan tells us that "one of the most widely read books everwritten in the English language, Charles Monroe Sheldon's In HisSteps, first published in 1896, was an idealized description of thesuccess in business and in society that awaited an American communityin which everyone decided to follow seriously in the steps ofJesus? It is likely that this book was read and respected in theWentworth home.

    On the other hand, there are signs that Wentworth's descriptionmay also owe a great deal to what he learned subsequently at Harvard.The doctrine that God is merely an idealized projection of ourhuman fathers is a central teaching of Freud, who took it from anineteenth-century philosopher named Feuerbach. Feuerbach alsoinfluenced Karl Marx's view of religion, and the ideas of Freud andMarx were setting the intellectual fashion at the time Wentworth waswriting. The view that "religion" is primarily a matter of enforcingconventional morality by threats of eternal punishment on the onehand, and promises of pie in the sky on the other, remains a staple ofsecular rationalist thinking even now that Freud and Marx are ineclipse. The pseudoscience of behaviorism, which was also in voguein Wentworth's day, teaches that behavior is conditioned by a systemof rewards and punishments. I remember how effortlessly I pickedup these same fashionable ideas as a college student and how theybecame the filters through which I interpreted the little I couldremember of what my earlier teachers—especially my Sundayschool teachers—had said. My selective and distorted memory verylikely did those teachers a great injustice. So Wentworth's memoryof what he was taught as a child may have a basis in fact, but wemight hear a different account from his minister if he could speak tous.

God the Wonder Worker

A second major element in Wentworth's childhood theology wasthat the way to get what you want is to pray for it. Prayer was ameans not for conforming our wills to God's will, but for obtainingGod's assistance in our own projects. "It would hardly be possible toexaggerate the importance of a wonder-working God in this Christianscheme of things which I took for granted with the air Ibreathed," he writes. The wonder-working was not merely theoreticalbut a part of everyday experience. "Did not our pastor oftenintercede for the recovery of the sick, and did they not usually getwell? Did he not pray every Sunday that the President of the UnitedStates would be given wisdom to lead the affairs of the nation, andwas not our prosperity the manifest answer?" Wentworth admits thatthese may seem like childish ideas, but "the child got them from hisparents, who shared them item by item with the neighbors, who heldthe same beliefs in common with one hundred million other peoplein all the Middletowns of America." Very likely the intellectuallysophisticated members of big-city liberal churches would disavow thewonder-working, but such people, "if they go to church at all, tend todo it as a matter of form and fashion; they are moved by no strongconvictions." Real religion, Wentworth thought, was to be foundamong those who are less educated and therefore more credulous.

To find the original God of Christianity still resplendent in all His glory, still hurling His thunderbolts and making no concessions to rationalism, one should go preferably to a Roman Catholic Church—to the shrine, say, of Saint Anne de Beaupre or Our Lady of Lourdes. There one comes into the awful presence of a real God, who heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, makes the crippled walk, rewards the just, damns the wicked, and in all the vicissitudes of life is able to give tangible evidence of His power in answer to prayer. And the same Deity, less colorful, perhaps, but no less real, will be found among the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, and every other sect of Protestantism.

To further illustrate his point, Wentworth quoted a Chicago Tribunenews story:

The steeple of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, at 2330 North Halsted Street, was struck by lightning and set afire. One hundred and seventy-five theological students, residents of a near-by dormitory, rushed into the street in a downpour of rain to help the firemen fight the blaze. Dr. John Timothy Stone, president of the Seminary, heard the crash when the steeple was struck. He rushed out into the storm and called upon the students who were helping to fight the blaze to pray. Dr. Stone and his students knelt on the rain-soaked grass and offered a prayer for the safety of the building. The firemen were unable to get into the steeple, and by the time they had raised a fire tower and trained a hose on the fire an hour later the rain had put out the blaze.

    Wentworth comments that "Dr. Stone's action was entirely consistentwith his beliefs as a good Presbyterian. In his moment ofdanger he did what every religious man or woman does instinctivelyunder similar circumstances: he appealed to the wonder-workingGod who presides over the Christian universe. And I dare say thegood Doctor has already used the incident to point the moral insome stirring sermon."

    Here Wentworth's point seems to be that rationalists don't rely onprayer to extinguish fires; they call the fire department. He chooses acurious example to make that point, because the Presbyterians didcall the fire department and yet it was the rain that extinguished theblaze. The example is as inappropriate symbolically as it is literallybecause Presbyterians are at least as famous for working to improvecivic institutions as they are for praying. Whether or not his prayersinfluenced the rain, Dr. Stone's action at least may have preventedthe eager students from attempting any foolhardy heroism that couldhave interfered with the professional firefighters and endangeredtheir own lives. In any case, Dr. Stone's calling was not to savebuildings from fires but to teach people how to live. In that callinghis methods may have been more useful than those employed by thefire department or by experimental science. Suppose that we wereasked to decide not how to extinguish a fire in a seminary buildingbut whether it would be a good or a bad thing if all the seminarieswere burned to the ground and their faculties dispersed to do moreuseful work in secular universities or on collective farms. Wouldprayer conceivably be useful at such a decision point?

    Wentworth never gave a moment's thought to questions like that,as least as far as we can tell from his article, because he seems tohave thought only in terms of what philosophers call "efficientcauses" as opposed to "final causes." To put the same point anotherway, he was interested in how to choose the most effective means toget whatever it is you happen to want. He was uninterested—Iwould even say oblivious—to the far more important question ofhow we should decide what we ought to want. Accordingly he identifiedprayer with magic and concluded that the modern worldrightly judges science to be more effective than magic:

I emphasize the importance of this God of magic because He is the source of most of the difficulties with which the churches now find themselves beset. They cannot give Him up and remain Christian; they cannot keep Him and retain the loyalty of educated people. It is a critical dilemma indeed. I was soon to face it in my own life, but at the time of which I write I had no suspicion that it existed.

But did Wentworth really have no suspicion that his childhood faithin a magic-working God would be deeply shaken by what he wouldlearn at Harvard?

Choosing a College

Although Wentworth assures his readers that he had no dispositionto disbelieve before he went to Harvard, a different interpretation isinvited both by what he says and by what he does not say. Here ishis description of his initial decision to study for the Christian ministry:

I arrived at the age of eighteen comfortably adjusted to the Christian universe in which all things work together for good to them that love God. The example set by my family, and indeed by the entire community in which we lived, convinced me of the truth and justice of the divine plan. As I began to think seriously of what I should do with my life, everything pointed to the ministry as the ideal solution. Christian living was the way of happiness. And what better use could any man make of his powers than to devote them to the propagation of truth, so that others who had been denied it might be led to share its beneficent effects? The decision hardly called for conscious effort. So in due course I went before the Presbytery of the church, where, to the delight of my parents, I was accepted as a candidate for the ministry. The church to which we belonged published a little quarterly, and the next issue carded my picture with this word of explanation: "Philip E. Wentworth, who came before Presbytery last spring, will start his college work this fall preparatory to entering the Christian ministry."

    It is clear already, and will become even clearer as we go on, thatWentworth told his parents and their friends that he would enter theministry because he knew it would please them, not because he hadgiven any serious thought to whether he had a vocation for thatcareer. The announcement of his candidacy was his goodbye presentto his family, delivered at the moment when he proposed to go to afar country to learn from very different teachers. If he had told hisfather that he was going to Harvard to learn to be an agnostic, therewould surely have been trouble. Did Wentworth suspect even thenthat he would in two or three years be telling his trusting father froma safe distance that he had changed his mind? The saintly, ministerwho had been his mentor understood well enough that his prizepupil was proposing to learn from infidels and that Wentworth wastaking no precautions to protect himself from being indoctrinated bytheir teaching.

Without going into the detailed considerations that influenced my judgment in this matter, suffice it to say that I finally settled upon Harvard. My father was not a college graduate, but he was bent on giving me the advantages of formal education which he had lacked, and he was satisfied to leave the choice to me. But I met unexpected resistance when I sought the advice of our pastor. He was uneasy when he learned that I was thinking of going to Harvard. Of course it was a fine university, but the Unitarians had smirched it.... Harvard, the minister said, had been the Sorbonne of Unitarianism, and I should run a grave risk of learning false doctrine if I went there. Instead of flying in the face of Providence, I should do better, he said, to consider his own college. It was a small institution in Missouri, founded and supervised by the synod of our church. It had educated many eminent Presbyterian ministers. I could go there knowing that I should be safe from all the insidious temptations of rationalism.

He urged me eloquently, but I stood my ground. When I went before Presbytery I had sworn allegiance to truth and I did not think it would prove to be as frail a vessel as the good dominie's counsel implied. I suspected that it might turn out, on closer acquaintance, to be a little too broad to fit into any narrow creed. I was not primarily interested in dogma anyhow. Sufficient unto the seminary would be the evils thereof. First, I would widen my general knowledge. Then, even if it should be necessary to modify some of my doctrines, I felt certain that the fundamental verities of religion would remain impregnable.

So to Harvard I went. On a September evening in 1924, I called to say good-bye to the old minister, who, throughout his long friendship with the family, had been almost a second father to me. In the quiet of his study he knelt beside me and offered up a fervent petition to God to make me diligent in the pursuit of truth. Dear faithful soul! Within a year he was dead and was spared the pain of learning that his parting prayer was being answered—in a sense the irony of which he could never have understood.

    So even before Wentworth went to Harvard he was uninterestedin "dogma"—a pejorative label for the doctrines of his church—andhe was expecting to learn that truth was too broad to fit into the "narrowcreed" he had been taught. The words he chooses to describe thethings he would be teaching as a Presbyterian minister are all negative;the words anticipating what he expected to be taught at Harvardare positive. His mentor has become the "good dominie," well-meaningbut out of date. Even the reference to the "fundamental verities" ofreligion sounds ironic following the reference to the "evils" of theseminary, and Wentworth does not tell us what he thought those verifiesmight be, or how they could be distinguished from the doctrineshe anticipated modifying. At any rate, he was entirely unconcernedabout the risk of becoming indoctrinated in a new faith, probablybecause he did not see it as a risk but rather as an opportunity. Accordingly,he made no plans to stay in touch with the minister so that thissecond father could help him to evaluate Harvard's teaching from anindependent critical perspective. It appears that he wanted no suchrestraint on his freedom to embrace the new teaching. That final meetingwas a goodbye indeed.

Harvard's Teaching

At Harvard Wentworth unsurprisingly found himself "breathing awholly different atmosphere." At home he had been taught that therise of Christianity from the ruins of Rome evidenced the hand ofGod. His professors denied this. "All events in history were manifestationsof cause and effect operating on the natural level." Everythingevolved, including God, who began as the fierce tribal deity ofa few Semitic nomads and passed through various stages until hefinally emerged in the New Testament as the kind father of Wentworth'schildhood theology. What Wentworth was taught, in twowords, was a philosophy called scientific naturalism. He clearlyunderstood its full implications.

In the course of time the impact of new knowledge, and especially knowledge of science and the scientific method, wrought great havoc with my original ideas. All things, it seemed, were subject to the laws of nature. This concept supplied my mind with a wholly new pattern into which my religious beliefs refused to fit. In such an orderly universe there seemed to be no place for a wonder-working God. He would be an outlaw, unthinkable and impossible. The bottom dropped out of my world, and I wrestled with myself in a futile attempt to patch it up.

    Probably the attempt was futile because it was never more thanhalf-hearted and was extremely brief in duration. Could some versionof God be preserved by setting him up as the First Cause, thecreator of those inviolable laws? No, reasoned Wentworth, because aGod who left the world to govern itself by natural law "had hedgedHimself about by barriers through which even He could not break."Such a God could not answer prayers, communicate with humans oraffect our lives. "Though He might exist, he could be of no serviceto man." So much for those fundamental verities which Wentworthhad so recently described as impregnable.

I studied philosophy and read further about this First Cause. Then I began to marvel at the disingenuousness of the human mind when, unable to imagine how the world began, but demanding some explanation of the inexplicable, it can arbitrarily select three letters from the alphabet and call g-o-d an answer. I preferred to think that we know more about such matters when we admit we know nothing than when we resort to such palpable self-deception.

    But was it any less self-deceptive to arbitrarily select three lettersfrom the alphabet and call l-a-w an answer? Wentworth went rapidlyfrom skepticism about his father's faith to outright contempt for it,and his skepticism was very selective indeed. There is nothing toindicate that he asked even the most obvious questions about thenew teaching that was causing such havoc with his beliefs. Forexample, why should the scientific study of natural laws rule out thepossibility that there are exceptions to those laws? Christians havealways taught that natural laws exist, but they have also taught thatthe laws are subordinate to God and not God to the laws. Josephknew very well how babies are made, which is why he initially suspectedMary of unchastity, but the authority that made the lawsanswered his doubts. How could those Harvard professors possiblyknow that "natural law" is a complete explanation for the existenceof the world and everything in it, and that therefore God could onlybe an outlaw? What experiments had they conducted to confirm thisfar-reaching hypothesis?

    I should remind readers that Wentworth's conversion to naturalismoccurred in the mid-1920s, before the triumph of neo-Darwinismsupplied a seemingly plausible mechanism for biologicalevolution and before the Miller-Urey experiment encouraged chemiststo believe that prebiological chemical evolution had an experimentalbasis. Einstein's relativity was just coming into publicconsciousness, and big bang cosmology was in the future. Whateverone may think of the situation today, scientific naturalism in the1920s was transparently a philosophical doctrine that was issuing alot of promissory notes that scientific investigation might or mightnot be able to redeem. As far as we can tell from his own account,Wentworth never made the slightest effort to distinguish betweenwhat scientific naturalists were claiming and what they could actuallyprove. And of course he never considered putting the issuesbefore the old minister who had been his boyhood mentor. When aprodigal son wants to follow his appetites, or the latest fashion inidols, he tells himself that he has made a careful evaluation of everythingwhen he is in reality just going along with the crowd. At suchtimes, the last thing he wants to listen to is wise counsel. If Wentworthhad listened to the old minister or to similar counselors whomhe might have found even in the environs of Harvard, he would havehad to ask his teachers—worse, himself—some hard questions.Instead he swallowed the new teaching whole and apparently withoutout a shred of critical resistance.


Excerpted from The WEDGE of TRUTH by Phillip E. Johnson. Copyright © 2000 by Phillip E. Johnson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Phillip E. Johnson taught law for more than thirty years at the University of California--Berkeley where he is professor emeritus. He is recognized as a leading spokesman for the intelligent design movement, and is the author of many books, including Darwin on Trial, Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds.

Dallas Willard (1935-2013) was a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for over 40 years. A highly influential author and teacher, Willard was as celebrated for his enduring writings on spiritual formation as he was for his scholarship. His books include The Divine Conspiracy (Christianity Today's Book of the Year in 1998), The Spirit of the Disciplines, Hearing God, Renovation of the Heart and others. His books have received numerous Christianity Today Annual Book Awards and other recognitions.

Willard served on the boards of the C.S. Lewis Foundation and Biola University, and was a member of numerous evaluation committees for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. He received bachelor's degrees from both Tennessee Temple College and Baylor University and a graduate degree at Baylor University, as well as a PhD from the University of Wisconsin in Philosophy and the History of Science.

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