This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

What Nature Revealed to Me

Ebenezer Gay, who "has been called the 'father of American Unitarianism,'" (McKanan, 2017), set forth in his 'Natural Religion, as Distinguished from Revealed,' a long-common belief that God is made known through 'nature' (General Revelation), and through recorded revelatory experiences (Special Revelation). This was an idea endorsed wholeheartedly by the apostle Paul.

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them. (Romans 2:14-15 NRSV)

In reading excerpts from Gay's work, I was struck first by how he assumed the necessity of God for a religion to exist.

The Belief of GOD's Existence is most essentially fundamental to all Religion, and having been at the first of the Dudleian Lectures established; the moral Obligation which it induceth upon the Nature of Man, may be the Subject of our present Inquiry. (McKanan, 2017)

Gay lived from 1696 - 1787 in Massachusetts, and his assumptions in this regard and others were a given within that environment. Western Christian theology has remained largely Eurocentric up to this day, although between ecumenism and international missions, along with the rising importance of Christian movements in the non-Western world, this is slowly changing. Had Rev. Gay experienced anything outside of European religious thought and life beyond the borders of New England, he might have discovered that religions like Jainism get along just fine without a personal creator god

The real heart of what Ebenezer Gay was conveying in 'Natural Religion' was that nature reveals the existence of the God of Christianity, and that although it is vague when compared to the special revelation of the Bible, it is better than nothing. His conviction that nature reveals a creator god is still widely held among Christians of our day, although the evidence seems to be to the contrary. While it's one thing to go on a hike and marvel at the natural world, from a beautiful sunrise to the majesty of trees, it's quite another to really do in-depth, scientific study of the cosmos.

Religion is divided into natural and revealed:—Revealed Religion is that which God hath made known to Men by the immediate Inspiration of his Spirit, the Declarations of his Mouth, and Instructions of his Prophets: Natural, that which bare Reason discovers and dictates: as 'tis delineated by the masterly hand of St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, in the Words of holy Scripture now read. (McKanan, 2017)

A Survey of the Fellows of the Royal Society, via BioMed Central

Scientists have consistently shown their atheism in poll after poll. Although of course there are numerous exceptions, and indeed groups of scientists and lay people dedicated to a belief in God that reconciles with the evidence of science (check out BioLogos, for an example) exist, the overwhelming majority do not claim a belief in a personal god. Often they recognize no god at all. Conspiracy theorists might argue that in order to be accepted in scientific circles it's necessary to disavow faith, that certainly isn't the case. A scientist has every right to their personal beliefs and opinions, so long as they don't allow those to shape the conclusions of their research. And, if they do (they're only humans, after all), there's peer review to pick it apart. 

Simple observation of nature easily leads to a sense of the spiritual. I've certainly experienced it many times in my life. Growing up, I spent quite a bit of time in the fields and woods around the family farm, and I know the magic of a flowing creek in the fall, the mystery of a heavy fog in a field, and the awe of a starry night sky. In those moments I felt a proximity to something wondrous and unseen. Then, of course, I also reflected on the unseeing hand of death that powers evolutions without mercy, and the finitude of all physical forms. I perceived in careful thought and study the deep contradiction between the faith of the Bible and the facts of the observable world. Though for a long time I managed to hold to both, the cognitive dissonance eventually caught up with me, and something had to give. I could let go of reality and go from faith to fantasy, or else I could embrace what can be known, but couldn't 'unsee' what I had come to understand. 

Ebenezer Gay was a person of his time and place, as am I. What 'light' was available to him led him to conclusions with which I, in the 'light' of current knowledge, cannot agree. Long enough I grasped onto a God of the Gaps who, as information closed gap after gap of what was unknown to me, faded away like the Cheshire Cat. Ultimately, all that was left was a grin hanging in space, and then it too was gone.


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.