Jan 15, 2023
“We must teach our children a totally counter-cultural model of nature. We must teach the doctrines of our Faith, not as exceptions to natural law, but as the highest expressions of natural law.”
We are good parents. From infancy, we teach our children ‘the facts of life’ –how the world works and how it came to be the way it is. We certainly mean well. But do we do well? Let’s see.
We teach them that we live in a world of space and time. Space behaves according to the postulates and theorems of Euclid. Time consists of the past, the future, and an ill-defined border region we call “the present”.
We teach that space and time contain mass and energy, manifested as matter and force, resulting in what we call ‘events.’ We teach that events consist of things and acts (nouns and verbs). Things may be either subjects of an action or objects of an action; actions may be either active in nature (acting on the object) or passive in nature (acting on the subject).
We teach that current events are caused by past events, not by future ones.
We teach the concept of scale: a ‘smaller’ entity or event may be included in a ‘larger’ entity or event, but not the other way around. If a is an element of b and b is an element of c, then a is an element of c; but then c cannot be an element of b, nor can b be an element of a.
Collectively, we can say that the world we teach to our children is flat and one-directional. Time moves forward, not backwards; the past conditions the future, but not the other way around; wholes consist of smaller parts and are themselves parts of even larger wholes.
These are the basic tenets of the world view known as ‘naïve realism’: what you see is what you get!
So, what can we say about the things we teach our children?
Either they are entirely wrong;
Or, they are approximations of reality, useful in certain circumstances;
Or, they are true, but only as special cases of a much more complex reality.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish?” Apparently, we would! Our sons and daughters ask us to teach them about the world, and this is the nutrition-free fare we serve up?
Of course, some of our children will grow up, go off to university, study physics or advanced mathematics and discover on their own that what we taught them was fraught with limitations and errors. But what about all the others?
Well, we send them to church or to Sunday school, usually once a week for about an hour. There they are exposed to stories that suggest a wholly different model of reality: people rise from the dead, walk on water, change water into wine and wine into blood. This beats any Zombie Apocalypse thriller hands down! But how are they to reconcile this with what we’ve taught them about the world they seem to live in?
Some will say that religion is about the supernatural, while we have been teaching our kids strictly about the natural order of things. Such dualism is a retreat from truth. It is the waving of the intellectual white flag. It is an admission that we have failed to find a consistent theory of the world…and that we’re giving up on that goal.
Science faces the same dilemma. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are two highly successful physical theories. Between the two of them, they can account for virtually all phenomena. Problem is, they are not consistent with one another!
Since Einstein, the Holy Grail of physics has been to find a single model of the universe that can account for all phenomena. So far, that quest has been unsuccessful. But science is far from waving a white flag!
Prior to puberty, children’s minds are extremely democratic; they can juggle competing models of reality with little difficulty, believing all of them at once. Scientific curiosity and religious faith walk hand in hand. Later, thought patterns harden. Balancing contradictory models of reality is no longer praised as a sign of imagination but is condemned as a remnant of infancy.
Is it any wonder then that our teens and 20-somethings lose their religious faith?
Oddly, though, this seemingly insuperable paradox has a relatively simple solution. The world of naïve realism that we teach our kids is NOT the ‘real world’ after all. Naïve realism is fantasy, pure and simple. Relativity, quantum mechanics, non-Euclidean geometries, etc. have demolished forever the idea that ‘what you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG).
Ironically, few serious thinkers today hold with naïve realism – not even Marxists. Yet, it remains the enshrined ideology of our time. So far as possible and as soon as possible, we need to start teaching our children the truth about the world we live in. But this will not be easy!
A world of space and time, energy and mass, force and matter, entities and events, subjects and objects, parts and wholes seems intuitively obvious. We know our way around in it. But wait! There is a model of reality that we all know (to one degree or another) that undermines the lazy mental habits associated with naïve realism and that is at least compatible with the latest scientific and mathematical thinking. It’s called…drum roll please…Christianity!
The recent rapid decline in Christian belief can be attributed to many things but none more so than its incompatibility with secularism and the pseudo-science of naïve realism. The decline is usually dated from an historical period that we shamelessly call The Enlightenment.
It is true that Christianity is incompatible with naïve realism, but it is also true that naïve realism is incompatible with science. And yes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend: Christianity is, at least in general, compatible with contemporary scientific models.
Ironically, we are often told that people no longer believe in ‘the supernatural’ – this just as science has discovered that the world we live in is in fact ‘supernatural’ (if by ‘natural’ you mean ‘what you see is what you get’)!
The doctrines of our Christian faith point toward a model of nature that is radically different from the standard model we parents and grandparents tend to teach. Let’s consider some examples from scripture:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…All things came to be through him…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” (Gospel of John)
The Word exists eternally, outside historical time, and participates actively in the creation of everything that comes to be within historical time. But the Word also enters into historical time as one of its ‘quantum’ elements. The doctrine of Incarnation demolishes the twin tyrannies of ‘scale’ and ‘time’ in one fell swoop. Begin with scale:
“Christ is all (whole) and in all (part).” (Colossians)
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (Gospel of John)
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (Gospel of John)
Game, set, match! In Christian logic, A can be a proper element of B and that same B can also be a proper element of A. Corollary: A can be a proper element of B and B can be a proper element of C and C can be a proper element of A. This is a world I’d like to live in; thanks be to God, I do!
It’s time for time: “The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” (Gospel of John)
“Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (Gospel of John)
Earlier we referred to “an ill-defined border region we call the present”. It is ill-defined because, in fact, the present is not part of ‘time’ at all. To be in the present is to step out of continuously flowing historical time; it is to participate in the eternal.
Historical time is a linear continuum. It consists of past and future but makes no room for a present. The fact that there is a present (we’re living in it!) proves that there is another, eternal dimension outside of time. The present and the eternal are one!
In Exodus, God tells us that his name is “I AM”; in the Gospel of John, Jesus, the Christ, uses the same formula. In several passages, Jesus refers to himself as I AM. In fact, God never “was” and never “will be”. A god that was or will be is an oxymoron, an idol.
God always just is! God lives in the eternal present, he is the eternal present, and when we experience ‘presence’, we experience God, and we participate in God, aka ‘eternity’.
Sidebar: If you accept the premise that God is synonymous with eternity, then we just proved the existence of God, didn’t we.
The spatio-temporal is embedded in the eternal (God) via creation, but the eternal (Christ) is embedded in the spatio-temporal via incarnation. Incarnation takes rigid rectilinear space-time and turns it inside out like a sock!
Modern physics constitutes an all-out assault on time. Why then is the idea of linear, one-directional time so pervasive and so seemingly intuitive? Stephen Hawking, not always a friend of Christianity, suggests ‘entropy’.
Entropy (the inexorably increasing disorder of the universe) seems to be a hard-wired feature of historical time yet plays no role in eternity (the burning bush in Exodus 3 doesn’t burn!). In fact, as we shall see below, eternity is a process of ever-increasing order, not disorder.
Christianity also disposes of the dualism of subjective or objective nouns and active or passive verbs. Instead of the hierarchical and vectored relationships characteristic of naïve realism, Christian ontology is based on the idea of reciprocal relations:
“Remain in me as I remain in you.” (Gospel of John)
“For we are his (God’s) handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God had prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (Ephesians)
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Gospel of Matthew)
The good works that we do of our own free will exist independently of us; they are our “objective immortality” (Alfred North Whitehead). The works and the worker relate reciprocally; neither is subject nor object of the other. We do what we do and what we do does us!
The Trinity is a dynamic and reciprocal relationship among three Persons, each of whom is God. Our lives are first and foremost participation in the life of the Trinity; therefore, our relationships are also dynamic and reciprocal. What we do to others, we do to ourselves as well. All action is bidirectional.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Gospel of Matthew)
Christianity makes clear that the universe of space and time, entities and events, ‘heaven and earth’ is relative, that it exists as one aspect of a larger, more ontologically general reality:
“At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. You will roll them up like a cloak…You are the same, and your years will have no end.” (Hebrews)
Some modern thinkers allow that God may have played a role in the creation of the physical universe. They give a theistic interpretation to Big Bang. Beyond that, they tend to be deists: after Big Bang, God rested.
Christianity, however, goes much further. First, the spatio-temporal world not only comes from God (Creation) but ultimately, it returns to God (Parousia):
“… Then comes the end, when he (Son) hands over the kingdom to his God and Father…for he (Father) subjected everything under his (Son’s) feet… When everything is subjected to him (Son), then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one (Father) who subjected everything to him (Son), so that God may be all in all.” (First Corinthians)
“In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will…as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.” (Ephesians)
“Holy Father, keep them in your name (I AM) that you have given me…so that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one…” (Gospel of John)
Remember: A ɛ B ɛ C ɛ A.
Regarding the spatio-temporal world, Shakespeare wrote (Macbeth): It is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But the ‘real world’ is not that. Rather, it is a process of reconciliation and perfection in preparation for eternal participation in the life of the Trinity. Sorry, Shakes!
Second, God (Spirit) is an active participant in the world in every way and at every level:
“For in him (Christ) were created all things in heaven and on earth…all things were created for him and through him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together… For in him all fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him…” (Colossians)
“… One body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians)
“And he (Father) put all things beneath his (Christ’s) feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his (Christ’s) body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” (Ephesians)
We take for granted that the universe as described by naïve realism is possible, even if unreal. But Christian cosmology suggests that even this is not so. A world of discrete entities and events and vectored relationships may not have the ‘glue’ needed to hold these elements together. Christian ontology holds that “in him all things hold together”, that an actual world requires an actual God who is over all and through all and in all.
Being is not a multiple-choice test. It is not (a) God or (b) World or (c) Both. There is only one possible answer! Guess which! The words of Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible, sum all this up:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end…the one who is and who was and who is to come… I am the first and the last, the one who lives.” (Revelation)
So, where does this leave us poor beleaguered parents and grandparents? We cannot teach our kids the truths of our faith on top of the naïve realist, secular model of the ‘natural’ world.
We want to eat our cake and have it too. We want our kids to ‘fit in’ but we also want them to be good Christians. These two objectives are to some degree incompatible. Christianity is incurably counter-cultural.
We must teach our children a totally counter-cultural model of nature. We must teach the doctrines of our Faith, not as exceptions to natural law, but as the highest expressions of natural law. To do that, we must show how natural law and Christian doctrine are two sides of one coin.
We must teach our children that the world is one and that that one world begins and ends and is infused throughout with God. We must teach them that we do not ‘live for tomorrow’ (perpetual perishing) but that we live in the present, which is eternal. We must teach them that our lives are part of a cosmic communal enterprise of creation and reconciliation leading to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Religious education and secular education are just education, pure and simple. As in the Middle Ages, so in the Modern Age: science is an extension of theology, as theology is an extension of science. Try teaching that at Harvard!
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.