Splashing around in theology.

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Location: Ottawa, Canada

I read lots. I have a cat. I drink coffee. Therefore, I am.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

De Natura Deorum

Cicero was murdered exactly 2006 years before I was born.
When I say exactly I mean that my birthday is December 4th, and that is the very day that Cicero got on the wrong side of Caesar Augustus, and was executed in Formiae, Italy.
The year was 43 B.C.
But two years prior to this, Cicero began writing a book called De Natura Deorum [The Nature of the Gods] and to look at this profound work of his is to lift back the pages of history and see that people back then asked the same sort of questions that I am asking now, two millennia later!
I am horrifically summarizing here for the sake of making this blog of a reasonable length, but suffice it to say that The Nature of the Gods is basically a fictional discussion [presented as non-fiction] of a meeting of Cotta [a Skeptic orator and priest], Velleius [an Epicurean], Balbus [a Stoic], and Cicero himself, sort of a neutral arbiter of the other three.
Cicero begins by saying that most philosophers have affirmed the existence of the gods and that this assertion is “plausible and one to which we are all mutually inclined.” But he moves quickly to a reminder of several thinkers who have questioned this affirmation. Then he explains that even among those who assert that gods exist, disagreements abound as to their form and character.
This sort of kicks off the discussion. In my imagination, the tankards of coffee are poured and these guys blab all night long, in their toga-like jammies.

Everything said, by all, is interesting.
But I want to focus on what this Balbus guy, this Stoic dude, says.
He cites four reasons to believe in God. The last one is the one he considers to be the most important. It is:
The regularity and motion of the heavenly bodies.

He says, “What could be more clear and obvious, when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence, by which they are controlled?”
Elsewhere: “Their constant and eternal motion, wonderful and mysterious in its regularity, declares the indwelling power of a divine intelligence. If any man cannot feel the power of God when he looks upon the stars then I doubt whether he is capable of any feeling at all.”
And: “If you see some great and beautiful building, would you infer, because the architect is not immediately visible, that it must have been built by mice and weasels?”
This “power” according to Balbus, “is not devoid of sense and reason.”
As we incline our eyes upward and acknowledge that it exists, we ought to, at the same time, acknowledge that this power is superior to us, as men/women upon the earth.
His argument goes on to posit that the world must have been made for us since only we can appreciate it.

Now I will say something that may surprise some readers who have read this blog on a consistent basis.
I agree with Balbus.
Definitely, at their little coffee-session tete-a-tete, the current “me” would have been in agreement with him. [More likely, I would have BEEN him!]
It is a matter of personal choice, maybe even one of faith. Well, actually, it must be “of faith” because my adherence to it cannot be based upon anything empirically proven.
What draws me is the focus of the belief.
It stays away from the tangled weeds that are twisted around the moral attributes of God and God’s actions. Stays away from the problems of theodicy.
It just says “LOOK! THINK!”
Admittedly, there are so many ways to look at Balbus’s stated conviction about the heavens.
One must remember that back then, [two millennia ago] the world was thought to be an unmoving object. Movement itself was intricately connected with whatever was perceived of as being a living intelligence. The earth was at the center of things, in a universal sense, with everything else moving around it.
Nowadays, we know better.
But has our scientific knowledge really diminished the wonder of pulling over to the side of a country road, turning the headlights off, getting out, and cranking your head upwards on a cloudless night?
I think not.
And if it has, then that can only be rather sad.
What would the next step consist of, in that line of progress? Preferring robot-friends over human-friends?
If so, I hope I do not live that long.

In the story, Cotta [the Skeptic] tells Balbus, “You are right to wonder at them [the heavens] but that they are amazing does not mean that they can’t be natural phenomena.”
Of course he has a good point there. But, rising to get yet another coffee, I would ask Cotta, “What are we meaning when we say that something is a ‘natural phenomena’?
For instance, much less the heavens at night, but I myself could say [and I, in fact, do say it] that our own human bodies are a wonder on an equal scale as the heavenly bodies themselves. By that I mean, the intricacy with which our [properly functioning] bodies are constructed boggles the mind.
I myself do not see any absolutely necessary incongruency between believing that they evolved to be this way [of their own accord, natural phenomena] while at the same time maintaining that a divine being which I call ‘God’ set that natural [evolutionary] process in motion.
Who is to say that God’s process of creation is so incongruent with science’s process of evolution? Aren’t both things “theories” when all is said and done?
To me, it is neither of these things, but certainty of either, which is in the balance. No?

At the end of it all Cicero concludes that we cannot know if the gods exist – that the scales are tipped in favor of lack of evidence, and a summary conclusion of “Not likely!”
Two millennia later, we are still discussing the same things as these four dudes were discussing. Admittedly, it is great coffee-drinking fodder.

I feel that I am not quite finished with this topic. I want to talk a little bit about some interesting things surrounding the mention of the heavens in the Bible, and maybe say a bit about what I think of Balbus’s contention that the world must have been made for us since only we can appreciate it.

Later, alligators.


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