Edging Toward Enchantment: More Than a Watch

In the last few posts I've been talking about existential jujitsu, using the dissatisfactions of disenchantment as material to edge us back toward enchantment.

In my experience the issue that causes the most doubt among Christians is the problem of suffering. The massive amounts of suffering in the world, currently and historically, cause us to doubt the goodness, power and/or existence of God.

If faith has a Number One Problem it's the problem of suffering.

But even here, when faith is facing its most severe trial and test, I think we can find resources for enchantment. More existential jujitsu.

Last spring I was doing a chapel talk for biology majors at ACU. I started off talking about how we tend to integrate faith and science in the field of biology (along with the other sciences). We tend to do this by speaking about our wonder and awe at the intricate design and beauty of biological organisms, structures and processes. The Christian biologist finds resources for faith in the wonder and awe of creation.

In the language of apologetics, creation is an intricate Watch, and as we study the design of the Watch we behold the mind and work of the Watchmaker.

The Watch and Watchmaker argument is familiar to most of us. It's an argument that still has a lot of traction in Christian apologetics. But what I pointed out that day to the biology students was that the Watchmaker argument unwittingly exacerbates our disenchantment, undermining our faith in subtle ways we don't appreciate until its too late.

Let me say that again, appeals to wonder and awe at the design of creation can undermine your faith in the Watchmaker.

How so?

First, and most obviously, Darwin discovered other mechanisms that can create design. That's what I pointed out to the biology majors. Most Christians don't understand the issue with Darwin. Most Christians reject Darwin because they reject the notion of common decent, that our ancestor were "monkeys" or "apes." Darwin, in the hands of these Christians, offends our dignity, vanity and narcissism.

But that's not the real challenge of Darwin, an assault on human uniqueness within the animal kingdom. The deeper challenge of Darwin is his assault on the argument from design. What Darwin showed with natural selection was that you can get biological design--a Watch--without a Watchmaker. 

So we can debate the origins of design. Still, most Christians will posit a Watchmaker. But even if you posit a Watchmaker there's still a problem, a subtle problem but an insidious one few Christians notice or pay attention to.

As I shared with the biology majors, the deeper source of disenchantment from the Watchmaker argument is that it turns nature into a mechanism. And it's this mechanistic view of creation that deepens our disenchantment as it radically breaks from the sacramental ontology where the world is alive and charged with the grandeur of God.

True, the mechanism might be intricate, giving evidence of a creative Mind and Intellect. But the mechanism, once designed, no longer needs the Watchmaker. The Watchmaker just winds up the Watch and then steps away. The mechanism runs all on its own, driven by the deterministic laws of cause and effect.

Basically, the Watchmaker argument tricks you into adopting deism, the belief that God wound up the universe at the start and then walked away. The Watchmaker argument might be good in the short run, helping you score a point or two in a debate about the existence of God, but the long run consequences can be disastrous to faith. True, the design of the universe might give evidence for an originating Creator, but the universe as a mechanism, as a Watch, is thoroughly disenchanted. You might score a point with apologetics, but you've stepped into a worldview that is going to radically alter your experience of God in day to day life, an experience that will slowly dry up your faith.

This is why I said that wonder and awe at the Watch--the argument from design--can actually undermine you faith in the long run. The Watchmaker argument, by reducing Creation to a mechanism, tricks you into adopting a deistic view of the cosmos. And once you've adopted deism--a distant God who stepped away from creation and doesn't intervene--your disenchantment radically deepens.

So that's the point I made to the biology majors. When we teachers point out the intricacy and design of biology I think we're actually hurting your faith in the long run. We're turning you into deists because we are implicitly asking you to look at Creation as a cold, dead mechanism--a beautifully designed mechanism, yes, but still a mechanism--rather than as something alive, sacred and crackling with the Presence of God.

So where do we find room for existential jujitsu with the Watchmaker argument?

Here's the question I asked the biology majors:

Is cancer beautiful?

It's a hard question. Maybe at the level of pure mechanism you can find beauty in how cancer cells replicate. At the cellular and molecular level the intricacy of the design is beautiful.

Cancer is the Watch.

But at an existential level we recoil at the notion that cancer is beautiful. We've seen cancer eat away at and take the lives of our loved ones. We stand at the graveside of a child who has died of leukemia and say, "Maybe the Watch is beautiful. But I hate the Watch."

The problem with the Watchmaker argument, I told the biology majors, is that it doesn't account for our deep, deep dissatisfaction with the Watch. The Watch may be intricately designed, and when we look at the Grand Canyon or at the stars we might call these parts of the Watch beautiful. But there also parts of the Watch that we experience as ugly, horrible and tragic. Design doesn't always produce wonder. Cancer isn't beautiful.

It might seem, though, that I've argued myself into a corner, right back to the problem of suffering. Why, we ask, did the Watchmaker make a Watch with cancer in it?

I don't have an answer to that question. But I do find resources for enchantment here. How? Because I don't like Darwin's view of the Watch either.

When I stand by the graveside of a child who has died of leukemia everything in me tells me that this is wrong, that the world shouldn't be this way. And that feeling of wrongness edges me back toward enchantment. For some deep reason, a reason rooted in the foundations of what it means to be human being, I think about cancer moralistically. Cancer, I'm convinced, is wrong.

Now, biologically speaking, scientifically speaking, I know that this is a ridiculous feeling. Cancer can't be wrong. Cancer is just a mechanism--a dumb, beautiful mechanism.

A Watch can't be wrong. A Watch just is. And yet I hate the Watch.

If all is mechanism and deterministic clockwork, it's irrational to hate cancer. It's like hating a bicycle or a tree or the sunset.

But I'll never, ever, let go of my feeling that cancer is wrong and ugly. To let go of that feeling is to become untethered from my humanity. Which means that I'll always be tethered to faith. 

Yes, my lamentation at the graveside fuels my doubt about God. But the hot sting of lamentation also edges me back toward enchantment, back to faith, back to God. Because if I'm lamenting, if I'm objecting, if I'm screaming at the universe, I'm viewing the Watch as broken, as wrong. As more than mechanism. Which means that I think things should be--notice that moralizing should--otherwise. And that's a ridiculous, sentimental notion if there is no Watchmaker. I should just stoically resign myself to the facts--that cancer isn't right or wrong, that cancer is beautifully designed.

Yes, my tears around the graveside erode my faith. But those tears, and the revolt they express, are at the very same time the tears the edge me back toward enchantment

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