The Colson Center, God, Quantum Physics, and Univocity of Being

by John Ellis

The question, “Does God use quantum theory, too?” was posed in a recent Breakpoint podcast episode (at least in the title). The episode is short – very short – at only 1 minute and 5 seconds long. It begins by referencing science writer John Horgans’ claim that, “Quantum mechanics is science’s most precise, powerful theory of reality. It has predicted countless experiments, spawned countless applications. The trouble is, physicists and philosophers disagree over what it means, that is, what it says about how the world works.” After summarily acknowledging the complexities inherent in discussions/disagreements swirling around quantum mechanics, Breakpoint’s host John Stonestreet then concludes, “At the same time, quantum theory has proven explanatory power. A theological parallel is the Trinity. We can’t comprehend exactly how the Godhead functions, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. As C.S. Lewis wrote back in 1952, if Christianity is true, it would be ‘at least as difficult as modern physics.’ And, we could add, just as rational.”

I’m not sure if this short episode is intended as a teaser for a longer, fleshed-out episode. I hope so. Mainly to satisfy my curiosity to see if I’ve read Stonestreet’s muddled, unhelpful message correctly. Secondarily – and what probably should be the primary driver behind my hope that a longer episode is coming – I hope it’s revealed that I’ve jumped the gun and unfairly represented Stonestreet’s message. I don’t think I have, though. His message is embedded in the title “Does God use quantum theory, too?” in conjunction with his conclusion. It’s fair to assume that the body of an article/podcast answers the title’s question, right? Putting the two together, and it appears that Stonestreet is arguing that the illusiveness of quantum theory finds a parallel in the partial incomprehensibility of the Trinity.

His statement, “we can’t comprehend exactly how the Godhead functions [emphasis added]” is laden with modernist/foundationalist subtext. And it speaks to the larger problem: how Stonestreet’s thinking represents the univocity of being that is integral to white evangelicalism’s ontology. Like John Horgan, that thinking/belief represents our fallen desire to be like God. We defend our right to have access to the deepest mysteries of the universe and God. In Horgan’s case, where that access ends is the limit of knowledge. Hence his agnosticism (read his article by clicking here for his explanation). For Stonestreet, that access doesn’t really terminate so much as it bleeds into our epistemological participation in the mysteries of the Godhead.

Working backwards from epistemology to ontology (which is part of the problem, as I’ll show), modernist/foundationalists (Charles Hodge, Carl Henry, the staff at the Colson Center, and pretty much everyone you know who considers themselves a conservative Christian) assumes that right ideas produce right beliefs. In other words, if we present the right facts within compelling arguments, we will win the minds and then hearts of unbelievers. Sociologist James D. Hunter, the author of the seminal book American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity, makes the case in a recent book that evangelicalism bows before idealism and individualism.[1] Setting aside individualism, I want to look a little closer at idealism and how it exerts control over contemporary evangelicalism’s epistemology and ontology.

Many people are familiar with Plato’s forms. Moving forward, the argument for many philosophers and theologians centers on the reality of the forms. Do they really exist or are they merely abstractions? One side of the debate (and leaving out nominalism altogether for the sake of simplicity) is represented by the scholastic philosopher Peter Abelard who argued that forms are complete abstracts. Arriving on this planet nearly 200 years after Abelard was born, Duns Scotus came along and developed what’s called Scotistic realism. According to Scotus, forms are real but (and this is an important “but”) they transcend the natural world. And for Scotus that “but” carries a lot of metaphysical weight. He writes:

“Before ‘being’ is divided into the ten categories, it is divided into infinite and finite. … Whatever pertains to ‘being’, then, in so far as it remains indifferent to finite and infinite, or as proper to the Infinite Being, does not belong to it as determined to a genus, but prior to any such determination, and therefore as transcendental and outside any genus. Whatever [predicates] are common to God and creatures are of such kind, pertaining as they do to being in its indifference to what is infinite and finite. For in so far as they pertain to God they are infinite, whereas in so far as they belong to creatures they are finite. They belong to ‘being’, then, prior to the division into the ten genera. Anything of this kind, consequently, is transcendental.”[2]

If you find this a little hard to grasp, that’s fine; it is hard to grasp, especially if you’re new to the debate. Don’t worry about it, though. You don’t need to completely track with Scotistic realism to understand my argument, or to understand Scotus’ implications.[3] In short – and I promise it will be short – according to Scotus, being is a concept (and ideal) that has a real existence but an existence that transcends what we tend to think of as reality. The problem – the really, really big problem – is that this is an ontology called univocity of being. While God’s haecceity is different than mine (what makes God God is different than what makes John Ellis John Ellis), we share in this thing named being. Although, and Scotus took great pains to make this clear, being applies infinitely to God and finitely to me (us) – that’s part of God’s haecceity. In non-academic speak, God is better at being than we are, but we have being, too. Ergo, the univocity of being.

I think – I hope – that Longstreet’s question “does God use quantum theory, too?” is starting to take ontological shape and, hence, epistemological shape.

Above, I stated that I’d start with epistemology and then move into ontology. I realize that I slid into ontology much quicker than I intended. Ontology precedes epistemology, but we tend to operate as if that’s backwards. Since the Enlightenment, humanity has been obsessed with epistemology at the expense of ontology. This is one of the reasons the rebellious univocity of being in our worldview is often missed. Modernity has conditioned us to not think about it. Because of this, we blithely use the bricks of epistemological foundationalism to build our Tower of Babel. But what is foundationalism?

Foundationalism can be summed up with the claim that facts speak for themselves – propositional knowledge is another way to phrase it. And facts can speak for themselves because there is an epistemological chain that connects facts to an objective justification. Minus an objective justification, it is not a fact. In his introduction to epistemology, Professor Richard Feldman explains that for foundationalism the first link in the epistemological chain is what’s called justified basic beliefs.[4] This Cartesian epistemology asserts that we not only have access to knowledge but that our access is neutral. Admittedly skipping over a bunch of steps, we can discover truth because we share (if only partly) in the neutral realities of being. Think of it this way: Truth exists. You and I exist. And our being is the same reality albeit worked out differently. Our (mostly) complete access to knowledge is a fait accompli because at its and our ontological basis, there’s no difference.

While it’s true, in this worldview, that our knowledge of God, for example, is limited, owing to our participation in being combined with our foundationalism, we believe that we can discover truth about God via our minds. We have access to God via our minds because ideas connect us/facts connect us – ideas/facts bridge the haecceity gap. We have some level of neutral epistemic access to the Godhead. For example, the qualifier “exactly” implies that we have some access to how the Godhead functions. In this worldview – the worldview of Longstreet, the Colson Center, and evangelicalism at large – facts speak for themselves, and those facts give us access to God.

I understand that my negative subtext laden in that previous sentence will be shocking to some.  So, here’s the thrust of my argument: our ontology of univocity of being leads to expressive individualism. “I am” statements are only possible if we share in the “am” of the great I AM. So, I am fill-in-the-blank.

To be sure, because of the limits of language, there are “I am” statements that don’t carry ontological weight but are instead vocational/ethical. For example, I am a Chicago Cubs fan. That’s not an identity statement for me at the ontological level. If the Chicago Cubs go out of business, I’ll be disappointed but who I am will not change. This, of course, raises the question of who I am. Well, I am Christ’s.

Evangelicalism’s embrace of univocity of being has many negative repercussions. Pertinent to my argument and objective with this article is the inability for evangelicalism to correct the Church’s bad anthropology. To articulate a Biblical anthropology requires starting by submitting to the reality that God is being. He doesn’t have being. This is important and bears repeating: God doesn’t have being, God is being. As such, we don’t share in being, not even to a lesser degree. Our being (the limits of language requires my use of the word but not as a synonym with God’s being) is relational, covenantal, and vocational/ethical. Humans – all of us – are either in a relationship of blessing with God or a relationship of wrath. And this may help: it’s incorrect to say that unrepentant sinners will be separated from God for all eternity. That’s a claim that is true only if univocity of being is true. Unrepentant sinners will exist in a relationship of God’s wrath for all eternity because God is being and our existence is relational/covenantal and vocational/ethical with God. We can’t be separated from God. That would be non-existence.

Being in Christ means that I participate in God’s blessing because of my covenantal place in God’s family through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For my epistemology, this means that my knowledge is relational, covenantal, and vocational/ethical, too. I don’t discover facts. I don’t uncover truth. I don’t participate in knowledge via my mind. Christ is wisdom/knowledge – and that’s an ontological statement. When I make wisdom/knowledge a function of human epistemology, I, once again, am demonstrating that I hold to univocity of being. My epistemic relationship with the cosmos (including quantum mechanics) is mediated via my covenantal position in Christ.[5] And this brings us back (finally, right?) to the Breakpoint podcast.

Both John Horgan and John Longstreet have epistemologies that drive their ontology. Or, rather, they both have an ontology of univocity of being that allows an anthropocentric epistemology to reign supreme in their hearts. The primary difference is that even through his participation in a metaphysical rebellion, Longstreet is mercifully in Christ (based on his confession, and I can’t see his heart but have no reason to doubt him, to be clear). Horgan, on the other hand, is in a relationship under his Creator’s wrath. He exists as a creature of God’s wrath. In his article, he confesses, “I’m definitely a skeptic. I doubt we’ll ever know whether God exists, what quantum mechanics means, how matter makes mind. These three puzzles, I suspect, are different aspects of a single, impenetrable mystery at the heart of things. But one of the pleasures of agnosticism—perhaps the greatest pleasure—is that I can keep looking for answers and hoping that a revelation awaits just over the horizon.” 

While Horgan correctly recognizes that humans do not have epistemic access to God, he does so in a way that turns him back into himself. The “impenetrable mystery at the heart of things” is reduced to “if I can’t know about it, I’m not going to submit to it (or God).” Horgan’s agnosticism is form of epistemological rebellion, too. Humans are the source of knowledge, and if humans can’t know it, then, well, it’s either not worth knowing or it doesn’t matter.

That’s really not that different from Longstreet’s epistemological rebellion that claims that we can reveal who God is in a neutral, foundationalist way. This is part and parcel of the great sin of modern apologetics. Presenting the right arguments in the right way is what induces change in people is the modus operandi of modern apologetics. In turn, this is what allows Longstreet to view quantum mechanics as one of the potential keys that unlocks the minds of unbelievers to the epistemically neutral facts about God, demonstrating the rationality of Christianity. Present them with the right information – the right set of facts within a rightly framed argument – and apologetics tills the soteriological ground in preparation for the gospel. The work of apologetics helps (at best) ensure that the gospel seed will bear fruit, is the assumption. Except none of that is our job. We are called to sow the seed. The quality of the soil, presence of weeds, the amount of fertilizer, the watering, and ultimately the reaping are the Holy Spirit’s concerns.

The complexities of quantum mechanics should cause us to bow the knee before our Creator. We cannot even figure out this natural world. In light of that, the level of hubris it takes to imagine that we can figure out God is as astounding as it is rebellious.

Soli Deo Gloria  

[1] James D. Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings trans. Allan Wolter (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), 2.

[3] My opponents may cry “foul” here, and that’s fine. They are free to explain Scotistic realism to the uninitiated then.

[4] Richard Feldman, Epistemology (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003).

[5] This is an interesting point, especially as it involved very intelligent unbelievers like John Horgan. How do they “know” things if they reject God? Well, common grace is the short answer that will have to suffice for now.

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