The Material World and the Rule of God: Matter or Physical Substance as Understood Today

Dallas Willard Part 2 of 4

In this rare recording, Dallas speaks on the first building block for modern apologetics: the relationship between God and the matter.


Dallas: Thank you very much, Dean Henshaw.

One of the burdens of The Staley Lectureship is that it has to combine an element of inspiration with an element of scholarship, so I think that you may feel at certain points that you’re receiving another class lecture instead of an inspiring sermon, but I hope that you will accept it as the spirit of the occasion and bear with me as I, perhaps, go down a little further, and stay down a little longer, and come up a little dryer than you might desire. [00:43]

The topic is Apologetics and since a number of you, I see, were not here last evening, I want to begin again just by saying what Apologetics is. Apologetics is, in the first place, it is not being apologetic in the sense that we understand it today. It is not apologizing for something in the sense of saying we are sorry, and isn’t it awful, and all of that. It rather is a matter of giving a reason for our faith.

Last evening I utilized the New Testament passage in 1 Peter, the 3rd chapter and the 13-15th verses. And this is a passage in which the author is saying that if you are followers of that which is good no one could harm you, “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye . . . “ (1 Peter 3:14) Blessed are you, if you suffer and then he immediately goes ahead to say, “But now sanctify the Lord God in your hearts and be ready to give an answer to the person who says to you why are you happy in your suffering.” As the old version reads, “ . . . be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15) [2:18]

Let’s start by thinking about it in this way. The very greatest thing you could do for any human being is to help them have a solid and clear faith in the reality of the Kingdom of God. That’s the very greatest thing you could do. [2:41]

Faith in God and His Kingdom is the most precious quantity, the most precious quality, which you can convey to another person. There is nothing greater. It is great to do work which helps people with their physical needs, and all of us should have a part of that and indeed that is a part of the work of the Kingdom of God, but we are not in the final analysis merely a physical system. We are reminded by the scriptures that “man does not live by bread alone” because we are not merely physical beings; we are spiritual beings. And we live fundamentally by the creative word that comes forth out of the mouth of God, the creation of faith in Him, and all that follows from Him.

Now it is not easy to believe—the world as it is, and we as we are, are such that it is not easy to believe.  And we have to remember that in a setting such as this where you are surrounded by acts, and thoughts, and words of religion. It is possible still not to believe. It is possible still to be ashamed or frightened by our unbelief and unable to deal with it. One of the greatest things we can do is to listen, and to look, and to be aware, and to be prepared within the fellowship of faith itself to witness to the reason for the hope that is within us. [4:37]

The task of the defender of Christianity is not one of proving that he is right. That isn’t the issue. It is not one of ridiculing the problems of faith that other people or we ourselves may be having, but it is one simply of moving in the servant spirit of Christ to help others believe, and in that process, we use our reason. We don’t just drop, sort of, spiritual bombs on people, and let them go off, and that isn’t the way it works; and all of scripture, and the testimony of the church, testifies to that fact. It requires an approach where we are open, where we are reasonable, not striving, but prepared to learn as well as to teach, and find the reasons for the hope that is in us. [5:42]

An old book by E. Y. Mullins called Why is Christianity True? says, “The task of the defender of Christianity is to establish the Christian positions by means of the principles of investigation employed by the opposition itself so far as those principles are valid. The defense in the nature of the case,” he continues, “to be effective must be in terms of the attack.” Another old writer has described it in this way: “That religion requires of philosophy and logic nothing but a fair field and no quarter given, and then from the Christian’s point of view they go forward in reliance upon the Spirit of God, and the power of the truth to open the heart, and change the insides so that the individual finally says, ‘I do believe. I understand. I see.’” That’s the work of the Apologetics.

It is a work to which we are all called. It is a work, which we, in this present world, are sorely in need of. It is one, which, as I explained last evening, has been despised and disregarded for some time, and now is in a time of coming back and receiving much more attention than it has for a long while. It is a work, which I hope you will find yourself engaged in as followers of Christ. [7:21]

Now in the lectures which I’ll be giving today and tomorrow, I’m dealing with three main problem areas which I find to be most serious for those who are concerned about faith in God and His Kingdom, and these are, first of all, the nature of matter, and then secondly, the nature of mind, and then finally, the presence of evil and suffering.

In each of these areas there are assumptions, which make it extremely difficult for a person who is honest to put together what they may know from a natural standpoint, and what they may regard as being presented by the Sciences, and the Arts, and the Social Sciences, and what they read in their Bible. I’m going to just be talking on these three topics, not by any means in an attempt to be thorough and complete, but in an attempt to be suggestive of ways of thinking about these issues that will help us in seeing the credibility of the scriptural, the Christian, the spiritual view of man in his world. [8:49]

I want to start out on the first one with a statement from the journal of George Fox. George Fox, if you do not know, is the founder of the Quaker or Friends movement. He was a person of great depth of thought, though uneducated, very like John Bunyan and other of the great leaders in the Christian church. He was taught of God through a long process of suffering and experience and in the upshot became a person of such profound insight that he was able to confound those of his day who were deemed wise.

The scene that this statement comes from is typical of George Fox. It is one where he is doing nothing but thinking; he is sitting and thinking. I often ask my students in my classes whether or not they would like to be known as a thinker and how they would respond if someone accused them of being a thinker. I don’t know how that would go over in your dorms or your classes. Would you like to be known as a thinker? As one who thinks? [10:04]

Well, George Fox was a thinker and he meditated and thought about the fundamental things that concerned his faith. And now here is this quote, “One morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me, and a temptation beset me; but I sat still. And it was said, ‘All things come by nature;’ and the elements and stars came over me, so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But in as much as I sat still and silent, the people of the house where I was perceived nothing to be the trouble. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope arose in me, and a true voice, which said, ‘There is a living God who made all things.’ And immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away, and life rose over all of it; and my heart was glad, and I praised the living God. After some time I met with some other people who had such a notion that there was no God, and that all things came by nature. And I had a great dispute with them, and overturned them, and made some of them confess that there is indeed a living God. And then I saw that it was good that I had gone through that exercise.” [11:49]

There is a great temptation to believe, simply, that all things come by nature and that nature is cold, and indifferent to mind, to value, to life. The problem here expressed in the experience of George Fox is a very old one, which may be described as the seeming indifference of nature to personality. To God on the one hand and to man on the other, with the result that God seems distant and hidden from the believer.

The poet Tennyson, after the death of his friend Hallam, wrote, among other things, these lines, “O Sorrow, cruel fellowship, O priestess in the vaults of Death, O sweet and bitter in a breath, what whispers from thy lying lips.” The answer: “’The stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run;’ A web is woven across the sky; from out waste places comes a cry, and murmurs from a dying sun: ‘And all that phantom, Nature, stands with all the music in her tone, a hollow echo of my own, a hollow form with empty hands.’” Lost in nature, man cries out with Job, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him; that I might come (before his presence) even to his seat.” (Job 23:3) [13:31]

On our better days, perhaps as in Psalm 8, we see ourselves as the fortunate hosts and hirelings of God, exercising dominion over his creation, while crowned with glory and honor. We more commonly, perhaps, find ourselves starved for His presence, as in Psalm 42, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” While those who look upon us, and who do not share our faith, turn the knife they have stuck into us by saying, “Where is thy God?” Where is your God? “Where were you, God, when we needed you?”

The Psalm says that God is an ever present help in time of trouble but many don’t find that so. It is not easy to believe that when you are on the skewer or when those you love are in trouble. And it’s very possible that someone standing by might simply say, “Well, it’s in the nature of the case, you know because the material universe is like that. It’s just indifferent, and cold, and indeed that’s all there is to it, and if there were a God He couldn’t even get into it.” [14:52]

Now, there’s no question but what the rise of modern Science served to enhance the impression that all things comes by nature. I think there can be no question about that at all. Often you will hear talk as if the scientific view of things is that the material world, into which we are born, as contemptibly small, and powerless material objects, runs on its own without a shadow of the immediate presence of divine personality.

Now, it’s not as if any particular discoveries of any particular science actually proved that the natural world is not a moral order. You can’t turn into your Chemistry book, for example, or your book on Anthropology, or your book on Physics, and find a chapter there, which says proof that the world is not a moral order. Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, Biology; none of these do that.

It continues possible for outstanding people in all of these areas to remain devout and thoughtful Christians without, in any wise, losing their credibility as workers in those areas. But it is also true that from scientific activity, generally, there has arisen in the course of history, a picture of the natural world that does not seem to require or possibly even to admit an ever present, and all-present, effectively, acting God. [16:48]

We may set this picture of Naturalism, which I shall shortly call it, over against the picture of the Biblical worldview as follows: on the one hand, for the Christian view of the world, the world is ultimately governed by spiritual forces, which all other forces sub serve. On the Naturalistic view, the world is wholly governed by blind, physical forces such as gravitation, the laws of motion, the laws of chemical combination and so on.

On the Christian view, the world, as a whole, has a purpose. On the Naturalist view, the world has no purpose. It is entirely meaningless and senseless in itself. On the Christian view, the world is a moral order; shot through with effective ends and values. On the Naturalist view, the world is not a moral order. The world is indifferent to all values. [17:53]

Now, a great deal has been written about how this view has developed, about the role, for example; especially the role of Astronomy, and celestial mechanics, and space exploration, in the development of this view. I think most of you may not be old enough to remember the triumphant report of Yuri Gagarin, the first space astronaut in Russia when he went off into space, and came back, and reported that after all there was no heaven and no God out there, and he had looked and seen that that was so.

But really this issue of space, I think, is not so important in the modern development of the modern worldviews we may think. Those of you who are interested in following this up along scholarly lines can find easily, that the idea of the world as being a very large space is very old. And if you’re interested you might look at T. L. Heath’s book, Aristarchus of Samos, in which he gives a detailed description of how the ancient Greeks worked out the views of the universe, which made it very large indeed. [19:03]

The sixth century writer, Boethius, has a statement in a book called the Consolations of Philosophy. What he is doing in this is he is chiding people who pursue fame and his remark is interesting because it describes the views of the astronomers at this early date about the size of the Earth. He remarks, “As you have learned from the demonstrations of the Astronomers, the whole circumference of the Earth is but as a point compared with the size of the Heaven. That is if you compare the Earth with the circle of the universe it must be reckoned as of no size at all.”

Now, those of you who have studied the book of Isaiah know in the 40th chapter, the writer likens the inhabitants of the Earth as grasshoppers in the perspective of God; no doubt deriving the idea from the fact that human beings look very small at a distance and thinking of God as being at a distance where they would look merely like grasshoppers. And certainly the Old Testament and many of the ancient writings that we have do indicate a much smaller universe in the eyes of ancient man than we have had for many centuries. [20:19]

You know the story of the Tower of Babel. That story indicates that it was thought that an enterprising stonemason or set of bricklayers could build a tower high enough actually to get where God was. But this has changed and changed long ago, and by the time of Boethius we have man looking, not like grasshoppers from the circle of the heavens, but looking like nothing at all; in fact, he has disappeared, the space is so big. And from the practicalities of life before God after a certain distance, a few billion miles won’t make much difference. The point is simply that God is far off and that feeling is very old. Again, we find in the prophet Isaiah the cry, “Oh, that thou wouldest rend the heavens . . . and come down.” (Isaiah 64:1) The distance of God is an old problem.

Modern science, I think, has had a greater impact upon the worldview of modern man not in terms of space, but in terms of its theory of matte—the theory of matter associated with the emergence of the new cosmology. In particular, the idea arose and has prevailed since the 17th century that the real world is a world of quantitative characteristics only, distributed amongst discreet entities which act upon one another solely in the impingements of a mechanical, external force; wholly intractable before quality, before mind, before values—a kind of push-pull universe. And the great machine image of the universe, which emerged from that has I think, been one of the main problems for modern thought, and still troubles many people. [22:22]

Living on this side of the 17th century, the transformation of the concept of matter, which occurred in that period, it is hard for us to appreciate the Aristotelian and Medieval view of things where quantity and quantifiable characteristics were only some, and indeed not the most important of the properties of material substance. [22:47]

For example, this was a time in which people believed in the spontaneous generation of life from matter. There was also a popular preoccupation with what was called the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone. The Philosopher’s Stone was thought to be a substance, which you could combine with lead or any base metal, and turn it into gold or silver.

Also the doctrine of transubstantiation, as we know about it, arose in this period. It was a different view of matter. Matter did not have that same perspective of cold, indifference to mind, and quality, and value, as it came to have in the period of the rise of modern science. When we turn to the Bible, we see also there a different view of matter presupposed when we talk about water turning into wine, the proliferation of loaves and fishes, in the Old Testament, shoes that did not wear out in the 40 years of wilderness wondering, a vessel of oil that replenishes itself, and fills many others, and so on. And when we come on in to the New Testament to read such doctrines as the resurrection of Christ as a spiritual body, we see that really there is a different view of matter, presupposed than that, which is common in the modern period of science. [24:13]

I think this is really the great issue, and we might speak, and I shall speak here, briefly, of the classical or modern view of matter as Corpuscularism or Classical Atomism. Although many people, such as Kepler and Galileo made great and indispensable contributions to it, it was the Christian physicist and scientist, Isaac Newton, who drew these contributions together and added a mathematical formulation of the force, gravitation, which governed the interrelationships of bodies to provide an account of how the great, Godforsaken machine of nature ran from the smallest particles to its largest distinguishable parts. All bodies, as well as the whole of the material universe, was regarded as totally under the rule of a blind and impersonal force, one which is specified in the kinematic equations of, as he was called, the Incomparable Mr. Newton. [25:19]

There was a poem that was made up—Newton was almost worshiped in his day and a poem about how that all of the physical universe was covered in night, and Mr. Newton said, or God said, “Let Newton be and all was light.” [Laughter] It was regarded as just making everything transparent and perfectly clear, with this model of a push-pull universe of small, discreet entities, so that if you just knew what was going on with these small entities you’d be able to deduce everything else.

The intrinsic characteristics and transformation of gross bodies, such as a piece of bread, a stone, a human body were thought to be wholly determined by the corpuscles, or atoms, the smallest naturally-occurring bodies. These smallest units of matter themselves being wholly governed by the same blind forces that govern the stars. It is true that Newton saw no way of comprehending light and magnetism, and heat under his kinematic equations, but he thought we could do it if we just knew enough about it, and he hoped that someday we would find out. [26:44]

Well the result in cosmology, as Keith Campbell has pointed out, was sometimes called the Closed Billiard Ball Table Model of the Universe or the Model of the Dance of Atoms. An image of the world as a restless, swarming, confusion of tiny, massy, hard balls, forever bouncing, jostling, gravitating themselves everlastingly, and unchanging except in position and velocity; all being, and all becoming, and all passing away consisted in the mere rearrangement of atoms. The material world is at bottom, colorless, lifeless, and purposeless.

Those of you who have studied this may know that this period after Newton was the heyday of a position known as Deism; and on this position God made the universe, after the model of the great machine, and walked off and left it. Once you understand the picture of what the world was supposed to be like then you could understand why he might as well have walked off and left it, because it was supposed to just run on its own. One of the pictures that was used to image this was the picture of a clock, you make it, you wind it up, and you go off and you . . . [28:03]

And one of the arguments against miracles during this period, curiously, was that the idea of miracles was contrary to the notion of the perfection of God, because it presupposes that somehow God had to keep messing with the thing, you know like you had to take your car back, or you had to take your stereo back to the maker.

The idea was that if you had to keep fooling with it that somehow you didn’t do it right in the first place, and that therefore, He was good enough to where there wouldn’t be a need for any miracles. This idea of God as the great machinist, who geometrizes and creates a perfect machine was extremely hard to render compatible with the kind of faith in the personal Kingdom of God, which one finds in the Bible. [28:58]

Although Newton and Robert Boyle and John Locke, and most of the other people involved in the development of the Newtonian ideas were Christians—and Newton, you may know spent more time studying prophecy than he did Physics, and had elaborate interpretations of Biblical prophecy, which he thought was possibly the most important thing that he did.

It’s not surprising, really, that many thoughtful people found in this atomistic view a depressing outlook, a depressing cosmology and a view of the universe that differed very little from outright Atheism, and indeed, many of the Christian thinkers in that day did call this Atheism. [29:50]

The Bishop George Berkeley, for example, thought that this position was as Atheistic as one could possibly get, precisely because it pictured a world which ran on its own entirely without God; and what does Atheism mean? It just means without God. Bishop Berkeley undertook to demonstrate that the very idea of the atoms of Newton were ideas of nothing really existing, and I think probably, we would have to say that, in his conclusion, he has been born out by the development of modern science, though his reasons were certainly very different from anything that scientists would deduce today. [30:35]

Now, it is fairly, widely known that great changes have occurred in the theory of physical reality in the last 75 to 80 years. Neither my time nor my particular expertise, you may be relieved at this point to hear, allows me to go very deeply into the details of this change. But there are some things which I think, perhaps, we can say that would be understandable, and useful, and true in getting a new look at the possibilities of a universe where a personal presence, both divine and human is at home in the midst of matter.

During the 19th century, in the works of people such as Ampère, Ohm, and Faraday current electricity was brought under experimental control, and the relationships between electricity, and magnetism, and motion, such as we’re familiar with in an ordinary electrical motor were established. In association with these developments there emerged the concept of a field, and this, I think, is the single most important development in physical science in the last 500 years—the concept of a field; at least from a conceptual, not from a technological point of view necessarily. [32:00]

The concept of a field or space around a material object, such as a magnetized piece of metal, wherein things are affected in certain ways because they are in the area of influence. Now precisely what a field is remains elusive. It is something and it is to be described in terms of its powers to affect the course of events within it. It pervades a space which then contains stresses and tensions of some kind within it and allows for transmissions of energies throughout it. It is either a medium by which electrified or magnetized objects can have effects at a certain distance from themselves, or possibly it is simply the range of such effects. In any case, it seems to be of a different constitution than a complex of classical atoms or corpuscles. [32:55]

James Clerk Maxwell discovered the equations concerning the propagation of waves of radiation in the electromagnetic field, such as light and irradiant heat also, for example, and was able to demonstrate that they could not be reduced to any combination of mechanical forces.

Not only, however, did there emerge within Physics entities which, such as fields, which could not be treated as aggregates of classical atoms. Heisenberg’s research, popularly associated with his Uncertainty Principle supported the view that the fundamental units, or quanta of matter are not neatly delineated objects at all, or particles with a definite size, shape, or position as was assigned to them in classical mechanics.

Rather, as Heisenberg himself put it, they are smudged; they take on a wave-like character, having a maximum present in one ill-defined locality with more or less diminishing presence of effects elsewhere. Rather than thinking of a single, discreet, well-defined, and clearly located unit of matter affecting other such items, on mechanical principles, one must think of approximately located wave packets, or of certain stable effects of the interactions of waves in and between force fields that bare and transmit the energies displayed in nature. [34:32]

Well at a far less theoretical level, we are all familiar, in some degree with nuclear reactions, in which basic particles of matter are transformed or annihilated releasing energy. Some particles decay into others of lesser mass emitting large quantities of energy, and that’s what happens, for example, when the bombs that we know so much about are set off, or one kind of them at least.

Atomic bombs, nuclear-electric plants capitalize upon this new picture of matter. In the mass energy transformations, which are in question in such occasions; sometimes particles disappear, sometimes they reappear, they are created, they are recreated, the fields of energy group and regroup by non-mechanical principles. The stuff, if we can call it that, inside of a particle transforms into the wavy stuff outside of it and vice versa. In nuclear reactions, the entire particle, together with its surrounding field dissapears in favor of alterations in other energy values of gamma rays, for example. [36:00]

Well the upshot of this for our view of matter can be stated very simply, and we can just simply call it the insubstantiality of material substance. It should be noted that nothing immediately follows concerning the relations of personality, divine or human, to the material or physical world.

There is a well represented tendency today, nonetheless, to interpret the present stage of physical science as indicating that the only material substance, if there is one, is the whole of the material universe. The kind of interdependence and interrelationship now seen in the elements of physical reality by many thinkers are regarded as being much the same kind as those that make up mind itself. The gross material objects that we see about us are interpretted by some leading thinkers, and I will say a little more about that next time, as being essentially mental. [37:09]

I want to give you a reference to a book or two which makes a great deal out of that and many students have found these extremely interesting; perhaps the most famous is the book by Fritjof Capra, called The Tao of Physics, and one of the tendencies in these thinkers is to attempt to unify Physics with eastern mysticism, which is an interesting approach in itself.

From the viewpoint of some western scientists, and I’m going to quote, by now, a rather old-fashioned one, Sir James Jeans. He says, “That today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physics side approaches almost unanonimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality. The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.” [38:20]

So quite a different picture emerges. Matter, we might be now prepared to say, has an inside to it, which is not indifferent to quality, value, thought, and personality. When we begin to understand this, and we read people like Teilhard de Chardin, in his realm or Hymn to Matter, we find him saying, “That matter has to be viewed rather as the matrix or womb of the spirit.”

Our doctrines of incarnation, and in general, the relationship between spirit and matter, which we see in the Bible  takes upon itself a new meaning. The ancient prayer of honor to Christ, “Thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb,” now takes on a new look. Perhaps there is a glory in matter which we have not yet begun to suspect.

The Book of Hebrews, in the 10th chapter, gives the Messiah saying, “Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me.” The Biblical phenomona of body, and mind, and spirit, the power of Christ to speak and calm the heaving waves of a storm-tossed sea, to change water into wine, the power of the Apostles themselves to heal by speaking a word indicates that perhaps they have a control on things which we can learn about ourselves, and come to understand matter as not being indifferent to the voice of a person who is living in a right connection to the Kingdom of God. [40:23]

We then need to rethink our view of God. Our scriptures say that God is a consuming fire, and we need to think about what fire stands for, as a process of energy transfer of state transformation in matter. If you take the concept of fire, and go through your Old and New Testament, and follow it in relationship to God, you will find it extremely interesting if you have in the back of your mind the modern view of physical reality. [41:01]

I close with a poem by Leonard Cohen, which brings it much closer to our practical life. Because we are apt to scorn the human body, we are apt to treat it as just a piece of matter, and I think you can only understand the violence that lies about us in this world if you understand that beneath it lies an abhorrence, and disregard, and disdain for the body.

What now in our part of the world out there are called slice and dice movies. You know what a slice and dice movie is? Well you know one of the greatest financial successes of all time is a movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then we have Friday the 13th, and Friday the 13th, and Friday the 13th, and Friday the 13th, over and over, and more and more. See, these are slice and dice movies. [42:01]

We are precoccupied with this sort of violence, and Leonard Cohen has these beautiful words in which he prays:

“May I never learn to scorn, the body out of chaos born
The woman and the man, have mercy on our uniform
Man of peace, man of war, the peacock spreads his fan.”

The body is the place in which we know and serve God. It is our nexus with the material universe, and may God help us to have an understanding, or at least a vision of the material universe, which enables us to see it as the matrix of the spirit, the place of the incarnation, the rule of the Kingdom of God.

Thank you.

Listen to all parts in this Prospects for an Evangelical Apologetics in the 1980s series