Signs and Sacraments: Considering “Natural Signs and Knowledge of God”

C. Stephen Evans. Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, x + 207 pp., £20.00/$39.95 paper, £51.00/$85.00 cloth.

In this book, C. Stephen Evans, University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University, suggests that when it comes to natural theology, we ought to consider the signs that lie at the core of the various theistic arguments (e.g., cosmological, teleological, moral). So, for instance, we might consider the experience of cosmic wonder, beneficial order, moral accountability or the intrinsic worth of human beings.

Regarding these signs, Evans notes: “The nature of a sign … is to be a ‘pointer,’ something that directs our attention to some reality or fact and makes knowledge of that reality or fact possible.”[1]  That said, “these signs, like signs in general, do not point in a conclusive or compelling fashion.”[2]  He continues:

Signs have to be perceived, and once perceived must be “read.”  Some signs are harder to read than others, or, one might say, easier to interpret in alternative ways, even if not all of the possible interpretations are equally plausible. The natural signs that point to God’s reality are signs that can be interpreted in more than one way and thus are sometimes misread and sometimes not even perceived as signs.  They point to God but do not do so in a coercive manner. To function properly as pointers, they must be interpreted properly. It is for this reason that the theistic arguments, which are attempts to articulate these signs and develop them into inferential arguments, fail to be conclusive when they are considered as “proofs.”[3]

From this, Evans draws two Pascalian principles: wide accessibility and easy resistibility. Regarding the former, Evans wants to say that the knowledge of God is not restricted, but widely available. Regarding the latter, that, despite the knowledge of God being unrestricted, it is not forced on people.

Here, Evans sounds a bit like David Brown who, in his God and Enchantment of Place, argues for a broad sacramentality.  Brown notes: “But if God is truly generous, would we not expect to find him at work everywhere and in such a way that all human beings could not only respond to him, however implicitly, but also develop insights from which even Christians could learn?”[4] Here, Brown, like Evans, advocates wide accessibility. And a bit further on, Brown advocates easy resistibility, even if implicitly. He notes:

So, for example, if the natural world is treated as an arena for ‘proving’ God’s existence, then once such proofs are undermined, retreat would seem inevitable. But the question remains why proof should be seen as the only way of experiencing the divine impact on our world. Instead of always functioning as an inference, there was the possibility that a divine structure is already implicit in certain forms of experience of the natural world, whether these be majesty, or beauty, or whatever. In other words, it would be a matter of an immanent given rather than of certain neutral features pointing instrumentally beyond themselves.[5]

That said, I wonder if Evans’ project might be read as a sort of broad sacramentality?  Either way, Evans provides a response to the recent demands of Brown’s critics for criteria.[6] For Evans, signs “must be ‘read’” and “can be interpreted in more than one way and thus are sometimes misread and sometimes not even perceived as signs.”

Accepting Evans’ two principles, I would add a third: these signs are absolutely unrelenting (i.e., in pressing themselves upon us). In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin notes:

If, indeed, there were some in the past, and today not a few appear, who deny that God exists, yet willy-nilly they from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe …. Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? … Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force.[7]

But what might this look like with regard to art? Jeremy Begbie, despite being one of Brown’s criteria critics, gives us some idea. He sounds, at times, quite a bit like Evans, explaining:

[Art] evokes multiple responses …. But no one could ever articulate it all.  This is not to say that a piece of art can ‘mean anything,’ only that its range of resonances can never be exhaustively specified. As such, art can point to what is true of all our engagement with the world–the world always exceeds our grasp of it. There is a ‘generative excess’ in reality that calls forth and provokes all human inquiry…. Again, this does not amount to a knock-down proof of a Creator, but it is highly consonant with belief in a God who himself is generative excess, who lives as generous, excessive love, and who both creates and envelops his creation with this same love.[8]

All too often “natural theology” conjures evidences, arguments and proofs, but here, by way of Evans, Brown, Calvin and Begbie, we have the beginnings of an imaginative natural theology, one that recognizes divine generosity in sign and sacrament.

 

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story.


1. C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2.
2. Evans, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God, 2.
3. ibid.
4. Brown, God and Enchantment of Place, 8.
5. ibid., 21-22.
6. See, for example, Robert MacSwain and Taylor Worley, Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 7, 32, 40, 152.
7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ed., John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 45.
8. Jeremy Begbie, “The Future: Looking to the Future: A Hopeful Subversion,” in For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, ed., W. David O. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 173-174.

Image credit: Oxford University Press

1 Comment

  • Callie Sykes says:

    Is there such a thing as natural knowledge of God? C. Stephen Evans presents the case for understanding theistic arguments as expressions of natural signs in order to gain a new perspective both on their strengths and weaknesses. Three classical, much-discussed theistic arguments – cosmological, teleological, and moral – are examined for the natural signs they embody.At the heart of this book lie several relatively simple ideas. One is that if there is a God of the kind accepted by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, then it is likely that a ‘natural’ knowledge of God is possible. Another is that this knowledge will have two characteristics: it will be both widely available to humans and yet easy to resist. If these principles are right, a new perspective on many of the classical arguments for God’s existence becomes possible. We understand why these arguments have for many people a continued appeal but also why they do not constitute conclusive ‘proofs’ that settle the debate once and for all.Touching on the interplay between these ideas and contemporary scientific theories about the origins of religious belief, particularly the role of natural selection in predisposing humans to form beliefs in God or gods, Evans concludes that these scientific accounts of religious belief are fully consistent, even supportive, of the truth of religious convictions.

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