David Ray Griffin

Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith

Review by Anne Hillman, 2010

Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith. By David Ray Griffin. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. 130 pages. $24.95. Paperback.

Based on lectures given in 2002 at Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, Two Great Truths is a concise account of David Ray Griffin’s argument for a peaceful coexistence between Christianity and scientific naturalism. Asserting that both Christianity and scientific naturalism embody great truths which have been distorted, Griffin traces the history of the relationship between the two worldviews through eight syntheses, ending finally with an integrated worldview incorporating the truth of both traditions. Griffin is quite confident his proposal upholds the central truths of both science and Christianity.

Griffin begins his first chapter by defining what he calls nonsupernaturalistic naturalism (naturalismns), or generic scientific naturalism, as “the doctrine that the universe involves an extremely complex web of cause-and-effect relations; that every event occurs within this web, having causal antecedents and causal consequences; and that every event exemplifies a common set of causal principles” (2). This doctrine, which implies a rejection of supernaturalism, is the great truth of modern science which Griffin argues has been distorted when presented as necessitating an atheist position. He is clear that naturalismns accepts the possibility of something beyond the totality of finite things, but rejects the existence of a supernatural being which could violate the universal web of cause-and-effect relations. The rest of the chapter takes the reader on a quick historical tour of Western philosophy, science, and theology as Griffin chronicles the emergence, development, and distortion of scientific naturalism.

Griffin locates the origin of naturalism in the sixth century BCE when Greek philosophers began to conceive of the world as causally ordered and made distinctions between the natural and the supernatural. While some philosophers held a materialistic view of the world, the work of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle provided a basis for a theistic form of naturalism as well. Griffin moves quickly through the first four of seven historical attempts at synthesis between Christian theology and scientific naturalism which ultimately result in the distortion of naturalism into an alliance with atheism and materialism. In the first two syntheses, Christian theologians relied heavily on Plato’s philosophy, modifying it to allow for supernatural miracles and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. The third and fourth syntheses utilized Aristotle’s philosophy. Thomas Aquinas embodied the third with his emphasis on divine reason while voluntarist theologians emphasizing divine will embodied the fourth.

It is in the fifth synthesis that Griffin marks the rise and persistence of a “mechanistic doctrine of nature,” which in the seventeenth century resulted in a supernaturalistic mechanism (11). These philosophers and theologians held that all of nature could be reduced to atoms which moved according to the divine programming instilled in them by a God who created the world ex nihilo, but that the human body was directed by a soul. This synthesis allowed for miracles as supernatural interruptions, the immortality of the human soul, and an omnipotent deity (14-17). The sixth synthesis held onto the mechanical view of nature, but did away with supernatural intervention into the causal world, an essentially deistic view.

The seventh synthesis, occurring in the eighteenth century, is where Griffin describes a divorce between science and Christianity as naturalism moved from dualism to materialism and supernaturalism to atheism. Labeling this naturalismsam, or sensationist-atheistic-materialistic naturalism, Griffin explains that this new synthesis did away with any distinction between mind and brain, denied the existence of the soul, and relied on a sensationist doctrine of perception. While Griffin finds the incompatibility of this naturalism with Christianity upsetting, he also argues that naturalismsam is philosophically inadequate for science. Naturalismsam is unable to resolve questions stemming from what Griffin calls “hard-core common sense”, the “various ideas that we inevitably presuppose in our practices, even if we deny them verbally” (22). These include beliefs in mental causation, human freedom, the reality of the world, mathematics, and conscious experience (22-26). In not being able to address these issues, naturalismsam represents a distortion of the great truth of naturalism.

Before proposing a final synthesis he believes resolves the distortion of scientific naturalism, Griffin turns to explaining the great truth found in Christianity and the roots of its distortion. Griffin provides the reader with his distillation of the truth of Christianity into what he calls eight primary doctrines, given without explanation as to the process by which he determines these eight. Summarized, the eight doctrines affirm the existence of a good God who loves all humanity and creates an essentially good world in which God continues to act through human beings to overcome evil and establish a “reign of God”. God’s desire for humanity to treat each other with justice and compassion has been expressed historically through prophets and decisively revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation can be experienced partially here and now through empowerment by the Holy Spirit and experienced fully in a life beyond physical death (29-31). These primary doctrines have historically been supported by what Griffin terms secondary and tertiary doctrines which are not essential to Christian faith and are the distortions Griffin wants to purge from the Christian tradition.

Griffin locates the main distortion of Christian truth in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo for which Griffin argues there is no scriptural basis. Developed in the second century CE in response to Marcion Gnostic theology, creatio ex nihilo was originally a defense of the essential goodness of the created world. When Marcion argued that the world, which was eternal, was created out of evil matter, Christian theologians responded by denying that matter was eternal and instead asserted that the world was created from nothing. This then placed full responsibility for the creation and nature of the world on an omnipotent and good God, directly leading to Christianity’s struggle with theodicy for the next eighteen centuries. Griffin argues that in attempting to address the problem of evil, Christian theologians have not been able to account adequately for human free will. Other distortions of Christian truth Griffin credits to the creatio ex nihilo doctrine are the alignment of Christianity with the status quo (denying the primary doctrine that God desires justice for humanity), the assertion of the exclusivity of Christian truth (denying God’s love for all of humanity), and the development of a supernaturalistic Christology which Griffin identifies as a main contributing factor to the Crusades and Christianity’s charge of deicide against the Jews.

The third chapter contains Griffin’s explication of an eighth synthesis of scientific naturalism and Christianity which allows him to uphold his primary doctrines of Christianity as well as the great truth of naturalismns. Drawing upon the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Griffin names this synthesis naturalismppp, meaning prehensive-panexperientialist-panentheist naturalism. Whitehead’s prehensive doctrine of perception states that sense perceptions are a “secondary mode of perception, derivative from a nonsensory mode of perception called ‘prehension’” (76). Prehension allows Whitehead, and hence Griffin, to affirm the reality of religious, moral, and aesthetic experiences as well as explain how we can conceive of mathematical and logical forms. Whitehead’s philosophy of panexperientialism asserts that all true individuals have experiences. True individuals include human beings, living cells, and subatomic particles. Griffin argues that panexperientialism solves the mind-body problem which plagues other forms of naturalism since it holds that the mind and brain can interact as they are of the same kind and are only different in degree. This in turn solves the scientific problem of how experience could emerge from the evolutionary process and affirms the reality of human freedom. Griffin also believes panexperientialism allows for the possibility of life after death although rather than provide support for this claim here, points toward his other works.

The final aspect of naturalismppp, panentheism, is the belief that the “world exists within God” (76). Whitehead’s panentheism is grounded in a turn away from creatio ex nihilo and an affirmation of creation out of relative nothingness. For Whitehead, the world was created out of a chaos in which there were no “things” as we typically understand them. Instead, the chaos out of which the world comes into being is eternal, is made up of momentary events referred to as “actual occasions” or “occasions of experience” which embody “creativity and thereby an element of self-determination” (86). This understanding of creation holds that creativity is primordial, not created by God. God instead is what orders the occasions of experience as they become actual.

For Griffin, panentheism and naturalismppp finally solve the theodicy problem, for they hold that divine power is persuasive power, rather than omnipotent coercive power. This explains how evil can exist at the same time as a God who is good. In being a non-supernaturalist understanding of God, panentheism avoids many of the arguments against the existence of God and provides new reasons for affirming God’s existence as the reality behind human religious experience. This view of naturalism also protects divine causation, a necessary element for affirming Griffin’s primary doctrines of Christianity. For Griffin, naturalismppp finally provides an integrated worldview in which the truths of naturalism and Christianity are upheld.

Two Great Truths provides an accessible entry into the discussion of scientific naturalism and its relationship to Christianity, and Griffin’s synthesis is, in fact, a successful way in which to hold to a both a naturalist and religious worldview. As he articulates naturalismppp and the primary doctrines of Christianity, the two great truths he wants to affirm do coexist comfortably in one worldview. The God of Griffin’s primary doctrines can easily fulfill the divine role in the panentheism Griffin articulates, and the great truth of natualismns, held at the heart of naturalismppp, is not violated by any of Griffin’s primary Christian doctrines.

Yet, I question the effectiveness of Griffin’s argument on Christians who have made their first foray into a non-supernationalist understanding of their faith. In not providing an explanation for the source of his primary Christian doctrines, beyond his own understanding of Christian good news, Griffin gives the impression that Christianity has been evaluated by his personal idea of what constitutes truth. While I would argue that these primary doctrines will be familiar to many Christian theologians engaged in theology of religions and interreligious dialogue, they will appear in some respects quite foreign to many Christians. If Griffin intends his synthesis of scientific naturalism and Christian faith to hold meaning for Christians beyond the traditional academic circles, he will need to address more explicitly the authority of his primary doctrines.