When the anonymous Christian in Nicholas of Cusa’s dialogue “On the Hidden God” is asked by his pagan interlocutor to explain the difference between Christians and pagans, he answers that followers of Christ know they cannot comprehend the divine. This seems a strange mode of apologetics, one particularly unsuited for the age of science. Any strategy that would identify ignorance as a basic element of the Christian faith (indeed, as its specific difference) could hardly counter the claim that science has revealed the basic structures of nature, rendering the “God hypothesis” obsolete.
But Nicholas of Cusa does not advance a nescient faith, and understood correctly, the claim made in this dialogue is well suited to counter atheism’s scientific imperialism. Cusa’s critique of paganism could be brought to bear on the pretensions of scientism by showing that, first, naturalistic accounts cannot in principle achieve more than accidental, partial truths about even the natural world, and second, that the God that Christians worship is not the kind of being that could be crowded out by scientific accounts because of the ontological difference between God and the world.
A scientific law is a stable, enduring image of the world of appearance, in which things busily come to be, suffer change, and pass away. The real subjects of scientific theories—stars, amoebas, electromagnetic fields—fluctuate, but a good scientific theory expresses this flux in stable laws. The scientific truth of the world of appearance is, as Hegel pointed out, both “present in it and . . . its direct tranquil image.” Adherents of scientism hold that, in principle, science can provide an image of the natural world that is complete and exhaustive, even if the limitations of our instruments or our neurology make this a difficult achievement in practice.
The looming problem is that “science” offers no single image of the world, because the scientific enterprise is fragmentary in method, aims, subjects, and concepts. Chemistry, biology, psychology, anthropology, and physics all offer accounts of a human being, and although these accounts overlap in places, the pictures are still distinct: They cannot be reduced to a single scientific image. True, it has long been hoped that all the sciences could be reduced to physics, but this is a matter of sheer faith and has not been supported by the development of physics in the twentieth century.
Yet even if future developments in the sciences vindicate this faith in a unified “theory of everything,” such a theory could never be more than a relative expression of the truth. A comprehensive theoretical framework can never, even in principle, fully account for natural phenomena, because a unified theory must oscillate between abstraction, which does not explain the whole of the natural world, and description (or prediction), which encompasses more of appearance but lacks explanatory power.
Newton’s theory of gravity succeeded in offering an explanation of the movement of bodies because it retreated from much of the phenomenal world, preferring abstraction to empiricism. The movement of a falling apple and the elliptical orbit of Saturn can be explained by the same theory because they are considered abstractly as inert bodies. But the greater the explanatory power, the more aspects of the world “appearance retains for itself,” and the less the theory can explain how an apple is different from a planet.
The first apologetic move Cusa makes is to show that, while naturalistic explanations can be true, they can only be partially true; they cannot, in principle, exclude explanations of another order. Cusa’s second move is to clarify the way in which God can be said to be the absolute Truth of the world—that is, the Logos.
This transition is critical for our current apologetic situation. Cusa does not argue that the existence of natural entities must be explained by a supernatural entity as in William Paley’s natural theology. Truth by its nature must be “prior to every foundation”; it must exceed finite concepts such as being and nothing, effable and ineffable, large and small, same and other. Any discomfort Christians may feel at Cusa’s insistence that God is not an entity and therefore that his existence can only be affirmed analogically, for Cusa, simply evinces the seductive power of paganism.
Cusa explains God’s relation to creation with the analogy of sight and color: God is to the world as sight is to color. Color is color by virtue of sight; without sight there would be only frequencies of light. Sight is in the colored world, yet sight is itself neither a color nor a colored thing. “Color is not apprehended in any way other than by sight; and in order that sight can readily apprehend every color, the center of sight is without color.” Sight transcends the categories of color: it is neither black nor white, red nor blue; just as God is neither an entity nor a non-entity, large nor small, effable nor ineffable. Sight gives life to color while, at the same time, transcending the realm of colored things.
Cusa puts the conclusion of this argument in the mouth of the (rather too easily) converted pagan: “neither God nor his name is found [in the finite world], and . . . God escapes all conception.” It is this God, who is hidden in his very manifestation—and who cannot appear within a naturalistic theory as explanans or explanandum—to whom Christians must witness.
Thomas Martin Cothran is a writer and attorney living in Lexington, Kentucky.
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