In Memoriam: William Monsma (1942-2015)

I have only fuzzy, hazy memories of our first meeting on the University of Minnesota East Bank campus in front of Coffman Union almost 30 years ago.  I had just departed a part-time pastorate among farmers in the wheat fields of Western Kansas for a campus ministry amongst international students in the marketplace of ideas (or so I thought).  At any rate, bearded, lanky, and warmly engaging, William Monsma’s reference that day to Francis Schaeffer was all I needed to know that I had found a campus minister cut out of the same cloth.  I needed to get to know him and, perhaps, see what I could learn from him.

Why Do Scientists Honor What Is Good, Seek Truth, and Love Beauty?

I suggest that many highly educated Westerners practice a heroic kind of morality, search for truth, and love for beauty that has unworthy metaphysical roots.  Many are agnostics, but their default is scientific naturalism, or materialism, and they must make a decision sooner or later to either align their metaphysic with their heroic ideals, or risk living in such contradiction that they will resemble Christians rendered vulnerable by the charge of not practicing what they preach.

Naturalism of the Gaps


© 2014 Robert Osburn

If you toss out the rhetorical firebomb “God of the gaps” in most discussions about religion and science, you have just achieved a conversation-stopper. The theist who claims to see evidence of God as the Universe’s designer goes mum because, “How do we know that what today can only be explained by God might someday be fully explained by science?”  Once we thought God kept the sun orbiting the earth, but now we know the earth, by means of the sun’s gravitational force, rotates around the sun. And so the religious believer quietly defers to the scientist who, naturally, has the last word in the modern world.

Besides serving up a sometimes-valuable dose of humility (which the Christian wisely takes from God), “God of the gaps” talk has, however, a more pernicious effect: It exalts naturalism, if not philosophical, at least methodological naturalism. The naturalist (or, materialist) has one core understanding about reality: Everything is material, and there is nothing beyond or above material reality.  Think Carl Sagan: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

There are two mighty problems with this conclusion.  First, naturalism has enormous philosophical problems (see below).  Second, naturalists are so devoted to their naturalism that they become what Rice University professor Jeff Kripal calls “promissory materialists:” They count on their deeply-founded commitment--- to the idea that matter is all there---to explain all kinds of inexplicable and remarkable phenomena.  Kripal writes about paranormal phenomena that can’t be explained away by the naturalist, but I’m satisfied with garden-variety biblical miracles (and some well-documented modern miracles, such as Craig Keener documents in his two-volume Miracles [2011]). Anyway you cut it, naturalists are desperately trying to reassure themselves that naturalism holds the promise of explaining everything there is.  And failing.

Let’s just call this “naturalism of the gaps.” 

I’m not being snarky, but what was good for the theist goose is just as good for the naturalist gander.  Naturalism is failing to explain a lot of reality, and will likely fail to explain a lot more that we discover in the future.  As Christians can attest, the humility that results is truly a good thing.  After all, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). 

As for the philosophical problems of naturalism, which are legion, try on a few mind-numbing questions for size: How do we create and find meaning if we are mere rocks, or sophisticated biological machines at best?  As for morality, how can mere neurology tell us right from wrong?  As for our humanness, the intrinsic sense of human dignity, how we do mine that from pure matter? 

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, employing the tools of analytic philosophy, several years ago wrote Where the Conflict Really Lies (2011), and concluded that a naturalist could not believe in evolution. 

Coming from a major philosopher, that’s a gap that naturalists will definitely want to fill, but I wonder whether they have the tools to fill it.