October 16, 2011
The green in that tree. “2” in that sign. Angels and demons.
The blue-gray of the sky today. “S,” “T,” “O,” “P” and red. My soul.
Black in the asphalt. God.
As I walked through the neighborhood where I grew up on that brisk December afternoon, the collective revelations of my first semester studying philosophy began to emerge. There’s a saying that many Christians are “practical atheists” They believe in God, but that belief has little effect either on their actions or on their other beliefs.
I was not a practical atheist. I was, however, a practical materialist. I believed in God, and I believed that God was not physical. He might as well have been alone in that distinction, though. I believed there was something called a “soul” in people, although I had no idea what it was, and it didn’t seem very important. If someone asked about angels and demons, I would have affirmed their existence too. I would have affirmed them with the same embarrassment that accompanied reminders of my pre-teen infatuation with Frank Perretti novels and third-hand stories of missionaries casting out demons in remote lands. Angels and demons are in the Bible, but (based on how much I heard taught about them) they were not important, and taking an interest in them seemed naïve and childish.
Everything was physical, except for these few exceptions. The “world” I lived in was a a naturalistic world with a handful of bizarre supernatural outliers. Of these exceptions, God was the only one that mattered. Yet even He was, if not limited, at least unlikely to be active in the world. After all, every action by God was a breaking, not only of the laws of science, but the very nature of the universe as a physical place. Surely miracles happen, prayers get answered, and God does make a difference this side of heaven. However, any examples you would have presented me would have been met with a strong and chilly skepticism.
I was only vaguely aware of the strength of this skepticism or of its roots, which were fueled less by intellectual conviction than by a longing to be a “sophisticated” Christian, respected for not being like those fundamentalists (the tax-collectors to my own branch of Pharisees).
I began a graduate degree in philosophy at Talbot School of Theology because I saw at least the warning signs of danger. I was planning to pursue a PhD in English, and I was sure I would finish with a belief in God. I just wasn’t sure what other Christian beliefs would remain, as I saw the influence of secular professors and mentors on me through my undergraduate education. I came as much to be around intelligent, educated Christians as to study any particular subject.
What I unexpectedly received was a belief in universals. Not a belief in universal truth, which I already had. Through J.P. Moreland’s metaphysics class, and his then brand-new book titled Universals, I came to believe the world was filled with instances of properties. That these properties defied the very possibility of a purely physical universe, since they could exist in many places at the same time and could not be reduced to anything physical themselves.
At the end of that course, as I walked on that December afternoon, I began thinking about all the things around me that were more than physical. “There’s green in that tree, but it’s also across the street in that bush. There’s a “2” and “5” in that sign, but I walked by those same numbers earlier. There’s something more than physical about me too.” I still didn’t really understand the relationship between body and soul, but I knew that it mattered deeply. I still wasn’t sure what to make of angels and demons, but whatever strangeness remained about them, it was not because they failed to fit into the material world. I couldn’t walk a step without encountering something that was more than physical.
It was my view of God that changed most of all, or at least began too, that afternoon. He was no less unique: uncreated creator, holy and perfect, powerful and loving. However, God was no longer the outlier. His existence as spirit (and Spirit) was no longer a strange religious fact disconnected from my everyday experience of everything else I encountered.
No longer an outlier, God could become central. I don’t mean to make this sound like a conversion in the true sense. God had become central to my life much earlier, it just took time (and metaphysics) to begin seeing God as central to the nature of reality. But in a world overflowing with examples of the more-than-physical, the idea of the supernatural seemed a lot less challenging, and so the idea of a God who is active in the world became a real possibility.
A God who communicates and guides, heals the sick and answers prayers, doesn’t follow from a belief in universals; but rejecting a belief in a merely physical world certainly prepares the way.
You can learn more about Ryan Bradley by visiting his bio page