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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

The Witness of Our Divine Imprint

“It is easy, it is intuitive, it is natural. It fits our default assumptions about things." (Psychologist Justin Barrett, concerning belief in God)

Is belief in God a matter of nature or nurture? Researchers at Oxford University have announced a $4 million study to find out. As a member of the research team explained, "We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural. We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose." I can only imagine a future multi-million dollar study to explore “in exactly what sense” thirst is natural.

Social scientists have long recognized that man’s thirst for God is as universal as his thirst for drink. Although the particular God he believes in, like the brand of drink he prefers, is influenced by cultural factors (nurture), the spiritual impulse is intrinsic to his nature.

Which brings up the question beneath the question: “What is the nature of man’s nature?” As the Psalmist asked—and philosophers, mystics, and reflective thinkers of every age have pondered—“What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4).

Is man a stimulus-response organism that won-out over his knuckle-dragging neighbors on the exit from the savannah? Is he a robotic machine blindly programmed by “selfish genes”? Or is he a free-willed being created by God?

In the biblical account, God infuses a clump of clay with “the breath of life” to create beings in His image. That suggests something immaterial about our humanness. The Scriptures associate the incorporeal faculties of heart, mind, and conscience with our “spirit.” For it is there that our religious yearning (heart), rational ability (mind), and moral compass (conscience) dwell. Each is a part of our divine imprint.

Previously, I introduced the “Imprinted Word,” as one of God’s seven self-revealing expressions. Now, I will unpack that idea as it applies to heart, mind and conscience.

When Solomon wrote, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), he was revealing something fundamental to our human nature: Man has an intrinsic longing for Transcendence. For centuries hence, many great minds have agreed.

Augustine, in the classic work Confessions, wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.” Others, like Pascal and C.S. Lewis, have written about a spiritual desire that is inborn and persistent. The desire is so universal that evolutionary scientists scramble to explain it.

Take Dean Hamer, for instance. Hamer is a microbiologist for the National Cancer Institute who characterizes humans as “a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag.” In his book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes, Hamer writes about a study indicating that religious beliefs are pre-dispositioned based on what chemicals are present in the brain. The chemicals derive from certain molecular sequences in our DNA; hence the “God gene.” (If he’s right, I suspect that other genes must account for his belief about “a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag.”)

The not-so subtle implication is that “God” and man’s spiritual leanings are not rooted in objective reality, but in an arrangement of molecules produced by a blind, unguided process of nature. Or, to put it another way, “eternity” is set in man’s genes by evolution, rather than in his heart by God.

C.S. Lewis saw it differently.

Lewis observed that all of man’s desires (for food, drink, love, sex, and so on) are rooted in things that actually exist; therefore, the most logical conclusion is that his desire for transcendence derives from something that exists: God.

Whether the object of our longings is carnal gratification or eternal significance, our desires are ever-prodding us for fulfillment. To determine how and under what circumstances to satisfy them, we use another faculty of our spirit: the mind.

While the heart is the seat of our yearnings, affections and emotions, the mind is the center for thought, reflection, and imagination. Through its cognitive abilities, the mind sifts sensory input, analyzes problems, devises solutions, foresees outcomes, and imagines what could be. It enables us to unravel mysteries in the universe that make life in this world livable, while allowing us to dream about a better world, another world.

In the book of Job, Elihu states, “It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty that gives him understanding.” (Job 32:8) That reveals another fundamental truth about our nature: Our mental functions take place in an immaterial “substance” (mind) imparted to us by God.

Yet to scientific materialists like Dean Hamer and Richard Dawkins, mind and brain are one in the same—a hunk of thinking matter cobbled together by evolution. And human thought? Just atoms and molecules bumping around our cerebral cortex according to the laws of physics and chemistry.

With thoughts reducible to physical laws and chemicals, free will and independent action are illusions.  On the down side, man is but a slavish machine of nature. On the up side, all of his thoughts (and even dreams) are open to investigation. Imagine a spectrographic analysis on Einstein’s brain revealing his unpublished thoughts on unified field theory; or a crime solved with brain scans of the victim and suspects; or better yet, a crime solved before it happens.

That’s the thread of 2004 film, Minority Report. The story takes place in a not-to-distant future when technology has yielded a nearly fool-proof method of eliminating crime: the ability to analyze neurochemistry to preemptively prosecute those who would have committed a crime.

The idea that we are automatons whose destinies are fatalistically determined by embedded laws, chafes against everything we “can’t not know” about ourselves: We are free-willed beings who bear personal responsibility for our choices—which are neither pre-determined nor illusionary, but real.

The passions of our heart are processed by the intellect of our mind, but our choices and actions are weighed in the balance of conscience. Even Freud acknowledged this tripartite relationship in his theory of human nature: The id (man’s animal instinct) is controlled by the ego (man’s rational intellect), which comes under the influence of the superego (cultural mores).

Whether it’s called “conscience” or “superego,” study after study confirms what all of us inherently know: There is an “oughtness” that continually presses upon us.

Evolutionary scientist James Q. Wilson identified common motifs of oughtness: sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. Psychologist Martin Seligman cited a 70-nation study concluding that wisdom, courage, love, temperance, spirituality, and transcendence span human culture from Greenland to the Masai. C.S. Lewis wrote about a law he called the Tao, which was core of the Jewish Decalogue and embedded in all cultures throughout time.

We co-habit a globe with six billion neighbors embracing thousands of religions and scores of governmental styles. We are at odds over which of these social systems is best; yet we are in unanimous agreement on a code that, contrary to the tenets of Darwinism, requires both self-restraint and self-sacrifice.

“Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Huxley once noted, “The practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue . . . is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.” Exactly! So how did we get it? If the Tao is a merely an artifact of culture or evolution, it is certainly the only one enjoying such universal acceptance.

Lewis argued that the code is not about what we do; it is about what we feel we ought to do, and feel guilty when we don’t. Because it does not describe what men actually do, it cannot be ascribed to deterministic mechanisms like instinct or selfish genes. If it were, men would have no control to resist it. And since it is not revealed by direct observation, an extraterrestrial observer could not detect it from man’s actual behavior.

What this adds up to is that we have been programmed—not to slavishly obey our cranial chemicals or to preserve our selfish genes, but to discern certain actions as right and others wrong. And, as we know from experience, wherever there is a program, there is a programmer!

Heart, mind and conscience are stamped into human nature like a maker’s mark. Through their collective faculties, we are able to apprehend truth, discern right from wrong, and sense purpose and meaning to our existence. As a self-revealing expression of God, it teaches us that God is and what He is—a Creator-God who has endowed beings with every resource to know him and experience the life abundant.

“Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind?” (Job 38:36)