In my last post I explained John Calvin’s contentious claim that everyone is somehow wired for God–a phenomenon he called the sensus divinitatis. But it leaves our modern mind with a number of questions.
For one, a logical pushback would be: if everyone is hardwired for God, why are there so many atheists through history and especially today?
Well, if the image of God in all humans endows them with a homing device for their maker, their fallen, sinful condition confuses that pull to true north. This is not a problem stemming from lack of proper information, but from the stubbornly willful, independent spirit that pulses in the human heart—and today, our modern life locks us in technological echo chambers and within well-ventilated institutional confines that shield us from seeing the starry sky above or the full force gale of the tempest. Calvin says our imaginations can be perverse, and we twist ourselves in multiple layers of self-deception. “Human nature,” writes Calvin, “so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Today we might say, a hyperlinked cyberspace of idols. Theologians have always spoken of the “noetic effects of sin”—that even our thinking is tainted by a fallen creation, and different ages have different demons to waylay our restless souls.
Still, all humans need meaning. All human beings select and privilege some idea, object, leader, tribe or treasure. Some reference point which is dependent on nothing else. That which is set apart, sacred, and cannot be questioned—whether it be pleasure, markets, the feminine spirit, the party, solidarity of the oppressed, sexual desire, reason, science, wealth or fame—something becomes the Archimedean point, functioning like a divine object, worthy of worship or at least some reverence, submission, or long-standing commitment. This would be the sensus divinitatis turned back from the Creator to some aspect of the creation.
Note, however, that all those pseudo-divinities lack full transcendence; they cannot encompass all things, and they will prove inadequate, let us down. They cannot save. Even the most contemptuous, sneering atheist, says Calvin, in a quiet, vulnerable moment, will “feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe.” Calvin suggested it was not an instant of perceiving sublime natural beauty but when they feel the force of God’s wrath—perhaps in a horrific personal disaster—that the atheist “shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise.”
Modern cultural elites are especially prone to this tension of tempting faith. For instance, the central character Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair prays angrily to the God he doesn’t believe exists, and hates him. Or writer Julian Barnes in the first sentence in his collection of meditations on death called Nothing to be Frightened Of (2008) where he confesses: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” Less nuanced was Max Weber, one of my key classical references in my dissertation, who called himself “religiously unmusical” but spent much of his career studying religion. Music is aptly suggestive of this original Godward impulse, as I do believe this “sense” can be dulled and blocked—or stoked and cultivated, like an appreciation for music.
Is the sensus divinitatis an unfalsifiable theory? Is there evidence would actually be a refutation of the theory? Perhaps if the number of atheists continued to rise, that would give pause. We do know that one poll (from EFC) shows that up to 50 percent of Canadians self-describe as religious “nones.” But investigation into what that means shows its not an equivalent for atheism for most. Many believe in some Spirit. The phenomenon of the religious “none” reflects more a skepticism about religious identity in an increasingly lonely “bowling alone” techno-culture.
The sensus divinitatis could give us hope, insofar as it implies everyone has the disposition to prayer. But Paul says in Romans 1 that this kind of knowledge of God leaves us without excuse. So it comes with a double-edge—the shadow of judgment falls with its promise. Furthermore, its compliment, our propensity to idolatry, leaves no one feeling secure in their own natural capacity to worship God. For one thing, James K. A. Smith has said in our secular age, “We’re all Thomas now.” A gnawing doubt dims even the most apparently unshakable faith. We are all cracked pots, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 4. Secondly, even when we do have a clear, convicting image of God in our minds, its probably a distorted image of “he who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16) and thus reflects a treasured idol in some fashion. Idolatry has always travelled alongside God’s chosen people, if the story of Israel is any record.
So our sense of the divine seems like a weak signal. On the blunting of the sensus divinitatis, says Alvin Plantinga in Warranted Christian Belief:
It is no part of the [Aquinas/Calvin] model to say that damage to the sensus divinitatis on the part of a person is due to sin on the part of the same person. Such damage is like other disease and handicaps: due ultimately to the ravages of sin, but not necessarily sin on the part of the person with the disease. In this connection, see Jesus’ remarks (John 9:1-3) about the man blind from birth… The most serious noetic effects of sin have to do with our knowledge of God. Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects, and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has indeed been damaged. Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork (p. 214-215).
I can imagine this as being hard to take for the irreligious; but within the theological narrative of creation, it explains the anomaly that is variably a part of everyone’s life. Its as if we all have damaged spiritual antennae to some extent.
To be clear, the sensus divinitatis is not inborn righteousness or some independent salvific power latent in human beings. Helm reminds us that this seemingly natural disposition to acknowledge God is always referring to the Creator God, not the Redeemer God we know in the cross and crown of Jesus Christ. The good news is that God breaks into history, and that story has been recollected for our edification and rescue in Scripture. Furthermore, it’s the Holy Spirit that seals this knowledge in our consciousness, which warms in us a form of piety or love—not just intellectual assent. Word and Spirit, together guide and save us. Like the sensus divinitatis itself, this is all gift—and a call to bear witness despite our darkened vision (1 Cor. 13:12).
So: open your eyes, knowing our vision is distorted, but that it can be redeemed by some further grace. What that means, if John Stackhouse is right in his book Humble Apologetics – Christians should tell the story as best they can, and let the Spirit speak in and through their stuttering, and perhaps the sensus divinitatis can be sanctified into gratitude, love, and worship of the one true God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus.
Paul Helm “John Calvin and the Noetic Effects of Sin,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, 43:87-107, 1998.
J. Caleb Clinton. “John Calvin and John Lock on the Sensus Divinitatis and Innatism,” Religions, Feb. 2017, 8, 27.
One of the best books on apologetics…