Wired for God: Sensus Divinitatis

The Reformed tradition within the Christian family is somewhat odd when it comes to apologetics—defending (and more recently, apologizing for) the faith. I was talking with one of our global scholars and I asked what angle he approached apologetics—a practise attached to what 1 Peter 3:15 implores believers: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

Apologetics?” he said, somewhat puzzled. “I’m not sure what to say about that. I’ve never doubted the existence of God. Not for a second. In fact, my apologetics is basically, ‘Open your eyes!’”

In hindsight, knowing this Reformed scholar, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was deliberately quoting John Calvin. Calvin says in the Institutes (Bk 1 Ch. V) that the beauty and majesty of creation offers clear and inexcusable evidence, such that people “cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see [the Creator].” We are wired for wonder and dread, and the right conditions or circumstances awaken the intuition of a Presence. Watch the film Baraka and you’ll get a sense of the mystical beauty and absurd banality of our planet and its cultures. In Romans 1:20 Paul talks about humans having a natural inkling regarding God’s power and “the mystery of his divine being.” Calvin elaborates on this, explaining “That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [Latin is sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget.”

Baraka (1992) is a Sufi term meaning “blessing.” While the film romanticizes nature, it also can be interpreted to suggest something mysterious about the world that calls out for some response–a connection that urban life and technology sometimes obscure. Scenes jump around the planet, including volcanoes, temples, tribal rituals, factories, city-scapes, and rain forests, with no voice over, no dialogue, and no obvious plot besides a basic creation-fall-redemption story.

Thus all the arguments we find in Aquinas for the existence of God—and in almost all popular apologetic books—are neither necessary nor effective. God’s existence is a matter of perception, of disposition, of the openness of the heart, not subservient to the proofs of reason. For Calvin, rationality is always in service of a deeper, more foundational trust prompted by the sensus divinitatis. Trust, love, desire, and surrender are more basic to human personality, human need, and human life than arguments with words.

Now J. Caleb Clinton (2017) has said that John Locke makes a good foil for Calvin’s theory, as Locke believed there was no such thing as innate ideas. Something can seem innate just because its taught to every child, or because it’s the culture’s custom, or its just a self-evident truth, like gravity. But even such basic principles as the law of non-contradiction are not perceived, let alone understood and assented by children or idiots, so such ideas can’t be innate. Instead, Locke posited that at birth the mind is a “blank slate” without even rules for processing data, and that data and rules for processing such are formed through experience. Our DNA has information on it, but our mind is just waiting putty. The sensus divinitatis then is a cultural product, not a psycho-biological given.

Yet the sensus divinitatis is not an idea as Locke might assume but a sense—the sense of the divine that God has planted like a seed in the human heart. Like memory, it’s a human capacity that requires activation, and to those whose eyes and minds are open, God “repeatedly sheds fresh drops” like dew each morning. Paul Helm has emphasized that this is not just a “metaphysical-cognitive” component—suggesting the intuition that God does in fact exist. It also has a “moral-cognitive” dimension insofar as if someone became aware of a Creator-God-being, and that the beauty and wisdom of creation is his gift, then that experience should, says Helm, “trigger beliefs and feelings of awe, respect, gratitude and obligation to the benefactor of the whole.” Its end is worship.

 Now you may ask what is meant by “divine”—as we know billions of people worship something other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus? Paul Helm says Calvin’s sensus divinitatis is probably more of “the recognition of a category of things than something or things within a category.” Calvin knew there were animists, polytheists, deists, Muslims, and other non-Trinitarians. So “the divine” would not be the same deity in everyone’s imagination; its more of a vague impression that requires definition, a sense of something powerful rather than a clear image. Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said something similar: he wrote that

beyond our reasoning and beyond our believing, there is a preconceptual faculty that senses the glory, the presence, of the Divine. We do not perceive it. We have no knowledge; we only have awareness… an awareness that something is asked of us; that we are asked to wonder, to revere, to think and to live in such a way that is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living… The awareness of being asked is easily repressed, for it is an echo of the intimation that is small and still. (God in Search of Man)

This is almost a sense of indebtedness, a swelling of gratitude for life, as small creatures in a vast theatre radiating a glory. We might even suggest that such indebtedness is always for the one true God, the One Who Is, but that it is not the same God pictured in everyone’s imagination, which are always different distortions.

But then why does this special “sense” for the divine seem non-existent in so many people? See my next post for a response to that very question.


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