N. T. Wright, Loving to Know: The 2019 Erasmus Lecture (First Things Magazine, February 2020, pp. 25-34.)
To transcend the divided field of knowledge – the antitheses between fact and value, objective and subjective, reason and faith, science and religion – requires an epistemology of love – a love, that is, which recognizes the material universe for what it is, “the loving gift of a wise creator.”
N. T. wright places the origin of these antitheses in ancient Epicurean philosophy, which held that “The gods may exist, but they are in an entirely different sphere to ourselves, taking no notice of us and certainly not intervening in our world.” He traces this view of the cosmos through the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution to the present. To this day, he says, “most Westerners – including, alas, many Christians! – don’t realize that they are looking at the world through Epicurean spectacles.”
The intellectuals of the Enlightenment were receptive to Epicurean philosophy because it justified their “antipathy to [hierarchical] top-down social, political, cultural, and religious systems . . . which were perceived as denying a proper aspiration for freedom.” What they failed to realize, and what many today also do not realize, is that Epicurean cosmology is just as “top-down” as divine creation. It says, essentially, that since the gods are not involved in mundane things, the universe must therefore create itself – “so that the evolution of species was approached not simply as a newly discovered bit of inductive knowledge from below but as the necessary postulate from . . . the Epicurean assumption that if the gods do not act within the world then the world must make itself.”
Wright’s observations help explain how it is that modern science acquired its naturalistic bias. It is indeed a thing requiring some kind of explanation. It is completely evident, after all, that naturalism – the prejudice that the material world of space, time, matter and energy is all that exists – is not something that science has discovered. It was not found in a test tube, or on a distant planet. Where did it come from?
Epicurean philosophy pre-dates modern science by more than 1800 years, so it was ready and waiting when the Enlightenment philosophers needed it. Wright says that this helps to show that “modern Western culture is not a new thing based on modern science as is so often assumed, but an ancient worldview with some modern twists and footnotes.”
Wright’s antidote is to view the cosmos as a gift from a loving Father, and he has an answer for those who charge that theism’s openness to divine activity in the universe discourages scientific inquiry:
An epistemology of love, seeing the creation as the outflowing of divine creative love, must pay attention to that creation. It isn’t enough to know that it is God’s creation, and so to infer that we already know all that’s important to know about it. Love demands patient curiosity. Love transcends the objective/subjective divide, because as the image-bearing stewards of creation, as liturgists of creation’s praise, as prophets called to speak creation’s reality, we humans are called not to a cool, detached appraisal of the world, nor to a self-indulgent grasping of it, but to a delighted exploration and exposition, in which respect and enjoyment go together.
. . . .
. . . Our delighted, sensitive, respectful, and curious exploration of creation is the response of love to the love we have received.