By David Ney

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

It is, surely, one of the universal experiences of fatherhood. After a day at the beach, a quick trip to the park, or an afternoon in the backyard comes the quiet request: “This, Daddy.” This rock, that is, or sometimes, this seashell, or this piece of weather-worn glass. Sometimes the request is, rather, “These, Daddy.” But the father, in these instances, is of course wrong to dismiss this small assortment of objects as “just a handful of rocks.” Each individual rock has been chosen with care. “These,” in this case, must be translated: “This and this and this.” And the care with which each has been chosen now becomes, in this simple request, a detailed imperative: “The care with which I have selected each one, with its distinct properties, now demands the same affection from you as I entrust you with the urgent task of safekeeping.”

This intimate exchange testifies to the remarkable (perhaps innate) wonder that children attribute to the existence of individual things. This sense of wonder often shrivels up with the coming of adulthood. If they still have it as adults, Christians often express it in the form of a cosmological argument. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes that this argument is based upon the basic human experience of wonder and “arises from human curiosity as to why there is something rather than nothing or than something else.” The argument can be traced through the work of Plato and Aristotle, Ibn Sina, and Thomas Aquinas, into the modern age. In the 18th century it was defended by greats such as Leibniz and Clarke, and deconstructed by the cogent arguments of Hume and Kant. In the modern West, however, the argument is most well-known through the more accessible work of the liberal Anglican cleric William Paley (1743-1805). It was Paley’s version of the cosmological argument that Darwin ultimately rejected as he migrated from a position his detractors continue to embrace today, intelligent design, to a tired agnosticism.


The rhetorical success of Paley’s version of the argument, first published in his Natural Theology (1802), has much to do with the great strides that had been made in the realm of natural philosophy, thanks in large part due to the incremental improvements in the realm of scientific instrumentation. The wonder with which 18th-century Christians beheld, as never before, the microscopic and cosmic dimensions of the universe was leveraged by Paley’s apologetic. Paley, following Joseph Butler, relied on several analogies to defend the Christian faith. The most famous of these was his watchmaker argument, an analogy which remained popular enough among conservative Christians to warrant a vitriolic counterblast by Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker (1986).

While the continued debate over the merits of Paley’s argument gives the impression that his was a cutting-edge and distinctly modern innovation, it belongs rather within what Collingwood perceptively called the Renaissance view of the world. This view, associated especially with Descartes and Newton, took for granted that the universe is a well-oiled machine, which may or may not need its Creator to give it a boost through the periodical injection of motion or energy. Newton and his disciples had deployed the great advances in cosmology to full apologetic effect, flirting even with the idea that Newton’s mathematical demonstration of universal gravitation confirmed it to be the very hand of God. Paley’s watch–which is a figure of Newton’s cosmos–is expected to generate wonder both because of its mathematically precise movements and because of its complexity. Paley’s watch is an intricate machine, whose movements are marked by exactitude, and whose intricacy and exactitude presupposes the existence of a watchmaker God.

One of the important answers that must be demanded of Paley’s analogy is whether it relies upon an apprehension of complexity. If you walked through a field and stumbled upon a watch upon the ground, you would take for granted the existence of a watchmaker, so the argument goes. But if you stumbled upon a small rock as you walked, would you be equally compelled to assume that there must have been a rock-maker? Paley thought the answer was “no.” Indeed, he set up his watchmaker argument by pointing out that the person who stumbles upon a stone might fairly suppose that it had, happenstance, lain there forever. But if Paley is right about this then it follows that theism is buttressed not merely by scientific and technological advances but by the widespread apprehension of these advances, when in fact our culture–the most scientifically and technologically advanced and informed in history–is also the most atheistic.

If he is wrong about the rock, though, then Paley’s apologetic conceals its banality with florid rhetoric–there is no need for either his intricate argument or his intricate watch. Assuming, for the moment, that the rock demands an explanation as well as the watch, the argument from complexity might be reintroduced on the basis of an appeal to something like quantum physics. After all, the sub-atomic complexity of a rock is analogous to that of a watch. But the person who comes across the rock can succumb to wonder without any knowledge of quantum physics, and my daughter is a case in point. In other words, the apparent simplicity of the rock does not obscure its ability to procure wonder. Indeed, it may well be that Paley would have been more compelling had he offered a rock-maker argument. His watchmaker argument presupposes that it is the material attributes of the object in question, and especially the most impressive ones, which generate the cosmological argument, and in this he obscures that which is most impressive about the object in question.

Sometimes the rocks my daughter carefully places in my hand are colorful or shiny or smooth. Other times they hold no apparent distinction, surprisingly nondescript. These unimpressive rocks help me to understand my daughter’s psychology and her juvenile cosmological argument. What a rock is, whether vibrant or plain, is a wonder in itself. But what it is is also a hook which leads her on to an even greater wonder. For her, what is most impressive about the rock is that it is, at all, and that as it is, at all, it is this rock and not some other one.

One of the most profound aspects of the epoch-making Toy Story franchise is the distinction it incessantly presses between two kinds of toys. There are, on one hand, the toys that have been abandoned to the dumpster, the local daycare, or the local antique shop. On the other, there are the beloved toys of the individual child. Woody, the talking pull-string cowboy, forcefully highlights this distinction throughout the movies. He, above all the others, seems to understand that his vocation, as a toy, is to be beheld and loved by a child. At the end of the fourth movie, however, Woody comes to the grim realization that he is no longer beheld or loved, and, in a staggering about-face, he sets off in pursuit of his own liberated happiness. This about-face is more than just a rejection of the franchise’s charming portrayal of what might be called “family values” — the safety of the nuclear family, the value of children, and the joy of sharing in friendship and community. It is an ominous Promethean rejection of a remarkably Christian understanding of created identity and vocation.

A watch may or may not objectively testify to the existence of a watchmaker in the way that a rock gives tribute to a Creator-God. But a rock that is beheld and loved by a child testifies to the existence of a Creator God in a way that a cast-away watch or toy never could. For the immeasurable worth of this particular rock cannot be accounted for just by looking into its physical properties; it can only be understood when it is beheld as an object of peculiar affection.

The mother whose child has suddenly grown up and left for college leaves her son’s room just as he left it for as long as possible; and she holds onto his favorite shirt, maybe in order to pass it along to a hypothetical grandchild, but mostly because she understands the great significance it holds as an object of affection, an affection which somehow instills in it the immeasurable worth of the one who has lately loved it. This mother senses, intuitively, that my daughter’s cosmological argument is far more compelling that Paley’s. And it is more compelling, since it sees that while knowledge puffs up, love builds up (1 Cor. 13:4), for love is strong as death (Song 8:6). The one who supposes that the death of one who dies alone and therefore without human affection is still, because it is just this person’s death but also because it is an immeasurable loss, writ large, will have to acknowledge the superiority of my daughter’s cosmological argument too. As will anyone who supposes that the conflagration of the world would also be an unspeakable tragedy quite apart from the loss that this would incur for any living or future organism. The point isn’t just that the world is; the point is that it is loved: therefore, God exists.

As I do the laundry I must proceed more reverently as I decide what to do with the assortment of curiosities I discover in the linings of my pockets.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He currently serves as associate professor of Church history at Trinity School for Ministry, in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

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16 days ago

Thank you. Wise.