Archive for the ‘Natural theology’ Category
Let your mind roam through the whole creation; everywhere the created world will cry out to you: ‘God made me.’ Whatever pleases you in a work of art brings to your mind the artist who wrought it; much more, when you survey the universe, does the consideration of it evoke praise for its Maker. You look on the heavens; they are God’s great work. You behold the earth; God made its numbers of seeds, its varieties of plants, its multitudes of animals. Go round the heavens again and back to the earth, leave out nothing; on all sides everything cries out to you of its Author; nay the very forms of created things are as it were the voices with which they praise their creator.
This quote is from Augustine of Hippo, a theologian who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. I like it because it comes across as such a heartfelt outburst of praise, and it expands my view of the universe. It sounds so contemporary to me, although my own understanding of what it means to learn about God from nature is a bit different to his. I can also imagine it being very useful for a sermon on Psalm 8!
Science and science education have helped me to appreciate Augustine’s Read the rest of this entry »
There is a vast literature on wonder in science, but what about wonder in theology? When we encounter beauty and complexity in the world we often respond in one of two ways. We might wonder about the mechanisms that produced such a sight and want to find out more – wonder can lead us to science. Or we might start asking deep questions about the meaning of things: Why am I here? Do I have any significance in this vast place? Why is the world so beautiful and so terrible? Wonder can also lead us to theology. I would argue that while these two responses are different, they are not mutually exclusive.
This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.
What beauty tells us about God
Studying God is a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths, but they should also spend time on their knees – perhaps both mentally and literally – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes. I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of physical constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what creation reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to sit still and calmly rational in the library. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve always found theology a little difficult. At times I find myself thinking, ‘This is God they’re talking about. If he’s anything like what they’re describing, shouldn’t they sound more excited?!’ I recently came across a theologian who expressed this problem in a way that I found helpful. He said that studying God is something of a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths. They should also spend time on their knees – perhaps mentally in this instance – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.* I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of the cosmological constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what the universe reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to operate on a purely academic level. On Father’s day you didn’t confine yourself to writing a logical treatise about your dad, and the same applies to a relational God.
I have often written here about aesthetics in science, and recently I’ve been exploring the same theme in theology. I’ve been reading Richard Viladesau’s Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art, and trying to understand the contribution of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar to this area. Balthasar is most famous for his work on aesthetics, and his multivolume work ‘The Glory of God’ has been hugely influential for both Catholic and Protestant theologians.
Aesthetics is a relatively new term, coined by German philosopher Alexander Gottleib Baumgarten in the 1750s. The goal was to develop a ‘science of cognition by the senses’, and beauty was the ‘perfection of sensitive cognition’. This way of thinking was adopted by other Enlightenment thinkers, with the result that aesthetics was separated from the fields of logic and ethics – something that Balthasar lamented. If beauty is no longer connected to usefulness or the life of the mind, it becomes only a product to be consumed. It’s time to redress the balance.
I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.
I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Read the rest of this entry »
Natural theology is what we can discover about God outside of ‘special revelation’ (which for Christians is mainly the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ). If you are itching to add to or clarify this one-liner you’re not alone, because so many scholars have addressed natural theology that one could easily convene a very large international conference to address the issue of definitions alone.
The influential Swiss protestant theologian Karl Barth famously rejected natural theology because it was a human-led enterprise that distracted from God’s revelation of himself, and many others have followed suit. But was Barth throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Faraday Course Director Revd Dr Rodney Holder has recently written about the work of Barth and a number of other theologians who were either influenced by or responded to him. Read the rest of this entry »
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God revealed himself to the Hebrews, and their scriptures speak of creation revealing God’s glory, his ordering of times and seasons, and his lavish provision.
As the Christian era dawned, the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament that creation wordlessly communicates something of God to everyone. Ancient Greek philosophers agreed: there is evidence for God in nature. The early Christian theologian Augustine gave a name to this revelation of God through creation: natural theology. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas laid out his now famous ‘five ways’ argument for God from observations of nature. Different expressions of natural theology were studied and taught throughout the Christian church.
The scientific era dawned, and scientist-theologians began to describe detailed evidence for design. God was described as the lawgiver, establishing order from chaos. Christian scholars during the Enlightenment tried to use natural theology to prove God’s existence in a scientific rational way, apart from other sources of revelation. But the God described was distant and uncaring, and disease and natural disaster created serious theological conundrums. Endless detailed proofs looked foolish in the light of new and contrary evidence. Natural theology was used to justify class differences. And what of the doctrine of the fall, or the dangers of creating God in our image? Natural theology, of the sort trumpeted in the early Boyle lectures, was largely discredited.
Karl Barth led what he hoped would be the final Protestant charge against natural theology in the 1930s, picking off the last unhelpful remnants of this way of thinking. Others challenged him, or put the argument more moderately. Proof for God is not a useful concept, but we can see something of God in nature. Our first encounter with God may be on a mountaintop or in a laboratory, but we also need to experience God as he reveals himself through the church, through scripture and through the person of Jesus Christ.
A rich vein of a more helpful brand of natural theology remained in the Catholic Church, alongside an understanding of aesthetics that drives worship, wonder and science. Beauty in both theology and science has been receiving increasing attention from Protestant and Catholic writers in recent decades. Natural theology is going through a process of redemption in scholarly circles, though maybe it needs a new name…
The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology & the Legacy of Karl Barth, Rodney Holder, Templeton Press, May 2012 (reviewed here)
The Open Secret: A new vision for natural theology, Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell, 2008
The Fortunes & Functions of Natural Theology, in Science & Religion, Some Historical Perspectives, John Hedley Brooke, CUP, 1991
Jesus used parables to demonstrate how God reveals something of himself in nature. For example God is compared to a shepherd, his word is like seed, and beautiful flowers in a field are an example of God’s lavish provision. (Alister McGrath, The Open Secret)
But any attempt to experience God by enjoying the beauty of the world will quickly founder unless the issue of suffering is addressed. Much suffering is caused by humans exercising their freewill in selfish ways, but at times death and disease seem to come through ‘natural causes’. The god of the Enlightenment, conceived by well-to-do men in their carefully tended estates, was a distant (deistic) creator of a good world. This philosophy fell apart as people became more aware of suffering and natural disasters occurring around the world. How could a good god allow such monstrous things?
What about the Christian understanding of God? If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why do we suffer so much? I won’t address the ins and outs of Christian understandings of God’s good creation and the fall. The upshot, though, is that creation is a cracked mirror, reflecting only part of God’s glory. It has been suggested to me that because creation is somehow fallen, natural beauty is not an effective way to God – but I’d challenge that for the following reason.
Jesus often compares God to a father. But no dad is perfect, and some people are unfortunate enough to experience very bad parenting. Somehow the existence of terrible fathers didn’t stop Jesus using fatherhood as an analogy for God. Why?
I think our flawed human experience only makes Jesus’ illustration more effective. We know what is expected of good dads. At times we see glimpses of perfection, and we want more. Rather than shying away from using fatherhood as an analogy for fear of misinterpretation, Jesus knew that our best parenting moments shine out as an illustration of God’s love for us.
On that basis I think that nature, while flawed, can at times be an effective illustration of God’s own power, perfection and beauty.
In my reading of the natural theology literature I’m finding myself drawn to the pre-enlightenment scientists and theologians. Theologian Jame Schaefer has written about the appreciation that a number of patristic and medieval theologians showed for the beauty of the earth. In their writing they express awe, wonder, delight and joy in their study of nature.
‘diversity of beauty in sky and earth and sea…the dark shades of woods, the colour and fragrance of flowers; the countless different species of living creatures of all shapes and sizes…the mighty spectacle of the sea itself, putting on its changing colours like different garments, now green, with all the many varied shades, now purple, now blue.’
Augustine, The City of God
For these theologians, careful study of God’s creation is almost essential. It’s commonplace for them (and the early scientists such as Bacon and Pascal, that I recently read about in Nancy Frankenberry’s book) to express great thankfulness that they are able to ‘read God’s book of nature’, unlike the foolish ones who pass all these delights by.
Schaefer outlines five ways of appreciating creation:
- Affective appreciation – simply delighting in what is seen.
- Affective-cognitive appreciation – a deeper, scientific study of nature leads to even greater joy for the beholder.
- Cognitive appreciation – thinking in more abstract ways about the beauty of the whole interconnected universe.
- Incomprehensibility – being bowled over by the magnitude and complexity of the universe and everything in it.
- The sacramental quality of the physical world – the world God has created mediates something of God’s presence and character to us.
One of my favourites among the theologians covered in the paper was an unnamed Cistercian who wrote extensively about the abbey where he lived and the surrounding countryside. He was obviously very happy with his vocation, and showed a good understanding of the interconnectedness of the different factors – water, weather, crops etc – almost an early ecology. The other was Albert the Great, teacher of Aquinas, who wrote on ‘the importance of observation and experimentation in field and laboratory studies of animals, plants, metals, and inorganic elements’. He conducted field studies, and ‘legitimised the study of the natural world as a science within the Christian tradition’. For him, appreciation of nature had both cognitive and emotional aspects.
That I might train my senses to appreciate the world more is obviously not a new thought to a biologist. But Schaefer’s very clearly defined connection between science, a more intuitive appreciation of nature, and faith is interesting and extremely relevant today, when much of the world is being lost to the bulldozer. As Schaefer says, ‘At present, sacramental beholders are desperately needed.’