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!
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.
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. Continue reading →
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.
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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →