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!
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…
Last week we had a discussion at The Faraday Institute on how God acts in the world. How can we understand the way in which God sustains the world day-to-day, and his providence? We’re not talking about miracles here (which do happen, and by definition are special signs of God’s grace), but about God’s interaction with the world of matter and energy. Also, what about ‘miracles of timing’? How does God answer my prayers without rearranging the whole cosmos every time? Of course an all-powerful God can rearrange things whenever he chooses, but at times he seems to use the normal workings of the world to carry out his purposes.
For some the question of how God acts is not particularly troubling: God does what he wants. For others, John Polkinghorne included, it would be both intellectually lazy and ungrateful not to give time to the question ‘how exactly does God act?’
In the Bible God reveals himself as an all-powerful all-loving being who creates and controls everything that exists, so bringing about his purposes. God’s ultimate revelation of himself was through his son Jesus, who set us the example of doing a lot of praying. The early theologian Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible was that God upholds creation and established laws that govern everything, though he is not constrained by them. Later in church history, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the unchanging God as the timeless primary cause of all things. All the other processes of the world involve time and therefore change, and he referred to these as the ‘secondary causes’. It is these secondary causes that scientists investigate and seek to understand.
Certain physicists, Laplace included, then proposed that the universe is deterministic. If we were intelligent enough, the theory goes, we could predict every event though the behaviour of its constituent parts. However, we now know that we do not live in a deterministic universe and so quantum uncertainty, chaos theory, emergent phenomena and the complexity of the human brain have all been suggested as the ‘causal joint’ through which God works. Others find the notion of a ‘causal joint’ unsatisfactory because it implies that God is not continually upholding and sustaining everything that exists. Of course during these discussions God continues to act, hopefully amused rather than angered by our philosophical probing.
This week we hosted William E. Carroll from Oxford University, who gave a seminar on Creation and Contemporary Science: The Legacy of Thomas Aquinas. I am grateful that Carroll articulated a theory of God’s action that I had tried (and failed) to express during last week’s discussion on God’s action.
Aquinas’s understanding of how God acts in the world does justice to the Biblical account of the world, and happens to do justice to the scientific account too. God transcends the created world and is neither part of it nor constrained by it. So God acts in the world without being a ‘competing cause’, so to speak. We observe gravity, the speed of light, the fundamental forces within and between particles, and so on. These forces and constants are acting in what could be described as the ‘horizontal dimension’ of our experience. God both sustains the horizontal dimension and acts in the ‘vertical dimension’. Clearly Aquinas view does not completely satisfy the scores of theologians and philosophers who have worked on the question of God’s action in recent decades, but for me it makes sense of what we know of God.