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 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.
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 →
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…