Natural theology, a biography…

© Ruth Bancewicz

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…

Sources:

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

Appreciating the Beauty of the Earth

© Ruth Bancewicz

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.’

The Open Secret

I’ve been reading Alister McGrath‘s book on natural theology, ‘The Open Secret‘, and learning a lot…

If the heavens really are “telling the glory of God,” this implies that something of God can be known through them, that the natural order is capable of disclosing something of the divine. But it does not automatically follow from this that human beings, situated as we are within nature, are capable unaided, or indeed capable under any conditions, of perceiving the divine through the natural order.

McGrath, The Open Secret, p1-2

What can we see of God in his creation? I’ve been particularly interested in the parts on awe, wonder and beauty. A psychological study of awe found similar responses to nature, large buildings, grand theories or encounters with God – so there may be links between natural theology and worship (p279-280).

An interesting question is, does science enhance our engagement with nature, disclosing its true character, or does the reductionist drive of science diminish our sense of wonder: ‘unweaving the rainbow’, as Keats suggested in his poem ‘Lamina‘. Dawkins has critiqued Keats’ rainbow idea in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow‘, and McGrath responds in ‘The Re-Enchantment of Nature‘ (perhaps more later). Though I agree with McGrath and think Dawkins has missed Keats’ point, I love Dawkins’ lyrical descriptions of science revealing a vast, complex and very beautiful world that would otherwise remain closed to us.

McGrath concludes – drawing on C.S. Lewis‘s ‘The Weight of Glory‘ – that our experience of beauty taps into our sense of longing for something more.

Lewis argues that we posses an instinct of transcendence, stimulated by beauty – “a desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now,” For Lewis, beauty evokes an ideal that is more real than anything we encounter in this transitory world, evoking a sense of longing for a half-remembered realm from which we are presently exiled. (p287)

I think that makes a lot of sense.