BOOKS: The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology

By Alister E. McGrath

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College, London, and head of its Centre for Theology, Religion and Ethics. Before this, he was Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University. His recent books include The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, as well as a series of widely used theological textbooks. His first degrees were in the natural sciences. He will deliver the 2009 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen.

Natural theology seems to have got itself beached. Certainly, that seems to be the case within Protestantism. The onslaught on natural theology launched by Karl Barth has led many to draw the conclusion that it’s a waste of time, serving no useful purpose. Barth’s influence is such that many Protestants harbour the suspicion that natural theology is heretical. As if that wasn’t enough, those who think the idea is retrievable tend to understand natural theology primarily in terms of arguments for God’s existence. This appeal to pure reason plays down any empirical engagement with the natural world of the kind that so fascinates the natural scientists.

But is this about to change? The last few years have seen a surge of writings from natural scientists, arguing that their disciplines raise the classic questions of natural theology. The new excitement about the religious implications of anthropic phenomena in cosmology and convergent evolution in biology have sparked off fresh interest in the field. The natural sciences seem to be raising questions that they can’t answer, leading to renewed interest in classic approaches to natural theology. Back in the late seventeenth century, John Ray (1627-1705) and William Derham (1657-1735) argued that Roger Bacon laid the groundwork for a form of natural theology that went beyond rational arguments for God’s existence, and appealed to the observation and interpretation of nature itself. These ideas are now regaining a hearing, catalysed both by the interest of so many natural scientists in metaphysical and religious questions on the one hand, and dissatisfaction with the forms of natural theology that seemed to have gained the ascendancy in some quarters on the other.

These new forms of natural theology aren’t talking about “proving” God’s existence. They exhibit the proper caution of the sciences, preferring to speak instead in terms of God as the “inference to the best explanation” of what is observed, or the “consonance” or “resonance” between Christian theory and scientific observation. Inference is the order of the day, not deduction. Interest in “inference to the best explanation” is growing within the philosophy of science, stimulated by the later Peter Lipton’s excellent book on the topic. If this is the characteristic philosophy of the natural sciences, as Lipton argues, does not this open up new ways of thinking about natural theology?

It’s a fascinating thought. Yet what is really important is the growing belief that natural theology could become an important area of interconnection and dialogue between the natural theology and the natural sciences. This is miles away from the much-derided approach of William Paley, and has little, if any, connection with the discredited “God of the gaps” approach. Instead of arguing that God has to be invoked to deal with explanatory gaps in the natural sciences, this approach argues that the ability of the sciences to explain reality itself requires explanation. As Albert Einstein pointed out back in the 1930s, the explicability of the universe seems inexplicable. A “big picture” explanation of things is required, which takes into account the capacity of the human mind to make sense of things, as well as the complex ordering observed within the universe itself.

Yet this approach, while avoiding the problems of styles of natural theology based on deductive reason, still emphasizes the importance of making sense of things. The issue is how to identify the best explanation of what is observed in the natural world. So does this mean that natural theology is restricted to the quest for truth? What of the greater vision of the human engagement with reality encapsulated in the famous “Platonic triad” of truth, beauty and goodness?

This is not an idle question. The psychology of human perception holds that human beings interact with the world at three different levels. This involves our thinking about (or “knowing”), affective responding to, and enactive interaction with the world. The three aspects of the natural world that particularly resonate with these three aspects of perception are truth, beauty, and goodness respectively. They also resonate with the subject matter of core philosophical areas of enquiry: metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. Given this insight from the natural sciences into the nature of human perception, should not natural theology be expanded from pure sense-making? This would also allow natural theology to be place of dialogue and interconnection between theology, the natural sciences, arts and literature.

This is the approach I explore in The Open Secret. The book aims to set a new agenda for natural theology, partly by locating natural theology against the backdrop of the continuing human interest in the notion of the “transcendent”. Yet it also emphasizes the importance of seeing the natural world in a certain way. Natural theology, it is argued, arises from within the Christian tradition, and is the way of seeing nature that is made possible by a Trinitarian vision of God. The approach blocks the standard Barthian objection to natural theology by proposing that natural theology is generated and informed by the Christian theological framework (an idea developed by Thomas F. Torrance, who insisted that Barth approved of his transmutation of the notion). On this approach, natural theology is not limited to the making sense of things, but to a deep moral and aesthetic engagement with the natural world. In particular, it allows us to cope with the moral and aesthetic variegation of nature, which William Paley and others preferred to overlook.

Natural theology is clearly making a comeback. Nobody can be sure what it will look like in the future. But there is every indication that it is assuming new and more satisfying forms, with the potential to generate and sustain some important and productive dialogues.

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