This new book by Alister McGrath appears as a passionate plea for a
“Christian natural theology”. And, as any convincing defence should be, it is very clearly and abundantly argued, which makes it an invaluable source of information for the reader interested in the topic, whether he is finally convinced or not of the need for “reimagining nature”…
The first chapter of the book is devoted, logically enough, to a discussion and an attempted definition of the concept of “natural theology”. Since it is impossible to provide an “essentialist” definition of natural theology, and to draw precise borderlines between its field and those of natural religion or natural philosophy, for instance, McGrath tentatively proposes to distinguish six different approaches.
• The first and most general one is, in the words of George H. Joyce,
that “branch of philosophy which investigates what human reason unaided by revelation can tell us concerning God”. In other words, it is the theology that comes naturally to the human mind – although the simplicity of this definition is somehow deceptive, since it supposes a not-so-obvious agreement on what “naturally” actually means.
• The second approach is that of the numerous “physico-theologies” that flourished from the 17th to the 19th centuries, namely an attempt to demonstrate the existence of God on the basis of the regularity and complexity of the natural world.
• A third approach might be described as “the intellectual outcome of the natural tendency of the human mind to desire God”, in accordance to Aquinas’ idea of “desiderium naturale visionis dei”.
• The fourth approach is more specific to Christianity, since it involves the exploration of an “intellectual resonance between the human experience of nature and the Christian gospel”.
• The fifth kind of natural theology starts from the assumption that “naturalist” accounts of the natural world are intrinsically deficient, and that only a theological approach can provide a comprehensive and coherent interpretation of the natural order.
• Finally, the sixth approach, as proposed by McGrath, is a Christian theology of nature, including a theology of creation.
Although other typologies of natural theology might probably be proposed, the above list looks quite comprehensive. The author considers that the only way to give some coherence to the general concept is to take all six approaches into account, as particular and interconnected slices in a multilayer sandwich. This gastronomical metaphor (borrowed from Gilbert Ryle) gives rise to a “thick natural theology”, which deserves – and requires – a “thick description” which could take the form of “an intuited link between the everyday world of natural human experience and a transcendent reality”, that could be accommodated within various religious traditions. The central claim of the work is that Christianity has the capacity to offer us the “big picture” of reality that is needed if the different “slices” are to be held together as a whole. This “Christian natural theology” is seen as some kind of unified Grand Theory, which, like a robust scientific theory, would allow conceptual space for several particular modes of natural theology, each limited to a specific domain. McGrath does not hesitate to call upon quantum mechanics, which reduces to classical mechanics under certain limits and conditions, in order to give an example of such a Grand Theory. Although the comparison with the “correspondence principle” might seem a bit excessive, there is no doubt that this ambitious project can be considered as a coherent intellectual option.
The second chapter of the book is the core of the work, where what constitutes the originality of McGrath’s proposal is developed at length. The author asserts that beholding the world through the particular framework of Christian tradition involves the faculty of imagination. The human sensorium is too limited to provide an unencumbered vision of reality, and one has to rely on a much wider imaginarium to transcend the limits of a purely naturalistic vision of the world. To engage in such a new way of seeing the natural world, a way that corresponds to its true nature, is the result of a kind of metanoia, which the author describes in a romantic-evangelical manner: “Our eyes are healed; a veil is removed; the scales fall from our eyes”. It is no wonder that the central reference here is to the thought and writings of C.S. Lewis, on whom McGrath is a specialist. Nevertheless, Augustine’s or Bede’s expressions of “the mind’s eye” or “the eye of the heart” are also called upon to exemplify the illumination process that is supposed to result from this radical change in perspective. However, McGrath insists on the necessity of the Church as an “interpretive community”, playing a critical regulatory role through Scripture and sacraments. Christian natural theology is seen as a means for the Church to address both internal and external audiences: it may develop and enrich the faith of believers, as well as offer an apologetic defence and commendation of the Christian faith. The last part of this chapter deals with a doctrine of creation in a Trinitarian setting, as opposed to the deistic or theistic approaches characteristic of the classical Anglican natural theologies, from Newton to Paley. Although this is admittedly not the core of the argument, a more developed treatment of the question would have been interesting. It is quite strange for instance that the strongly affirmed Trinitarian position of the author can dispense with any explicit mention (here or anywhere else in the book) of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The next three chapters, though quite logically inserted within the development of the argument, may also be read independently of each other.
Chapter three starts with a discussion of theology – and natural theology as well – as result of a habitus of the mind and imagination. One has to recognize that nature by itself is fundamentally ambiguous, from both a moral and an aesthetic point of view; the existence of violence and evil has been used over and over as a powerful argument against the idea of a benevolent God. This ambiguity may be resolved, in part, by the device of “framing”: focussing on certain aspects of a given reality provides a “mental map” that may help to accommodate the world and our experiences of it. For instance, a frequently used metaphorical way of seeing nature in the context of natural theologies is to compare it with a text, the so-called “book of nature”. However, the reading of any text is necessarily framed by the hermeneutical context in which it takes place. In the case of Christian natural theology, this “paratext” is provided by the Christian scriptures and tradition. Nature may also be seen as an image, and as a sign: these two metaphors are discussed in a similar way.
Chapter four deals with the various contexts and motivations of natural theologies. For instance, the early 18th century in England, that gave rise to “physico-theologies”, is quite different from the pre-war Germany where the well known debate between Barth and Brunner took place. Different motivations for natural theology may be distinguished: they can be a form of devotion by scientifically informed laity, or the expression of a longing for a lost nature in societies submitted to the new challenge of industrialization. One can also recognize the expression of a transcendent experience, attempting a re-enchantment of nature. In its apologetic form, natural theology results from the need to affirm the rationality of religious faith. And finally, Christian natural theology as proposed by McGrath is a means of achieving a coherent view of reality and of obtaining answers to the “ultimate questions” of the meaning of nature and of man’s place and tasks in the world. In this way, natural theology – and religion itself – can be considered as a natural quest. Many objections have been raised against natural theology. The following chapter provides an in-depth presentation and discussion of several of them. One concern is that natural theology leads to a theologically inadequate idea of God: John Henry Newman, for instance, suggested that Paley’s work was as likely to lead to atheism as to belief in God. Another objection, exemplified by Barth’s famous position, is that the self-revelation of God renders natural theology irrelevant. For some thinkers, such as Heidegger, natural theology is discredited as being only the outcome of a preconceived metaphysics, supported by philosophical “first principles”. Hume’s criticism, based on the impossibility of comparing our world with any other “exterior” one, also applies to Leibniz’s form of theodicy. The 1934 debate between Barth and Brunner, about the legitimacy of knowing God through the natural order, is treated at length. Finally, the risk of natural theology appearing as self-referential and self-justifying, in what could be called a fideist approach, is discussed. All of these criticisms and concerns are cleverly taken care of by McGrath, on the basis that they have to do with specific kinds of natural theology, but that the “thick” approach which he advocates is able to answer them satisfactorily.
In the last chapter, the author insists on the benefits he thinks his project will provide to the different audiences the Church traditionally addresses, namely the believers, the academics and the wider culture. It is a way of answering the totalizing attitude of scientism. It may offer a starting point to a dialogue between different religious traditions. It offers a platform for the development of an environmental ethic. It offers a framework for appreciating the beauty of nature in connection with the core of Christian faith. And, last but not least, it may support an apologetic strategy that relies on an intellectual congruence between the Christian vision of reality and what is really seen within nature. The concluding words are understandably left to C.S. Lewis, in an eschatological perspective: “We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects”. Whether one is entirely convinced by McGrath’s thesis or not, this book more than deserves to be read by any one who is interested in the field of natural theology, and more broadly in the relationship of Christian thinking and the natural sciences. Its bibliography (54 pages!) provides an impressive list of more than 1100 references, which does not make its reading easy, at least for people like me who have not acquired the useful skill of skipping the 5 footnote references that every page contains on the average … On the other hand, this rich documentation may prove an invaluable tool if one wants to start a deeper research into any one of the multiple brands of natural theology. Surely not all readers will agree totally with the Evangelical flavour of McGrath’s theology. Nevertheless, all will recognize that the scope of his inquiry is not limited to a particular Church: the positions of a large number of theologians from other Protestant sensibilities – and from the Catholic church as well – are subject to in-depth discussion and criticism. And one cannot but be favourably impressed by the enthusiasm that pervades the entire book, from the first to the last page. No doubt that a “revival” of natural theology such as McGrath suggests may be quite welcome in the modern context of difficult dialogue between science and religion.
Centre Théologique de Poitiers