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Natural theology and nature religion

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 25 November 2013

Natural theology, as the name implies, is the attempt to derive the existence and acts of God from nature. The logic is simple. If God was the creator of the world then when we look at the world we see the works of his fingers i.e. the order that we see in the world is an order imposed by God. Or as William Paley in 1802 surmised, if you found a watch in the field one would ask about the watchmaker.

Natural theology reached its peak in England during the sixteenth century under the influence of the early English scientists especially Boyle and Newton. Indeed, for Newton, God was an integral part of his physics in an amalgam that has been called physico-theology. In the absence of any mechanism for attraction at a distance that was the force of gravity, Newton invoked the action of God. This was an important move because it represented an alternative understanding of the providence of God. God was responsible for the maintenance of the planets in their orbits; his activity was inserted into a scientific discourse. Thus God lost his transcendence and became one with the order of nature. This was an understanding of the providence of God more obvious than traditionally attested and was taken as proof of the existence and constant care of God in the world. By contrast, the traditional understanding of the providence of God could be only dimly seen. It was also alarmingly arbitrary and mysterious especially when your family had been wiped out by the plague.

Natural theology has been described in its time as the sick man of Europe. It was so described because once physical causation became an adequate explanation for natural phenomena, the explanation invoking God became redundant. Thus Ockham's razor was used to shave off a superfluous explanation. Even if a physical cause of gravity needed to await Einstein, it was felt that it was only a matter of time before all causality could be described and God would finally be expelled from the universe. This is the situation for most people who were trained and make their living in the natural sciences.


Thus natural theology was the precursor of modern atheism and we live in a time in which most people are at least practical atheists. But, as Luther exclaimed, the heart is a factory of idols. It seems to be a natural human tendency to search for the transcendent, some meaning other than the surface appearance of things. This tendency may lead to the doors of the church or it may lead to the crippling religion so decried by contemporary atheists. In other words it is a tendency whose outcome is indeterminate.

In the absence of the God worshipped by the Church, (or its degraded presence) what idols draw forth for recognition? Folk religion or paganism has always been oriented towards nature. With the aid of countless nature documentaries we know that nature is deep, beautiful, complex and fascinating. In our admiration of nature we have natural science as our handmaiden, the most successful of all human projects.

However, there is a conflict here between the cold objectivity of natural science and the romantic projection of nature lovers. The green movement manages to wed scientific environmentalism and a mystical view of nature that apes religious projection. Nature becomes divine as it did in paganism, (if not divine, then certainly of infinite value). But this divinity is entirely self-related, there is no transcendence, no view beyond the surface of things. Its grand narrative begins with big bang theory and ends in the heat death of the universe. But there is the idea that nature is somehow profound and nurturing despite the complete absence of Word. This is why it is a form of romanticism, of feeling that all is well in nature, that in nature we are at one with our origins.

Of course, in this emphasis lies the danger that man becomes the spoiler. This accounts for the hysteria sometimes found in the green movement. Man becomes not part of the creation but its aggressor. This is but one of the reasons that this kind of nature religion is problematic. We can never deal with the guilt of spoliation since we are caught in a culture that requires much. The other reason that it is poor is that it is cut off from human history; that being displaced by natural history that really is just one damn thing after another and desolate of meaning. The problem is that natural history is mute, it can only define us as a species among other species. Only human history can speak a word to us about ourselves. The unique gift Israel gave to the world is the way it pondered its history; it understood that this is where the human is most to be understood. We may say that it is the humanities that humanise. While science may tell us how we work, it cannot give us an identity that matches the complexities and richness of our lives. The scientific grand narrative is remarkably sterile and deathbound.

As those who supported natural theology found, such faith is easily demolished by natural disaster in which nature is found to be anything but a mother. Man is not only an aggressor against nature he is also its victim. So comfort may come in nature as long as she behaves herself and we may feel at one and at peace. But the earthquake comes and destroys everything. Thus such a religion must be selective in what it acknowledges and thus is a fragile thing.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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