Friday, November 21, 2008

Natural Theology

The beauty and operation of our physical world has always triggered deep human reflections on how our sphere of existence manifests the existence of a deity. These reflections have prevailed among humanity for thousands of years. They have occurred among believers in polytheism, such as the Greeks and Romans, as well as believers in monotheism, ranging from the ancient Hebrews to present-day Christians. This intrinsic human longing speaks, perhaps, more about the reality of the Deity than does the apparent beauty, design, and functionality itself. Natural theology may be defined by the title of William Paley’s 1802 classic work: “Natural Theology, or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearance of Nature.” We could also quote the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” Rom. 1:20 (NIV).

Historic natural theology studies the natural world and makes conclusions about divine origin without recognizing subsequent special divine revelation such as transcendent miracles (parting of the Red Sea, immediate bodily healing, the Incarnation, the Resurrection). This is not to say such miracles do not occur, but they do not fall under the province of natural theology. In the many centuries before 1500 AD, natural theology dealt with apparent “plan” or “purpose” in the universe. Then, at the beginning of the scientific revolution, theistic scientists such as Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Pascal, and Boyle used their belief in God as the universe’s designer and the author/sustainer of nature’s laws to inspire them in their creative work and innovative discovery process. Natural theology acquired a somewhat different flavor. They expressed their belief in a designer without reservation. Explicit design proposals were made by William Paley in the 1802 work previously cited, and in the Bridgewater Treatises, writings by scientists commissioned by Rev. Francis Henry Egerton in 1829. These works credited God for the design features and grandeur of the natural world.

Natural theology is still a term in broad use today. But treatment of the topic in journals such as Theology and Science and in forums featuring famous scholars (such as The Gifford Lectures) have taken a turn away from proposing evidence or proof for God’s existence and action from the world of nature. The Gifford Lectures website explains “A more modern view of natural theology suggests that reason does not so much seek to supply a proof for the existence of God as to provide a coherent form drawn from the insights of religion to pull together the best of human knowledge from all areas of human activity.” Modern scholars attempt to integrate science, history, morality, and the arts to achieve a “general worldview within which faith can have an intelligible place.” Such a treatment of the topic may disappoint those who desire a “quick fix” proof of God’s existence by merely observing nature’s wonders. Believers, however, should become aware of the strengths and weaknesses in theological arguments offered in today’s world by people of all backgrounds.

Dr. Owen Gingrich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and the History of Science at Harvard University, has a realistic viewpoint as stated in his article “Is There a Role for Natural Theology Today?”: “If natural theology deals with hints and coherencies, not proofs and forced convictions, then I think it is on safe and reasonable ground.” In the same article, Gingrich supplements that view with his own personal conviction: “For me, it makes sense to suppose that the superintelligence, the transcendence, the ground of being…has revealed itself through prophets in all ages, and supremely in the life of Jesus Christ.”