From Natural Theology to a Theology of Nature

Dominic Kirkham writes about what he calls 'a very English preoccupation' in the March 2006 edition of the Sea of Faith magazine. Dominic is an interested follower of SoF and writes regularly for 'Renewal' (Catholics for a Changing Church).

For the past four centuries natural theology has been a very English preoccupation. In its search for a way between the Scylla of Catholic theological authoritarianism and the Charybdis of Puritan biblical literalism the Elizabethan Settlement of the sixteenth century saw natural theology as the ideal basis for a via media. In his influential Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the Anglican divine, Richard Hooker argued that by turning to reason and evidence all men of good will could find sufficient truth about the Creator; all that was needed was a little observation of nature for, ‘Nature and Scripture do serve in such full sort that they both jointly and not severally either of them be so complete that unto everlasting felicity we need not the knowledge of anything more than these two may easily furnish.’[1]

Such a view harmonised admirably with that of Hooker’s contemporary, Sir Francis Bacon, who was setting out his own empirical agenda for the advancement of knowledge, on a similar basis of the accurate observation of nature. Thus appeared a new breed of clergyman-naturalists such as John Ray (1628-1705). The title of his major work, Wisdom of God, Manifested in the Words of Creation (1691) really says it all. The living world is the work of the supreme designer, ‘There is no greater, at least not more palpable and convincing argument of the Existence of a Deity, than the admirable Art and Wisdom that discovers itself in the Make and Constitution of Heaven and Earth.’[2]

Henceforth, and by happy coincidence, the advancement of knowledge could be co-opted for the glorification of God. Such would be the purpose of natural theology. That there might have been a serpent lurking in the undergrowth of such ambition should have suggested itself from the pages of scripture itself on the temptation of knowledge. The disjunction between observation and revelation first became apparent to Thomas Burnet. When this Cambridge scholar and royal chaplain to Charles II was taking a trip through the Alps its rugged terrain of ‘indigested heaps of Stones and Earth’ prompted him to reflect how such ‘confusion came into Nature’.[3]

In his Sacred Theory of the Earth he argued that it was all a result of the Flood, which had necessitated the defacement of the original creation. If he thought this cleverly harmonised observation and revelation, the storm of outrage that his theory caused showed him otherwise. For the newly sanguine natural theology held that the world was not ‘a great Ruine’, defiled by human sin, but a wondrous creation expressly designed by God for the edification and convenience of His favourite species. But the nub of the issue was that Burnet’s loose reading of scripture, so as to coincide with observation, would encourage the irreligious to scepticism: as one churchman put it, ‘That way of philosophising all from Natural Causes I fear will turn the whole World into Scoffers.’

This prescient remark was a portent of things to come. The more carefully naturalists observed the Earth, the odder it all seemed to be. It was in the study of the new science of geology that cracks in the edifice of natural theology began to appear: by the end of the eighteenth century they had become gaping chasms! It was particularly through the study of fossils that it became apparent that the world was not only far older than ever envisaged by scripture but that whole worlds had come and gone, inhabited by demonic creatures (dinosaurs) ‘armed with the virility of Evil. a teeming Spawn fitted for the lowest abysm of Chaos.’ To the faithful such discoveries brought great disquiet; if (and for long it was contested that it was only an ‘if’) such creatures had existed they could only be the work of the devil. It was only after much hesitation, and before languishing into insanity, that the first holder of Oxford’s chair of geology (created with the explicit purpose of strengthening the scientific basis of belief), the Rev. William Buckland was forced to admit that such a world was ‘inconsistent with a Creation founded in Benevolence.’[4]

Buckland was a colourful character, given to concluding popular lectures on fossils with the singing of the national anthem in thanks for vital minerals, such as coal, which ‘expresses the most clear design of Providence to make the inhabitants of the British Isles, by means of this gift, the most powerful and richest nation on Earth.’ If, in the larger picture of natural theology there was no justification for metaphysical beliefs, then where indeed would it lead not only scoffers but the devout? When the one time aspirant to Holy Orders, Charles Darwin, visited Galapagos, what he observed undermined his belief in natural theology, for the God of Galapagos was careless, wasteful, indifferent and almost diabolical, certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.[5]

The high water mark of natural theology is undoubtedly the work of William Paley. It was of this that Darwin wrote with such affection in his autobiography of his time at Cambridge that, ‘The careful study of these works was the only part of the Academic Course which, as I then felt and still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.’[6] It was, therefore, highly ironic that the first casualty of the new theory of natural selection should be the natural theology of Paley’s argument to design. It is also tragic that at this point, about 1875, that, according to the philosopher Michael Ruse, ‘natural theology took a wrong if understandable turn’ in not only abandoning the argument to design but the argument to complexity on which it was based.[7]

This is a view supported by Fritjof Capra in his study of the development of European scientific thought, The Turning Point. Because of the focus on individual organisms and species, he writes, ‘The creative unfolding of life towards forms of ever increasing complexity remained an unsolved mystery for more than a century after Darwin.’[8] It is something that a more holistic view of systems theory, that focuses on the dynamics of self-organisation and the role of the environment, has now remedied with such concepts as the ‘eco-system’ or ‘bio-diversity’, pioneered by the naturalist E.O.Wilson.

Meanwhile, the agenda of Bacon and the enthusiasm of the new naturalist-scientists had led to the emergence of a wholly new kind of industrialised society in which the new knowledge and exploitation of nature’s resources, regarded as a source of endless beneficence, was becoming insatiable, destructive and unsustainable. It was John Ruskin, amongst others, who complained not only about geology – ‘those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses’[9] – but of the destruction of the human spirit. He too lapsed into a depressive dementia.

Clearly something was very wrong. It was not long before questions began to be raised about the very foundational principles of this civilization. The distinguished historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, ‘Some of the major maladies of the present world – in particular the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature’s irreplaceable treasures, and the pollution of those that man has not already devoured – can be traced back to a religious cause, and this cause is the rise of monotheism.’[10] It seemed that the Western ‘religion of modern times’ (Christianity) had first robbed nature of its mystery and then encouraged the growth of a destructive scientific mechanism which now threatened not only to destroy nature but humanity as well.

And there was something else. Just as the ecological implications of this religion had not been recognised neither had another feature: its patriarchalism. By the twentieth century women were beginning to challenge the assumptions and values of a society run largely by men for men. Nor did it take much insight to realise that the whole edifice of natural theology was a very male affair: like women the Earth had always been regarded as feminine and, like women, the male view was that both were there for man’s pleasure and exploitation. As the feminist theologian Mary Daly wrote, ‘Where God is male, the male reigns supreme.’[11] Female theologians have been prominent in reappraising our understanding of nature.

A feminine view of nature as the source of fertility, of the nurturing and care for life, was something that had been heavily repressed from the outset of monotheism: the Bible simply designated the ancient goddess of fertility, Ashtoreth, as ‘shame’. In the Christian era the ancient rites of nature were simply condemned as ‘witchcraft’. The apparent dualism implicit in Christian theology whereby the natural was subverted to the supernatural, this ‘dirty little world’ to the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’, was clearly becoming untenable.

The cumulative effect of such profound cultural reappraisals has been to propel theological thought about nature onto a new level of understanding. As the New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering has written, ‘Our growing knowledge of how life has evolved, and of the earthly parameters within which all creatures live, has amounted to a new revelation that supplements but largely replaces the supposed revelations of the past.’[12] The heart of this new sense of revelation is what is now called ‘Green Consciousness’. It was epitomised by the American Catholic priest Thomas Berry when he wrote in The Dream of the Earth, ‘There is an awe and reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun and heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forest and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.’[13]

Here we glimpse the emergence (evolution?) of a new kind of theology: a theology of nature. Unlike the previous natural theology it sees nature simply in terms of itself, as an inviolable, mysterious ‘other’ which makes its own epiphanies. In his Gifford Lectures of 1953, on the theological implications of the new understanding of nature, Canon Charles Raven – amongst the last of that great tradition of clerical naturalists – captured something of this spirit when he wrote of his sheer pleasure in observing butterflies, ‘Every specimen differed from the rest. To move from one to another, to sense the difference of impact, to work out the quality of this difference in the detailed modifications of the general pattern, this was a profoundly moving experience.’[14]

If the 1870s were a time of crisis for natural theology the 1970s were a time of radical change in our understanding of nature. With the breathtaking views of planet Earth taken from the Apollo spacecraft and the publication of the Gaia theory of planetary self-regulation New Age mystics and environmental activists began to look at the Earth in a new way – as a fragile life-support system hovering over the abyss. As a species we now understood ourselves to be one part of a vibrant and almost inexhaustibly wondrous complex web of life that surrounds the Earth: what Teilhard de Chardin called the ‘biosphere’.[15]

The truly awesome thing is that now, small as we are, we have the power not only to comprehend this but to destroy it – and ourselves with it. This brings a sense of urgency to reconnect with the natural world, such as that expressed by Sally McFague in Super, Natural Christians; How we should love nature.[16] In this new dispensation there has be a metamorphosis of the old religious vocabulary: ‘salvation’ is now about saving the planet, ‘sanctuaries’ the last refuges of the wilderness.

In a sense we are now living between two stories of nature. While we are still trying to accept the implications of the new, evolutionary story, much that belonged to the old creationist story still lingers on in our thinking. It is a bit like the vehicles one sometimes see in Third World countries, bedecked with all sorts of medallions, charms, and statues: if one breaks down who do you call upon, the gods or a mechanic? Lloyd Geering comments that this transition replicates that from polytheism to monotheism: it wasn’t achieved overnight and not without much controversy. But it triumphed because it was a more persuasive idea.

To some the new theology of nature will be no more than a confirmation of the worst fears of the critics of Thomas Burnet, that the world would be turned into scoffers. But this is facile; as perhaps the greatest evolutionary biologist of the last century, Ernst Myer, once said, ‘People forget that it is possible to be intensely religious in the entire absence of theological belief.’ Call it Nature Mysticism, Green Christianity or whatever, the new theology of nature now incorporates all that we have learned about the human species and the natural world. ‘Life’ has now become the new metaphor for ‘God’ as the symbol of totality. Now, as the theologian Gordon Kaufman wrote In Face of Mystery, ‘To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one’s life and action. It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.’[17] Such is the basis of the new theology of nature.


[1] Quoted in Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design, (Harvard 2003) p. 36.

[2] Ruse, op.cit. p..39.

[3] For a discussion of the thinking of Burnet cf. Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind (Granta 2003) and Alan Cutler, The Seashell on the Mountaintop (Heinemann 2003), which is a biography of Nicolaus Steno, the man with the best claim to be the founder of Geology.

[4] Cf. Deborah Cadbury, The Dinosaur Hunters (Fourth Estate, 2000).

[5] For a discussion of Darwin’s crucial paradigm shift from natural theology to evolutionary thinking see Edward J. Larson, Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands (Penguin 2002).

[6] Darwin, Charles, Autobiographies (Penguin Classics 2002).p. 31.

[7] Ruse, op.cit. p.. 334.

[8] Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, (Flamingo 1982) p.310..

[9] Quoted in The Faber Book of Science, ed. John Carey (Faber 1995) p.71.

[10] Quoted in Lloyd Geering, The Greening of Christianity (St. Andrews Trust, 2005) p. 22.

[11] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Beacon Press, 1973).

[12] Geering, op.cit. p.35.

[13] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1988).

[14] Charles E. Raven, Natural Religion and Christian Theology: Experience and Interpretation (Cambridge, 1953).

[15] Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Fontana, 1965). Though Teilhard hopelessly mixed up teleology and evolutionary thinking he is prophetic in grasping the need for a holistic theology of the Earth.

[16] Sally McFague, Super, Natural Christians (Fortress Press, 1997).

[17] Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery (Harvard, 1993).

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