The enterprise called "natural theology"-- popularly understood to be the attempt to prove the existence of God "naturally," apart from any religious presuppositions-- has found a rather splotchy reputation in the gossip of "respectable" theologians and philosophers. Yet just as it was wise to question the defamatory gossip of "that girl" in high school, it is equally prudent for theologians and philosophers to critically reevaluate sullied subjects such as this.
The recent wave of interest in natural theology suggests that they are doing just that.
On the crest of this wave of interest, we find the distinguished Oxford Professor of Historical Theology, Alister McGrath. McGrath has asserted his position in the forefront of this subject by touching on natural theology in several of his written works in recent years, including The Science of God (2004), his three-volume Scientific Theology (2002-2003), as well as The Order of Things (2006).
In his most recent efforts, however, he has trained his focus specifically on a reassessment of "natural theology" both through the recent conference he held at Oxford in June 2008--"Beyond Paley: Renewing the Vision for Natural Theology"--and his latest book The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Blackwell Publishing, 384p, released April 2008).
In this new book, McGrath sets forth "to develop a distinctively Christian approach to natural theology, which retrieves and reformulates older approaches...." (3). Whereas the modern approach to natural theology--typified in the Boyle Lectures and Paley's Natural Theology--attempted to point to certain "proofs" as necessarily leading to the single logical conclusion of God, McGrath, employing a critical realist epistemology, suggests otherwise:
We argue that if nature is to disclose the transcendent, it must be "seen" or "read" in certain specific ways - ways that are not themselves necessarily mandated by nature itself. It is argued that Christian theology provides an interpretative framework by which nature may be "seen" in a way that connects with the transcendent. The enterprise of natural theology is thus one of discernment, of seeing nature in a certain way, of viewing it through a particular and specific set of spectacles. (3)
One question the reader might have at this point is, "Why redefine the concept instead of simply coining a new term?" McGrath maintains that the typical understanding of the term "natural theology"--i.e. "the enterprise of providing support for religious beliefs by starting from premises that neither are nor presuppose any religious beliefs" (a definition he borrows from William Alston)--is actually a particular construction of certain Enlightenment presuppositions concerning nature and reality that do not currently hold sway, and were not a part of the pre-modern approach to natural theology. As such, a restatement of the term "natural theology" is justified in part because it "retrieves" pre-modern approaches--especially those of medieval theologians. Moreover since, as McGrath demonstrates, the term "nature" is an "indeterminate concept" that is "conceptually malleable," it follows that "natural theology" would be likewise fluid and subject to reformulation.
It is somewhat disappointing, however, that a more systematic discussion was not given to these pre-modern approaches, especially since they seem to more precisely exemplify the vision McGrath is setting forth with his own project. When was the term "natural theology" first used? What are some ways it evolved through the centuries? While McGrath does indeed touch on pre-modern approaches, also footnoting sources in which we can explore this subject further, the fact that a "retrieval" was an integral part of his expressed thesis should be reason enough to allow for a more in-depth and explicit discussion on the subject. Such a rootedness in tradition would have made his case more clear and persuasive.
Although The Open Secret is written as an essay to open conversation, rather than as an exhaustive exposition, McGrath nonetheless structures a careful and compelling vision for natural theology. The introductory chapter provides an excellent thumbnail sketch of the territory to be covered. Beyond the introductory chapter, the book is divided into three parts. The first part of the book couches natural theology in the context of the human quest for transcendence, which manifests itself in several different ways. While this experience of, and yearning for transcendence has served for many as a signpost to the Christian God, McGrath makes the important point that that is not the only way such an experience can be interpreted. The second part of the book examines how natural theology can be raised from its Enlightenment presumptions about objectivity and universality, and be informed specifically by the theological vision of the Christian tradition. The final section expands the enterprise of natural theology beyond mere sense-making into a holistic engagement with Truth, encounter with Beauty, and practice of Goodness.
Truly The Open Secret is an astounding work of scholarship with much to offer, and on many different levels. For those interested in the apologetic implications of this renewed natural theology, McGrath does not disappoint. Instead of focusing the apologetic discussion on ontology (typical of modernity), McGrath's vision encourages an important shift in discussion to the epistemological assumptions underneath ontology that often go critically unexamined.
McGrath also demonstrates a shift from an objective, to a more subjective apologetic approach. The modern apologetic approach to natural theology attempted (naively) to assert an "objective" perspective completely absent of presuppositions upon which "proofs" for God could be placed. Since such objectivity is an illusion, and such "proofs" in nature can be interpreted in different ways, McGrath's apologetic approach is one emphasizing "resonance" rather than proof: "...with the Christian way of seeing things being affirmed to offer a robust degree of empirical fit with what is actually observed - the `best explanation' of a complex and multifaceted phenomenon." (17) It might be said that McGrath's is about the business of explaining why Christianity makes sense "from within" (i.e. "This is why Christianity makes sense to me"), rather than "from without" (i.e. "This proof demands that Christianity should make sense to you").
Although McGrath does offer some discussion on "best explanation," as well as pointing the reader to several resources through which this concept may be explored in more depth, it might be said that more discussion could have been warranted at this point. For example, if there is only one obvious "best explanation," how does it avoid becoming just another "proof," thus falling into the same mistake as modernity? It is not entirely clear whether or not McGrath allows for the possibility of multiple "best explanations" (i.e. a "tie" of two or more "best explanations"). Is the principle of multiple possible interpretations of nature also applied to "best explanation?" While he is not explicit at this point, McGrath's acknowledgement of the difficulties of establishing criteria for "best explanation," and the almost intuitive nature of identifying it would seem to suggest that this is the case.
Even with its difficulties (explicitly admitted to by McGrath), there are several reasons why this apologetic approach might be seen as superior to its modern predecessor. It is compelling both on a philosophical, as well as a theological front. On the philosophical level, the epistemology of critical realism which undergirds McGrath's perspective is extremely persuasive, taking the best (and leaving out the worst) of modern and post-modern ideas, and forming a cogent synthesis that is intellectually powerful. Although it is not entirely without problems, the coherence of such an epistemology should be universally recognizable. Once the elegance of this epistemology is acknowledged, the point of contact is established, and the non-believer can begin to perceive the necessity of faith (not blind faith) in the epistemological process.
In turn, this emphasis on the importance of faith makes it a compelling apologetic theologically, not in the least because it is faithful to the ancient Christian epistemological statement "I believe in order to understand." This approach catapults both faith and divine revelation into prominent positions in the process of knowing--much more so than the modern rationalist approach. Yet one might ask: "By beginning with a universally acceptable epistemology, isn't this, in practice, the same as the modern approach?" Not necessarily. Epistemology itself is not a "proof," but a capacity for knowledge. Because critical realism is inherently presuppositional, that starting point of conversation is itself a "religious presupposition."
What is more, whereas the modern approach to apologetics and natural theology was one that reduced "faith" and "revelation" into something that was merely cognitive and propositional, McGrath makes the important move (particularly in the final third of the book) of raising natural theology out of that intellectual quagmire, and into a holistic encounter with the Triune God--one that assents to Truth, beholds and loves Beauty, and pursues Goodness. The natural theology McGrath sets forth thus entails that for a person to truly perceive an encounter with God, they must do so from inside the Christian tradition, and this by a leap (though not a blind leap) of faith. Indeed as the old proverb says, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."
However, the implications of The Open Secret are not at all confined to apologetics. The approach McGrath charts for natural theology deserves the careful attention of all categories of Christian scholarship (systematic theology, historical theology, biblical theology, etc.). Indeed the reductionist spirit of the Enlightenment has penetrated to some degree nearly all theological disciplines, resulting in a tragic compartmentalization that is counter-productive even to each specialization. The kind of roundtable dialogue McGrath models is a step toward a healthy re-integration. Careful consideration of epistemology is particularly important for this disciplines because they have long operated with unquestioned (and often recognized) epistemic assumptions.
There has been a remarkable amount of attention given to the enterprise of integrative theologies which seek to perceive God's truth through, for example, the arts. While McGrath's natural theology affirms such endeavors, it also qualifies that affirmation by pointing to the necessity of interpreting through he goggles of the Christian Tradition. Also emphasized is the important responsibility Christians have for giving voice to creation's praise.
It must also be commended that McGraths' vision for natural theology is indeed robustly Christian and biblical. Most of the second section of the book is focused specifically on how this approach to natural theology is shaped by specifically Christian theology. The notion that nature can reveal a transcendent God seems to be what the Incarnation naturally entails. Beyond this, McGrath is apt to examine the much-ignored methodology and content of Christ's teachings (e.g. His use of parables and the "I am" sayings) and the implications upon natural theology they bring. For example the approach taken by Jesus in his parables was one that assumed nature could reveal the transcendent truth about God and his Kingdom (e.g. "Consider the lilies of the field..." ). However, like the parable itself, these things must be seen in a particular way in order to perceive this truth. Thus, Jesus speaks in parables to the many, but gives only to his disciples the keys to their meaning. The many will thus "see, but not perceive."
McGrath paints for us a vision of natural theology that sees nature as bearing an "open secret" that all can see, but only some can perceive. McGrath writes:
A Christian natural theology rests on the premise that, although nature may be publicly observable, the key to its proper interpretation is not given within the natural order itself. The key to the "mystery" of the true significance of nature is mediated through the Christian tradition. (139)
While the heavens may declare the glory of God, as McGrath quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins saying, "they do not know it." It is the responsibility of the Christian church to give voice to creation's praise, to be its interpreters since it holds the keys to proper interpretation.
It may perhaps be anticipated that The Open Secret will be misunderstood by some, but I do not think this is due to a deficiency in its composition, but rather to the complexity of the subject matter. Any time such a vast amount of territory is to be covered, there will be even some of the most capable people left scratching their heads. Yet an exhaustive explanation should not be expected in a book that describes itself as "a foray into new territory, rather than a comprehensive and exhaustive exploration of the possibilities it offers." McGrath's careful footnotes (a behemoth total of 912), and no less than 49 pages of bibliography go far toward accomplishing this book's "attempt to open conversations," pointing the reader down promising trajectories for further exploration.
Seldom is there encountered a book with such a lucid integration of various disciplines, including science, theology, philosophy, aesthetics, psychology and literature to name a few. Yet McGrath does not do this at all pretentiously, assuming he is more of an authority than he really is. Instead of offering us "the final word" on these matters, he beckons us into new avenues of exploration, asking all to join with him at the roundtable of discussion.
I will see you there.