Christians: Don’t Burn the Book of Nature!

Note from the editor: From November 4th to November 9th of 2013, Transpositions hosted an online symposium on Imaginative Natural Theology.  During that week, Transpositions received this piece of writing from Travis Buchanan. Although it could not be included in the symposium, this post contributes to the ongoing conversation about the relationship between natural theology, the imagination and the arts:

Another perennially relevant point to the entire discussion of ‘theology, aesthetics and culture’ is the maxim “abuse does not take away use” (abusus non tollit usum). It is one that has continually been brought to mind over the past several years as I have waded into these discussions myself. To take what is the most frequent and emotionally-charged example, the fact that the Third Reich misinterpreted nature, divining from it the self-evident superiority of the ‘Nordic’ or Aryan race (itself a fiction) to all others, especially those of Semitic descent, should not prohibit others from making a proper use of nature and the truths it may disclose. It is as if a strong fear persists in certain theological quarters that if we allow for any validity to even the merest suggestions of ‘natural theology’ then we will have no ground from which to oppose the next Hitler who arises.

Now, I take it for granted that what constitutes a properly and distinctively Christian ‘natural theology’ should be carefully established, and any argument for a belief or behavior based solely on nature or human reason which clearly contradicts an aspect of revealed theology or the scriptural witness or universally-acknowledged Christian tradition should be declared invalid or false as a result.) I still do not see why it is so controversial to endorse, along with David Brown (to take the nearest example to the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts), that, for example, ‘the claims of the nineteenth-century critic, John Ruskin, that various aspects of the divine nature can be disclosed through the natural world: infinity, integration, permanence, symmetry, energy, and restraint, but by no means necessarily all at once’ (2012, 272). Many may call this reading of the natural world controversial; I call it patently Christian. Or perhaps Hebrew would be a better descriptor, for it was the legacy of the people of Israel that bequeathed to us the perspective that

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1–4)

There is a danger, of course, that wrong conclusions may (and have been) drawn from nature—what was as early as the third century considered the other book of God’s revelation. Books can and will be misread. But surely this is no justification for a ban upon their writing, or for burning those already written.  It is freely acknowledged that ideas about God or man or creation allegedly based upon observation of the natural world and deduced by human reason can be disastrously wrong, and can carry catastrophic consequences. We desperately need divine self-revelation about the God ‘in’ whom ‘we live and move and have our being’, without which he can only ever remain to us ‘the unknown god’ (Acts 17:28, 23). But Christians stubbornly maintain that the world has been given just such a divine self-revelation—and one of the things that has been graciously revealed to us is that ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’. If we believe that to be true, why would we not expect to find ‘various aspects of the divine nature . . . disclosed through the natural world’, as Brown (following Ruskin, and Augustine and many church fathers, and Calvin, and Edwards, etc., etc.) claims (272), or indeed in the variety of human experience which Brown’s most recent books explore?

Abusus non tollit usum. The gift of wine is certainly abused in the case of the drunkard, the gift of sex in the case of the adulterer, but no one could reasonably argue that the existence and possibility of these unfortunate and sinful states should prohibit the proper use of wine and sex—divine gifts to man—by others. These are but two aspects of a good creation. What of the gift of creation (or nature) itself? In the much more morally ambiguous case of food sacrificed to idols, whom the apostle Paul regarded to be demons (1 Corinthians 10:20), and where it would be arguably very prudent for him to prohibit all Christians everywhere from partaking of an overtly pagan table so as not to be confused as idolaters—demon worshippers—themselves, especially among the very people they were trying to influence toward belief in Jesus Christ as the one, true God, Paul instead grants Christians freedom to partake or abstain of such questionable food based upon conscience and the individual circumstance. He grants this on the grounds that (quoting Psalm 24:1) ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof’ (1 Corinthians 10:26). This is too liberal for many people to handle. Many are much more comfortable with prohibitions: ‘“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” according to human precepts and teachings’, as Paul elsewhere wrote. ‘These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body’, he said, ‘but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh’ (Colossians 2:21–23). There are some who persist in declaring similar prohibitions upon the book of nature, but I am of those who insist that any perceived gain by refusing the many truths about God, ourselves and our world, which may be graciously disclosed through creation rightly and humbly read, are surely outweighed by their censure.

Travis Buchanan is a PhD candidate in St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. His research focuses on the potential value the theological principles of ‘sacrament’ and ‘incarnation’ may have in illuminating the significance of myth or story as understood by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

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MacSwain, Robert, and Worley, Taylor . Theology, Aesthetics and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Author

  • Travis Buchanan completed his MLitt and PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews. Currently, he is Assistant Professor for Theological Studies, Colorado Christian University, Lakewood, CO, USA

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