Imaginative Natural Theology

With the recent publication of The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology,[1] it is fair to say that there is a renewed interest in natural theology, and not just in the realm of analytic philosophy.  In fact, only one of the Handbook‘s thirty-eight post-Introduction chapters covers analytic philosophy. That said, Part 5 of the Handbook includes six chapters dedicated to “Perspectives on Natural Theology from the Arts.” But why natural theology and the arts?

First, as George Pattison has noted:

Another characteristic of the tradition is the location of theological discussions of art in the realm of natural theology. Artistic practices, together with that realm of visibility from which they arise and in which they take on form, are discussed in terms of humanity’s ‘natural’ endowments and capacities. They are not seen – except in certain specific cases – in the context of redemption. As such they are therefore regarded as being by definition outside the sphere of grace, even if grace is understood as having a positive relation to the natural world.[2]

Pattison goes on to question this assumption, and rightly so. Nevertheless, my reason for mentioning it here is simply to draw attention to the fact that discussions of art are typically located in the realm of natural theology. This is nothing new.

Second, and perhaps more importantly for our conversation here, there has been a shift in the world of metaphysics. William Desmond explains:

Our time is often said to be postreligious and postmetaphysical, but is it not true that art has become for many the happening where some encounter with transcendence continues to be sought?  With art, it will be said, some important communication of significant otherness happens.  With art, it will also be said, we find ourselves thinking in terms of perhaps the exemplary expression of human originality.  Indeed, here it may also be said that art’s otherness and originality often leave us with an enduring insinuation of enigma, such that we are given to wonder if great art privileges us with some intimation of an even more ultimate origin.  Even in a time of abundant kitsch, the sustaining power of art to offer more is not yet dead.  What are we to make of this situation?[3]

Indeed. What are we to make of this situation? Desmond, of course, sets out to deal with this and other related questions. Most interesting for our purposes, however, Desmond has identified a trajectory of metaphysical speculation; namely, from theology to metaphysics to positive science to art. But why art? Desmond continues:

My hunch is that concern with origin has migrated to art, where it seems to be without metaphysical presupposition or religious commitment, though reflection will show that this is not at all univocally the case. In an equivocal way, not only are surrogate forms of the religious not absent, but our entire ways of thinking about art, origin, creativity are shot through with unnamed metaphysical presuppositions.[4]

But “art cannot be the sanctus sanctorum [i.e., the holy of holies] in which the burden carried by religion, science and metaphysics can be sustained, and renewed.”[5] And here we might think of Jeffrey L. Kosky’s Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity.[6] Kosky wants to “welcome the appeal of dwelling in this in-between, never fully enchanted, never fully disenchanted, never fully secular, never fully religious.”[7] But Desmond rejects this sort of thinking, and concludes:

Art can be a carrier of transcendence, only if these others [i.e., religion, science and metaphysics] are themselves in robust spiritual shape. Its health rises or falls by its sustenance in community with these its others. If these are sick, it cannot be their cure…. Art is not the remnant which will save the rest. The impossible burden of transcendence is God. Without the religious, we collapse under the burden.[8]

Clearly, much more could be said, and in an effort to continue the conversation, we’ve invited three scholars to contribute to this symposium on imaginative natural theology.[9]

Monday, 4 November “Cultivating Ears to Hear Beauty’s Call,” by Philip Tallon, Director of Student Ministries at Christ Church UMC in Memphis, TN.

Tallon is the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford University Press, 2011), and co-editor of The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes (The University Press of Kentucky, 2012).

Wednesday, 6 November – “Analogy, Sacramentality and the Place of Natural Theology,” by Hans Boersma, J.I. Packer Professor Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.

Boersma is the author of Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery  (Oxford University Press, 2009), Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Eerdmans, 2011), and most recently, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Analogical Approach (Oxford University Press, 2013). For a complete listing of his publications, see here.

Friday, 8 November – “New Directions in Natural Theology and the Arts,” by Russell Re Manning, Lord Gifford Fellow in Natural Theology in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Re Manning is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology (Oxford University Press, 2013) as well as the author of New Varieties of Natural Theology: Innovations at the Interface of Religion, Science, Philosophy, and the Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). For a complete list of his publications, see here.

Saturday, 9 November – “Book Reviews,” by Christopher R. Brewer, PhD Candidate in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland.

Brewer is a PhD Candidate in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. He is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology under the supervision of David Brown.


[1] Russell Re Manning, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[2] George Pattison, Art, Modernity and Faith, 2nd ed. (London: SCM, 1998), 134.
[3] William Desmond, Art, Origins, Otherness: Between Philosophy and Art (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), 1.
[4] Ibid., 3.
[5] Ibid., 289-290.
[6] Jeffrey L. Kosky, Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity–Walter De Maria, Diller+Scofidio, James Turrell, Andy Goldsworthy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
[7] Ibid., 177.
[8] Desmond, Art, Origins, Otherness., 290.
[9] For additional reading along these lines, see George Pattison, “Art and Apologetics,” Modern Churchman32 no. 5 (1991): 24-30; Richard Viladesau, Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty, and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 103-140 in particular; Anthony Monti, “Types and Symbols of Eternity: How Art Points to Divinity,” Theology 105 no. 824 (March/April 2002): 118-126; Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003); David Brown, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); David Brown, God and Grace of Body: Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); David Brown, God and Mystery in Words: Experience through Metaphor and Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Eleanore Stump, “Beauty as a Road to God,” Sacred Music 134.4 (Winter 2007): 13-26.