New Directions in Natural Theology and the Arts

Natural theology may seem to have little to do with theology and the arts. Natural theology is primarily considered with reference to the use of “natural” reason in the formulation of philosophical arguments about the existence and nature of God characteristic of much contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.[1] For others, the “natural” in natural theology is taken to refer to the purview of the natural sciences: natural theology is thus the attempt to discern something of the divine available to all in and through the scientific study of nature. By definition, it seems, natural theology has no truck with the “artificial” products of the creative imagination, with their accompanying revelation-like language of inspiration and privatised inner experience. Likewise, there seems to be little place for natural theology within the mainstream work in theology and the arts. In this post, I want to highlight two areas in which natural theology can be of service to work in theology and the arts, and to indicate three further new directions for future development.

Beauty

Though very much the poor relation in canonical philosophical natural theology the argument from beauty has a venerable and rich tradition. Augustine wondered at the origin of “these beautiful changeable things” and more recently, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn returned to the Platonic triad of truth, goodness and beauty in his suggestion:

If the crests of these three trees join together…and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected, branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world” but a prophecy.[2]

The Book of Nature

Whilst mechanical metaphors tend to dominate the tradition of natural theology (witness Cleanthes’ delight in nature as a nested system of machines), the image of the Book of Nature points in a different direction. Away from the domain of the natural sciences, the natural theological task of reading the book of God’s works brings an unavoidable aesthetic dimension into the enterprise. Just as reading any text is an acquired skill to be nurtured by practices of aesthetic discipline, so too is the natural theological activity of the discernment of what Robert Boyle refers to as “real Hierglyphicks, where things stand for words and their qualities for letters.”[3]

In both these cases there is a notorious tension, we might even say a competition, between theology and the arts as to which is the privileged bearer of transcendence, exemplified in M. H. Abrams’ argument in his 1973 classic Natural Supernaturalism for the Romantic secularisation of traditional theological themes.[4] Here the tradition of natural theology can, in effect, mediate between theology and the arts, disarming a potentially mutually destructive stand-off.[5] Beyond this mediating role, I want to suggest three further new directions for future development.

From Beauty to Meaning

The recent death of Arthur C. Danto brings into focus the movement within the philosophy of art from the centrality of beauty to a focus on the category of meaning. With Danto, we might endorse the aesthetic turn to meaning and develop a natural theology of art as the expression of meaning, grounded in the very possibility of meaningfulness at all. Informed by the suggestions of Paul Tillich’s theology of culture, such a natural theology sees artworks not simply as exemplars of prior theological truths but as themselves constitutive of theological discourse. The theology is not in the artwork – it is the artwork itself.

Against Doctrinal Pigeonholing

Natural theology has historically been thought of as outwith dogmatic theology, however, recent work by Alister McGrath has taken up T. F. Torrance’s invitation to place natural theology within the doctrinal enterprise.[6] Interestingly, McGrath recognises that such a renewed natural theology as explicitly located within Christian practices of discernment must find a place for the arts as a key means of natural theological “seeing” (along, of course, with philosophy, science, and morality). I think we can extend McGrath’s approach here: there is simply no reason to accept the natural theology vs revealed theology that we have become accustomed to presupposing and the arts prove to be a rich arena in which to explore the complex interpenetrations of nature and revelation, characteristic of natural theology at its best.

Towards a Natural-Cultural Theology

Just as the dichotomy of nature and revelation should be eschewed, so too must the equally pernicious (and equally untenable) either/or of nature and culture. If we understand natural theology in a broad sense as the practice of reflection on the nature of God on the basis of our experience of the world that we find ourselves in, there is clearly nothing to be gained by partitioning our experience into natural and cultural realms. Here, the concept of the imagination is key and can inform work that develops the neglected Platonic-Coleridgean tradition of natural theology as contemplation rather than argumentation and that recognises the role of the embedded creative subject.[7] In the words of the Cambridge Platonist, John Smith: “though the whole of this visible universe be whispering out the notions of a Deity … yet we cannot understand it without some interpreter within.”[8]


[1] For instance, William Lane Craig & J. P. Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009).
[2] Online: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1970/solzhenitsyn-lecture.html
[3] Michael Hunter & Edward B. Davis (eds.), The Works of Robert Boyle (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999), vol. 2, p. 29.
[4] M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism. Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (London: W. W. Norton, 1973).
[5] For an example of this approach explicitly engaging with Abrams’ argument, see Colin Jager, The Book of God. Secularization and Design in the Romantic Erai (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
[6] Alister McGrath, The Open Secret. A New Vision for Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).
[7] For examples of this approach, see the recent work of Douglas Hedley, Mark Wynn, and John Cottingham.
[8] John Smith, Select Discourses (London: Rivingtons and Cochran, 1821), 136.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,481,873 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments