A Fine Tuned Universe? 2 (RJS)

Alister_McGrath ds.JPG

The first section of Alister McGrath’s new book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with his vision of a Trinitarian natural theology. As is typical in almost anything by McGrath the section rambles and repeats and makes a number of excellent points in the process.

As McGrath develops his vision for natural theology he notes several criticisms leveled against the notion of a natural theology. These criticisms are focused on the use of natural theology as an apologetic for God,  on the tendency to search out gaps and insert God,  and on the emphasis in many expressions of natural theology on epistemology (how we know and basis for knowledge) rather than ontology (the nature of the world we see). When natural theology is viewed, as was common in the 18th to 20th century, as a way to know God on the basis of human reason alone, without recourse to God’s self-revelation in Christ, Church, Scripture, through the power of the Spirit, it will fall short. It may point to a God – it will not point to the God.

The power of natural theology is not in its ability to provide a foundation for knowledge of God but in its ability to provide a synthesis of information and a Christian vision of reality.

[Christian natural theology] offers an alternative way of viewing nature, which may at times challenge exaggerated versions of the scientific method, yet welcomes and sees itself as part of the human quest for truth, whether scientific or religious. It expects to find, and does in fact find, a significant explanatory resonance with what is known of nature from other sources, while at the same time insisting on its right to depict and describe nature in its own special way – as God’s creation. (p. 29-30)

Christian natural theology is a tool – a powerful tool – for making sense of the world we see. It provides a lens for engagement with observation and empirical data.  McGrath, taking his cue from Paul in Romans 12:2 notes that faith, Christian faith,  transforms the human understanding of the world and revolutionizes the way we inhabit the world.

The human mind is not replaced or displaced; rather it is illuminated and energized through faith. … Faith is about the transformation of the human mind to see things in a certain manner, involving the acquisition of certain habits of thinking and perception. (p. 39)

A renewed vision of natural theology asks two questions in iteration:

How does a Christian faith, a Christian view of the world, inform our understanding of nature?

How does our increasing knowledge of nature inform our understanding of the nature of God and his creation?

History confirms what orthodoxy suspects – that any attempt to render the character of God through human engagement with nature ultimately leads to a vision of God that is at best Deist, and more probably pagan – a point of no small importance on account of the revival of paganism in many parts of the Western world, although often in somewhat softened and sanitized forms. (p. 67)

But a Christian view does not treat God as a speculative hypothesis, it does not view God as impersonal or detached.  A Christian view of God is inherently trinitarian, and this trinitarian view of God in relationship, of perichoresis, must inform and imbue a true Christian natural theology.

McGrath outlines four points of particular significance for his view of a Trinitarian Natural Theology:

1. Trinitarianism and a Self-Revealing God.

Deism holds that God created the world; theism holds that God created the world and continues to direct it through divine providence; Trinitarianism holds that God created the world, continues to direct it through divine providence, and guides the interpreters of both the books of nature and Scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. (p. 72)

God reveals himself and enters into relationship with his creation. To consider God without taking into account this element of relationship within the Godhead and with creation will ensure a theology that comes up short.

2. The Doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo.

Because creation is ex nihilo – out of nothing – study of creation will reveal God.  He did not work with preexisting or alien material, but with material of his own choice and form.

this leads to the notion that the created order is capable of rendering the character of God, especially God’s wisdom, goodness, and beauty. This does not mean that one can read such attributes out of the natural order unproblematically and unambiguously. Nevertheless, a theological foundation for such an approach has been laid. (p. 74)

3. Humanity and the Imago Dei.

The intelligibility of the natural world, demonstrated by the natural sciences, raises the fundamental question as to why there is such a fundamental resonance between human minds and the structures of the universe. From a Trinitarian perspective, this “congruence between our minds and the universe, between the rationality experienced within and the rationality observed without,” is to be explained by the rationality of God as creator of both the fundamental ordering of nature and the human observer of nature. (p. 77)

4. The Economy of Salvation.

A Trinitarian view of natural theology avoids the pitfalls of deism, functional atheism, and paganism. Creation groans (Romans 8) and is observed in its groaning by humans affected by sin. That creation groans gives rise to the problems of natural evil and moral ambivalence in the world. Human sin and finitude entails clouded judgment and moral evil. As such a “neutral” development of natural theology will inevitably fail to reveal the Christian God. “Nature must be “seen” in the right way for it to act as a witness to, or conduit for, the Trinitarian God of the Christian tradition. (p. 79)

A Trinitarian “economy of salvation” offers such a framework. … It affirms that God created all things good and that they will finally be restored to goodness. Yet at the present, it insists that good and evil coexist in the world, as wheat and weeds grow together in the same field (Matthew 13:24-43). Without collapsing one into the other, it allows us to locate good and evil within the context of the theological trajectory of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. (p. 80-81).

These four points outlining a Trinitarian natural theology add another question to the two posed above.

How do these features of Christian doctrine, particularly the concepts of imago dei and the economy of salvation, change the way we view nature and interpret our observations?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • Travis Greene

    -How does a Christian faith, a Christian view of the world, inform our understanding of nature?
    It should make us see the earth and the cosmos as God’s, reflecting his glory and creative imagination. Consequently, seeking to understand it is a good and worthwhile activity. It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; it is the honor of kings to seek it out (Proverbs 25:2).
    -How does our increasing knowledge of nature inform our understanding of the nature of God and his creation?
    Awe is an appropriate response to the awesome. That may be what nature mainly teaches us about God. I don’t think it particularly teaches us about God’s love or character, just his God-ness, if that makes any sense. Hence the deist God is an almost Cthulhu-like mystery being who would be mainly feared if he weren’t totally irrelevant.
    -How do these features of Christian doctrine, particularly the concepts of imago dei and the economy of salvation, change the way we view nature and interpret our observations?
    The imago dei and dominion/stewardship of earth are important. The idea that, when we are finally true human beings, we will not be in any sense competing with nature any longer, but instead almost parenting it, is very powerful and, I think, unique to the Judeo-Christian story. Thus our observation of nature, in terms of practical application, should lead us to find out how we can live in cooperation with the natural world in a sustainable way, neither using the world as merely a bunch of resources to be exploited, nor rejecting our role as gardeners and thinking any human involvement with nature is necessarily evil (i.e., the recent glut of “life after humans” eco-pocalypse porn).

  • Scot, Any comments about the pen, Mr. McGrath is using?

  • Brian

    It looks like a Pentel RSVP, and he seems to be about ready for a new one.

  • RJS

    Well, this one appears to be something of a dud – poorly phrased questions I guess.
    I thought one of the most interesting notions in McGrath’s thinking here was the idea of an “upward spiral.” Orthodox doctrine enables and informs natural theology which then refines our understanding of orthodox doctrine and the nature of God. It is, in his words, an iterative process.

  • pds

    I see that there is no flood of comments. I raised the following question in the other thread, and I don’t think it ever got answered. In case you or anyone is interested . . .
    >>>RJS, thanks. I have been curious to learn more about McGrath’s approach.
    Is he saying that we have no common ground with nonbelievers and skeptics to discuss the evidence of design in nature until they accept “the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition”? In Romans 1 Paul speaks of evidence of God in nature so that everyone is without excuse.

  • Unfortunately, any attempt to study the Book of Nature alongside the Book of Scripture leads people in conservative circles to fear that their particular view of God, creation, and ecology will be challenged. We might end up accidently becoming “philosophical naturalists” or may give up our theology because of science. I say, the more intricate and complex the created order is, the more these things are an indicator of the magnificence of the Creator. The more I learn about evolutionary process to bring into existence the things that weren’t, the more I see God’s creative plan to take his creation project to its intended destination… cosmic shalom!

  • RJS

    I don’t think that McGrath would say that there is no common ground to discuss the evidence of design in nature.
    But I do think that he is right – evidence of design or purpose in nature cannot, on its own, lead to an orthodox Christian theology. At best it leads to some form of deism or paganism. This is Tim Keller’s position as well from what I’ve read and heard – “natural theology” can lead one away from secular materialism, but that is about as far as it goes. Of course, in our society where secular materialism is a powerful force such a natural theology can provide a good starting point.

  • pds

    Ok, thanks. I am guessing his approach differs from Dallas Willard’s, who thinks that the evidence from the natural world can get us to theism, which is a pretty big step:

  • RJS

    I don’t actually think that Willard is claiming that the natural world alone gets us to theism. His first and second steps don’t get him to theism although evidence from the natural world certainly contributes. It is his third step that gets him to theism –
    In this third stage we look at the course of human events—historical, social and individual—within the context of a demonstrated extra-naturalism (stage one) and of a quite plausible cosmic intellectualism (stage two).
    Believe it or not – while I disagree with some pieces of his argument – I agree with this general development. His stage one is what I’ve been saying – we can get beyond secular materialism. His stage two I have some quibbles with – but they are not overwhelming. His stage three is God’s self-revelation and interaction with humans. And then – as Christians we can return to an understanding of nature within the construct of our theology. It is an iterative process.

  • RJS
    I thought McGrath denied that there is evidence of design or purpose in nature. If he doesn’t, wouldn’t that place him in the intelligent design way of looking at things?

  • RJS

    craig v,
    A quote I cut from the post – (because my too long post was even longer before I edited) may shed some light here. With respect to Paley and his vision of a designer McGrath says:

    How could one speak of observing “design” in nature? One observes nature, but one infers design in nature. Design is not an empirical datum, but reflects the interpretation of what is observed. This point was perhaps made most forcibly, and certainly most perceptively, by John Henry Newman, who commented: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.” Newman rightly saw that the idea of design was not a “given” within the realm of nature, but was acquired by observing and interpreting nature through the inhabitation of the Christian vision of reality. (p. 30)

    Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution doesn’t make sense, it suffers from the fallacies and miscues of 18th and 19th century natural theology.

  • RJS

    To continue – I think that McGrath does think that there is evidence of design and purpose in nature – but this evidence must be seen through the eyes of faith, and will not knock anyone over the head as irrefutable if they choose not to see. But I have not read his work extensively, just a few books, and I have not finished this one yet. We’ll see where he goes – the chapter titles in Part Two: Fine-Tuning Observations and Interpretations look intriguing. I think that we will have some good discussions starting next week.
    9. In the Beginning: The Constants of the Universe
    10. Can These Bones Live? The Origins of Life
    11. The Matrix of Life: The Curious Chemistry of Water
    12. Chemical Catalysts and the Constraints of Evolution
    13. The Origins of Complexity: The Mechanism of Evolution
    14. The Outcomes of Evolution: The Directionality of Evolution
    15. An Emergent Creation and Natural Theology

  • pds

    RJS (#9)-
    You made me read it more closely. To clarify further, stage two gets you to “minimal theism” or the “god of the philosophers.” Stage three gets you to “God in the full theistic sense.”
    >>>>>So what do we have at the second stage of theistic evidence? We have established that not all order is evolved and that relative to our data there is a probability of zero that order should emerge from chaos or from nothing into the physical world. In addition, we have experience of order emerging from minds (our minds) into the physical world. Under the limited conditions of human existence, we know what this is like and that it does happen. Now what is the effect of all of this? Certainly no demonstration of God in the full theistic sense. But, similarly as with stage one, the possibility of there being such a God has become significantly more substantial. The existence of something significantly like him has been given some plausibility, and the theist may now invite the atheist to show why the self-existent, mind-like entity of minimal theism—the god of the philosophers, shall we call him—could not in reality be the same as the subject of praise and prayer and devotion in religion—the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” There is now a somewhat broader ontological “space” for the God of religion which would not be there in a universe without “design.”>>>>
    I think this is important, because stage two design arguments lend plausibility to all the historical evidences for the God revealed through Jesus and the prophets.

  • pds

    Craig and RJS (#11),
    Intelligent design is not an “alternative to evolution.” It fully accepts that “evolution” happens, and Darwin’s theory of it explains some things. ID in biology holds that Darwinian theory does not explain everything.
    “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process.”

  • Your Name

    The problem for ID is that its biggest proponents, the Discovery Institute, have been playing games with the idea of intelligent design. They at once, giving nods to creationists, imply that intelligent design is nothing more than a secular explanation for creationism while trying to imply to scientists that there is strong scientific evidence to support the idea that there is a designer, but don’t ask us to actually engage in any science to test this proposition.
    “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process.”
    Theories are comprehensive models that take into account the evidence gathered to date and make predictions about future discoveries and, effectively, show us how we should test them. What test is available to evaluate whether the ‘theory’ of intelligent design is a valid scientific theory? What test has the DI proposed that will support ID or show that it is wrong? None?

  • RJS
    Thanks for your response. It’s probably a confusion over words. ‘Evidence’, in a scientific context, seems to me to be what is observed (and can be observed by everybody) and not what is infered. Admittedly, this distinction hides a host of philosophical difficulties. So I would say that intelligent design holds that there is evidence for design but that McGrath holds that there isn’t evidence but that we can interpret the evidence in such a way that we see design.
    I haven’t read McGrath either, except for your quotes, so I’ve probably missed something obvious. I get the impression that he defends his position by leaving ambiguities that allow him to avoid the traps othe natural theologies have fallen into. That may be why it’s hard to state, as per your questions, what difference his theory would make to how we do science.

  • PDS
    I didn’t bring up intelligent design in order to attack or defend it, but rather to clarify the distinction between it and McGrath’s view. At first it may seem odd to us that a natural theology would deny evidence for (or deny that we can see) design. By contrasting McGrath with intelligent design, I was hoping to clarify what might seem odd.

  • freelunch

    [also 4:12 pm]
    One observes nature, but one infers design in nature. Design is not an empirical datum, but reflects the interpretation of what is observed.
    Sounds like he’s firmly in the theistic evolution camp. If one believes that the God defined in Christianity exists, then there is nothing in nature to say that He does not exist nor is there anything in nature that says that He didn’t start things or guide them, though nature is pretty clear about showing us that God did not do this six thousand years ago.
    On the other hand, if you don’t believe that the God defined in Christianity exists, then nature isn’t going to change your mind and certainly won’t help you decide whether Islam does a better job of explaining God than orthodox Anglicanism does.

  • RJS

    craig v.
    There was a Friday post by Logan Gage at the beginning of the month (you can find it here) where he defined ID saying All ID requires is that intelligent design was involved and that the effects of this design are empirically discernable.
    I think that McGrath would object to the phrase “empirically discernable” and I know that this is the phrase I disagree with. Certainly I think that God designed the world and that he did (does) so intelligently. But I don’t think that we can look at nature and design empirical tests for this design. I do think that we can infer the design when we look at creation through the eyes of faith (it is a self-consistent position).

  • freelunch

    But I don’t think that we can look at nature and design empirical tests for this design.
    If that’s the case, do you agree that ID is not a scientific claim?

  • RJS

    I don’t think that ID stand the test as a scientific claim. It is ultimately a faith claim. However design is also not disproven by the scientific data.
    I also don’t think that the statement that the evolution is the result of blind cosmic chance – a purely random process is a scientific statement – it is a faith claim, although it also is not disproven by the scientific data.
    I don’t think that science can prove or disprove the existence of God.
    I do think that there are ways of knowing things that are not “scientific” in the way this term is generally used.

  • pds

    Craig (#17)
    Right, understood- I was mainly responding to RJS. I think you raise a good point.
    I haven’t read McGrath. By comparison, Francis Collins criticized “intelligent design” but in the same book he made the same “intelligent design” arguments that Guillermo Gonzalez does. Many accept design arguments in cosmology, but reject them in biology. Is there a good basis for this? I don’t think so.
    Your Name (#15)
    You can find a lot of answers to your questions here:

  • freelunch

    Yes, the answer is that the Discovery Institute will not do any science.
    They need to stop complaining that they are not being taken seriously when they do things that show that they should not be taken seriously.

  • Kenny Johnson

    Really? Behe and Gonzalez (for ex.) are not doing science? Do tell.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    Really? Behe and Gonzalez (for ex.) are not doing science? Do tell.
    Well, they do not publish in peer reviewed journals. They do not define their concepts in a way that can be scientifically verified by peers. Behe, for example, can’t provide a definition of “irreducible complexity” since 1996 (Darwin’s Black Box).
    So, in that sense, no, they do not do science that supports intellgient design.
    Both, of course have advanced scientific degrees and are therefore capable of doing “real” science but neither does “intelligent design” science. The Discovery Institute itself does no scientific reaserch and has just about given up the pretense that it does.

  • Pandeism Fish

    Of course, all the effects of which you speak are more logically accounted for by Pandeism than by any kind of Theism….