Friday, February 14, 2014

Science and the Natural Knowledge of God

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, 
Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
Nicene Creed

What is the place of a natural knowledge of God? If we can answer this question adequately, we can more properly situate the dialogue of science and theology.

I believe we need to begin with the doctrine of God’s creating the universe and thus

humankind. In these posts, I will argue that God’s creating this world implies that all human beings possess some natural, though vague, knowledge and thus yearning for God.
On the way there, it is important to state a basic conviction: This theology must work for the church. I mean that ambiguous phrase in two ways: It must work to make the church better. It must serve the church. Naturally, the most significant representative is Karl Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics I/1, which he explicitly inserted the German word kirchliche in the title to his dogmatics (“church” as an adjective) to demonstrate that theology must preach. It has to be kerygmatic. Theology therefore “is a function of the Church.” Put another way, theology must work for the church in that it makes the church a better place. In my reading, too many theologies are written from the perspective of those disdainful of the actual life of Christian communities. In this light, I will present a natural theology, one principally taking in the insights of science, the necessities of the church, and the insights of Scripture.

In working with a type of “creative mutual interaction” that Robert J. Russell sets out within the typology of a Lakatosian “research program,” in Time in Eternity, I am convinced that, in the interaction of science and theology, theology must grasp, then not violate, the insights of science. As John Polkinghorne rightly argues, a scientifically-informed theology demonstrates that we are inherently motivated to believe what is truth and that our beliefs correspond to reality within the framework of critical realism. Simply stated, Polkinghorne argues that theology is “motivated belief.” Put in more traditional language, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature have the same Author, and therefore do not contradict one another.
In this light, natural knowledge of God provides a key test case for applying scientific insights to theology, not least because scientists (such as the atheist Richard Dawkins) commonly make statements about God’s existence or non-existence. In addition, a natural knowledge of God might be demonstrated, or at least supported, by the insights of science. And finally, the scientific study of nature also flows from a commitment (whether explicit or not) that the world is rational and ordered, which historically has flowed from the confession that God created this world. Charles Townes, in a lecture on the relationship between the Christian faith and modern science, summarizes this connection: 
For successful science of the type we know, we must have faith that the universe is governed by reliable laws and, further, that these laws can be discovered by human inquiry.” 
How then can we bring the insights about the natural world into our doctrine of God as Creator? That is the general tenor of this section. More specifically here, is there a natural knowledge of God, how does that relate to science, and what does this mean for the church? Let me move to some personal experience.

At times in my work as a pastor, and in response to this search for a reasonably intricate theology, I can hear someone reply: “Last weekend, I spent time in the mountains, gazing across a cool, still lake, listening to the wind through the trees. I was able to be silent. In the quiet of nature, I directly encountered God. I learned more about God there than I ever do in a worship service. On Sunday mornings, I hear about God. There I actually touched my Creator.”
In many ways, this natural knowledge of God is anti-ecclesial. It poses the question: Why do I need church when I have this direct experience? Why do I need a message from the pulpit when there are “sermons in stones” (to quote William Shakespeare)? From my pastoral experience—and, really, my experience generally—many people, religious or not, find an almost palpable presence of God in creation. And here a few definitions help. In theological language, we enter the realm of general revelation, where God is available “generally,” to all human beings. In many ways, my reflections on the natural knowledge of God constitute a form of general revelation, which also implies God’s benevolence toward all human beings, whether believer or not. As the Gospel of Matthew phrases it (5:45): God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous.” Theologians contrast it—or complement it—with special revelation, God’s particular acts and communication with the covenant people of Israel and the church. The key point to emphasize is that in either general or special revelation, God is still the One revealing. God is the One who must speak in self-revelation. In this chapter, I will only briefly touch on a related area, natural theology, which takes the data of nature and seeks to build a theological system, and particularly what it means within the critical interaction of science and theology.
I find Alister McGrath’s phrase from A Scientific Theology, Volume Isuccinct and profound: "there is an intrinsic capacity within the created order to disclose God." To use Wolfhart Pannenberg's phrase, this creates a "non thematic" relationship to God. This relationship arrives from bearing God’s image, the imago dei (which I will develop in the next section). To use John Calvin’s phrase, it is a sensus divinitatis, or “sense of the divine” (which I will also develop below). This sensus divinitatis provides a background for a more robust and articulated faith in God. It is endemic to human life and therefore an important component toward building a theology for the church informed by science.
To be clear, this natural knowledge of God poses a challenge. Here I am responding to this challenge by formulating the proper, useful, and even necessary place for the awareness of God in nature and thus in ourselves (our reflection on nature and our understanding of our own desires), as well as what science has discovered about the natural world. Put with utmost economy of words: A natural awareness of divinity is necessary, but not sufficient, for our understanding of God. In this regard, I am steering a path alongside Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, seeking to avoid Barth’s abhorrence of “natural theology” and of Vatican I’s rather overblown declaration that God can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason from created things.

(More in the next post, "The Bible and the Natural Theology Knowledge of God.")

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