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date: 27 May 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter begins by identifying the primary themes covered in this Handbook. It then attempts to put to rest the prevailing myth regarding natural theology: that natural theology had a brief, if significant, flourishing at a kind of interim point of the scientific revolution and culminated in William Paley's 1802 book, , before being fatally undermined by the combined effects of a three-pronged philosophical, scientific, and theological critique. It is argued that the interest in natural theology and the issues it is concerned with is very much at the centre of contemporary thought. An overview of the three parts of the Handbook is also presented.

Keywords: natural theology, scientific revolution, William Paley

What is natural theology? There is no easy answer to this question; indeed it is one of the primary aims of this Handbook to highlight the rich diversity of approaches to, and definitions of, natural theology. The lack of a fixed consensus on the definition of natural theology is due, in part, to its inherently interdisciplinary character and the inevitable limitations on definitions that belong firmly within particular disciplines. By opening up various different ‘perspectives’ on natural theology, this Handbook hopes to enrich reflection on the topic and to provoke engagement with the new varieties of natural theology emerging in a range of contexts—from historical and religious studies, constructive theology, philosophy of religion, science-and-religion research, cultural theories, and the arts. Throughout this Handbook individual contributors give their own definitions of natural theology and there has been no editorial attempt to impose consistency; rather the various approaches adopted by the contributors reflect the plurality of contexts within which the study of natural theology must be situated. The result, hopefully, is that the complexity of natural theology is allowed to emerge, in contrast to the dominant tendency within existing accounts of natural theology towards universal ‘one size fits all’ definitions and the temptation to restrict it to one context or another.

Beyond testifying to the complex diversity of natural theology, the chapters in this Handbook also bear witness to its ongoing significance for a wide range of contemporary disciplines. The vitality of natural theology centres on several key issues that emerge as leading themes in many of the chapters:

  • an awareness of the significance of natural theology in the history of ideas, both in terms of the links between philosophical and religious thought and of the importance of natural theology in the development of modern science;

  • the importance of natural theological themes in contemporary theology, both for religious reflection on the relations between reason and revelation and for the contemporary concerns of inter-religious dialogue, the environment, and secularization;

  • (p. 2) philosophical topics, ranging from the traditional arguments for the existence of God to the impact of recent developments in philosophy (post-modernism and feminism, for example) on the question of ultimate reality;

  • the extent to which scientific investigation of the natural world relates to the claims of natural theology, both in terms of specific hot-topics, such as evolution and fine-tuning, and in terms of the potential and limitations for natural theology in different scientific disciplines;

  • aesthetic engagement with the natural world and the complex relations between theology and the arts, both in terms of the apparently theological aspirations of some art and of the role of the imagination.

It is important to stress that throughout the Handbook the aim is to present natural theology as a topic of serious academic and intellectual consideration (from a variety of perspectives: historical, theological, philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic), not to present an apology for natural theology or a case for its revival. What is undeniable, however, is that interest in natural theology—and the issues it is concerned with—is very much at the centre of contemporary thought, be it in the retrieval of the complexity of the relations between science and religion in recent historical scholarship, the increasingly prominent place of the arts in theological teaching and research, the rise of science and religion as a field of study, and the particularly vibrant state of philosophical reflection on the question of God, not to mention the wide popular appeal of recent ‘new atheist’ critiques of natural theology.

To assert the contemporary vitality of natural theology is to cut against a widely accepted and deeply ingrained standard narrative of the rise and fall of natural theology, a simplified story of the historical and intellectual trajectory of natural theology that still dominates most assessments of the topic. As the chapters in this Handbook collectively demonstrate, however, this standard story is a myth, and one that deserves nothing so much as a decent burial. According to the accepted narrative, natural theology, which is primarily and definitively contrasted to ‘revealed theology’, had a brief, if significant, flourishing at a kind of interim point of the scientific revolution and culminated in William Paley's 1802 book, Natural Theology, before being fatally undermined by the combined effects of a three-pronged philosophical, scientific, and theological critique (albeit not before having secured the triumph of Newtonianism and sown the seeds of modern atheism). Between them, so the story goes, Hume, Darwin, and Barth pulled the rug out from underneath the pretentions of natural theology to any philosophical, scientific, or theological legitimacy, such that the enterprise was forced to retreat beyond the pale of intellectual respectability, showing up only in some of the more suspect speculations of so-called Intelligent Design creationism (even if the Intelligent Design theorists themselves reject the label). Richard Dawkins is a prominent exponent of such an account of natural theology, but it is hardly restricted to natural theology's atheistic opponents, with many of those who are sympathetic to it, in some form or another, similarly repeating more or less wholesale this canonical narrative.

(p. 3) No matter how widely accepted it is, it is now time to put the lie to this myth once and for all, point by point:

  • As many of the contributions in this Handbook emphasize, the ‘natural’ vs ‘revealed’ characterization of natural theology is frequently hard to sustain and serves only to obscure or distort the real concerns and issues at the heart of natural theological thinking. Likewise, clunky either/or oppositions between Athens and Jerusalem are rarely helpful when considering the subtleties of natural theological thinking, in particular when considered in the light of perspectives from different religions, as well as from different Christian traditions.

  • This history of natural theology manifestly extends beyond Anselm's ‘ontological argument’ and Aquinas’ ‘Five Ways’ and the complexities behind the emergence of a distinctive form of modern scientific natural theology are well-illustrated by the variety of types of natural theology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—an insight that helps to put Paley's particular work in context.

  • The persistence of natural theology within the nineteenth and twentieth centuries refutes the supposition of its eclipse with the rise of distinctly modern science (as opposed to ‘natural philosophy’); indeed there is a strong case, it seems, that it is the nineteenth century that is the true heyday of natural theology.

  • Hume's philosophical criticisms of the arguments of natural theology have been rightly influential and remain the cornerstone of much recent philosophy of religion; an insight that in itself serves to question the finality of Hume's alleged demolition of natural theological arguments, and the design argument in particular. The vitality of much recent work in the philosophy of religion—both in and beyond the framework of analytic philosophy of religion—is ample testimony to the ongoing philosophical import of such arguments.

  • The story is often told of Darwin's love of Paley's works as a student and the anxiety he felt as it became clear that his theory of evolution by natural selection destroyed the inference to design by providing a natural mechanism for the apparent design of the natural world. The personal story of Darwin's religious life is a fascinating one; however, it is problematic when taken as representative of the wider scientific discrediting of natural theology, as unavoidably trading on scientific ignorance to invoke the ‘God of the gaps’. Indeed, as recent historical work has convincingly demonstrated, the story of the reception of Darwin's works is far from the simple either/or of the famous Oxford University debate between Huxley and Wilberforce. Indeed, it has been one of the central features of recent work on the history of the relations between science and religion that the conflict model quite clearly reflects certain ideological assumptions rather than the complexities of the historical record.

  • Likewise, it is striking that much of the contemporary revival of interest in natural theology is spurred by work in the science-and-religion field that has moved beyond the restrictive typological categorizations of the relations between science and religion, such as those developed by Ian Barbour to suggest new forms of (p. 4) scientific natural theology sensitive to the particularities of different scientific disciplines.

  • The importance of Karl Barth for the theological reception of natural theology in the twentieth century cannot be underestimated. However, it is far less clear that his particular ‘Nein!’ justifies the resistance to all forms of natural theology and indeed it is striking just how much natural theology has, in fact, persevered in the twentieth century, even in those traditions most decisively influenced by Barth.

  • Finally, as should be clear from the above, the proponents of Intelligent Design Theory are correct in distancing themselves from the enterprise of natural theology (albeit not for the right reasons); however it is that natural theology is to be defined it is as far from Intelligent Design creationism as it is from Dawkin's ‘new atheism’!

This revisionary account of the character and history of natural theology is long overdue and it is to be hoped that this Handbook will go some way towards renewing engagement with natural theology from a variety of different perspectives—historical, theological, philosophical, scientific, and cultural/aesthetic. Clearly, such a multi-faceted topic requires a collaborative approach and a pluralist editorial policy. Even within this context, however, there are some perspectives that it has not been possible to include and hard decisions have had to be made. In each of the Parts, there are additional perspectives that could be engaged with. For instance, in Part I additional work might consider the place of natural theology in the Reformation period and develop perspectives on natural theology within Continental Europe and the United States, as well as the impact of empire on natural theology and the importance of the material contexts of natural theological texts. Part II could further be extended to engage perspectives from Chinese religious traditions and indigenous animist traditions, with their subtle accounts of relations between nature and the divine(s), as well as exploring the place of natural theology in Nonconformist Christianity and the complex (and controversial) situation of natural theology in American evangelical Christian theology. Clearly, Part III only scratches the surface of natural theology within analytic philosophy and there is certainly room for further engagement with, for instance, the critique of natural theology within Reformed Epistemology; likewise the differentiations between natural theology and ‘religious naturalism’ clearly merit further consideration, as well as the questions raised by a comparative approach to natural theology. The range of scientific engagements with natural theology is as wide as the range of the scientific disciplines themselves and further interesting perspectives could be explored by a discussion of the (mainly historical) relations between the earth sciences and natural theology, as well as the new sciences of information and the contemporary debates in the philosophy of science about altruism, emergence, and the laws of nature. Finally, the cultural/aesthetic perspectives of Part V might be expanded to include not only additional art forms, such as sculpture and poetry, but also to explore further the interrelations between natural theology and the development of the modern novel and the intersections between natural and cultural theologies.

(p. 5) The above list of additional perspectives is not meant simply to pre-empt reviewers looking for omissions, but rather to highlight, as if it needed to be stated, that this Handbook hardly represents the final word on natural theology! As the wide variety of perspectives included in this volume and those gestured to above shows, the future for work in this area is bright and might, finally, be able to get beyond the debilitating myths towards multi-perspectival and interdisciplinary engagements with the rich diversity of theological thinking rooted in human nature and the environments that we find ourselves in. (p. 6)