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The book of nature

09 December 2016

Peter Forster reflects on old dispute and new developments

Re-Imagining Nature: The promise of a Christian natural theology
Alister E McGrath
Wiley-Blackwell £60
Church Times Bookshop £54



SINCE moving from his early career as a chemist, Alister McGrath has become one of the most prolific contemporary theological authors.

He is most at home writing about the boundary between science and theology, and in his dialogue with modern atheism. Having provided in earlier books a rich defence against the sharp arrows of modern atheism and scepticism, his task here is to equip Christians with an understanding of nature which will not only cohere with the Christian faith, but allow, with Psalm 19, the heavens to declare the glory of God.

This requires a new natural theology, which does not embrace the dry and dusty attempts to prove God’s existence which held sway from the Enlightenment (William Paley etc.) This approach easily led to a rather reduced vision of God, as little more than the Architect of a world that was itself rather mechanistically understood. Such an approval succumbed all too easily to the philosophical critique of David Hume, and the emaciating forces of Darwinism.

McGrath puts the famous early-20th-century dispute between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner over natural theology firmly in its historical context. Both had an important point, and the task today is restate their concerns in relation to developments in science and philosophy alike.

It is important that such an approach is not naïvely optimistic, as happened in the natural theology that was spawned by the Enlightenment, and that was dealt such a crushing blow by the Lisbon earthquake on All Saints’ Day, 1755. Nature is red in tooth and claw, and Christianity cannot evade the challenge of evil and suffering, as figures such as John Ruskin saw clearly. Any authentic theology of creation must also be a theology of the cross. By itself, nature can speak only ambiguously of God.

As McGrath acknowledges, his approach is close to that of J. H. Newman: “I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design.” It is also close to Athanasius, for whom the fact that human beings were made in the image of God enables us to recognise the beauty and purpose of God in the natural world.

McGrath draws the links between his project and the developing cognitive science of religion, which suggests that religious belief arises through normal human processes of thought, and not in opposition to them. These processes are likely to be more inductive than deductive, and engage the natural human facility for imagination.

There is surprisingly little in the book about the impact of such developments in science as field theory, relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory. There is a passing reference to the stratified nature of reality, and the consequent need for different approaches to investigation at different levels, and a consequent reshaping of the dialogue between science and theology. But perhaps that is for the next product of McGrath’s extraordinarily fecund mind.


Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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