Want to make a Barthian theologian cry with great weeping and mourning? Utter the words “natural theology” and you will witness a lot of intellectual turmoil and rationalizing that is only surpassed by those who think Trump is God’s appointed political savior of the United States.
I kid, mostly about Barthian theologians as many of them have more than a hint of sanity to them, but that there is a wealth of insight in Barth that breaks the negative characherization of his theology as “fidestic.” For instance, I have a high degree of respect and apprecation for the thinking Alan and Andrew Torrance, two of my teachers at the University of St. Andrews, for their ability to critically and reflectively think through matters of Christian faith and theology within the Barthian theological tradition. This is because, for a long time, I have had a high degree of respect for Barthian theology and have been influenced by some of the ideas, even as I felt some pushback against parts of the intellectual *system* of Barthian theology. There was something very important in Barth’s Nein! to natural theology, even as I also felt the response would in some contexts be excessive and has spawned unthinking reflexes in some of his less critically reflective theological progeny. The influence of natural theology in Christianity has often had the effect of looking more like Roman Stoicism that could lightly criticize Roman power while ultimately buttressing the whole system as part of the order of things. One need to look no further than the natural ‘ethic’ of exceptionalist, economic materialism that conservative American Christians embrace that have contributed to the tendency to rationalize that Trump is God’s agent for the United States to see how natural theology, often implicit, can become a poison in the Church.1 This natural theology in right-wing Christianity is evident in how you would hear many of them talk about the “order of creation.” I am reminded of a Twitter ‘conversation’ I had with a conservative, Christian, aspiring politician who talked about protecting the natural order when it came to the family.
The problem of natural theology, or at least the way it is usually done, is that it has a way of leading us to rationalize the present order of things in such a way that we can begin to treat any and all change or deviance from the perceived ‘order’ as dangerous. In is important to state that while I think this is a deep problem, there are reasons to be concerned about change and deviance, as most, but not all, forms of change and deviance brought about by human agents would cause more harm than good. Progress is implanted in the human imagination, but the human mind and emotions have little capacity to effectively realize the dreams of progress as our minds and hearts can not comprehend the totality of all there that can influence what is happening, either to support our dreams or to work against them. We can seek to change things a little bit better for ourselves by finding the nooks and crannies of life that aren’t controlled by others and then learning to see what does and does not work, but widespread sweeping changes for the better is something the human mind and heart doesn’t have the wisdom to accomplish on its own. In other words, most human efforts to create change are either too small to make widespread change or are more likely to be highly dangerous. Consequently, concerns about the present order of things are often grounded in a somewhat realistic fear of the dangers sweeping change. Nevertheless, even if one has a good warrant for one’s beliefs, it doesn’t mean the beliefs themselves are true and good. Most forms of natural theology that has been practiced by the influential strands of theology in the West has a way of making us rationalize the present order of things to the extent of vilifying all change. Prototypical forms of natural theology can blind us to the goodness of some changes to the present state of affairs.
Nevertheless, while I think a fear of natural theology is ethically warranted, to excise anything we can associate with thinking about nature from theology is not a true and good conclusion to draw from this ethical warrant. In the moment of living amid immediate, widespread murder and oppression like Barth, a decisive “Nein!” may be all that can be offered. When nature is “colonized” by oppressive institutions, one should not really trust the present order of things and our perception of them to be good, although the very power of oppressive ideology is to subtly form and determine the very criteria we use to determine goodness. Furthermore, even if in that situation one has the eyes to see and the ears to hear how natural theology should work, such institutions would respond to the challenge by either snuffing out their speech or by trying to portray them as more similar and different and make minimal concessions to their points, thereby trying to turn their critic into a support for they agenda without really changing the fundamental ideological apparatus by which the legitimate their political power and rule. In that case “Nein!” is the only answer that someone may seek that can be offered to successfully challenge an oppressive ideology rooted in a natural theology. Nevertheless, such a response is more circumstantial and we should not be apt to treat every instance of natural theology as evidence of the reality of oppressive power and control. In other words, just because there seems to be an implicit natural theology that undergirds political support of Trump, it doesn’t mean we should see our present age as existing in such an *immediately* dangerous state of affairs, even if we should be vigilant against it, nor that we should just reflexively and unreflectively reject thinking about nature in theology.
Why should we still include nature within the realm of theology? Because we are humans and any pretense that we do theology apart from nature is a foolish dream that denies our reality as embodied creatures, whose thinking and feeling are intimately connected to pulse of life. Because oppression isn’t rooted in natural theology, but in oppressive control that uses any and all forms of thinking as sheep’s clothing to mask the wolf, whether it be natural theology or revelation. In fact, I would put forward that a theology of “revelation”2 without an appropriate place for nature is a potentially even more insidious form of ideological control, as it invests authority and power into some person, idea, etc. that can not be verified or confirmed by others; “revelation” as an ideological apparatus is even less susceptible to accountability than natural theology is. It is more insidious as the explicit content of “revelation” may appear to be the furthest thing from nature, but yet the very concepts embedded in the communication of “revelation” and the very way these concepts and principles are employed by people are influenced and determined, if not controlled, by our experience of nature. “Revelation” without thinking about nature is more like a used car salesman telling people “don’t look under the hood of the car.”
However, there is better reason for including thinking about nature in theology that is more focused on what is good: because God loves us. God does not love some ethereal abstraction of us; God does not love some spirit or soul while hating the body; God does not love only our potential future selves. God loves us in our embodied state. God created us in our embodied state. Theology without nature is to intellectually separate us from the very good thing that God created in us. To be sure, God does not love how our embodied life is presently functioning. God doesn’t love all the ways we are attached to certain things. Even as God loves creation, God does not love the way nature works itself out in the present state of affairs. However, if God loves creation, then any understanding of God in relationship to us and creation has to include nature within its scope.
In fact, even if we don’t accept this conclusion, the truth is our theology will be influenced by nature. When we perceive and come to focus on God’s revelation of Himself in crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, we do not suddenly become spiritual tabula rasas that interpret and comprehend Christ fully as He is in role as the second person of the Trinity, even if we accept and believe in Him as the Logos made flesh. We interpret and comprehend him in terms of concepts of human life and death drawn, developed, and formed by nature. Our interpretations and comprehensions of Him are not perfect and should not be regarded as the final, theological explication on the Word made flesh, but that in faith we are drawn into an ongoing transformation of the criterions and categories we use to understand Christ through the leading of the Spirit. Nevertheless, it is in our state of nature that we understand the Logos who came to us in the form of creation.
It is through this interplay of nature and revelation as epistemic sources (albeit epistemic sources that are used and related to differently) for theological perception and reflection that we come to faith in God in Christ and that our sense of creation becomes transformed. It isn’t that nature gives us some confident, secure knowledge about God that we can then use unreflectively as axiomatic for theology, ethics, politics, etc. It can’t possibly do that as God is holy, holy, holy and therefore different from creation in some aspects that are fundamentally important as it pertains to our understanding. But, we can find in nature, particularly in the weakness and brokenness of nature, the place where God’s revelation transforms us, both in living life and our reflective understanding of this life. It is in nature that God demonstrates Himself as Savior, Redeemer, and Lord, not apart from it, and so it is only with nature that we can testify and legitimately say that Jesus is Savior, Redeemer, and Lord.
It is through this faith then, and the wisdom from God in Christ that emerges, that gives us then the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to comprehend so as to *begin* to discern between the good changes to the present order that are ultimately coming from God and the various changes, of varying degrees of goodness, neutrality, or badness, that ultimately come from the hearts of humans. As our sense of nature is transformed in coming to understand the Word made flesh through the Spirit, we can then *begin* to discern within nature where God’s redemption is bringing life to death, strength where there is weakness, hope where there is despair, even if our discernment may still be imperfect.
However, to clarify, I would prefer not to call this inclusion of nature in theology as “natural theology,” as that title seems to suggest one can do distinctly Christian theology with nature as the only epistemic source. I don’t know what phrase or term to use to describe this role of thinking and reflecting about nature in theology, but I would push back against any label that subtly and implicitly leads us to regard nature and revelation as being in some intrinsic opposition, either in a dualistic good-vs-evil separation or a Hegelian-like synthesis of the two. Our understanding of nature and our understanding of revelation may be opposed to each other, but that doesn’t mean the theological thinking that relies upon nature as an epistemic source and the theological thinking that relies upon revelation as an epistemic source are inherently antagonistic with each other, but an unrelenting perception of antagonism of the two is perhaps reflective of our ignorance, the way we were taught or, God forbid, perhaps the hostility and antagonism laid up within our own heart. To those whose hearts are entrenched in this last state of affairs, I can only say: God didn’t reveal a religion and theology of “revelation” as apart from nature, but God revealed Himself in Christ in creation and humanity, through creation and humanity, and for creation and humanity.
- Given the political nature of this, I want to be clear about my purposes here. My criticism here is not people who politically prefer Trump to the Democrats. While I am a third-party or actively vote against everyone by abstaining type of person in the present political climate, I recognize that the pragmatism of the present situation makes many people feel that they have to choose one or the other. Democrats have done a poor job of making people who are conservative feel like they could be safe with them, treating them as a class as if they are represented by the worst segment of the population as the ‘enlightened’ intellectual ‘elite’ are often apt to do in their arrogance. In the end, I blame Trump on the politics of the far left, as it has been their tactics, even as I may embrace a good portion of their goals, that have eventually diffused to the conservative side. In other words Trump is a matter of what comes around, goes around, or to bring Jesus words into the matter, “The way you judge others will be the way you are judged. The measure you use will be used against you.” Nevertheless, even as I recognize the fear and struggle that many people feel, I refuse to live based upon the fear of either side and I refuse to rationalize the tactics of either party.
- I use revelation with scare quotes to distinguish *some* theologies of revelation that seek to entirely excise itself from nature from revelation that is more rooted in the Biblical narrative and the longer-standing orthodox tradition.