Natural theology

and the state of the world

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 33 - Apr 2009

We live at a time of two competing crises. One is the environment: extinction of species, soil erosion, pollution and, most pressing of all, global warming all threaten the future of humanity. We urgently need to reduce many activities, especially the ones emitting carbon dioxide.

The other is the recession. Credit has collapsed, debt abounds, we need 'to get the economy growing again' and increase our activities.

Oh dear. Can we only solve one problem by making the other worse? Our two crises highlight a clash of cultures. One sees human society and well-being as fundamentally dependent on the physical environment, so its well-being is our well-being. It is as old as the hills. Ancient religions varied in their assessments of it, from the Hebrew view that God had designed it for shalom - peace and harmony - to the Manichean view that the spiritual believer should have as little as possible to do with it; but whether or not they approved of physical comfort, they believed it depended on living in harmony with nature. If there is a class of people today who are its 'priests' - authorities with the expertise to solve its problems - it is the class of natural scientists.

The other sees human society and well-being as fundamentally a matter of distancing ourselves from 'natural' lifestyles and processes, so that progress is a matter of new technologies and economic growth. It has its conceptual roots in the early modern European contrast between the human mind with its purposes, and a mechanistic world with only instrumental value. Francis Bacon wanted science and technology to restore fallen nature to its original state before Adam ate the apple; later Thomas Huxley argued that 'the ethical progress of humanity depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it'. From this perspective, our priests are our technologists and economists.

These two cultures have both grown out of earlier attempts to understand the nature and purpose of human life in the context of reality as a whole, including the universe and God. Such unified perspectives, combining our scientific and religious ideas, now tend to be classified as religious, and furthermore as a particular kind of religion, namely natural theology. The term 'natural theology' is sometimes used to denote only arguments for the existence of God, but more generally it applies to the approach in which our understandings of the world and our understandings of God inform each other.

Over the last two centuries natural theology has declined. As our knowledge has increased we have learned to compartmentalize it. Extinction of species is a matter for zoologists, recessions for economists, God and the afterlife for theologians; who has authority to pronounce judgement on any one question depends on which compartment the question sits in. But what happens when we face two crises at once, an economic one in which economists tell us to produce and consume more and an environmental one in which environmentalists tell us to produce and consume less?

To resolve such questions we still need some overarching account of reality-as-a-whole which justifies our value judgements and applies them to our understanding of how the world works.

Although our society is not good at articulating it we need, and to some extent have, a hierarchy of judgements. A practical question like 'Should we produce and consume more to get out of the recession, or less to save the environment?' needs to be referred to more general questions like 'Is there a way we can all be happy together, or are we necessarily in conflict with the way things are?' At the top of the hierarchy are the most general questions like 'What is the world, and human life, for?' Such questions have usually been answered in terms of which god, if any, made us, and for what purpose: we have been designed to transcend our material existence, or we have been designed to live harmoniously within it, or nobody has designed us so the only purposes of our lives are the ones we invent for ourselves.

These different beliefs about who made us lead to different practical policies. When our governments shore up the car industry with huge amounts of extra cash, does this express a conviction that the only way to meet people's needs is to pay them to produce things, regardless of whether we need the things produced? Does the desire to get the economy growing again imply that we can see no alternative way of providing incomes, and that therefore production and consumption must continue to increase year on year until the end of human life on earth? Conversely, does environmental concern reveal that we really do not think of our earthly lives as 'a vale of tears' or as a time of testing before the Big Judgement, but that we have been put on this planet to respect it and live within the limits it imposes on us?

If the mass media are any indication, we have simply forgotten to ask these questions. We focus on the immediate pragmatic issues, assuring ourselves that new technology will make the bigger questions unnecessary. But not everything can be solved by pragmatics; indeed, nothing can be solved by pragmatics alone. To decide which results we ought to want is a matter of values.

In the past Jewish-Christian monotheism provided a coherent account of values. We have been intentionally created by an intelligent God in a system designed to work well, but we have freedom to mess it up if we so choose. Different traditions have elaborated it in different ways: what God's will for us is, how we find it out, how much freedom we have to reject it, what goes wrong when we do. The differences are important, but so is what they hold in common. The natural order is good for us; when we are dissatisfied we should seek to live in harmony with it, not to conquer it. Therefore well-being and harmony are possible. There is a way of solving both our crises at once.

After the wars of religion, for the sake of peace, Grotius and others sought to establish systems of government and law 'as though there were no God'. At first a necessary technique, this has subsequently been turned into a universal principle forbidding us to introduce religious concepts into public decision-making. God is either non-existent or irrelevant. So only humans evaluate; the only values, the only moral standards, are the ones we choose to invent.

Atheists busy insisting that they are just as moral as believers often miss the deeper significance of this position. If the natural order has not been intentionally designed to be good for us, all we know is that it has so far enabled humans to evolve and survive. Perhaps we can make our lives more comfortable with new technologies, body parts and lifestyles, and learn to live together in peace and harmony; but only perhaps. Produced by chance and impersonal laws of nature, our present state could be as good as it gets. Maybe the human race has had its day. Or maybe it can survive long-term either with four billion smallholding farmers or with half a billion car-driving westerners in centrally heated homes, and we are in for a war between the two. Logically, such a war would not be a bad thing, except for those individuals who choose to evaluate it as such. Not that anybody reaches this conclusion - but we would, if we were consistent in the belief that all values are human constructs.

It turns out, therefore, that a religious perspective offers grounds for values and hope which are not otherwise available. If we have been made by a good God, there must be a possible resolution to both our crises; if we have not, perhaps there is not. To believe brings hope. Hope generates the energy to keep looking for solutions when we would otherwise have given up. It challenges us to examine our assumptions more closely: what are the true contributions of new technology, economic growth, environmental diversity, clean air and redistribution of wealth, to making our lives happy and fulfilled? Which of them could we do without?

Until two centuries ago the Christian churches engaged with general questions of this type as their public duty. Since then, most have retreated. Today the move is the other way: many people are reacting against the emptiness of a godless world and want to re-spiritualize it. The religious traditions best able to respond have been neo-paganism, Buddhism and to some extent Islam. What about Christianity?

We should expect that the Christians best able to respond will be those who have resisted the trend to retreat into a world of purely religious phenomena, those who have continued to speak the language of their host society and take an interest in its concerns, those who still expect their understanding of God to provide values relevant to the issues facing our public life. This is to say that natural theology has an essential role to play in modern western society, as it struggles to work out how we should respond to our contradictory crises. It is to the credit of liberal Christianity, and especially the MCU, that it has kept alive that older commitment to a God who cares about the public life of the world.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.