Was I too tough on natural theology last week? If so, can I say, “the Devil made me do it”? (I was playing the role of the Devil’s Advocate, after all.)
I actually love what natural theology wants to do. I appreciate the way it leads us to look at “nature and nature’s God” (to quote the Declaration of Independence). The problem is, strictly speaking, natural theology doesn’t work. We cannot move directly from nature to the existence and character of the Creator of nature in order to answer the question, What kind of God?
A Theology of Nature with a Touch of Lewis
There are, however, more productive directions that link our understanding of God with nature—and thus science, which studies nature. A theology of nature, often associated with the physicist-theologian Ian Barbour, is what I’m pursuing here. Daniel Halverson describes it well: “Where natural theology tries to understand God in scientific context, theology of nature tries to understand nature in theological context.” Beginning with Christian belief, a theology of nature asks what we can infer about nature from the God we know in Jesus Christ and integrates that with science.
And this brings me to C. S. Lewis, who presented a similar view to what we now call a theology of nature. Out of his famous array of apologetic options, many have resonated with this one: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Lewis concluded that the only satisfaction for our desire for something more than the natural world has to offer is God.
This is sometimes called Lewis’s “argument from desire.” In his brilliant 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory”—one of the greatest ever preached, in my opinion—Lewis presents a form of this argument by evoking in his listeners their desire for beauty. The satisfaction of this desire cannot be found in the things of the world, “but through them, and what came through them was longing.” He then linked this longing with the Source of beauty, God. “We are summoned to pass in and through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.”
Consider how the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) supports Lewis. In analyzing the structure of the human mind, CSR finds a natural openness to God. Or, as Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV) puts it, God “has also set eternity in the human heart….” And so our hearts search for the Eternal God. Nature—even our human nature—is a sign, but it is not the end, of our journey. God alone is.
...This fascinating article contrasts natural theology with Barbour’s theology of nature.
...Closer to Truth interviewed Ian Barbour.
...I discussed Lewis’s argument from desire in this blog post and in my book on “St. Clive.”
...Alister McGrath’s analysis of C.S. Lewis’s “suppositional” argument is brilliant.
...Here’s a reading of C.S. Lewis’s 1941 glorious sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”
...This isn’t per se a worship video, but see if it doesn’t lead you to praise our Creator God.
...This Catholic devotional reflects on our natural desire for God.
Suppose I Ask, What Kind of God?
Let’s return for a moment to natural theology, which often presents a proof for God in the form of a syllogism. “If God exists, we should see God’s design. We do see intricate design in the world. Therefore, God exists.” This is not, however, what Lewis is doing, as theologian Alister McGrath has shown. Lewis headed in another direction—with a suppositional argument (also called “abduction”).
The key here is to use the word “suppose.” Let me reformulate Lewis’s argument from desire using McGrath’s insights: We observe in nature a beauty that leads to wonder and awe. Suppose that Christian faith is right: If God wants our lives to be full of praise, this is what we should expect. The most probable explanation of this observation is that God created the beautiful natural world to evoke wonder, awe, and praise.
As Drew Rick-Miller pointed out in the first article of this series, the discoveries of science naturally evoke wonder and awe at the intricate design of nature. It’s only natural for us to praise God and to join with the Psalmist (Ps. 19:1 NIV), “The heavens declare the glory of God;/ the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” This is how Lewis might answer the question, What kind of God?
Here’s an analogy. Suppose that tonight is my wedding anniversary. First scenario: When my wife arrives home I declare, “Laura, I’ve been planning to celebrate this anniversary big time!” I rush to call Domino’s to deliver a pizza, hurriedly grab a random assortment of paper plates, napkins, and glasses, while I fumble around for some music on my phone for background. Etc., etc. My actions speak louder than words.
Second scenario: Before Laura arrives home, a friend dressed as a limo driver picks her up, with me inside the car to greet her in. We arrive home, and I pour California bubbly into our favorite champagne flutes with the toast, “Here’s to our anniversary!” while jazz music (specifically Diana Krall or Marcin Wasilewski) plays in the background. Another friend, a chef at a local Italian restaurant, is set to serve us fresh pasta with homemade pesto on a candlelit table.
Which one leads Laura to believe there was some intentionality at work, an intention to celebrate our love for one other?
What kind of God? The One who daily makes the sun rise on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The One who gives all of us a reason for awe and wonder. The One who wants us to celebrate this glorious creation.
This is why we listen to the insights of scientists in our churches—to help us see more of God. They help us move from the splendor of nature back to its Creator. As Lewis himself observed, “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”
May it be so.
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Strengthening the church through engaging with science
We believe that churches are strengthened by engaging with science. Science for the Church looks to a day when science accompanies Scripture as a tool for discipleship, catalyzes expressions of worship, illustrates sermons, elucidates biblical teachings, and supplements theological wisdom for the life of the world. We even wonder if wrestling with science might draw some of the “nones” (those who affiliate with no religion) and the “dones” (those who have left the church) to Christian communities once again.