God and the Book of Nature
God and the Book of Nature was a Multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional research investigating theologies of the natural sciences and nature.
This project received £2.44 million in funding from the John Templeton Foundation [Grant ID. 61507]. It began in September 2019 and lasted for 33 months.
The project addressed three areas organised around our central theme, starting from existing work in science-engaged theology but aimed specifically towards building theologies of nature.
In spite of decades of theological research into the doctrine of creation and its scientific ramifications – much of it falling inside the science & religion field – this enterprise has brought us no closer to a meaningful unified view of the natural sciences, nor even of nature as the singular created arena of the sciences. The problem is that the unity of science/nature is assumed in such work but is not addressed directly. There still remains little in the way of theological reflection on science per se, still less the reasons why science (and thereby 'nature') is so varied, diverse and disunited. What is needed, we suggest, is not more theological work on creation so much as theological work which engages the content, objectives and methodologies of the contemporary natural sciences in all their diversity and disunity.
Thus, instead of trying to unify the 'sciences/nature by adopting an external theological perspective ('creation'), we suggest a revival of the early modern (and internal) perspective characterised by the 'two books” metaphor. Hence, we are suggesting the need for work which regains the lost metaphor where the natural sciences are God’s Book of Nature, in spite of the philosophical unifying questions which nevertheless remain.
We identified three distinct sub-themes within the over-arching theme of the Book of Nature. Many alternative sub-themes could have been chosen, but we believed that these offered the most tractable way into the research question for a 33-month research project, since they make use of reasonably well-contained, and already-existing, research emphases in the science-and-religion field (including the themes of creation and divine action). And this is where we believed that the novelty of our approach came in since our over-arching theme of the Book of Nature allowed us to re-contextualise and combine these research emphases into a larger inter-disciplinary framework for theologies of nature.
In operational terms, each sub-theme focused on its own cohort, composed of at least two of the network’s research groups (where a research group was itself composed of a postdoc and mentor at a specific host institution).
The three sub-themes were:
Is Divine action ‘natural’ in a theology of nature? Historically, this area has been dominated by the work of the Divine Action Project (DAP), which is best known for seeking solutions through indeterministic science (especially physics). But we maintain that examining divine action through the lens of a science-engaged theology of nature would not necessarily be an exercise in identifying areas of physical indeterminism in which God could be operative without intervening in law-governed processes. Rather, the project’s examination of divine action could encourage suspicion of the old binary of interventionist/non-interventionist divine action altogether, instead asking questions such as: "If we start from the immanentist assumption that God is always present to nature in the first place (and this could be conceptualised in Thomistic, pneumatological, or panentheistic terms, for example), how might the natural sciences suggest we should envision divine agency acting upon the various levels of the natural world?" This approach would open the door for discipline-specific perspectives on causation across the natural sciences, without assuming that everything boils down to ‘the laws of physics’ at the end of the day (as some prominent approaches in the DAP have done, eg. the focus on divine action through chaos theory or quantum mechanics). While recent theological responses to the DAP have called into question the assumption that nature ever exists apart from the ongoing presence and activity of an immanent God, such responses also do not attempt any sort of rigorous engagement with the landscape of the natural sciences as they exist on the ground, and thus leave much to be desired and developed from the context of a science-engaged theology. We suggest that this project could launch the divine action conversation into a new phase.
Another way of saying what we have in mind here is to point out that much past work on divine action in the world distinguishes ‘natural’ causation from ‘supernatural’, as though causation was a straightforward issue in the natural sciences. But how is causation actually understood in different scientific disciplines like fundamental physics and systems biology, and how might a realistically-empirical understanding improve our understanding of God’s action in the world? The honest challenge with this sub-theme will to be confront head-on the question of whether or not the natural sciences themselves can tell us anything about divine agency, and if so, how? An important conversation partner in this sub-theme will be work in philosophy of science on causal explanation (such as James Woodward’s outstanding book of 2005, Making Things Happen, for example, which will prove a useful focus for theological engagement). Examples of specific research questions within this sub-theme might include:
- How do conceptions of causation and ‘laws’ of nature vary between scientific subdisciplines (say, from quantum mechanics to systems biology)? There has been a great deal of progress in philosophy of science in discussions of causation across the sciences, including in the status of ‘laws of nature’ (e.g. with the interest in Neo-Aristotelian forms of thought, including the trends characterised by Nancy Cartwright’s thinking). How might this material be assimilated theologically, in reflecting upon God’s action in the world at differing levels of nature?
- Much of the divine action debate has taken place within an implicit prioritising of the methodologies of the ‘hard’ physical sciences (especially physics). How might the debate change if the methodologies of other sciences such as biology and geology were prioritised, where the particular (and perhaps even unique) has a place over the search for exceptionless regularities (laws)?
- Might theological worries about deterministic physical and biological processes be lessened or even eradicated by Thomistic double agency, and the distinction between primary and secondary causation? Of course, there has been great interest here in recent years, but recent work on Austin Farrer, e.g. by Rowan Williams in his recent Christology, might suggest new ways of taking Thomas further.
- How might systems biology and theories of emergence alter the way pneumatologists think about creaturely participation in the divine?
Is mind ‘natural’ in a theology of nature? A major component of this sub-theme grapples with the relationship between mind and physicality, and articulates ways in which mind is or is not properly ‘natural.’ The various brain-related sciences are increasingly highlighting specific ways in which mentality is explicable in physicalist terms. Rather than viewing this as a theological threat, might there be theological ways of welcoming such advances? For example, cognitive science of religion (CSR) suggests that religious belief and experience are natural, evolved features of the human organism. Are there models of the God-nature relationship that would encourage theological acceptance of and engagement with the physical, biological, and psychological mechanisms involved in the development of religious belief? Or, might it be possible to identify teleology in the biological processes that resulted in the human capacity for religious belief and experience?
On the other hand, there has recently been a revival of interest within philosophy and theology in substance dualism, to the extent that many theologians reiterate the fundamental ‘nonnaturalness’ of the mind/soul against physicalist views coming from the natural sciences. Of course, such a sub-theme also invites perspectives on non-physicalist conceptions of mind. For example, might there be versions of substance dualism that engage productively with the natural sciences? And what about other solutions (eg. panpsychism)? What might this contemporary standoff tell us about the role of mind in Nature? Does the logic and structure of evolutionary biology suggest that mind should be considered fundamental to nature, rather than a product of natural selection? And if there is any sense in which mind is fundamental to nature, how should a theology of nature incorporate this potentiality? Is Thomas Nagel right to insist that science must be a supplemented with a new teleology that incorporates mind? And if he is, what would this mean for a theology of nature? Examples of specific research questions in this sub-theme include:
- If Galen Strawson is correct that physicalism entails panpsychism, how might this alter the way theologians think about divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation?
- Does theologically-motivated substance dualism require that the mind be seen as non-natural (or supernatural, or more than natural), or might there be ways to develop a naturalist substance dualism such that it does the requisite theological ‘work,’ but does not entail a natural/non-natural binary? Might there be versions of substance dualism that are compatible with the natural sciences?
- To what extent should cognitive scientific research on embodied cognition affect or constrain core theological doctrines such as the resurrection of the dead? Similarly, how might a science-engaged theology of nature approach research on the highly-controversial topic of near-death experiences, a topic which has been used to support substance dualism?
- Do neuroscientific accounts of human mentality, and their attendant effects on the imago dei, suggest alterations in traditional conceptions of God? (If mind is naturally-explicable in physicalist terms, might physicality itself impact theological thinking about God?)
- What are the appropriate theological responses to recent activity in the free will debate, in both philosophy and the sciences (e.g. in epigenetics, behavioral genetics, and neuroscience)? (If, for instance, free will is to be seen, not in a rigidly-defined counterfactual fashion, but rather as a holistic, multi-level process involving complex interactions between one’s body and the environment, how might this alter theological reflection on free will, agency, and moral responsibility?)
Should theology be natural? Should Nature be theological? Philosophy (especially philosophy of science) has a significant contribution to make to this project. Addressing our over-arching theme of God’s Book of Nature clearly requires us to grapple with the long-standing debates about naturalism and its relationship to religious belief. There is a great deal of diversity in the solutions proposed. Some authors (eg. Willem B. Drees, Wesley Wildman) have constructed cases for a ‘religious naturalism’, while others propose more self-consciously theistic naturalisms such as the pneumatological versions developed by Amos Yong and James K. A. Smith. These must certainly be addressed, but we also wish to include philosophical concerns about the metaphysical underpinnings of science. The long-standing debate on the laws of nature in philosophy of science – along with the different ways that lawfulness and regularity are construed in different empirical sciences (eg. fundamental physics vs. evolutionary biology) – will clearly be significant here, and we hope to encourage postdocs to engage with philosophical views of different empirical sciences, and especially the limit questions that they introduce (eg. the special status of particle physics and cosmology as defining the limits of nature). Likewise, the different sciences construe fundamental issues like the uniformity of nature differently (physics vs. earth science being the obvious example), but also the contributions of aesthetics and beauty to scientific method, which, again, are seen differently in physics compared to other sciences. This last issue suggests that a study of glory, wonder and awe should also be included in any theological appraisal of nature, not necessarily from the traditional perspective of natural theology (eg. the argument from beauty), so much as an argument from scientific method. Therefore, this theme will certainly include engagement with specific empirical sciences, but using philosophy of science as the mediator towards a theology of nature.
Included in this sub-theme are concerns about scientism. In their concern to defend theological inquiry from the imperialistic onslaught of scientistic forms of naturalism (ie. those reductionist forms of metaphysical naturalism acknowledging only knowledge acquired through the purportedly objective methods of empirical science), some theologians have responded by rejecting naturalism altogether (even in its methodological form), others by constructing theistic naturalisms. How robust are these responses, and how do they relate to the cognitive science of religion, which understands religious belief as ‘natural’? And what are the implications for any theologies of nature? Specific examples of research questions in this sub-theme include:
- Are there different theological implications suggested by the spandrel and adaptive models within evolutionary psychology of religion? How might the relationship between God and the evolutionary process be seen differently if religion is a by-product of natural selection instead of an adaptive feature, or vice versa?
- Is there ever a time when theologians should resist scientific explanations, and if so, when? For example, should theologians resist neurobiological explanations for speaking in tongues, the sensed presence of God in intercessory prayer, or visions of Jesus in contemplative meditation? Or, can a full description of physical mechanisms be compatible with theological affirmations of such phenomena’s religious significance?
- Is it possible for cognitive science of religion to identify exactly how to ‘make’ an individual believe in God, and if so, is it theologically appropriate to use such knowledge toward the ends of intentional spiritual formation? (Does cognitive science blur the line between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ in the process of belief formation, and does this matter?).
- A great deal of work has been carried out on the above questions in religious epistemology, especially in engaging cognitive science with psychology of religion (eg. by Adam Green, Matthew Benton, Charity Anderson, Kelly Clark, Michael Murray, Dean Zimmerman, Robert Adams, Ryan Nichols, Ian Church, Helen de Cruz, and more), but theological reflection on this material has lagged behind. How can theology appropriately assimilate such philosophical and scientific movements on fundamental questions of human belief formation and faith?
- Mark Harris (Project leader)
- Sarah Lane Ritchie (Project co-leader until August 2021)
- Katia Hervy (Project co-ordinator)
- Andrej Zeman (Research Assistant)
- Edward DeLaquil (Research Assistant)
Research team members
|Host institution during the project||Mentor(s)||Postdoc|
|University of Edinburgh||Mark Harris and Sarah Lane Ritchie||Tripp Fuller|
|Cambridge University||Andrew Davison||William Simpson|
Oxford University (Laudato Si’ Research Institute)
|Celia Deanne-Drummond||Bethany Sollereder|
|University of Leeds||Robin Le Poidevin||Simon Kittle|
|University of Nottingham||Michael Burdett||Megan Loumagne|
|University of Exeter||Christopher Southgate||Andrew Jones|
|University of Helsinki||Aku Visala||Rope Kojonen|
|Samford University||Josh Reeves||Jamie Boulding|
|Boston University||Wesley Wildman||Frederick Simmons|
|Duke University||Warren Kinghorn and Norman Wirzba||Matt Elia (until July 2021) and Joe Lenow (from August 2021)|
- Mark Harris
Mark Harris is Professor of Natural Science and Theology. As a physicist working in a theological environment, he is interested in the complex ways that science and religion relate to each other. Active in physics for many years, he is known (with Steve Bramwell of University College London) as the discoverer of 'spin ice', currently a major research area in the physics of magnetism. After his ordination as an Anglican priest, and spells in ministry, he now combines his academic interests in physics and theology. Research interests include the relationship between the physical sciences (especially physics) and theology, and the impact of science on modern views of the Bible, especially in thinking on miracles and divine action. He is currently working on a book project on naturalism (the philosophical basis for the natural sciences), and the ways that historical debates on naturalism in earth science provide a new way of looking at miracles.
- Sarah Lane Ritchie
Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology & Science, and Co-PI of the God and the Book of Nature project, along with Mark Harris. In addition to broader discussions about the relationships between science and religion, her research focuses on the intersection of theology and the various brain sciences, as well as various forms of naturalism. Her 2019 book is titled 'Divine Action and the Human Mind', published by Cambridge University Press. Prior to her current position, Sarah was a Research Fellow in Science-Engaged Theology at the University of St Andrews. She has completed a PhD in Science & Religion at the University of Edinburgh, an MSc in Science & Religion at the University of Edinburgh, an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a BA at Spring Arbor University.
- Wesley Wildman
Wesley J. Wildman is Professor of Philosophy, Theology, and Ethics. He is a philosopher of religion specializing in the scientific study of complex human phenomena. Author or editor of 19 books and 140 articles and book chapters, his research and publications pursue a multidisciplinary, comparative approach to topics within religious and theological studies. He is Executive Director of the Center for Mind and Culture, an organization devoted to non-partisan scientific research into the mind-culture nexus (www.mindandculture.org), and founding co-editor of the Taylor & Francis journal Religion, Brain & Behavior. He is founding co-editor of the Taylor & Francis journal Religion, Brain & Behavior. For further information, see www.WesleyWildman.com.
- Christopher Southgate
Christopher Southgate is Professor of Christian Theodicy. Trained originally as a biochemist, Chris has since been a bookseller, a house-husband, a lay chaplain in university and hospital settings, and a trainer of Christian ministers. He was on the staff of the South West Ministry Training Course for sixteen years, serving as Principal from 2013-17. He has taught the science-religion debate, and its implications for ecotheology and ethics, since 1993. He edited the important science-religion textbook God, Humanity and the Cosmos (T&T Clark 1999; 2005; 2011) and in 2008 published The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster John Knox). He directed the project ‘Tragedy and Congregations’ which has led to the edited book Tragedies and Christian Congregations: the practical theology of trauma (Routledge, 2020). Chris is also the author of a number of collections of poetry, the most recent being Chasing the Raven (Shoestring, 2016) and Rain falling by the River (Canterbury Press, 2017).
Celia E. Deane-Drummond
Celia Deane-Drummond is Director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute, Campion Hall, and Senior Research Fellow in theology at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. She is also honorary visiting Professor in Theology and Science at the University of Durham, UK and adjunct Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, USA. Her recent publications include The Wisdom of the Liminal: Human Nature, Evolution and Other Animals (2014), Technofutures, Nature and the Sacred, ed. with Sigurd Bergmann and Bronislaw Szerszynski (2015), Ecology in Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology, 2nd edition, (2016), Religion in the Anthropocene, edited with Sigurd Bergmann and Markus Vogt (2017), Theology and Ecology Across the Disciplines: On Care for Our Common Home, edited with Rebecca Artinian Kaiser (2018), The Evolution of Wisdom Volume 1: Theological Ethics Through a Multispecies Lens (2019).
- Andrew Jones
Andrew investigates how philosophical and historical perspectives are important for contemporary scientific debates. Specifically, how theological and philosophical ideas from Kant’s philosophy have been essential to development of certain scientific disciplines. Revealing the historical significance of theology and philosophy for the development of science is central for appreciating what philosophical and theological ideas can offer to contemporary debates. This work has led to various projects. He has published on Kant and biomedical ethics, and has co-authored a book on Kant’s political philosophy. In my more interdisciplinary projects, he works with biologists, ethnographers, and human geographers to understand factors related to increased AMR risk in farming. He also considers how ecotheological perspectives can offer guidance to rectify oversights in current debates around biosecurity, AMR, and livestock management. For more information visit his website, or contact him on Twitter, @andyjonesphd or LinkedIn.
- Bethany Sollereder
Bethany Sollereder was a Research Fellow at the Laudato Si’ Research Institute at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering and is currently working on the theological aspects of restoration ecology. Bethany received her PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. She is the author of God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy without a Fall and Why is there Suffering? Pick your own theological expedition.
- Frederick Simmons
As part of the God and the Book of Nature Project, Frederick Simmons examined what basic biological findings may mean for Augustinian ethics and faith. More broadly, his research and teaching concern the natural sciences’ implications for Christian thought, the ethical and political significance of Christian theological commitments, and the Christian import of natural aesthetics. He has taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, Amherst College, La Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, and La Universidad Politécnica Salesiana; he has also served as the Houston Witherspoon Fellow in Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Center of Theological Inquiry.
- Jamie Boulding
Jamie Boulding completed his PhD in Theology and Science at the University of Cambridge. Before his appointment as a Research Fellow in Theology and Science at Samford University, he held a postdoctoral position at the University of Leeds. Originally from London, he has also worked in management positions for technology companies in Florida and Virginia
- Josh Reeves
Josh Reeves is Assistant Professor of Science and Religion in the Biblical and Religious Studies department at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and Boston University and completed a postdoctoral position in the Heyendaal Program for Theology and Science at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is author of “Against Methodology: Recent Debates on Rationality and Theology” (Routledge, 2018) and co-author of “A Little Book for New Scientists” (IVP, 2016) and has published articles in journals such as Zygon, the Journal of Religion, and Theology and Science. He is currently working on a book on Christian skepticism towards scientific experts.
- Matt Elia
Matthew Elia is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Duke University Divinity School as part of the God and the Book of Nature research network. He completed the PhD in Religious Studies at Duke University in 2019, supported by an ACLS/Mellon Dissertation Fellowship. His first book project (currently under revision) places Augustinian politics in conversation with Black Studies by examining the central role of slavery in Augustine's thought. His current research on religious ethics, race, and science examines the limits and promise of 'solidarity' as a framework for virtue in the face of the Anthropocene futures now emerging: climate apartheid, border militarization, and environmental devastation. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Studia Patristica, and Biblical Interpretation, among others.
- Megan Loumagne
Megan studied her undergraduate degree in education, Scripture, and English Literature at Biola University, and is a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. After partially completing a Masters in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care at Talbot Seminary, she moved to complete a Masters of Divinity at Boston College as a Baker-Arrupe Fellow. Her doctoral research under the supervision of Prof Graham Ward at the University of Oxford (Christ Church) focused on the doctrine of original sin and, in particular, on the challenges and opportunities for the doctrine in a post-Darwinian world. As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, her research focuses on theories of sexual selection and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, and their relevant points of intersection with theologies of nature. Major themes of this research include the role of desire and beauty in evolution, divine action, and creaturely agency. Her theological interests also include contemplative spirituality, feminist theology, Teresa of Avila, and the theology of Edward Schillebeeckx.
- Rope Kojonen
Dr. Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He is the author of The Intelligent Design Debate and the Temptation of Scientism (Routledge 2016) and an upcoming monograph on evolution and teleology. He is currently working on a research project relating social epistemology and the science and religion-discussion.
- Simon Kittle
Simon studied computer science, before turning to theology and then philosophy, completing a PhD in philosophy in 2015 at the University of Sheffield. His research has focused on free will, action theory, and now centers on the nature of mind and agency. Simon Kittle's website
Here is a selection of work by members of the Network.Podcasts and discussions
- Ongoing podcast by Tripp Fuller - Homebrewed Podcasts.
- Online public event TheoCon: Theology in a Time of Crisis organized by Tripp Fuller and Sarah Lane Ritchie. Featuring network members: Megan Loumagne, Bethany Sollereder, Cristopher Southgate, Norman Wirzba (June-July 2020).
- Mark Harris - Cranmer Hall Talking Theology podcast: How Does Thinking about Miracles Offer Fresh Insight into Science/Religion Dialogue? (November 2021).
- Bethany Sollereder - Adherent Apologetics podcast: God's Love Explains Evolutionary Evils? The Problem of Animal Suffering (November 2021).
- Bethany Sollereder – BioLogos Podcast: Choose your own adventure
- Bethany Sollereder - Cranmer Hall Talking Theology podcast: How Do Theology and Science Together Help Us Rethink Suffering in Our Evolving World? (October 2021).
- Rope Kojonen Interviews with Capturing Christianity (May & June 2021): How Evolution Can Still Be Evidence of Design and Why Evolution is Actually Evidence for God (the science).
- Jamie Boulding organized a Panel Discussion on Christianity, education, and evolution with topics on navigating the intersection of faith, science and culture (September 2021).
- Andy Jones - Research Ethics Conference at Exeter: The role of common morality for principlism in biomedical ethics (June 2021).
- William Simpson Global Catholic Education Interview (April 2021).
- William Simpson interview Wolfson College Cambridge: “There is just one fundamental thing that exists”: JRF proposes new ontology for quantum mechanics (February 2021).
- (In Finnish) Rope Kojonen - “Minusta on kyseenalaista, ovatko suuret kertomukset ikinä täysin sekulaareja” – Lisa Sideriksen haastattelu. Areiopagi.fi. 10.11.2020.
- (In Finnish) Rope Kojonen - “Darwinin ’paholaisen kappalainen’ – voiko loispistiäinen olla.
- Jumalan silmissä hyvä?” Teologia.fi 6.10. 2020.
- Boulding, J. (2022). The multiverse and participatory metaphysics: a theological exploration. Routledge
- Jones, A., (2020). Principlism in medicine – a philosopher’s view. Medicine 48, 637–639
- Kittle, S. (2021). How (not) to think about the sense of ‘able’ relevant to free will. Inquiry, 1-19
- Loumagne Ulishney, M. (2021) Augustine and the gendered self in time in Augustine and Time, eds. S. Hannan, K. Paffenroth, J. Doody. Rowman
Kojonen, E. V. (2021). Luominen ja evoluutio. Gaudeamus
Simpson, W. M. (2021) What’s the Matter with Super-Humeanism?, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 72(3), 893-911. [this is about nature and William does acknowledge the GBN grant.]
Simpson, W. M., Koons, R. C., & Orr, J. (2021). Introduction: Reflections on Science, Theology, and the New Aristotelianism. In Neo-Aristotelian Metaphysics and the Theology of Nature (pp. 1-18). Routledge
Sollereder, B. N. (2021). Why is there suffering? Pick your own theological expedition. Zondervan