School of Divinity

God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature

£2.44 million international project to explore theologies of nature, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

The main aim of this project is to form an international, multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional research team to investigate theologies of the natural sciences and theologies of nature.

Research vision

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.

Sub-themes, questions, and methodologies

Within the over-arching theme of the Book of Nature, we have identified three distinct sub-themes. Many alternative sub-themes could have been chosen (eg. the question of teleology in theological treatments of human evolution), but we believe that these offer 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 believe that the novelty of our approach comes in, since our over-arching theme of the Book of Nature allows 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 will be the focus of its own cohort, composed of at least two of the network’s research groups (where a research group is itself composed of a postdoc and mentor at a specific host institution). The three sub-themes are:

  1. God and Nature
  2. Mind and Nature
  3. Naturalism(s) and Nature

In more detail, the sub-themes can be described as follows:

God and Nature

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:

    1. 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?
    2. 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)?
    3. 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.
    4. How might systems biology and theories of emergence alter the way pneumatologists think about creaturely participation in the divine?

Mind and Nature

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:

    1. If Galen Strawson is correct that physicalism entails panpsychism, how might this alter the way theologians think about divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation?
    2. 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?
    3. 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?
    4. 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?)
    5. 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?) 

Naturalism(s) and Nature

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?).
  4. 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?

Contact

If you have any queries, please email Mark Harris (mark.harris@ed.ac.uk) or Sarah Lane Ritchie (sarah.laneritchie@ed.ac.uk).