Natural theology or theology of nature?

Following up a bit on this post

In his book Religion and Science, which is based on his Gifford Lectures, Ian Barbour distinguishes between natural theology and the theology of nature. Natural theology tries to prove God’s existence by appealing to some feature of the created order. Barbour denies that natural theology can achieve its aim, but still sees a positive role for it:

I do not believe that design arguments of this kind are conclusive when taken alone. However, they can play a supportive role as part of a theology of nature. (Religion and Science, pp. 246-7)

A theology of nature differs from natural theology in that it offers a religious interpretation of the natural world by incorporating the picture of the world revealed by science into theology. Barbour continues:

Instead of a natural theology, I advocate a theology of nature, which is based primarily on religious experience and the life of the religious community but which includes some reformulation of traditional doctrines in the light of science. Theological doctrines start as human interpretations of individual and communal experience and are therefore subject to revision. Our understanding of God’s relation to nature always reflects our view of nature. (p. 247)

A theology of nature tries to relate, in an intellectually satisfying way, the findings of science to theology. For example, as I pointed out before, the “limit” or “boundary” questions raised by modern cosmology may not provide proof of God’s existence, but they may shed light on the relation between the Creator and creation. Similarly, the conclusions of evolutionary biology provide an opportunity for re-thinking ideas of human nature that Christians have inherited from their tradition. As Barbour argues, an evolutionary perspective blurs, or at lest softens, the sharp distinction between humanity and the rest of nature that the tradition sometimes tried to draw (by, for example, insisting that human beings alone had “immortal souls”).

Such a theology of nature allows both science and religion to shed light on each other without trying either to deduce scientific conclusions from religious doctrine (as fundamentalists do) or derive theological doctrine from science (as more zealous proponents of the “God hypothesis” might like). It also entails that theology will always be, to some extent, provisional, requiring revision as our understanding of nature changes.

3 thoughts on “Natural theology or theology of nature?

  1. Caelius Spinator

    Barbour’s distinction between theology of nature and natural theology sounds quite similar to how Alister McGrath distinguishes his project from natural theology in A Scientific Theology .

  2. Pingback: Clearly Herbal Natural Baby wipes – Kiddicare | The Herbal Healings

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