My Favorite Books

The Walking Drum
Ender's Game
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Curse of Chalion
The Name of the Wind
Chronicles of the Black Company
The Faded Sun Trilogy
The Tar-Aiym Krang

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Review: Natural Theology: Five Views

Natural Theology: Five Views Natural Theology: Five Views by John McDowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This books aims to capture five (5) current, and competing, viewpoints of natural theology, each championed by a different author. Almost immediately it becomes obvious that even defining what natural theology is always becomes part of the debate and it can seem like each proponent is spending at least some effort talking at cross purposes. In simple terms, it is basically the study of the creator by the study of the creations. The five views stake out positions that run from a maximal view that focuses on “proving” the existence of God and presuming an ultimate good through extension of man’s goodness to a complete rejection of any applicability for natural theology at all (quite a surprise actually). Each chapter begins with a basic premise statement describing the specific viewpoint, followed by a response by each of the other contributors critiquing that statements and ending with a final reply by the original author providing a follow up counterpoint to the critiques. 

Amazingly enough, the exchange was actually very constructive and respectful, without what I have come to expect between scholars on opposing sides of an issue … which I appreciated greatly. In fact, I found it exceptionally helpful in understanding the specific strengths and weakness of each position … having a lot more familiarity with the classical and contemporary positions than the deflationary and Barthian position, it should probably not come as a surprise that I still favor the catholic viewpoint where natural theology augmented by grace can be used to know God, but there were strong arguments from the deflationary viewpoint that emphasized revaluation and experience that connected with some of my charismatic roots … and while I can understand the more calvinist viewpoint from Barth, I found the apparent rejection of natural theology there problematic and overly concerned with an error of naturalism/idolatry with an over reliance on scriptural revelation that for me, borders on fideism. That is not to say that I gained nothing from each point of view, because all of them had some excellent points that highlight the tension and struggle that is perhaps necessary for a healthy faith.

The chapters and sections in this work are:

1. A Contemporary View
2. A Catholic View
3. A Classical View
4. A Deflationary View
5. A Barthian View

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:

For some, natural theology is an enterprise that provides wonderful apologetic resources for those defending the faith. But for others, natural theology is a failed experiment that is filled with theological compromise, weak philosophical arguments, and poor scientific data.

As Alister McGrath notes, it was Augustine’s view that “laid the foundation for the assertion that whatever was good, true or beautiful could be used in the service of the gospel. It was this approach which would prove dominant in the western church, providing a theological foundation for the critical appropriation by Christian writers of philosophical ideas and literary genres whose origins lay outside the church.”

Unlike revealed theology, which may presuppose the truth or reliability of the Christian Bible, natural theology develops a philosophy of God based on observations about the cosmos, pursuing questions about the nature of the cosmos, its origin, and its continuation.

An immediate issue concerns what kind of “goodness” figures in this claim about the explanatory power of theism. Goodness comes in different kinds, such as moral, prudential, and aesthetic goodness; inquirers will need to know which kinds are relevant to the alleged explanatory power of theism. Otherwise, they will be unclear about how, if at all, the alleged goodness of the cosmos fits with the goodness of God.

“The mood of apologetics is assertive, rather than interrogative. The apologist sets out to teach rather than to learn, to prove or refute rather than to enquire, to give rather than to receive. Academic theology, on the other hand, as I understand it, is—or should be—fundamentally interrogative in character. . . . The theologian’s . . . responsibilities are critical, interpretive or clarificatory rather than declaratory.”

God is beyond such categories—beyond, in fact, any and every category.69 Yet, under the broad theological modification that began to occur in the seventeenth century, “God” instead becomes the maximum of being: the apex of being in metaphysics functioning from univocal ontological assumptions and differing from everything only “in degree rather than in kind.”

In other words, Aquinas holds that some theological truths, including the existence and unicity of God, can be known through natural reason alone, but the truth of the existence of the Trinity, and by implication many other teachings of revelation, surpass unaided reason. After Aquinas, these two ways of theological reasoning came gradually to be described respectively as natural theology, and what is variously called theology, without qualification, or revealed theology, or supernatural theology.

Alasdair MacIntyre argues that writers of the Enlightenment believed it was possible to engage the natural world in an empirical, presuppositionless way, so that a natural theology could be constructed independently of “social and cultural particularities.” This project failed, partly because it adopted “an ideal of rational justification which it has proved impossible to attain.”

First, the “god” disclosed by such a natural theology was essentially a creator who had no necessary connection with the ongoing governance of the world (a theological idea traditionally expressed in terms of divine providence) or with the redemption of humanity.

As I noted previously, Newman here warns that the study of the sun, moon, stars, and laws of the universe, while showing the handiwork of God, cannot enable us to know the purposes or the will of God, let alone bridge the unthinkable gap between God and ourselves.

After production, the artifact comes to have a presence of its own, and the imprint is as much a sign of absence as presence. That is certainly not what an apophatic theology means by divine mystery: it is not the darkness of absence abated only by moments of enlightening presence but is instead an indication of the sheer excess of divine plenitude in the thoroughness of God’s presence that can be received only as a darkness of overwhelming light.

Therefore, he explains, “Because white theologians [in particular] are well fed and speak for a people who control the means of production, the problem of hunger is not a theological problem for them. That is why they spend more time debating the relation between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith than probing the depths of Jesus’ command to feed the poor.”

Many Christian philosophers cannot shake the idea that natural theology plays a role in increasing the probability of theism. They hold that the reality of apparent design in nature, of a first cause, or of human moral agency increases the probability of theism, even if it does not confirm the existence of a God worthy of worship.

When the Scriptures refer to the hiddenness of God, or God as hiding his face, the issue is not about the loss of belief in God’s existence but, rather, a breaking or suspension or apparent suspension of enjoyment of the covenant with God. In other words, one knows that God exists, but one’s relationship with God has been destroyed or suspended.

What argument does, at its best, is hold a claim up to public accountability—that is, to its responsibility to test that it is not the product of misdirecting desires. Moreover, it is a communicative act that does something other than simply assert, “It’s my experience, so trust it and me,” and therefore holds off, as well as it can, the potential for ideological false consciousness.

Yet, again, there is simply no common mind on how “experienced” Christians should deal with, and make judgments on, any moral matter—from the generation and distribution of capital, to whether war is ever justified and if so what kind of conflict is theo-ethically legitimate, to how immigrants should be treated, to how to live within a global environment requiring maintenance for future generations, to what role women should play in public society and ecclesial communities, to how to reason about and address issues of poverty, and so on.

I have not claimed that some “Christian texts” are “normative” in themselves. Instead, I hold that some texts earn their evidential value for some people by their unsurpassed explanatory worth relative to the overall experience of those people. Abduction (inference to best available explanation) plays a crucial role here, as it does in justification in general.

This love, in Paul’s thinking, is evidence of God’s reality and presence. It is the self-manifestation of God’s unique character of righteous love. That self-manifestation is not a belief or a theology, let alone an axiomatic belief or theology; it is, as understood by Paul, a feature of a religious experience, and it can serve as evidential support for theological commitment.

I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#NaturalTheology #NetGalley

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My Ratings Explained ...

  • [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
  • [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
  • [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
  • [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
  • [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.