From natural theology to philosophical theology

At this point it will be objected that the common realm of God, nature and humanity is an exercise in neat natural theology and as such has no place in the theology of nature. Here we need to make some careful distinctions.

Natural theology is not a single theological approach, as Wolfhart Pannenberg has conclusively shown.17 A form of natural theology that is worth defending takes its cue from core theological interpretations of the nature of God and the world. It is dedicated to that centrally important task of theology: the criticism of idolatry. Thus the following standard statement, by George Hendry, cannot be allowed to stand as adequate: if'to establish a knowledge of nature in the light of God... may be taken as a rough definition of a theology of nature', then the task of natural theology is to 'establish a knowledge of God in the light of nature'.18 If such an account is inadequate, what is 'natural' knowledge of God.?

To begin, we may note that theological tradition makes a distinction between cognitio acquisita and cognitio insita: that is, between knowledge which is publicly accessible yet needs to be acquired through philosophical reasoning, and natural knowledge of God which may be known through the conscience or some such. In what follows, I shall be defending philosophical theology as a form of cognitio acquisita. Before that defence, I

17. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991), 1, ch. 2. For my account of natural theology, I am also drawing on Moltmann, God in Creation, pp. 57-60; David Tracy, 'John Cobb's Theological Method', in David Ray Griffin and Thomas J. J. Altizer (eds.), John Cobb's Theology in Process (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 25-38; Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987); Dupre, Passage to Modernity; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 11 /1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), pp. 128-78.

18. George S. Hendry, Theology of Nature (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1989), p. 14. In The Body of God, p. 73, McFague offers a similar definition. And this approach is evident in the ecofeminist literature: see Brian Swimme, 'How to Heal a Lobotomy', in Diamond and Orenstein (eds.), Reweaving the World, pp. 15-22 (p. 20).

wish to acknowledge that two complaints made against natural theology must be accepted. First, natural theology should not claim to operate with an account of pure, objective, ahistorical reason. No such reason exists. Second, natural theology should not offer a philosophical metaphysics as a way of mediating between faith and the world - such a mediating position is often taken, as in the work of John Cobb, by process thought.19 Natural theology is not a buffer between the Gospel and the world; natural theology does not offer a philosophical context in which Christian and modern world views are brought into conversation.20 Nor, in the anthropological turn evident in some natural theology, am I here concerned with an account of the readiness of humanity to receive revelation.21

Instead, to quote Pannenberg, natural theology is concerned with the philosophical clarification of the word, God: for 'God... makes possible an ultimate explanation of the being of the world as a whole, namely, by creation.'22 This type of inquiry, which is my subject here, I shall call philosophical theology. Such theology is concerned with the hermeneutics of the word, 'God': the protocols or rules that govern God-talk.

What is this discipline to which the theologian must adhere in the use of the term, 'God', in order to avoid idolatry (the confusion of God with some part of the world or the world itself).? How is philosophical theology helpful in the theology of nature? A philosophical theology offers not an alternative description of nature but an oppositional engagement. For the concept ofnature in theology can both obscure nature and contribute to the eclipse of God. There is the danger that the attempt to stress God's relation to and involvement with nature legitimates nature as a new 'universal'. In this movement, what is lost is precisely those instances of humanity-nature interaction in and through which our environment is threatened. Such theoretical developments employ the term 'nature' but everywhere misunderstand it. What is obscured here are the

19. John Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead (London: Lutterworth Press, 1966).

20. McFague's view in The Body of God also comes close to this view: natural theology is the detection and articulation of congruencies between scientific and theological world views. For McFague, philosophy of science seems to provide both a world view and the context for the conversation between world views.

21. A modern variant of natural theology, sometimes called 'new style' natural theology (John Macquarrie) or fundamental theology (Gerard O'Collins) has an anthropological rather than a cosmological reference. The transcendental Thomism of Karl Rahner or the method of correlation of Paul Tillich can be understood as distinctly anthropological forms of natural theology (in which nature signifies human nature).

22. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 1 ,p. 71.

particular ways in which nature is a problem for us. We do not, so to speak, assault nature all along the line. Instead, we have - to continue the military metaphor - local skirmishes of great intensity, which contribute to a general crisis. Against such a tendency, philosophical theology makes fluid the meanings of nature and foregrounds the issue of how the relations between humanity and nature are to be understood.

And the eclipse of God.? It seems to me that too much ecological theology develops a conception of nature which is atbest ^theological and often anfttheological. In short, the 'universal' of nature becomes the norm and basis for metaphysical construction of a system in which 'God' is named but whose agency is occluded and identity misrecognised. The stress on 'ecology' becomes a new way of offering a system to which theology must conform.

How does philosophical theology support a political theology of nature? Philosophical theology makes possible the grasping of the relationship between the unity of the whole and the concept of God. Furthermore, what is called into question, as I hope to show, is the restriction of the standard Christian metaphysical schema to God and humanity (with nature, as other and inferior to humanity, included under the notion of'world').23 Philosophical theology raises the issue of the unity of God in its relation to the unity of that which is not God. In other words, we must note an important epistemological point: the concept of God is conditioned by its relation to the 'totality of finite reality'.24

What does this mean? Central to the 'philosophical' problematic of the theology of nature is a conception of the whole which circumscribes the idea of God: an idol. How, then, for philosophical theology is the unity of the whole to be conceived in its relation to the idea ofGod in such fashion that idolatry is avoided?

In my judgment, the concept of God requires that we think of God in terms of a differentiated unity and of the world as a differentiated unity - although this unity and differentiation are held asymmetrically by God and the world. For, as the unconditioned ground or source of'all that is', God is the source or ground of both differentiations and wholes,

23. For an account of the Christian metaphysical schema, see Kaufman, 'A Problem for Theology', 349; H. Paul Santmire, 'Toward a New Theology of Nature', Dialog 25:1 (1986), 43-50; and Santmire 'Healing the Protestant Mind: Beyond the Theology of Human Dominion', in Dieter T. Hessel (ed.), After Nature's Revolt: Eco-justice and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 61-5.

24. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Metaphysics and the Idea of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), p. 146.

including the unity which comprises 'the totality of finite reality'. In the perspective of philosophical theology, we cannot concentrate only on the differentiated 'parts' for otherwise how can we be sure that God is the source of the unity of the world, and not only of the parts.?

Or, to put the matter the other way round, how can we be sure that the unity of the 'world' does not escape theological control and, functioning as an idol, become 'God'? Answer: by understanding the differentiated parts in terms of the unity of the whole, as a totality, in that God is the force of the unity. As Pannenberg puts it, God is the 'unifying unity' who secures the unified reality of the whole. In all its differences and determinations, nature, understood in terms of its unity and differences, has its source in the activity of God. The unity of God is thereby not assimilable to the unity of the world (which does not deny the immanence of God to the parts through the whole). Only in this way are the unity of God and the unity of the world secured.25

Already we see that an unqualified account of the notion of the unity of God is insufficient. In order to grasp the differentiation of the world in terms of'difference' and 'unity', I have been obliged, following Wolfhart Pannenberg, to employ such terms as 'activity', 'ground' and 'force'. Failure to use such language ensures that, in relation to the idea of God, the particularity of the differences which form a unity cannot be thought. Thus, in order to use the word 'God' correctly - without confusion with the world and without confusion of the terms, 'difference' and 'unity' -some form ofdifferentiation in God must be accepted. The conception of the world, Pannenberg writes, 'must be based upon a difference within God, one which typifies the relationship between part and whole'.26 Of course, the difference is not that of part and whole; that would be for interpretation of the world to control interpretation of God. 'Activity,' 'ground' and 'force' emerge as important terms which show how the whole is dependent upon God and yet the differences are unified by the active force of God through the natural order. A key element of a theology of creatio ex nihilo - the original and continuing dependence of'all that is' on God - is thereby secured.

What conception of nature is presupposed by this exercise in philosophical theology? We must note the differentiated unity of all natural processes in relation to the unity of God. We learn from this inquiry in

25. See further my 'Ecology: Religious or Secular?', The HeythropJournal 38:1 (1997), 1-14.

26. Pannenberg, Metaphysics and the Idea of God, p. 144.

philosophical theology that extreme care will need to be exercised - on theological grounds - to settle or fix the meaning of the term, 'nature'. For the differentiated unity of God raises the question of which worldly unities and differences we are speaking. It follows that humanity's relationship to nature is unclear and will require thinking through from the theme of the world in relation to the concept of God. Metaphysical matters are placed in their true, theological, perspective: antitheses such as humanity and the natural, culture and nature are hereby ruled out. Instead, the unified totality of reality is privileged. Yet theological attention is directed to the differentiation of all reality and also holds to the view that, in its totality, reality relates to God. That is, reality in its totality and differentiation, is founded upon God. The task of philosophical theology is the explication of this claim.

The provocation of philosophical theology is to think through the relation of God to the world (including humanity). Nature is not to be treated as a new form of'universal'. The creator God must be understood as encompassing the whole. Yet the differentiation of the unity of the world into differences is also to be found in the idea of God. It is of the intimacy of God's relation that God is immanent in differences and unities, parts and whole(s). Thereby the parts are secured as genuinely differentiated and the wholes as true unities.

The relation between unity and differences, whole and parts presupposes temporality and boundaries. That is, in the denial of the false universal, 'nature', the totality is placed in a new perspective: as formed and open to reformation in its relation to God. Wholes and parts must be understood in the perspective ofthe unity-in-difference required by the concept of God: such wholes and parts are not fixed, and cannot be fixed by thought. Only if the notion of the difference in God is denied, can such wholes and parts be fixed. Thus the ontology operative here (and required by the difference in God) is temporal: the organisation of differences and unities changes through time. The correlative account of boundaries must be equally critical: the reformation ofparts and wholes is the reorganisation ofboundaries between things.

Three important conclusions emerge. First, the differentiation of parts and wholes is given in the concept of God. Second, such differentiations cannot be fixed; all differentiations are temporal. Third, differentiations are given towards a certain continuity or stability. Can further specification be given to this claim that the unity and differences of the world are given in the concept of God (who is difference-in-unity)?

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