The Critique of Natural Theology

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Natural theology from the age of Newton through the mid-nineteenth century played a major role in British religious thought. Writers such as John Ray, William Paley, and the authors of the early Victorian Bridgewater treatises had contended that the observation of nature could lead to the belief in a God that had created a beneficent order. As well as establishing a theological framework supplementing the revealed religion of scripture, British natural theology explicitly upheld a conservative social philosophy while implicitly championing economic development.39 Historians have generally seen this framework of natural theology collapsing under the assault of Lyellian geology, Darwinian evolution, and scientific naturalism between about 1840 and 1880. Newman in a parallel fashion during the very same years provided a powerful religious critique of natural theology that from a moral standpoint proved every bit as devastating as that of the advanced scientists.

Newman appears never to have been convinced of the validity of natural theology. Indeed, he believed that the study of nature without a previously attained religious outlook on the part of the investigator would possibly inevitably lead to atheism, a view that he voiced on numerous occasions. Although Newman questioned the adequacy of natural theology from the late 1820s, he most fully explored the issue in letters of early 1841 to the Times, which under the title "The Tamworth Reading Room" he reprinted as a Roman Catholic. There he contended that religion could not emerge from science because science, functioning as deductions from empirical investigation, necessarily eschewed religion. Newman declared, "Life is not long enough for a religion of inferences."40 If science and religion were to have any relationship, it must be that of religious faith hallowing science. Those principles of natural theology, which scientists and natural theologians understood as deductions from their observations, were actually interpretations originating elsewhere than from their observations. It was those prior presuppositions, not the findings of science as science, that hallowed the work of the contemporary scientific endeavor.

Newman further contended that what many contemporaries regarded as religion based upon knowledge of nature was not actually a real religion because "no Religion has yet been a Religion of physics or of philosophy. It has ever been synonymous with Revelation. It never has been a deduction from what we know: it has ever been an assertion of what we are to believe. It has never lived in a conclusion; it has never been a message, or a history, or a vision."41 Natural theology shared one of the faults of emotional evangelical religion; it was based upon a sense of subjective feeling, in this case awe or wonder over the natural order. It was not that Newman thought nature lacking in wonder, but, as he explained, "The material world, indeed, is infinitely more wonderful than any human contrivance; but wonder is not religion, or we should be worshipping our railroads."42 Newman found in nature no evidence of God or a Moral Governor. Even if science could on its own devices provide evidence of a Moral Governor, it could do nothing to teach "divine holiness, truth, justice, or mercy."43 Nature observed without religious presuppositions, like the Bible read without religious presuppositions, did not for Newman bespeak the presence of God.

Over a decade later, in the Idea of a University, Newman again argued that natural theology, which he there termed "physical theology," rested upon a subjective response to nature that could provide no substitute for genuine theology.44 If God amounted to no more than what the telescope or the microscope or a noninstrumental contemplation of the natural order could reveal, then "divine truth is not something separate from Nature, but it is Nature with a divine glow upon it."45 If such were the case, natural theology constituted "a most jejune study, considered as a science, and really is no science at all, for it is ordinarily nothing more than a series of pious or polemical remarks upon the physical world viewed religiously, whereas the word 'Natural' properly comprehends man and society, and all that is involved therein."46 The God of natural theology was not the sovereign and eternal creator, lord, governor, and upholder of the world.

Newman understood natural theology to constitute one of the numerous contemporary theodicies which, based in analyses of nature or history, attempted to justify the suffering of the world. In the Apologia, Newman explained that his faith in the existence of God arose from the voice of his own conscience rather than from any evidence gleaned from examining society or nature or history. He then continued,

If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator.. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice.47

Newman reasserted this position in the Grammar of Assent of 1870,where in a remarkably dark passage describing the experience of a person looking for the presence of the Creator in the creation, he wrote, "What strikes the mind so forcibly and so painfully is, His absence (if I may so speak) from His own world. It is a silence that speaks. It is as if others had got possession of His work."48 Newman's emotional and theological outlook led him to a view of the world as restless, formless, and tumultuous as that of any radically materialistic evolutionist and much less purposeful than that of a Herbert Spencer.

Newman's critique of natural theology because of its having been so embedded into arguments for contemporary material progress was part and parcel of his denial of modern civilization as having any capacity to address the deepest needs of the human situation and of human sinfulness. He understood that Protestant advocates of natural theology associated it with a defense of contemporary material progress. He also saw Roman Catholics eager to benefit from new granted civic equality as similarly drawn into the materialism of the age. As early as 1832, in a sermon entitled "The Religion of the Day," Newman castigated evangelical Christians who pointed to advances in material civilization as indications of their living in the last days before Christ's return. Over two decades later, writing in a similar vein, he told Irish Roman Catholic laymen hoping to see their sons advance socially by receiving a liberal education,

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life ... but ... they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless, - pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them.. Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.49

Many years later, in the Grammar of Assent, Newman deplored "the religion of so-called civilization" because "civilization itself is not a development of man's whole nature, but mainly of the intellect, recognizing indeed the moral sense, but ignoring the conscience," and "consequently the religion in which it issues has no sympathy either with the hopes and fears of the awakened soul, or with those frightful presentiments which are expressed in the worship and traditions of the heathen."50 With powerful cultural insight, Newman grasped that the realm of material civilization and secular intellect constituted a self-sufficient parallel universe to that of what he regarded as genuine religion.

Newman's critique of natural theology, like his critique of the adequacy of Scripture and his ecclesiastical perfectionism, constituted still another strain of skepticism in his general mental and religious outlook. However, because natural theology was so deeply intermeshed with contemporary cultural confidence and a progressive interpretation of modern British society, Newman's assault on both its validity and adequacy transformed him into a cultural apostate as well as religious critic. It is Newman's cultural criticism rooted in religious conscience that more than anything else gives his thought relevance for the twenty-first century. Newman as both an Anglican and a Roman Catholic understood that genuine religion must stand in sharp tension with the surrounding culture and must demonstrate the incommensurability of that culture to the deepest needs of the human condition. Otherwise, the counterattractions of modern material life would inevitably displace religion.

For Newman, religion in human history had originated prior to revelation. Initially Natural Religion manifest in the conscience deeply impressed one with the sense of sin that required redemption and thus created "the anticipation ... that a Revelation will be given."51 Newman explained in the Grammar as he had in other writings, "I assume the presence of God in our conscience, and the universal experience, as keen as our experience of bodily pain, of what we call a sense of sin or guilt."52 Newman thought that human beings could not be convinced of the truth of Christianity without that prior disposition aroused by the demands of conscience. The call to obedience as a response to the demands of conscience had marked Newman's thought from his earliest days in the pulpit of St. Mary's and transcended all his ecclesiastical polemics and allegiances. No other single factor so deeply characterized his intellectual and theological life across the decades. As he explained in a long passage from the Grammar of Assent that deserves full quotation,

I do not address myself to those, who in moral evil and physical see nothing more than imperfections of a parallel nature; who consider that the difference in gravity between the two is one of degree only, not of kind; that moral evil is merely the offspring of physical, and that as we remove the latter so we inevitably remove the former; that there is a progress of the human race which tends to the annihilation of moral evil; that knowledge is virtue, and vice is ignorance; that sin is a bugbear, not a reality; that the Creator does not punish except in the sense of correcting; that vengeance in Him would of necessity be vindictiveness; that all that we know of Him, be it much or little, is through the laws of nature; that miracles are impossible; that prayer to Him is a superstition; that the fear of Him is unmanly; that sorrow for sin is slavish and abject; that the only intelligible worship of Him is to act well our part in the world, and the only sensible repentance to do better in future; that if we do our duties in this life, we may take our chance for the next; and that it is of no use perplexing our minds about the future state, for it is all a matter of guess. These opinions characterize a civilized age; and if I say that I will not argue about Christianity with men who hold them, I do so, not as claiming any right to be impatient or peremptory with any one, but because it is plainly absurd to attempt to prove a second proposition to those who do not admit the first. I assume then that the above system of opinion is simply false, inasmuch as it contradicts the primary teachings of nature in the human race, wherever a religion is found and its workings can be ascertained.53

In perhaps no passage of his voluminous writings did Newman so clearly state the one religious truth about which he entertained no skepticism. Overwhelmed by the internal demands of conscience and the inability of human beings unaided by God to meet those demands, Newman explained, "Natural Religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but it cannot find, it does not lookout for the remedy. That remedy, both for guilt and moral impotence, is found in the central doctrine of Revelation, the Mediation of Christ."54

In this respect, Newman's cultural apostasy that denied the adequacy of human culture to respond to the needs of the human situation as roused and informed by conscience led back to a faith in revelation and the necessity of revelation. But in his other writings, he had raised deeply skeptical questions surrounding the capacity of either Scripture or any contemporary ecclesiastical institutions or nature to mediate that revelation.

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