The Contemporary Debate About Natural Theology

While, however, attempts continue to be made to establish a natural theology on more or less traditional lines by revising and reformulating the arguments for the reality of God in order to avoid particular criticisms, objections have been made in principle to any kind of natural theology. Some of these objections have taken the form of radical re-interpretations of what is meant by 'God' that claim to show that the proper reference of the concept is non-theistic. Ludwig Feuerbach, for example, holds that 'God' is an objectifying projection by human beings of the qualities of their species (Feuerbach 1957:12). It is a basic error to consider that theology is about a divine reality which is ontologically independent of the human. A similar root-and-branch demolition of theism is put forward by Sigmund Freud. He interprets religious beliefs psychologically as illusions which arise from infantile responses to the demands of life. Beliefs in the reality of 'a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and.a moral order in the universe and an after-life' indicate what people think 'would be very nice' (Freud 1962:29); they do not tell us what mature people in a scientific age realistically ought to recognize to be the case. While, however, those who put forward such interpretations imply that natural theology rests upon a total misreading of what is meant by references to 'God', theists may reply that what they show is not the utter untenability of theism but the character of certain factors which are likely to influence and distort thought about God. These analyses thus indicate the importance of recognizing how beliefs are conditioned (see Pailin 1990), and of seeking as far as possible to take account of that conditioning in evaluating the significance of theistic claims.

Others criticize natural theology on the grounds that it is either incompatible with or unable as such to produce authentic faith. Soren Kierkegaard, for example, holds that the approach to belief in God underlying natural theology makes the fundamental mistake of considering that faith is like entertaining the conclusion of a successful argument. In his Philosophical Fragments he argues that reason is necessarily incapable of conceiving, let alone showing the reality of, 'the Unknown', the 'absolutely different' which it encounters as its 'limit' (Kierkegaard 1936:35). In any case, the notion of proving is such that 'as long as I.continue to demonstrate' God's existence, 'the existence does not come out, if for no other reason than that I am engaged in proving it'. It is only there when 'I let the proof go' and 'leap' into relationship with God (ibid.: 34; see Kierkegaard 1941:116). So far as human existence is concerned, truth and faith have the same definition—'an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness'. Since, then, 'without risk there is no faith', it follows that 'if I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe' (Kierkegaard 1941:182). In reply it may be maintained that while, as Newman puts it, a conclusion is essentially 'conditional' in that, qua conclusion, it depends upon its antecedent argument whereas faith is unconditional assent (Newman 1870), theistic believers may legitimately ask themselves and be asked by others to show that they have sound warrants for believing that the object in which, as believers, they put their trust does actually exist. In that case, while natural theology may never by itself produce faith, it may be held to provide a crucial preamble to the commitment of faith.

All forms of natural theology presuppose the reliability and authority of human rationality in general, and in matters concerning the ultimate and sacred in particular. Doubts about the warrantability of this confidence provide a third basis for questioning the possibility of natural theology in principle as well as in practice. Although this challenge may be ignored as self-destructive where it purports to show by reason that the conclusions of all forms of reasoning are fatally flawed, it carries weight when it does not deny reason itself but rather provides significant grounds for concluding that rational examination of reason shows its incompetence to determine truth about the reality and will of God. It is a case which has many facets. Examination of the principles of rational understanding as well as of the fundamental difficulties which arise when attempts are made to determine the ultimate nature of reality leads Kant, for instance, to conclude that reason 'stretches its wings in vain in thus attempting to soar above the world of sense by the mere power of speculation' (Kant 1933:500).

Although idealist philosophy, following Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in holding that what is real is rational and what is rational is real (Hegel 1892:10, 258f., 383f.), attempts to work out a synthesis of thought and reality, other movements and thinkers in the two centuries since Kant emphasize the relativity of rational thinking. Marxist and sociological analyses draw attention to the ways in which the social and political context of a thinker moulds her or his thought. Recent feminist and racial studies claim that gender and race as well as culture and upbringing are other prejudicing factors.

Since the publication of Edwin Hatch's Hibbert Lectures for 1888 on The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church and Adolf Harnack's History of Dogma, critically self-aware theologians have been seeking to come to terms with the cultural relativity of their source materials and of their own conclusions. In studies of the nature of rational thought generally, the demise of the crude logical positivist attempt to 'eliminate' metaphysical thought (cf. the title of the first chapter of Alfred Jules Ayer's seminal Language, Truth and Logic) by the application of the 'verification principle' has been followed by a more subtle challenge to reason in the form of linguistic philosophy's insights into the ways that the use of language to identify and to draw inferences from what is being thought conceptually conditions it.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century self-styled 'postliberal', 'deconstructionist', 'antifoundationalist' and 'postmodernist' positions have drawn attention to ways in which reflection on rational thinking challenges the authority of reason, the validity of traditional (and perhaps of all) notions of truth, and the credibility of rational ways of determining what is true. A century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche attacked reason's claims to be the way to knowledge of the truth. In The Gay Science he suggests that what we hold and what we reject does not depend on the judgements of objective reason but on what satisfies our current pattern of life (Nietzsche 1974:245 f). Reason may even falsify 'the evidence of the senses' to produce grounds which support what subjectively we desire to be the case. However rational it may pretend to be, in the cases of morality and of religion '"truth" denotes nothing but..."imaginings" 'based on misrepresentation and 'misinterpretation' of 'realities which do not exist' (Nietzsche 1990:46, 65).

A century after Nietzsche thinkers with equal subtlety, sophisticated tools and generally a much less strident tone press home the assault on reason. By rational reflection they identify presuppositions which underlie earlier confidence in the use of reason in order to point out why they should now be regarded as highly questionable, if not obviously mistaken. They thus undermine the confidence in the neutrality, objectivity and competence of reason as the ultimate court of appeal that is typical of 'enlightened' understanding in the modern age. Jean-François Lyotard, for instance, defines the 'postmodernity' characteristic of the current age in terms of, inter alia, convictions about 'the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation' (Lyotard 1984: xxiv; cf. 81). According to Richard Rorty, it is an illusion to hold that it might be possible to establish what is true independently of the conditioning of a particular language-game by reference to criteria that are neutral in respect of any specific context (Rorty 1980:388). Recognition that there is no 'single set of criteria which everybody in all times and places can accept' means, therefore, that 'one of the less important sideshows of Western civilization—metaphysics—is in the process of closing down' (Rorty 1991:218).

In the face of such criticisms of the traditional appeal to reason, those who want to make a case for the rational credibility of theological understanding rather than simply confess their faith have two options. One option is to accept the basic validity of the antifoundationalist, postmodernist position and to seek to elucidate the basis of a particular theistic faith in its own terms. Among those exploring versions of this option are Alvin Plantinga and George A.Lindbeck. Plantinga, for instance, considers that what a person considers to be a rational belief is judged by reference to that 'assemblage of beliefs' and their inter-relationships which constitute 'that person's noetic structure'. He then argues that the mature theist does not regard belief in God as self-evident and incorrigible, nor as a tentative hypothesis, nor as a conclusion reached by argument 'from other things he believes: he accepts it as basic, as a part of the foundations of his noetic structure' (Plantinga 1979:12, 27). As such it is part of that in terms of which the theist understands and acts rather than a product of rational understanding.

While Lindbeck states in The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age that the 'true' religion may be identified in principle as that which 'corresponds to ultimate reality', in his opinion the insights of 'postliberal antifoundationalism' make it clear that there are no neutral 'universal principles or structures' by reference to which the credibility of a faith can be established (Lindbeck 1984:52, 132, 129). Since 'meaning is constituted by the uses of a specific language', it is 'intrasemiotic or intratextual' to a language system (ibid.: 114). Each system provides a comprehensive interpretative scheme for 'constructing reality, expressing experience, and ordering life' (ibid.: 47f). A religious faith is such a system. People become followers of a particular faith as they learn 'its language, doctrines, liturgies, and modes of action' and develop their skill in using them to make sense of their experiences (ibid.: 39; cf. 131). The credibility of a faith hence arises from 'good performance' in using it as an interpretative scheme (ibid.: 131).

According to such antifoundationalist postmodernism, there is no way of justifying, by reference to ultimate, neutral principles that are independent of a particular system of understanding, the claim that a particular way of understanding is the objectively or absolutely correct (i.e., 'true') way to see things. Those who take up this option and apply it to theological understanding undermine the possibility of natural theology as traditionally understood. While they may claim that they do not deny the rational credibility of theological understanding as a way of interpreting reality, the rationality that they recognize is internal to the system being used. Belief is hence seen as its own warrant. When all the sophisticated defences are reduced to a minimum the basic claim seems to be: 'If you look at things in the way that I do and use my system of interpretation, then you will see that I am justified in seeing them as I do.'

Is there, however, a rationally sustainable alternative to the postmodernist, antifoundationalist understanding of rationality and belief? It is not simply the justifiability of continuing to seek to establish a natural theology that depends upon there being some such option; the possibility of making a rational choice between the different belief-systems found in a pluralistic social context, and of rationally defending the credibility of a particular belief-system may be held to depend upon there being one.

The search for such an option cannot justifiably ignore the various important criticisms that have been made of the arguments traditionally used to establish a natural theology; nor can it expect to be taken seriously if it ignores the relativity of understanding, both as human understanding and as culturally and conceptually conditioned understanding. On the other hand, there may be other ways of establishing a natural theology. The inescapable relativity of a particular way of understanding does not entail that it must be incapable of providing, within the limits imposed by its relativity, more or less objectively 'true' understanding. One possible way forward is by considering the search for a credible natural theology as a search for a comprehensive story of the ultimate character of reality that fits and makes sense of our experience and understanding of it and that bears fruit in further insights into what is and might be.

By 'story' in this context is not meant a fiction but a diachronic description that provides a synchronic insight into the ultimate that is the creative and sustaining ground of being (cf. Pailin 1986). While it may be pointed out that the justification of such a story must inevitably be circular to some extent (since what is apprehended as the components of 'reality' to be made sense of by the story will be seen in the perspective provided by that—or some other— story), it may be maintained in reply that there is a certain stubbornness in things that prevents them being smoothly incorporated into every story that people may desire to tell. Traditional forms of theism have always been aware of this stubbornness in terms of the data posing the so-called 'problem of evil' (a problem that basically arises because of the assumption of a view of God as creator that is unsustainable in a post-Darwinian culture), for this data is material that will not happily fit into the theistic story being considered.

The reasoning that develops and hence shows the credibility of what claims to be the story of reality as a whole is complex (Hodges 1953; Pailin 1971; 1975; Mitchell 1973). It involves reciprocal interactions between evidence and its interpretation, and a recognition that the understanding that is being sought is of the ultimate ground and end of a process of which we are only acquainted with a little part—and do not even know how little that part is, nor where it is located in the process as a whole. Nevertheless, if a coherent and comprehensive story emerges which justifies the claim that reality makes sense in terms of its being fundamentally theistic, that story will form a kind of natural theology that may justifiably claim to deserve serious consideration by theists who accept the canon of reason and who wish to be rationally responsible about their faith. Whether or not such a convincing story will appear in the future, only people who exist then will be able to decide.

If such a story does appear, however, it is likely to indicate the unjustifiability of the long-standing distinction between 'natural' and 'revealed' theology by showing that what have traditionally been regarded as two utterly distinct ways of coming to theological understanding appear on examination to have fundamentally the same logical structure. Traditionally 'revealed' theology has been understood to be based upon propositions that have been disclosed by God, generally with warranting signs (for example, miracles), to certain privileged individuals (for example, to Moses and the prophets—cf. 'thus says the Lord'—and to the apostles of Jesus who witnessed to the incarnate 'Word'—cf. John 1:14). Assent is to be given to these propositions because of the status and insight of their (alleged) author. This is held to be unquestionable: since God knows what is true and does not tell lies, therefore what God has declared must be accepted as true (and, as was noted earlier in relation to Aquinas, as the touchstone for what people may consider that they have discerned to be true through the use of their reason). In contrast 'natural theology', as was mentioned at the start of this chapter, is considered to consist of truths about the divine that have been perceived through rational reflection on the implications of the intrinsic nature of reason and of what is observed in natural states, historical events and human experiences.

This distinction between supposedly 'revealed' and 'natural' theology collapses, however, once the idea that 'revealed theology' is a matter of reporting and expounding prepositional truths disclosed by the divine is recognized to be unsustainable, as is now widely accepted to be the case, and claims to alleged revelatory insights into the divine come to be viewed, as arguably they must be, as the product of the way in which individuals (or groups) imaginatively interpret particular events or experiences as manifesting aspects of the reality and will of the divine (Pailin 1990:113-39). When what was claimed to have been 'revealed' is so understood, it follows that the claims of so-called 'revealed' theology and those of so-called 'natural' theology have fundamentally the same rational status. They both generalize (and, thereby, seek to justify rationally) insights into the divine, as the ultimate and sacred ground and goal of all, that have been gained from musing on the significance of limited areas of experience in the realms of nature, history and human being. The difference between them is that what is regarded as 'natural' theology seeks to justify its insights by reference to reflection on a wider range of states, events and experiences than is typically the case with 'revealed' theology. In both cases, however, the insights are derived from consideration of a selected band of evidence, whether it be somewhat narrow (as, for example, in the use of the reports of the witnesses to Jesus as the Christ as the normative revelation of God in Christian theology) or more general (as in the use of supposed observations of order and purpose in the processes of reality in teleological arguments characteristic of some forms of natural theology). And, what is generally overlooked by those who seek to preserve the traditional notion of revelation as a basis of faith, belief and theological understanding, insight into the reality of the divine allegedly evoked by such selected states, events and experiences, whether the selection is broad or narrow, is not justified by further consideration of those states, events and experiences but by showing that what is thereby perceived is warrantable as a rationally credible perception of the divine (Pailin 1993). Reflection on the nature of theological understanding thus indicates that its only rationally justifiable form is some form of what has in the past been regarded as natural theology, even though that form, in order to be rationally credible today, may have to use evidence and reach conclusions about the ultimate story of reality in ways that are significantly different from how natural theology has often been understood in the past.

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