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A Brief History of Natural Theology

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Christopher Barnett

on 24 February 2016

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Transcript of A Brief History of Natural Theology

The Origins of Natural Theology
The gods of ancient Greece
The revolution of Aristotle
What Aristotle did, then, was nothing less than ground-breaking
: he identified the first principle of philosophy with god and, in turn, science with theology.
The universe, for Aristotle, isn't run haphazardly by deities; rather, it stems from a divine First Cause, whose eternal act of thinking generates an ordered world.
Thus the world is there to be analyzed, known; in contrast, its originator is aloof, far removed from the cares of human beings: "With Aristotle, the Greeks had gained an indisputably rational theology, but they had lost their religion."
The later Stoic school of philosophy (3rd Century BCE) only deepened this problem. For a Marcus Aurelius, one can't hope to commune with the universe, only to resign oneself to its unstoppable course: "The World-Cause is a torrent, it sweeps everything along."
Hence, in the end, Greek thinkers struggled to hold philosophy and religion together. The former would either disregard or subsume the latter.
For natural theology to advance, a new metaphysics was needed.
The rise of philosophy:
Plato (4th Cent. BCE)
Plato's key question
: what is really real?
His answer
: material things are not really real, since they pass into and out of existence.
The "parable of the cave."
And yet, we are able to know things because they share in a greater,
immaterial
form.
Thus a particular thing is but an instance of a universal, unchangeable essence. The greatest of all essences is the "Good," which illuminates the other forms and is goal of our knowledge.
Yet, despite the eternal nature of the forms, Plato does not call them "gods." Being a good Greek, he restricts the gods to the realm of human action, effectively cutting them off from philosophy.
What is natural theology?
Natural theology
: thinking that deals with God as known by reason alone.
The First Vatican Council (1869-70)
: "the one true God, Our Creator and Lord [can] be known with certainty in the light of human reason..."
The means of this knowledge are debatable, though the Bible provides at least three: (i) from nature (Rom 1:20), (ii) from conscience (Rom 2:14), and (iii) from history (Acts 17:26-31). Others have argued that the idea of God is innate in human beings (
idea innata
).
Thinking through these issues is the business of natural theology or, as it also called, "philosophical theology," "philosophy of religion," and "metaphysics."
"What could I do?
It is god who accomplisheth all."
This, then, was the situation of early Greek philosophy
: the philosophers were looking for the "first principle" of all things, and yet were also faced with the gods of ancient tradition.
In nuce
: there was nature on the one hand, religion on the other.
But why not just forget about religion? The short answer: because religion deals with personal questions that transcend the scope of mere objective inquiry.
Further, philosophy was faced with a riddle: how can a knowing, self-conscious being (such as human beings) explain how nature came to be
without
attributing it to an even greater knowing, self-conscious being? In other words: must not human reason look for a higher reason?
A Brief History of Natural Theology
The shift to Christian Philosophy
The Judeo-Christian God
: both a subject and object, the God of Israel and yet the origin of all that is (Exod 3:14)
Hence, for Christianity, an existing being (not a form or an inanimate principle) lies at the foundation of what is really real.
But how is this possible? In other words, what does "existence" even mean, if God exists and is the origin of all, and creatures exist are not? Further, how can we reach such an existing being, given our differences?
These questions were decisively formulated by Augustine but perhaps best dealt with by Thomas Aquinas.
God and Modern Thought
The Present Situation
The gods of Westeros
The "philosophical notion of God" goes back to at least Thales the Milesian (d. 6th Century BCE).
Thales held that all things come from and return to water; Aristotle added (in his
Metaphysics
and
De Anima
) that Thales also believed that "all things are full of gods." This has led some scholars to conclude that Thales believes that water itself is divine.
Just what Thales thought remains a matter of debate. What is clear is that he raised the question that would come to dominate the history of natural theology--viz.,
from what or from whom did the world originate?
Thales the Milesian
For many in ancient Greece, the best answer to this question was "the gods." Indeed, that was the view of the poets (e.g., Homer, ca. 8th Cent. BCE), who preceded the philosophers.
But what did the poets mean by "gods"? Immortal persons? Physical realities (ocean, sky, etc.) that seemed permanent or timeless? Natural fatalities? All of the above?
For the ancient Greeks, the "names of gods all point to living powers...endowed with a will of their own, operating in human lives and swaying human destinies from above" (Gilson, 7-8).
Basic traits of the gods: (i) life, (ii) involved in human affairs, (iii) competitive with other gods, (iv) subservient to the "deeper" will of Zeus (Fate).
Ultimately, then, Greek religion suggests that what happens in human life is explicable only by the will of another, greater living being.
Pindar (5th Century BCE)
: "From the gods come all the means of mortal exploits," both good and bad.
"Greek philosophy was a rational attempt to understand the world as a world of things, whereas Greek mythology expressed the firm decision of man not to be left alone, the only person in a world of deaf and dumb things" (Gilson).
"Modern philosophy has been created...to the ends of the natural cities of men, not to the end of the supernatural city of God."
Through Descartes, philosophy was (again!) divorced from religion: it preoccupied itself with epistemology and dispensed with God as a mere First Cause.
The rise of Deism.
Kant would deepen the divide between philosophy and theology with his with distinction between "phenomena" and "noumena."
For Kant, God is a function of "practical reason," but not an object of knowledge.
This conclusion would influence the shaping of the modern university, including the formation of academic "departments" and the knowledge that such departments would pursue.
"Today our only choice is...Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics."
But can we go back to Thomas, particularly at a time when science dominates the intellectual landscape and metaphysics seems dead?
For Gilson, however, metaphysics (and so natural theology) can never really die
: "An ideal scientific explanation of the world would be an exhaustive rational explanation of
what
the world actually is; but
why
nature exists is not a scientific problem, because its answer is not susceptible of empirical verification."
In other words, existential beings demand existential answers, and so natural theology will never go away.
The only other option is to ascribe existence to "accidents," but this is bad metaphysics and not good science: "Anybody may fluke a brilliant stroke at billiards; but when a billiards player makes a run of a hundred, to say that he fluked it is to offer a rather weak explanation."
For Thomas, whatever exists (Bob) is an essence (human being) made real for a time. But God is not like that; he is not an essence (divinity) made real for a time (as Zeus or what have you). Rather, he is existence itself, from which creatures derive their existence.
In short
: the essence of God is his eternal existence, whereas, from God, we come into existence as instances of our essence.
Thus Thomas accounts for
why
we are here and
how
we are related to the origin of all that is -- a metaphysics of existence.
This accounts for the different tasks of science and theology. The former studies existences, the latter existence itself. Yet both, says Thomas, know God: "All knowing beings implicitly know God in any and every thing they know."
Thomistic Metaphysics
I. Why is there something rather than nothing?
II. What is real?
III. What makes God, God?
Full transcript