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In 1885 an elderly Scottish judge, Lord Gifford, endowed a lectureship in each of the four ancient Scottish universities for ‘Promoting, Advancing, Teaching and Diffusing the study of Natural Theology’. By Natural Theology he had in mind the open rational exploration of all matters to do with the knowledge of God. The emphasis was on the word ‘open’. Lecturers were not required to subscribe to any particular belief, nor generating scholarly discussion of this most important of all issues. Sometimes they have been too scholarly, and have drawn correspondingly small and specialised audiences. This is why in recent years the emphasis has reverted to another stipulation in Lord Gifford's will, namely that they should be ‘public and popular discourses… open not only to students of the Universities, but to the whole community without matriculation’. Though Gifford Lectures are still intended to be a serious contribution to knowledge, it is no longer necessary for them to be heavily academic. I have been one of the beneficiaries of the change, in that it has been my unusual privilege to deliver Gifford Lectures in two of the four universities. On the first occasion, in 1988, it was only a single lecture in the University of Glasgow, as part of the series to mark the centenary. Other lecturers in that series included such academics far removed from orthodox theology as Richard Dawkins and Don Cupitt.1 A subsequent invitation to deliver the millennium series in the University of Aberdeen was the origin of this book. The delivery of the six lectures, of which this is a greatly expanded version, happened to coincide with the floods and rail disruptions of November 2000, but the warmth of hospitality in the University made up for much miserable travelling.

I had a personal reason for choosing The Concept of Nature as my theme, apart from its obvious relevance to many of the contentious issues of our time. In the late 1940s, when I was a research student in neurophysiology, I decided that I ought to embark on a serious study of the Christian faith. I had no idea where to start, so I browsed in the theological section of a Cambridge bookshop, spotted a name I recognised—William Temple—and bought a fat volume, Nature, Man and God,2 whose title seemed to me comprehensive enough to meet all my needs. It was Temple's Gifford Lectures, delivered between 1932 and 1934—a five hundred page exercise in philosophical theology, and an astonishing achievement for a man who at the time was Archbishop of York. He is said to have written them in odd half-hours late at night. Re-reading the book fifty years later, I have been struck by how much of it influenced my own thinking about the foundations of faith. Nor can I escape the coincidence that, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only other archbishop to follow in his footsteps as a Gifford Lecturer.

But I have also been struck by the extent to which present-day concerns about nature are totally absent from the book, perhaps not surprisingly, given the huge differences between our own world and that of the 1930s. More worryingly it is hard to know what Temple actually meant by the word ‘nature’, unless it simply stood for all that exists, apart from humanity and God. As a philosopher much influenced by idealism, he liked to stress the relationship between what he called ‘Mind’ and the ‘World Process’. This appears occasionally in such delphic utterances as ‘If, as science has disclosed, Mind is part of Nature, then Nature must be grounded in Mind.’3 It is not the sort of sentence which immediately strikes a chord with modern readers.

Apart from such passing references to nature and science, there is also a notable absence in his lectures of any discussion of the natural sciences in their own right. Indeed Temple is said to have claimed that his ignorance of science was so profound as to be distinguished. I may thus be able to repay my debt to him, and at the same time hope to satisfy Lord Gifford's intentions, by looking more closely at the word in his title which Temple, for the most part, ignored.

Mary Midgley4 has used the analogy of plumbing to describe this kind of exploration. In any ordinary house there is usually a great deal which lies hidden and is apt to be taken for granted unless something manifestly goes wrong. In old houses the plumbing system may have grown haphazardly over the years as new facilities have been added, and it may not be at all obvious how it was once meant to work, where the blockages might be, and why the whole thing judders when a certain tap is opened. There is a need for specialist attention; and it can be the same with concepts. They too may grow imperceptibly as meanings are added or circumstances change, and may likewise need specialist attention if the flow of thought which depends on them is not to be distorted or obstructed. This is Midgley's defence of professional philosophy. But even ordinary householders can make a contribution, if only by knowing from occasional forays under the floorboards where the pipes actually go. I am not a philosopher, and modern archbishops do not have time to be specialists. In the course of a lifetime, though, I have had to look under the floorboards, as it were, in many unlikely places, and it is this varied experience which underlies my attempt at an elementary piece of map-work.

Chapter 1 explores the multiple meanings of the word ‘nature’, traces some of their origins, and classifies them broadly under three main heads—nature as referring to the essential characteristics of a thing, nature as a force which makes things what they are, and nature as a description of everything that is. Under each of these headings there are further questions to be asked about what is given in the way things are, and what is socially constructed.

Chapter 2 centres on the use of the word in the natural sciences, and questions the assumptions underlying a purely naturalistic approach to the description of reality. A god-like perspective on the world of nature as a whole is not available to us.

Chapter 3 considers environmental issues. Given the extent to which human beings have always shaped their environment, is there a ‘natural world’ to be conserved or a ‘balance of nature’ to be respected? And is there a convincing intellectual basis for environmentalism?

Chapter 4 takes up the much-disputed theme of whether there is a natural moral law of universal application. It is suggested that while there may not be universal laws, there may be universal values to which appeal can be made. The frequent reference to what is deemed to be ‘natural’ in the context of sexuality is used as a test case of whether the concept has any clear meaning in the field of morality.

Chapter 5 describes how human beings have constantly tried to improve nature, whether by artistry as in landscaping, or for more utilitarian purposes as in breeding programmes, and asks how far our massively increased powers of manipulation, mainly nowadays through genetics, require new ethical constraints.

Chapter 6 draws together these various themes around the ideas of givenness and potentiality, and relates them to traditional beliefs about God. The book concludes with a discussion of nature and grace, and suggests that, far from being in antithesis to one another, nature may have incarnational significance as a means through which the grace of God can be discerned and received.

  • 1.

    Humanity, Environment and God, edited by Neil Spurway (Blackwell 1993). My own contribution, ‘Is There Reliable Knowledge about God?’ has been reprinted in John Habgood, Faith and Uncertains (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997).

  • 2.

    William Temple, Nature, Man and God (Macmillan, 1934).

  • 3.

    Nature, Man and God, p. 134.

  • 4.

    Mary Midgley, Utopias, Dolphins and Computers. Problems of Philosophical Plumbing (Routledge, 1996).

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