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Six | Nature’s God

‘Salad's on a new footing now, apparently,’ Mam said, looking at her copy of Ideal Home. ‘It doesn't just have to be lettuce and tomato and a slice of boiled egg. They eat celery with apple now and you can put raisins in if you want. All the boundaries are coming down.’1

So began one of Alan Bennett's incomparable monologues. And of such small things as his Mam observed are revolutions made. Raisins in salads in Leeds in the 1950s were ominous signs of things to come. It would be smorgasbord next. And it is not only in food that the boundaries have come tumbling down. We live in a world of almost infinite choice, change and variety, much of it nowadays as transient as nouvelle cuisine, a modish triumph of style over substance.

In the previous chapters I have been attempting to map some of the changing boundaries within the concept of nature. It has a complex history, so complex and so heavily flavoured by cultural seasoning that, though we cannot do without it, the word might almost serve as a recipe for confusion. Nature as studied by the natural sciences, for example, is not the same as the nature which the conservationist wishes to preserve. To behave naturally does not mean the same as obeying natural law. Nature has been externalised as that which stands over against us human beings, needing to be conquered and brought under control, yet at the same time we ourselves are inextricably part of it.

One way of throwing light on this complexity is to list some of the concepts with which nature has been contrasted. For instance, there is a range of opposites centring round the concept of the ‘artificial’—constructed, developed, interfered with, urbanised, genetically modified—all of which imply some kind of change induced by human beings in what originally was simply there, given in the nature of things. Implicit in these meanings is the supposed dichotomy between nature and culture, rapidly becoming more problematic the more it is studied. A different sort of contrast is to be found in the word ‘unnatural’. This has a narrower meaning, often with strong moral connotations. Unnatural behaviour implies some sort of violation of the way tilings should be. ‘Non-natural’, on the other hand, occurs only in philosophy, and refers to abstract qualities, such as goodness, which lie outside the purview of the natural sciences. Naturalistic philosophers doubt whether there are any. ‘Supernatural’ also refers to what lies beyond the study of the natural, but in a theological rather than a philosophical context, and is thus even more suspect in the eyes of naturalism. In popular usage it has strong overtones of strangeness, abnormality or spookiness. There is also nature as contrasted with grace, to which I shall be returning at the end of this chapter.

A common thread running through all these contrasts is that they represent a departure from some kind of normality. Despite its variety of uses and its potential for misunderstanding, the [concept of nature seems to do its work by pointing to a quality of givenness, whether in the way things are, the way they used to be, or the way they ought to be. It is a quality I have already referred to more than once, and might seem the obvious basis from which to begin an exploration of what could be meant by ‘nature's God’. Religious believers have frequently regarded one of the functions of religion as being to protect and preserve the boundaries of what is held to be natural, given in the act of creation itself. Traditional religion is about order, discipline, direction, the unchanging reality at the heart of things. In an age when all the boundaries are coming down, this sense of an ultimate givenness is all the more precious, and it is not surprising that many traditional believers should feel that the world as they conceive it, and they themselves, are under threat.

Karen Armstrong in her study of fundamentalisms has provided a graphic account of the fear and anger induced in communities which have found their religious environment being destroyed and drained of meaning. In many parts of the world the violent reactions provoked by secularism have confounded all expectations about the gradual erosion of religion. But she has also pointed out the paradox that in trying to counteract the erosions of secular society and fill the resulting void, the various fundamentalisms have inadvertently created something new. ‘It is important to realise,’ she writes, ‘that these movements are not an archaic throwback to the past; they are modern, innovative and modernising.’2 At the heart of their reaction has been the translation of what was once regarded as mystical and unsayable, into a dangerously inward-looking and quasi-scientific literalism.

This newness is itself a sign of life, however misguided it might be in these particular instances. Within any lively religious faith the readiness to respond to challenge and to venture into new territory is a necessary complement to order, discipline, and direction. Belief in God has again and again led to the breaking of boundaries, to the unleashing of energy, to outbursts of creativity. There can be fiercely critical elements within faith, sometimes directed outwards against ‘enemies’ as in the fundamentalisms, but often more constructively directed inwards towards the further exploration of faith itself. To applaud such breaking of boundaries is not to deny a basic God-given order in the way things are. It is to recognise that within the way things are, there is also huge unrealised potential.

What is true of religion is equally true of nature. By itself givenness is too static a quality to convey the dynamism inherent in nature as commonly experienced, not least when it is encountered as the untamed forces of nature. A rough sea impresses us by its unpredictability, its lack of order, its potential for destruction. Evolution impresses by its creative potential, but like the sea it has no predetermined goal. In its most comprehensive sense nature is not a thing, but a system, a vast bundle of possibilities. The earliest meaning of the word referred, not only to the character and being of things, but also to their being born (natus), what they were for, and what they might become. This sense of ‘becoming’ tended to be ignored both when theologians envisaged nature in its present form as a once-for-all creation by God, and when the scientific image of nature as a vast predetermined machine was in the ascendant. Nowadays we know that that machine was no more than a convenient human construct, a way of describing the world which highlighted its static and machinelike properties. The natural world, as we now understand it, is one long history of change, and seems almost infinitely adaptable. The leading spirits of our age look more to the future than to the past. As we saw in the previous chapter, it is what we have the power to do to nature, which now arouses most excitement and opposition. Indeed some scientists, prophets, and planners are so ready to dream of what might be, that there is a danger of losing a sense of the sheerly given, and of our human limitations in the face of it.

Both insights are needed, givenness and potentiality. The concept of nature, with all its variability and ambivalences, forms a seamless web. In what follows I shall seek to spell out further how these ambivalences have their counterparts and correlations within religion, and in particular within a Christian understanding of nature's God.

Knowing More than We Can Prove

By the ‘givenness’ of nature I mean more than the given character of material reality, though that is certainly part of what is meant. The world is what it is, and matter is its most obvious manifestation. But we can also discern laws of nature, and these too seem to have a quality of givenness. Though their form depends heavily on concepts we have ourselves invented, they truly represent something of enduring and practical significance in our dealings with day to day phenomena. It is a fashionable conceit of extreme postmodernism to suppose that our perceptions of the world are so individual, and so culturally conditioned, that we are all the time creating our own reality. I see this as a form of nouvelle cuisine for the jaded mind. Nobody believes it when they get into a car, or want a sustaining meal, or step out of a second storey window. There are constants within our experience on which we have to rely as a basic condition of being alive at all, and there are uncomfortable reminders that reality has a character of its own when it is too blatantly disregarded. Environmental disasters are part of the price paid for underestimating the complex character of the givenness of the natural world. More controversially, I have put forward earlier in these pages the case for a kind of moral givenness, in the sense that there are some values so basic that our being human depends on them. The high values placed on life, knowledge and sociability are perhaps the clearest examples.

Alongside these given elements in everyone's experience, most people are also aware of the huge capacity for change, development, growth, exploration, creativity, both in specifically human matters and in the natural world itself. Some of this found expression in Romanticism, in its revolt against mechanism and rationalism. But it was Darwin who gave the concept of potentiality its modern form and significance. Evolution is not just a biological theory. It has become one of the key categories for understanding almost every aspect of our changing experience. For many conservative religious believers it has also been a main cause of the alarm and counter-reactions described earlier in this chapter. It is said that 47 per cent of all US citizens and a quarter of all their college graduates, reject even the basic scientific theory.3 Nor is this just an American phenomenon. A recent survey of first-year biology and medical students in Glasgow University revealed a rejection rate of around 10 percent.4 Whatever doubts some might have about the means by which evolution takes place, however, there is nothing specifically irreligious in the idea of creation as gradually revealing its potential. Indeed the progressive unfolding of potential is inherent in the biblical understanding of history. The relevant theological concepts are ‘hope’ and ‘promise’.

But this is to anticipate. For the moment I am concerned with both givenness and potentiality as belonging firmly within a scientific understanding of the material world. Their relationship Ban be expressed in the concept of matter as composed of a limited number of particles, forces, states, or whatever, which can interact and be combined in an almost limitless number of ways. These ultimate constituents are simply given. But there remain unresolved questions about the basis and true nature of this givenness, and it is difficult to see how there could ever be any final answer to them. Supposedly final answers to questions about what these ultimate constituents are, and where they came from, always in practice presuppose some prior reality, even if it is only the laws according to which such a prior reality can manifest itself. If, as some cosmologists now tell us, the universe began with quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, there are still questions to be asked about how what purports to be nothing, can have such strange properties as to generate a universe or, as some think, an infinity of universes. No matter how far successive layers of explanation may take us, there always seems to be an indissoluble residue of givenness.

The fact that we can puzzle over such conundrums raises similarly intractable problems about ourselves. How is it that we can know these things? And if the cosmologists and physicists really are disclosing to us the ultimate nature of reality, how can knowledge about this world of particles and forces ever be adequate to account for our subjective experience which, like the particles themselves or their precursors, shares the quality of simple givenness. Yet it is out of this rich mix of different kinds of knowledge that the whole world as we know it, in all its incredible complexity, and with huge potential still untapped, can in theory be constructed.

It would be tempting at this point to conclude that the intractability of these problems is evidence that science needs to be supplemented by religion. The ultimate basis of givenness must transcend the world of material phenomena. But this is not a step which scientists can validly take—as scientists. Specifically theological explanations, it is claimed, must be rigorously excluded from the scientific agenda on the grounds that they have no explanatory value. There is no way in which they could be tested, and in the eyes of the majority of scientists they have the malign effect of stopping further scientific investigation. If God is the answer to a scientific question, there is no more which can be said, because God is by definition the point at which all explanation ends. There is thus a strong motive for treating the scientific world of givenness and potentiality as self-sufficient, despite the unanswered questions about its ultimate basis.

From a theological perspective, too, it is wise to be cautious about any attempt to use theology to supplement science. A Gifford lecturer cannot but be aware of the long history of failed attempts to prove the existence of God from some scientific starting point.5 The inherent problem in all such attempts at proof is how an argument which begins from the study of the natural world, can rise above its source to demonstrate by reason what must lie beyond both reason and nature. Unless God is in some way already known, perhaps through a sense of wonder, perhaps through personal experience within a religious tradition, perhaps as the answer to an intolerable absence of meaning, or perhaps simply in our puzzling about our own subjectivity, the act of recognition that this is God, or that is his handiwork, cannot be made. It is a common feature of the experience of religious conversion to describe it, not as finding God, but as being found by one whose presence has already made itself obscurely apparent.

A late comment by Wittgenstein echoes the experience of many believers:

A proof of God ought really to be something by means of which you can convince yourself of God's existence. But I think that believers who offered such proofs wanted to analyse and make a case for their’ belief with their intellect, although they themselves would never have arrived at belief by way of such proofs. ‘Convincing someone of God's existence’ is something you might do by means of a certain upbringing, shaping his life in such and such a way.

Life can educate you to ‘believing in God’. And experiences too are what do this but not visions, or other sense experiences, which show us the ‘existence of this being’, but e.g. sufferings of various sorts. And they do not show us God as a sense experience does an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts—life can force this concept on us. So perhaps it is similar to the concept ‘object’.6

It is instructive to compare the role given to formal proof in that statement, with the classic metaphysical proofs of the existence of God as set out by St Thomas Aquinas. They might seem to be worlds apart, and in their form they certainly are. But even in St Thomas there is an explicit recognition that metaphysical argument by itself cannot do the job, without some prior knowledge of the God towards whom the argument leads. As Paul Tillich once put it, ‘… the religious Ultimate is presupposed in every philosophical question, including the question of God. God is the presupposition of the question of God.’7 In line with this, each of St Thomas's proofs ends with the claim ‘and all call this being God’. The argument from causality, for instance, can do no more than point to a first cause, and thus to the dependence of all things on an ultimate originator. But this philosophical abstraction is a long way from the apprehension of God to which believers actually respond. In so far as the proofs worked at all, they drew attention to the implicit presence of God in certain general categories of human experience such as causality, contingency, valuation, and purpose. The argument that all these pointed beyond themselves to some transcendent reality was an admission that they were not self-explanatory. In fact the whole attempt to argue in this way amounted to an exposure of the limits of metaphysical reasoning, though that is not how the arguments were understood at the time. In our own day when, thanks among others to Wittgenstein himself, the limitations of metaphysical reasoning are more readily acknowledged, they can be seen as paving the way for what Karl Rahner described as ‘man's basic and original orientation towards absolute mystery, which constitutes his fundamental experience of God’.8 The arguments could thus give an insight into part of what is meant by the knowledge of God, without themselves constituting wholly rational proofs.

The difference between proving God's existence and recognising it is fundamental. A proof of God's existence would implicitly claim such a knowledge of God's necessary being as to put the author of the proof in a quasi-godlike role. This has not deterred some believers from making the claim, and telling the rest of us in great detail exactly what God is like. To recognise God, though, entails no such claim. Recognition is made up of glimpses here and there, flashes of insight, the making of connections, life itself and suffering, and the gradual refinement of interpreted experience, especially the long historical experience which has been revelatory to previous generations. Recognition has its reflective component. Close attention to, and meditation on, the sheer givennness of our own existence and that of the world, can be a source of wonder which is readily transformed into worship and thanksgiving. There is an affinity between attentive silence before some tremendous manifestation of nature or some great work of art, and the experience of contemplative prayer. The recognition of God also has social and moral components, in fact it entails a whole way of living as being open to the discernment that the basis and ground of all that is, has personal dealings with us. Discussion, argument, historical investigation, have their place in all these activities, but they cannot substitute for what the late Ian Ramsey used to describe as ‘the dropping of the penny’, ‘the dawning of the light’, the recognition that this perceived reality is what religion is essentially about.9 I am reminded of the Chinese proverb, ‘Does one light a torch to see the sun?’

To those looking for rational proof of God's existence, or for scientific explanations of how God's activity can be discerned in nature, such an emphasis on recognition might seem like a deliberate evasion of the hard questions. On the contrary, it is an identification of where the hard questions actually lie. There is no independent standpoint, no objective vantage-ground, from which the basis of all reality can be analysed and described. Nor can all our knowledge be sustained by proof. One of the fundamental insights of twentieth-century philosophy can be summed up in the aphorism, ‘We know more than we can prove,’ a statement which paradoxically is itself capable of logical proof.10 There is a knowledge which has to precede argument, Bust as there is a tacit and personal knowledge of language and other skills, which cannot be translated into some more fundamental form, capable of being communicated inter-subjectively. For a rather trivial example of how impossible such translation is, it is only necessary to read an expert trying to describe a wine, as in this actual example, ‘brooding with dense smoky richness, whole spice rack in palate… creamy viscous palate, finishes with opulent savouriness’. In the end there is no way of knowing what a wine really tastes like, except by tasting it.

It is the same lesson the Psalmist had well learned, who wrote, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’11 Words fail us, especially as we try to lay hold on those insights and intimations which make up the experience of God. As Rowan Williams has recently put it, ‘It is the theologian's duty to make it difficult for people to speak of God. Genuinely “simple faith” knows this, of course.’12

Apart from its theological inevitability, the emphasis on recognition has the further merit of starting with ordinary experience, moral perception, the search for meaning, the encounter with beauty and pain, the awareness of order and chaos, the sense of wonder and shame. These are all matters capable of rational discussion, and are open to illumination and explanation by the various sciences. But they also provide a way into the exploration of a possible spiritual dimension or environment, without foreclosing the question whether such human experience can be truly revealing of God. This starting point in human awareness is in stark contrast to methodologies based on a naturalistic world view from which God is by definition excluded.

Repeatedly throughout this book I have drawn attention to the extent to which our perceptions of nature are culturally conditioned. In the light of this a critic might justly claim that the arguments and insights I have been expressing merely reflect the fact that I am the product of the culture in which I was raised. Indeed my earlier quotation from Wittgenstein gave the game away, in his comment that ‘convincing someone of God's existence’ might have to entail ‘a certain upbringing’. Maybe so. But this is no less true of the natural sciences, whose culture demands a deliberate bracketing out of matters which are seen as belonging within the realm of ethics or aesthetics or personal belief. And rightly so, up to a point, if the natural sciences are to maintain their own integrity. The point at which it ceases to be right is when a scientific world view dismisses, or denigrates, or tries to explain away, aspects of human nature and human experience which have not first been taken seriously in their own terms. The sciences, when they are true to themselves, are not enemies of religion. What is, is scientific imperialism, ‘scientism’. Just as neglect of the element of givenness in the natural environment can result in disastrous episodes when nature appears to take its revenge, so scientific projects which are driven ahead in disregard of more subjective human considerations, social, ethical and spiritual, can generate a widespread public backlash, based on feelings and insights which have been arbitrarily ignored or disdained. There are already signs of a sad loss of public trust in some forms of science which, while aimed at doing good, create increasing fear and revulsion. It is not just the confusions over BSE, or the violent reactions to GM crops, but the popular worries about what may lie in the future—perhaps ever more dehumanising reproductive techniques, or the limitless horizons for treating human life as manipulable at will, with new threats to distinctive human values.

To perceive the world as a gift of God should in no way inhibit the proper use of scientific knowledge. God is to be understood as the source of nature's potential for change, as well as the source of its fundamental being. The recognition of God as the ultimate giver does, however, make a difference. It entails an acknowledgement of our own creatureliness and responsibility towards what is not ultimately ours. It gives grounds for a basic trust in nature as being hospitable to our needs, to be respected rather than conquered. It affirms our own identity as not needing to prove ourselves over against nature through, for example, over-anxiousness about distinguishing ourselves from other animals, or the self-aggrandisement which would treat all other living things as entirely at our disposal, both of which, sadly, were characteristic attitudes within quite recent times. Neither of them should have any place within a belief in nature as God's creation. Nor, despite the modern growth of so-called earth religions, was it ever necessary to see the world of nature as some kind of rival to God. In Christian belief he is the one who holds it in being, and takes pleasure, not displeasure, in our affection for it, nor does he need it in order to be God. It is the pure gift of love, and we are free to love it because he does, and to develop its potentiality because he has shown his own commitment to time and change by entering into it.13

But though God may be recognised as the reality in which nature is grounded, and the source of its potential, he is not the immediate cause of every event. In letting the world be itself, he allows it its own freedom, just as he allows us to be ourselves. This is the meaning of love. To believers in Christ, the self-emptying of God in the Incarnation, his entry into time and change, was not just a temporary episode, but a revelation of how, from the beginning, God has related to his creation. God, as it were, conforms to the self-limitations he has imposed upon himself, in enabling what he has made itself to become creative.14 A created universe, lacking this element of contingency, would be nothing more than the outworking of a preordained plan, thereby forfeiting all moral significance. It is the relationship between givenness and unconstrained potentiality, as a consequence of God's letting it be, which makes the world the fascinating, glorious, and tragic place it is.

We can see a similar pattern in our own experience of freedom. It is our privilege and responsibility as human beings to go through the long process of creating our own identity. But in creating that identity, we soon encounter the paradox that this is also a process of self-discovery. Our identity as persons is neither given us in advance, nor merely the product of our own actions and interactions with others. We discover that we become most truly and freely ourselves in growing relationship with the one who stands beyond all the competing human pressures on us, as the source of pure gift. To acknowledge the givenness of our nature as a gift of God's love is a basis for ultimate assurance that what we are, and what we may become, really matter. Learning to be a person by fulfilling our potentialities can take place in the confidence that we are already known, and held, and loved by one who does not seek to dominate us by his power, but acts out of sheer gratuitousness.

The Theological Ambivalence of Nature

Sheer loving gratuitousness, however, is not quite so apparent in the world of predators and parasites. Pious sentiments about the glories and beauties of nature cannot hide the cruel reality of many of its aspects. There is a tragic ambivalence in the natural world which poses sharp questions about whether Christians are deceiving themselves in calling it the gift of divine love.

Traditionally this ambivalence has been expressed and explained by describing nature as fallen. The difficulty with this concept of fallenness is that it locates perfection, not in the ultimate fulfilment of creation's potential, but in some golden age in the past, which there are strong reasons to believe never existed. The idea of a golden past may be psychologically real for those who enjoy an emotional after-glow from a happy and innocent childhood, but in a post-Freudian world we are made to look askance even at that. More importantly, a greater historical consciousness, and above all the Darwinian revolution, have changed our way of looking at the world. They have taught us to see nature as a process, not as a finished product. There are, to be sure, elements of human experience which still resonate powerfully with the biblical story of the Fall—the desire to be as gods, the guilt which stems from moral awareness, the sense of exclusion from God's presence, and the inability to know God apart from his own self-disclosure. But the gulf between the world as it is and what love might seem to require, could have an explanation closer to hand if God's mode of creation is through the process of evolution. In a process it is not the beginning but the end which reveals its true character, and if the end is a world made free to make itself, disorder and the suffering that goes with it may be part of the price to be paid.

When Darwin's theory was first propounded some Christians saw the point immediately, and were quick to welcome it as an explanation, both of the apparent wastefulness of creation, and of the otherwise puzzlingly huge variety and fecundity of living things. The theory restored a sense of the natural world as a vast interrelated whole, rather than as a plethora of individually created parts. The more species were discovered, the more absurd it became to imagine each one of them as having been separately designed and created by God. Even creationists these days acknowledge a certain amount of development within the major species. Darwin brought order to what had been growing chaos.

Other Christians, however, while ready to accept the science, have continued to be less sure about Darwinism's theological dividends. They have found it hard to accept the haphazardness of the whole process, the huge extent of the tragedy and waste, and the implication that the underlying law of the universe, far from being gratuitous love, is ruthless competition. Gruesome natural horrors may provide pointed lessons in what a fallen nature might be expected to look like, but how are they to be reconciled with the process of creation by a loving God? Even if we accept that vulnerability and suffering are somehow inherent in love itself, there remains a credibility gap.

The doubts and disagreements still persist, vehemently so as evidenced by the alarming growth of creationism. It is therefore important to be clear about the basis on which the assertion is made that creative love is the ultimate ground of the whole process. It is not an inference from the world of nature itself.

Pain, death, competition, and waste were features of the world long before Darwin demonstrated their function. While it is true that he made it easier to see them as necessary, rather than just as brute facts about a world gone wrong, the belief that they are not the final words about life on earth arose long before any such explanations were available. Significantly enough, it arose among a people renowned for their suffering. The Jews have been history's scapegoats. They have survived partly by remembering the past, the givenness, even the arbitrariness, of their call, but also by an unshakeable belief in the future. Their I greeting, ‘next year in Jerusalem’, kept hope alive through long years of exile. God is the God who makes promises, who calls his people into the future, who constantly offers new possibilities, who enables them to live, looking towards what will be, rather than being crushed by what is. It is a faith which in our time barely managed to survive the Holocaust but, strangely, in response to the Holocaust it is now finding a new reason for its own existence, as a warning never to forget the power of evil.

The pattern of promise, suffering, response, and re-creation is reinterpreted in Christianity, with the revolutionary additional insight that it is not only God's people, but God himself who shares the vulnerability of his creation. The whole story of God's ‘journey into a far country’ is a story of risk, defeat, dereliction, and new life, and it is this which constitutes his greatest gift to us. There is no escaping the horrors of the world, but history has demonstrated again and again that they can be faced, to the extent that God is seen also as the fount of possibility, of hope, and of renewal, the one who draws those who trust him towards an unknown future. I quote Rowan Williams again:

The ‘shape’ of Christian faith is the anchoring of our confidence beyond what we do or possess, in the reality of a God who freely gives to those needy enough to ask; a life lived ‘away’ from a centre in our own innate resourcefulness or meaningfulness, and so a life equipped for question and provisionality in respect of all our moral or spiritual achievement: a life of repentance in hope.16

A life shot through with provisionality, and lived ‘away’ from self-sufficiency through ‘repentance in hope’, necessarily carries with it the risk of loss. It goes against the grain of all those tendencies in human nature which place prime value on security and stability. The Israelites in their desert wanderings wanted to go back to Egypt, where at least they were reasonably safe and well fed, albeit as slaves. Churches can grow comfortable in a state of relative torpor, and quickly disassociate themselves from those who rock the boat. Prophets are without honour in their own country. Yet unless there are those who can unsettle us, shake up our ideas, make us think again, the likelihood is that we shall lose the driving force of faith, the constant reaching out towards a fuller grasp of reality. Danger is the spur to action. Unsettlement is the necessary condition for developing our potential. The first lecture I ever gave, as a young undergraduate, was an early anticipation of this theme. It was on the subject of sleep. I pursued the thesis that sleep is our natural state, and that it is waking which needs to be explained. It was not very good science, but it fitted the condition of my audience, and I think there was a spiritual truth lurking somewhere within it. The aspiration to become what we are not, to rise above our natural state, may need the stimulus of pain, or hunger, or fear, or competition, or just a vivid imagination, but it is the essence of being human, and without it we are couch potatoes.

Can this picture of painful awakening, repentance in hope, and God's promise of things to be, help us to see evolution, and hence nature itself, in a different and more favourable theological light? A theological interpretation of evolution can gain from Darwinism a deeper understanding of how constructive change takes place. It can hold out the hope that suffering is not without an ultimate purpose even though, outside the framework of Christian revelation, this purpose can only be guessed at from insights into human creativity. But there is a need for caution. Too much human suffering has been excused by those perpetrating it on the grounds that they are building a better world. Just as there are moral dangers in being too future-orientated, so there are theological dangers in trying to justify suffering too easily in terms of God's ultimate purposes. Even when this danger is recognised, though, there remains inescapably a kind of suffering, and a necessary ruthlessness, inherent in the process of creation. Teilhard de Chardin memorably described the struggle for life as a process of ‘groping’:

It means pervading everything so as to try everything, and trying everything so as to find everything. Surely in the last resort it is precisely to develop this procedure that nature has had recourse to profusion.17

Within such a process there has to be loss as well as gain, rejection as well as acceptance, death as well as life. What renders it morally bearable from a Christian perspective is the belief that God as Creator and Redeemer endures with us the tragic consequences of a creation which has been dignified by being given its own autonomy. In our own feeble efforts at creativity we can glimpse something of this in our sense of the integrity of the work we undertake, and the pain of all the recalcitrances and rebuffs and rejections involved in producing it. As every budding author knows, two of the most essential pieces of equipment are the waste paper basket and, nowadays, the delete key.

There are ways, then, perhaps only partial and provisional ways, of reconciling the tragic elements of life with belief in some larger providential purpose. What precisely ‘providential purpose’ might mean has been much disputed by theologians. On the view I have put forward earlier, that God is as self-limiting in relation to the whole of creation as he is self-emptying in the particular events of the Incarnation, we must expect a certain hiddenness. It would be wrong to look for the spectacular exercise of extraordinary divine powers. A self-emptying God could, however, gently guide those attentive and receptive to him towards the fulfilment of his ultimate purposes, and it is not hard to see how openness to God in prayer creates just such an opportunity. Prayer and providence, in fact, have always been closely linked in Christian thought. Belief in providence might also be a way of engaging with those new possibilities and larger horizons opened up by God as the fount of potentiality—a subject to which I shall be returning later in this chapter.

Meanwhile there is a further problem to consider, associated more closely with evolution itself. How is it possible to reconcile belief in providential purpose, and the idea of God as the fount of potentiality for the future, with the scientific orthodoxy that evolution is driven by chance, and is undirected in its outcome?

The reliance on chance is what makes possible de Chardin's vision of evolution as ‘trying everything’. The point is that there is no way of knowing in advance what ‘everything’ entails. The great merit of randomisation is that it is a means of generating hitherto unimagined possibilities by stepping outside strictly logical progression. For this to happen it has to rely on some process, like genetic shuffling, which is inherently unpredictable. A strictly logical progression from one form or idea to another can easily find itself stuck in a groove. A chance event or a random change may spell release. There is an illustration of this in our own mental processes. Simply letting one's mind wander can occasionally generate quite strikingly new thoughts. The trick is to spot them and let them grow, and to weed out what is obviously wrong or unproductive. This is the mental equivalent of natural selection. Randomisation, in other words, can become truly creative, truly serendipitous, when the contingencies it creates are subject to selection in an environment which can distinguish good from bad, well-adapted from ill-adapted. Such selection, as we have seen, necessarily entails loss, just as life entails death. The world is thus inevitably tragic, though not irredeemably so, because without such a process there can be no spontaneous creation. Far from being a theological problem, therefore, chance can be seen as a vital part of the means whereby God allows his creation itself to be creative. To revert to my previous terminology, chance and selection, working themselves out within an appropriate environment, equal evolution, and are a primary means by which the potential inherent in the givenness of things can be released. In this release of new potentialities, the most neglected and, as I now want to suggest, the most theologically significant of these three factors—chance, necessity, and the environment—is the environment.

A More Comprehensive Environment

In biological terms the role of environmental change as a stimulus to evolution is incontestable. Organisms evolve to fit particular ecological niches, and if the niche changes or disappears they have to adapt or die. One has only to think of the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the flowering of new forms of life in their wake, or the extraordinary ability of some bacteria to live in water at a temperature which would kill any other organism. There is also the fact that not all ecological niches are equal, but each imposes its own constraints on organisms and points them towards development in particular directions. Though in theory there are no limits on what might evolve, in practice the physical characteristics of the world make some developments much more likely than others. Giant animals, for instance, have special problems with the force of gravity, which is why they are mostly found in the sea. Two-legged giants would have to have limbs so cumbersome that they would only be able to waddle—like the larger dinosaurs reconstructed by the BBC.

The phenomenon known as ‘convergence’ is convincing evidence of these environmental constraints. Organisms with very different evolutionary origins can converge towards common shapes or forms in similar environments. Whales, for instance, look like fish because fish have the best shape for living in the sea, but biologically they are totally different. The most famous examples of such convergence are the strong similarities between some placental mammals and their marsupial counterparts, even though their evolutionary lines of descent must have separated from one another somewhere around the Jurassic period.18 Despite its basis in randomness, therefore, evolution is far from haphazard—a point of some theological interest when one considers how the creation of a universe with particular properties must have far-reaching consequences in terms of what eventually inhabits it. There is the further point that some organisms not only inhabit special ecological niches, they may also modify and adapt them to suit their own way of life. The possession of intelligence is of prime significance in this kind of evolutionary feedback between an organism and its environment, which is one reason for claiming that in one way or another intelligent organisms were bound to appear. For it is not only human beings who gain advantages by creating their own niches. Like somebody building a house, a bird building a well-concealed nest is doing more for the survival of its chicks than one which lays its eggs where any predator can see them. In short, the mutual adaptation between organisms and their environment is a crucial factor in what both eventually become.

But in this fanning out of life to fill all the available niches, where do we draw the line as to what counts as ‘environment’? I deliberately use this word, rather than ‘nature’, because I want to include the possibility that there may be environments which have developmental significance, but which do not fit into the ordinary definitions of nature, protean though we have seen these to be. ‘Environment’ is a conveniently empty word, despite its strong association nowadays with particular attitudes towards ecological issues. I use it here simply to mean that which environs, surrounds, and supports us, the total context in which our lives are lived. There is our social environment, for example, in addition to our physical environment. Social animals, including ourselves, develop new capacities by virtue of living together and discovering the value of co-operation. Culture as we now know it is the product of this relatively new kind of environment, created no doubt in the first instance out of the necessities for survival, but now enjoyed and valued for its own sake as representing a new level of human existence. May there not also be a spiritual environment, known to us through a dim awareness of what transcends thought and language, a hint of possibilities beyond mutual needs and desires, and a felt pressure to explore what lies beyond? If human beings can indeed recognise and respond to such promptings, this would have profound consequences for what those aware of such a spiritual environment know themselves to be, and seek to become. Its existence might also disclose another dimension in the evolutionary process, whereby the possibilities of receiving some guiding or inspiring or restraining influence from a transcendent reality are part of the total context within which creative development takes place.

This needs careful definition if it is not to seem mere fantasy. I have referred a number of times already to the human impulse to reach out beyond ourselves. Reach out into what? Imagination? That is certainly an important aspect of it, and was the focus of Romanticism's version of what I am attempting to describe. But it is not just imagination as commonly understood, because the whole thrust of such reaching out is that it is perceived to be an encounter with reality, the bringing to consciousness of hitherto unrecognised apprehensions, the discovery of a new depth of meaning, the experience of being drawn towards what is both awesome and fascinating, an uncomfortable awareness of responsibility, an invitation to wake up to our true potential, an acknowledgement of the sacred. There are endless ways of trying to put into words what, in practice, can only be known by experiencing it, but all descriptions include an element of searching within ourselves, as well as a demand from without. These are not marginal human experiences. There is abundant evidence, even in our secular society, that they are widespread, though sadly many of those who have them lack the cultural context in which to make sense of them.19 To discount such experiences, or turn our backs on them, is to ignore a large part of what makes us distinctively human. To be human is to ask questions, not least about the things which transcend us. To treat such questioning as a means of entry into a new environment which is open to exploration, is to begin to see the natural world as only one aspect of a much larger whole. When that remarkable saint Lady Julian of Norwich famously described the world as ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut’ held in the palm of her hand, in comparison with the sight of her Maker, she wrote as one whose essential life was lived within these larger horizons.20

That there is what might be called a ‘spiritual or transcendent environment’ was the theme of John Oman's great book The Natural and the Supernatural. His use of the word ‘supernatural’ is likely to give the wrong impression today, so debased has the word become by its association with the occult. He meant by it more or less what I have myself tried to express—an environment which impinges on us, with its own peculiar kind of reality, and carries its own assertion of value and significance. In his own words, it is ‘the world which manifests more than natural values, the world which has values which stir the sense of the holy and demand to be esteemed as sacred’.21 In a later passage on what he calls ‘the witness of right feeling’ to the supernatural, he writes:

None of the treatises on the sublime and beautiful have in them much to help us, because they are, mostly at least, determined by the rationalist view that everything must be justified by the understanding, whereas all our argument has been that it must be determined by the true nature of our whole environment, and that means by intuition and anticipations which go far beyond what we can set in the clear hard light of the understanding. It concerns primarily what we have suggested about perception, that it is like personal intercourse when speech is more than a set of symbols to be interpreted, something beyond the mere expression of the speaker and the sympathetic response of the hearer, when every word has in it something of the whole mind of the speaker and some direct sense of it in the hearer. It is a judgement of values, but it is what all judgement ought to be, essentially an insight.22

In short, just as communication is as much about relationships, as it is about words, so knowledge of the supernatural cannot be reduced to what can be rationally said about it. Just as we can know more than we can prove, so we can experience more than we can describe.

Philosophical fashions have changed, and Oman is almost forgotten. I quote him only as a reminder that the concept of a transcendental environment beyond our physical and cultural environments, has an intellectually respectable history. It is interesting to find it resurfacing in an off-the-cuff remark by a modern Darwinian philosopher in a speculation about what he calls ‘zones’, where he refers to those who ‘have wondered if there might not be another zone beyond culture, for something over and above thinking and intelligence’.23 The merit of the idea is that it allows a proper place for human spirituality, and does so within a context which is also scientifically credible. The suggestion being made is that reality itself is of such a kind as to be open-ended towards the transcendent. In more familiar theological terms, the world reveals its own createdness, its orientation towards, and its utimate dependence on what lies beyond it, by exposing the limits of our questioning.

Does it follow then that this wider environment is potentially open to other creatures besides human beings? If we take evolution seriously, the answer must surely be yes. True, self-conscious entry into it seems likely to be a distinctive human quality, and to be related to our sophisticated use of language and our degree of self-awareness. Many social animals, though, have rudimentary forms of culture into which their young have to be initiated—the higher primates being the obvious example. Whales also are much given to communication with one another, and there is recent evidence of their ability to learn from different cultures, in that one group appears to be able to pick up another group's songs.24 But only humans, it seems, have an awareness of the transcendent, and all that follows from it in terms of art, morality, and worship.

Consciousness itself, however, is surely not unique to us, and poses just as many philosophical problems if it is posited in some of the higher animals, as it does when we try to explain it in ourselves. The huge research effort now being devoted to its study will undoubtedly throw more and more light on the brain processes which correlate with it, and the degrees of consciousness to be expected in nervous systems with different degrees of complexity. But the gulf between such objective studies and subjective experience still seems unbridgeable. Perhaps the problem arises because, in the objective study of the natural world, true objectivity can only be attained by setting on one side precisely those aspects of our experience of it which, when developed, emerge as qualities of inwardness, purposefulness, and eventually as conscious thought. However if, as I have suggested earlier, the whole of reality is open-ended towards the transcendent, there is scope for understanding how an increasing degree of inwardness, subjectivity, and ultimately spirituality, might have emerged, as brains evolved which were capable of exploring, responding to, and producing mental representations of this dimension of the total environment. This is not panpsychism, the theory that everything in the universe has an inner or mental aspect. Minds are to be found only where there are nervous systems sufficiently complex to respond, not only to what is immediately present, but to what has been, or might be. Nor am I proposing a disguised form of dualism. There is one reality, but it is a created reality and is therefore capable of disclosing its creator, who is present within it, but hidden, and who as creator transcends it. I am tentatively proposing a theory of the environment, extended to include a spiritual dimension, which can be seen to follow from the belief that all existence is grounded in the reality of God, and thus in the right circumstances can reveal something of its own transcendent source and ground. All existing things can witness to this ground by the givenness of their existence, in that they are what they are by virtue of their relationship with God. Living things can witness, in varying degrees, to God's continuing creativeness, by the emergence of ever-increasing complexity in response to the openendedness of their environment. Human beings can witness by naming the transcendent, and responding to it as the source and ground of all value.

Against this background it is clear that what we now call nature, or the material world, is a brilliantly successful abstraction, made by deliberately leaving out of account all those dimensions of experience which might serve to reveal this ultimate relationship with its transcendent ground. For many purposes such neglect makes no difference. I have already made the point that the natural sciences only became possible when the ideal of impersonal abstracted knowledge was rigorously pursued. But when we try to understand ourselves and our place within nature, and the moral significance of the processes which brought us into being, or when we try to explain capacities like consciousness which do not fit into a materialistic straitjacket, the neglect of this extended concept of reality becomes serious. It seems folly to discount the only direct knowledge we possess, which is personal, subjective, and shaped by awareness of a mental and spiritual environment incapable of being reduced to something merely physical and external to us.

It is true that this direct experience of ourselves and our world is mediated through culture, and may find differing expression in different contexts. But despite cultural differences we can all recognise something of it in each other and recognise, too, that it points to a reality of supreme value and significance. This is the basis of our respect for other persons. To acknowledge someone as a person is to acknowledge this inwardness, the fact that they belong like us within this larger environment, no matter how deep the gulf may be between us in terms of religion, culture, race, or any other qualities. And it is because the whole of creation shares with us, in greater or lesser degree, this openendedness towards God, that it too deserves a proper respect and care.

Nature and Grace

I have been exploring the belief that God is both the source of the given character of existence, and the basis of its potentiality for adaptation and change. The theological concept which can hold them together is grace. This has already been hinted in references to the gratuitousness of creation, and to the loving and empowering presence of God which can draw out our potentialities in the continuing process of ‘repentance in hope’. The Christian gospel, as the New Testament makes very clear, is the gospel of God's grace, but there are good grounds for thinking that the concept is not unique to Christianity. The other great world faiths may not use the word in the technical sense that Christians use it, but the idea of God as the basis of reality, and the source of unmerited assistance towards the ultimate good, is found in many faiths, among them Judaism, Islam, and various forms of Hinduism. Grace is an important and specific feature of Sikhism. In concentrating on Christian theology in this final section I have no wish to deny the relevance of other faiths to these issues. I do so because I know Christianity from within, and because, for my present purpose in drawing together the different themes of this book, Christian theology can have recourse to a longstanding exploration of the relationship between grace and nature.

One of the more encouraging theological movements in our day has been the growing realisation that grace and nature are not two distinct and separate realities, but much more like two aspects of the same divine gift. When Augustine, in his controversy with Pelagius, wrote about grace that it ‘is concerned about the cure, not the constitution of natural functions’,25 he set in train a fateful separation between them. Grace, it was implied, is God's remedy for what has gone wrong, but does not belong to the constitution of nature itself. Even if nature had once been an expression of grace by virtue of its creation, it had lost this in the Fall, so much so that the word could now be used to describe the state of sin from which humanity needed to be delivered—‘the natural man’. Reinforcing this separation was Augustine's own definitive experience of conversion, which had highlighted for him the radical insufficiency of his own nature.26 But even he was not totally negative. Outside his controversy with Pelagius, his theology was actually a great deal more subtle than was suggested by this over-simple assignment of grace entirely to the supernatural infusion of the divine love—as that which alone makes true goodness possible. Nevertheless the effect of his words was to open the way for later generations to think of nature as if it were the opposite of grace. Even the famous formulation that ‘grace does not destroy nature, it perfects it’, could be read as underscoring the idea that nature is somehow subservient to humanity, through whom alone grace is mediated to it. Against such a background the natural world ceases to have any intrinsic value, apart from its providential usefulness to us. In the extreme form of separation between nature and grace, the human body itself could be seen as belonging to the sinful godless part of reality, in need of redemption from its materiality.

But it is at this point that the absurdity of such total separation becomes obvious. Our bodiliness is essential to what we are as human beings. If God's grace is not to be discerned also in the natural world, we ourselves are locked into a fatal dualism which devalues and downgrades a major part of our own human nature, and sets us in a graceless environment. The theologians of the Eastern Church never fell into this trap. They were much more ready to see creation itself as a work of grace, damaged but not totally defaced by the Fall. A modern evolutionary concept of the created world as unfinished, but dynamic and full of potential, would not have seemed foreign to the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory of Nyssa's philosophy, for instance, was vigorous in its defence of our human freedom to fulfil our potential, a freedom which according to Augustine had virtually been lost, in so far as, without grace, it was not possible to choose well.27 Compare that with Gregory in his Oration on Baptism, where he described ‘the river of grace’ flowing everywhere, fulfilling all created things, ‘unintelligent and intelligent’.28 Indeed the very existence of the sacraments, whereby natural objects become means of grace, is evidence that nature, far from being alienated from God, is capable of bearing the image of the divine and becoming the medium of communion with the divine.

It is to Karl Rahner in the mid-twentieth century that we owe the most radical rethinking on the whole subject, arising out of his definition of ‘created spirit’ as characterised by ‘its openness to infinite being’.29 My earlier description of a spiritual environment making its own contribution to evolutionary development, could have been reformulated in very similar theological language. Rahner draws from his definition the implication that actual human nature is

never ‘pure’ nature, but nature in a supernatural order, which man (even the unbeliever and the sinner) can never escape from… We can only fully understand man in his ‘undefinable’ essence if we see him as…

being already ordered towards, or in some measure attracted and infused by, grace;

this is his nature. His nature is such that its absolute fulfilment comes through grace, and so nature of itself must reckon with the meaningful possibility of remaining without absolute fulfilment.

In other words nature and grace are but two sides of a relationship with the God from whom both derive, and on whom both depend. That we are by nature capable of responding to God, and by grace called upon and enabled to do so, does not, of course, destroy our freedom to refuse. Nevertheless refusal is in a profound sense unnatural, in that it constitutes a denial of what being fully human ultimately entails.

If this is true of us as human beings, what are its implications for nature in its wider aspects? Does it make sense to think of nature, distinct from human beings, as ‘already ordered towards grace’? There are well—recognised dangers in pressing the analogy with human nature too far. Organic conceptions of nature have a long and chequered history. In Chapter 3 I referred critically to Baalism as one example. An organic interpretation of nature was, of course, fundamental to Aristotle. There are residues of organic thinking in the New Testament, in references to mysterious and untameable energies which can generate fear and subservience. These are the ‘cosmic powers… authorities and potentates of this dark age… superhuman forces of evil in the heavenly realms’,30 from which Christ has delivered us. It is a way of thinking which resurfaced, with new magical and religious overtones, during the Renaissance, as part of the reaction against the increasingly successful mechanical and mathematical models of the universe.31 It finds expression today in various forms of New Ageism as they attempt to tap into ‘natural powers’.

The gospel promise is that these potentially dark and dangerous energies have been overcome, and that no matter how threatening the powers of nature may seem, they are in the end dependent on, and subject to, the one gracious God. The growth of science has in its own way helped to fulfil this promise by progressively undermining the organic interpretation of nature, and by thus distancing the understanding of how things actually work from the potentially malign influence of spiritual powers. There remain, of course, legitimate fears about natural disasters in a world where the price of creative change, whether the product of evolution or of human contrivance, is a certain basic instability, an element of the unknown and the unpredictable. Yet in many aspects of life there has been a release from the more primitive fears, a mastery of natural forces, and successful measures to cope, at least to some degree, with the otherwise uncontrollable. All of these can on one level be celebrated as human achievements, but it is important to remember that they all at one time had to be grounded in the belief that it is dependable unity, rather than chaos, which lies at the heart of things. In Christian theology it is the world's createdness which is the guarantee of its dependability and regularity, and there are good reasons for thinking that it was this belief which provided the necessary context for the birth of modern science.32

Yet just as Israelite religion could not distance itself totally from an immanent organic view of nature, so in today's world, as I have briefly indicated, the belief that God not only transcends nature but is also in some sense present within it, refuses to disappear entirely.33 What I have called the ‘spiritual environment’ is one way of describing this divine immanence. Transcendence needs, as it were, to have a foothold in created reality, to be a vital dimension of it, if subjectivity is to be possible, and if creation is to give rise to beings like ourselves who can in some measure understand it. To see in nature the mind of God ordering all things with external mechanical inflexibility would be to concentrate solely on its givenness, and to ignore the sheer limitless potential of the whole enterprise which, from our perspective, appears as gratuitous empowerment from within. In short, it is not only human nature, but nature in its wholeness, which is ‘ordered towards grace’, a grace which naturally belongs to it.

We need to reckon, though, with the fact that human beings are a very small part of a very large universe. We do not know whether we are the only beings who can to some extent under stand it and perceive its spiritual dimension. To recognise that gratuitous empowerment need not be limited to us can profoundly change the way we perceive, and behave towards, the rest of the natural world. It would be very small-minded to suppose that the gracious love of God which can redeem and fulfil our own nature is irrelevant to nature at large, just as it would be to suppose that the wider environment in which we are called to live our lives, is significant only to us. That God communicates himself in love through the whole of existence, is one of the truths to which the Incarnation bears witness. Nature and grace, on this understanding, both belong within the same creative outpouring. It follows that the grace encountered in nature is not a series of occasional special benevolences towards us, but is the love which draws the whole creation towards its ultimate fulfilment in God himself. Thus to those who ask, why should we care about what happens to the world of nature, except for our own selfish ends? the answer is plain. Nature was not created for us alone. We may have gained unique powers, but other forms of existence also have their place within the purposes of God, a place which has often been shamefully dismissed. To perceive God's graciousness in nature is to see the world in a new light, and to bring to it a new degree of penitence and hopefulness.

It is to pause, and to ponder, and to re-order our values, as the poet R. S. Thomas once lamented his failure to do at the sight of the sun shining on a bright field.

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.34

  • 1.

    Alan Bennett, Telling Tales (BBC, 2000) p. 66.

  • 2.

    Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God. Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (HarperCollins, 2000) p. 369.

  • 3.

    Special Report on ‘Creationism’ in New Scientist, 22 April 2000, pp. 33–48.

  • 4.

    Journal of Biological Education (2000), 34(3) pp. 139–46.

  • 5.

    That misguided attempts to prove the existence of God from the study of nature can result in atheism, is the main theme of Michael J. Buckley's At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale University Press, 1987). See also Chapter 3 of my Varieties of Unbelief (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2000) and Austin Farrer, Faith and Speculation (A. & C. Black, 1967) especially Chapter 1.

  • 6.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Revised Edn, Blackwell, 1998) p. 97e.

  • 7.

    Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (Oxford University Press, 1959) p. 13.

  • 8.
    Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978) p. 52. The point is made more fully in Theological Investigations (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1979) Volume 16, p. 14:

    The act whereby personal existence is accepted in trust and hope is therefore, as long as it is not the victim of self-deception, a letting go of oneself into the incomprehensible mystery. Christianity is far from being a clarification of the world and existence; rather it contains the prohibition against treating any experience or insight, however illuminating it may be, as conclusive and intelligible in itself. Christians have less answers (at their disposal) than other mortals to hand out with a ‘now everything is clear’. A Christian cannot enter God as an obvious item in the balance sheet of life; he can only accept him as an incomprehensible mystery in silence and adoration, as the beginning and end of his hope and therefore as his unique, ultimate and all-embracing salvation.

  • 9.

    This was a constant theme in his writings. See for example Ian T. Ramsey, Religious Language. An Empirical Placing of Theological Phrases (SCM Press, 1957).

  • 10.

    This is a further consequence of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, referred to in Chapter 2, note 30. The idea of tacit knowledge is a major theme of Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958).

  • 11.

    Psalm 34:8.

  • 12.

    See, for example, the chapter on ‘Theological Integrity’ in Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2000).

  • 13.

    On Christian Theology, Chapter 5 ‘On Being Creatures’.

  • 14.

    Donald Mackinnon, Borderlands of Theology (Lutterworth, 1968) p. 79. See also Chapter 5 note 18, and Williams, op. cit., p. 161.

  • 15.

    This is a theme closely linked with ‘play’ as discussed in Chapter 4 of this book. As in that chapter, I am indebted to Rowan Williams, Lost Icons (T & T Clark, 2000). John Habgood, Being a Person (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998) Chapter 10 approaches the same conclusion from a different angle.

  • 16.

    Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology, op. cit. p. 83.

  • 17.

    Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Collins, 1959) p. no. It is a pity he went on to spoil a good metaphor by describing groping as directed chance. That misses the point. The essence of groping is that it is blind, but there needs to be some way of knowing when it has found something useful.

  • 18.

    There is a simple, non-technical exploration of all these themes in Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press, 2000). For a discussion of direction in evolution see pp. 84–93.

  • 19.

    David Hay, Exploring Inner Space. Is God still possible in the twentieth century? (Mowbray, 1987) and Religious Experience Today. Studying the Facts (Mowbray, 1990). Both books have interesting things to say about the tendency of many people who undergo religious experience to discount it and keep it to themselves, because they have no adequate symbolism in which to express it.

  • 20.

    Revelations of Divine Love, 1373. Chapter 5.

  • 21.

    John Oman, The Natural and the Supernatural (Cambridge University Press, 1931) p. 71.

  • 22.

    The Natural and the Supernatural, p. 210.

  • 23.

    Ruse, op. cit. p. 149. The quotation is all the more interesting in that Ruse does not himself appear to profess any religious belief.

  • 24.

    New Scientist, 24 March 2001, pp. 29–30.

  • 25.

    James A. Carpenter, Nature and Grace. Towards an Integral Perspective (Crossroad, 1988) p. 1.

  • 26.

    John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology. A Study of Roman Catholic Tradition (Clarendon Press, 1987) p. 84.

  • 27.

    Anthony Meredith, Gregory of Nyssa (Routledge, 1999) p. 24.

  • 28.

    Carpenter, op. cit. p. 30.

  • 29.

    Karl Rahner, Nature and Grace (Sheed and Ward, 1963). This and the following quotations are on pp. 36, 35 and 41.

  • 30.

    Ephesians 6:12.

  • 31.

    Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation (Scottish Academic Press, 1986) p. 262.

  • 32.

    The point is disputed, but has been vigorously defended by Jaki, op. cit. Chapter 12.

  • 33.

    James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, referred to in Chapter 5 note 12, can be interpreted as a move in this direction.

  • 34.

    R. S. Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’, from Later Poems 1972–1982 (Macmillan, 1983).

From the book: