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Lecture IX: A Plea for Theology to Be More Natural

In this lecture I am stepping into what is strictly a theological field. I want in fact to plead that theology should become more natural. I explained in the first lecture of my former series that I was neither trained as a theologian nor as a philosopher, but had accepted the lectureship as a scientist and naturalist; I then promised that I should not trespass very far into such philosophical fields without seeking guidance. My argument in this lecture will be developed around the views of different theologians and will to a large extent consist of quotations from their works; it may almost be regarded as a kind of anthology drawn from the writings of theological authorities.

Perhaps some may feel that as a Gifford Lecturer I should not be saying some of the things I am going to say; if so I would remind them again of the terms of Lord Gifford’s will in making the bequest. “The lecturers”, he said, “shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme,” and “they may freely discuss all questions about man’s conceptions of God and the Infinite, their origin, nature and truth.” Indeed, as a Gifford Lecturer, I feel it is my duty to defend the concept of Natural Theology against the attacks that have been made upon it from within certain camps which may claim a degree of orthodoxy.

Karl Barth opened his celebrated Gifford Lectures on The Knowledge of God and the Service of Man according to the teaching of the Reformation, which he delivered in Aberdeen in 1937 and 1938, with a challenge to Lord Gifford’s purpose. Since, according to the foundation, the lectures have to be about some aspect of Natural Theology he only accepted the invitation to give them on the understanding that he could use them to present the case for what he called Reformation Theology in open opposition to Natural Theology.

Let us see how he opens his first lecture. After a few preliminaries, reminding his audience of Lord Gifford’s intentions, he says:

I feel that more than one, though perhaps not all, of those who in the past have given these lectures must have had to rack their brains over these requirements of Lord Gifford’s, but I am sure that to none of my distinguished predecessors have they given so much trouble as to me.

Permit me to state at once quite frankly the reason for this. I certainly see—with astonishment—that such a science as Lord Gifford had in mind does exist, but I do not see how it is possible for it to exist. I am convinced that so far as it has existed, and still exists, it owes its existence to radical error. How then should I be in a position to further and to spread it? Further, the difficulty with which I am faced, so far as I understand the matter, does not lie merely in the personal opinions which I happen to possess. It lies in a circumstance much more important and compelling than any private opinion—namely, in my calling as a theologian of the Reformed Church …

He goes on to stress that the only way in which he can lecture on Natural Theology is to enter into vigorous controversy with it. In his synopsis he says he can:

… confer on “Natural Theology” (note the inverted commas!) the loyal and real service of reminding it of its partner in the conversation. If it wishes to achieve its end in the sense used by the testator it has at least to enter into controversy with this partner, in opposition to whom it must make itself known, prove itself and maintain itself as truth—if it is the truth!

I will now give another quotation from the middle of his course to show further his opposition to natural theology:

In accordance with what we have already heard [he says] what do we mean by knowing God? It has become clear that it is not a matter of observing, analysing, considering and judging an object, where the knower is permitted to consider himself disinterested, free and superior in his relation to his object. Knowledge of God, according to the teaching of the Reformation, consists, as we have seen, in the knowledge of the God who deals with man in this Revelation in Jesus Christ. Knowledge of God according to the teaching of the Reformation does not therefore permit the man who knows to withdraw himself from God, so to speak, and to maintain an independent and secure position over against God so that from this he may form thoughts about God, which are in varying degrees true, beautiful and good. This latter procedure is that of all natural theology. One can only choose between this and the procedure of Reformed theology, one cannot reconcile them.

Karl Barth’s theology is perhaps the extreme example of dogmatic theology in modern times. Since it is so opposed to Natural Theology and to all of Lord Gifford’s intentions I feel I need have no hesitation in taking up the challenge and replying to it on behalf of our great testator. There can be no doubt that the voice of Karl Barth has made a great impact in the theological world. Let me now quote the opening paragraph of a volume published as a tribute to him, Reformation Old and New (1948), edited by the Rev. Dr. F. W. Camfield:

That in Karl Barth a religious portent of arresting significance had appeared was perceived even in the English world, which has the reputation of being somewhat slow to recognize such things, at a comparatively early date. Certainly at first the disposition was to regard it as a quite ephemeral phenomenon looking no more than a symptom of that irrational revolt which, in the years following the War of 1914–18, swept over well-nigh the whole of European life both outwardly and inwardly. Civilization was a failure, Liberalism was bankrupt. Progress was an illusion. How could theology hope to escape from the universal shaking? … A tottering world could scarcely be without its angry prophets. Were they not therefore to be expected within the sphere of the Church? But the forces of equilibrium would soon assert themselves, and the wild cries of men in revolt would be lost in the winds of the passing storm.

As he goes on to show, however—and the other contributors to the volume confirm it in equally vivid terms—the dogmatics of Barth were in fact received with open arms by so many who had appeared to find the natural theology of the past a discredited philosophy. The opinions of biologists who could only see evolution as a materialistic process, and of psychologists who saw the Freudian super-ego as the full explanation of Deity, had shattered any hope they may once have had of a new natural theology being the basis of their belief. They still had religion in their hearts, and, as so often in matters of emotion, the heart is stronger than the head; they decided that since the free intellect appeared no longer to give reasonable support to the certainty they felt, they must seek a different basis for their faith. Karl Barth supplied this. He seemed to offer the only alternative to reason: a return to the Reformation concept of a dogmatic trust in the scriptures as truly the written word of God. “Who is God?” asks Barth, and goes on to reply:

Reformed teaching in principle does not answer this question by any free thought, i.e. as if the question had been raised and had to be answered by man himself. On the contrary, it answers it on the basis of God’s own revelation. That is, it answers it from the standpoint of man who has been told by God himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ, who God is.

Let us see how Karl Barth has swayed so many in the Church to turn against the more liberal ideas for which Lord Gifford stood. I will take just two examples from the many authors contributing to the volume that I have just mentioned.

The editor, the Rev. Dr. F. W. Camfield, writes:

The Christian Church can under no circumstances attribute to God the abstract and objective nature, which every synthetic statement that God “is”, in a word, every natural theology, would imply. It cannot, that is, think of God as the goal of man’s thought and perception, as a reality reached at the end of man’s own interpretation of the world of his experience. The God reached in that way is not God, but an idol. The whole existence of the Church is bound up with the analytic character of the statement that God “is”. That is to say, the Church’s existence is bound up with the postulate that one does not end with God but must begin with Him. No man therefore can say “God is” to himself. The Church cannot say it to itself. No simple statement about God, the God who really “is”, can be made except on the ground that God has spoken first, except on the ground of God’s own being as manifested and revealed in His works and ways. The Church speaks about God not through the exigencies of thought but through the imperative of command…

Man is a living, thinking, acting being, and to this living, thinking, acting being the Word of God is addressed. But since the Church really speaks to man about God, since to speak is its commission, the command laid upon it, it can in no sense debate with him about God. That is to say, it cannot treat God as, so to speak, half subject of address to man and half object of man’s investigations, but must speak of Him as wholly subject … Is not then the man to whom the Word of God is addressed called upon to abdicate as a thinker after all? By no means. Since “God is”, in the great analytic and not in the synthetic sense, man is legitimized and justified as thinker before God as he follows out to their conclusions, the implications of the Word of God given in revelation.

This is extreme fundamentalism—man is to base his philosophy and all his thoughts about his ultimate nature upon the scriptures alone.

Or here is what the Rev. T. F. Torrance says:

… Calvin called natural religion a “shadow religion” over against the manifestation of God, and Karl Barth, who has championed the Reformed rejection of natural theology today, has called it “the shadow-side” of the Revelation of God. Barth has been seriously misunderstood here, but, in his essential position, he is not different from Calvin. He warns us, for example, … that our rejection of natural theology must not be any kind of metaphysical denial; rather must it be grounded only upon the actual event of grace as setting it completely aside for faith. There is no room whatever for it in a Christian theology precisely because a Christian theology has to do with a new creation.

Let us now recall what Calvin himself said about natural theology, and I take the quotation from Karl Barth:

In order to know God, therefore, we must not frame a likeness of Him according to our own fancy, but we must betake ourselves to the Word, in which His lively image is exhibited to us. Satisfied with that communication, let us not attempt anything else of our own … How ridiculous is the blindness of men when they claim anything for themselves; for they gain by their boastings just as much as if some small creatures, such as locusts, would elevate themselves by leaping; but they must immediately fall back again upon the earth.

Karl Barth is certainly at one with Calvin in this, and for this reason his doctrines are sometimes spoken of as the Neo-Calvinism.

It has indeed come as a shock to many of us, with the more liberal outlook, to realize just how strong and far reaching has been his impact upon current theological thought.

Let me now quote the Bishop of Woolwich in his recent paperback—The New Reformation?:

I am not suggesting [he says] an abandonment of the Christian gospel nor a substitution for it of a pure humanism. Neither am I proposing simply to turn my back on a theology of revelation and replace it with a “natural theology” which begins with the pre-suppositions of human nature and hopes to arrive at Christianity from them. That would be to go back on all that my generation in theology has learnt. It is not for nothing that we have been to school with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr. Indeed, if there is a phrase which provides a bridge across into the theology I am concerned to advocate it is Karl Barth’s own recent title “the humanity of God”. There is nothing further from its spirit than an air of self-confident humanism. Its call is rather to go with Christ outside the camp, to be with him in his humiliation.

Why is natural theology now held in such contempt by so many theologians? A generation ago F. R. Tennant’s great two-volume Philosophical Theology, especially the second volume which deals particularly with natural theology, was, I understand, the standard reading on the philosophy of religion for most students of theology; today it stands, I am told, unread on the shelves of college libraries. That other great contribution to a more philosophical theology of the same period, William Temple’s Gifford Lectures of 1932–33; Nature, Man and God, has had, I believe, a no better fate. The very first essay in the recent Cambridge book Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding edited by Dr. A. R. Vidler, concerns the present position of natural theology, and is by the Rev. H. E. Root, University Lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge. In his opening paragraph he says: “Most people who think about these things at all agree that natural theology is in a poor state. Vivian Smart has aptly called it ‘the sick man of Europe.’ Everyone has his own ideas about the reasons for this malaise. Not everyone agrees that it is unfortunate.” Towards the end of his essay he makes, I think, a very fair estimate of the situation:

… we can be in no doubt that what we have to face today is a divorce of natural theology from the mind and imagination of the most sensitive segment of our society. The disengagement of theology from imagination is all but complete… Theologians and ecclesiastics who realize the problem at all have a way of stating it which obscures half of its significance. They speak as though the loss were wholly on the side of the secular world and mind. They talk about the debility of much modern philosophy, the poverty of modern art and literature. They attribute these things to the fact that the modern mind is cut off from its roots in religion and faith. There is point in these observations. What the apologists and theologians less often notice is the debility and poverty of our modern theology, which results from its disengagement from the deepest sources of intellectual and artistic creativity. The loss is sustained on both sides. On the side of theology we see it less clearly. Our conception of natural theology, tied to obsolete models, allows us to forget that the inspiration for natural theology must reach men at the deepest levels of thought and imagination. The dilemma is this: theologians cannot redraw the picture until they regain contact with those ranges of thought, feeling and imagination which now live a life—even for the Christian believer—quite independent of theology.

Natural theology must begin with the natural world, the external world in which we live and the internal world which gives our life and experience its impetus and shape… And finally he says:

Academic theology has lived on its own fat. The supply of fat is running out … It will take decades or generations before we know whether natural theology still has enough life in it to seek new kinds of nourishment… To try new foods always means taking a chance. Some of those who try it may be poisoned. That is the risk. Natural theology can no longer survive on the food of its fathers; the supply is exhausted. It has several choices; no one quite knows the nutritional or toxic properties of any of them. There is only one way to find out.

In the end, any plea for the restoration of natural theology must be an appeal to boldness. We shall have to contemplate and absorb the disturbing visions of human nature which find expression in serious modern literature… Our first lesson will be to learn that our greatest ally is not the dying establishments, but the hungry and destitute world which is still alive enough to feel its own hunger. The starting point for natural theology is not argument but sharpened awareness. For the moment it is better for us that the arguments have fallen to pieces.

Here I am sure he puts his finger on the crucial point. We have argued and theorised too much without being fully aware of the facts. We must first build up our great natural history of religious experience from many different fields—from biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and psychical research and so on—before we reconstruct our natural theology. This lack of an adequate background of facts is the reason, I believe, for the decline in the prestige of the subject. Its principal exponents in this century have tried to make it a metaphysical system.

To illustrate this failure of what is usually called natural theology at the present time, let me refer again to what I believe are regarded by most theologians as the two most important works on the subject in the last half century: F. R. Tennant’s Philosophical Theology and William Temple’s Nature, Man and God. The approach of the two scholars is entirely different—so much so that Temple makes no reference at all in any one of his Gifford Lectures to Tennant’s work: he does, however, explain why he makes this omission in his Preface and it is very illuminating. I quote as follows:

One serious omission among authorities mentioned seems to call for explanation. I have nowhere referred to Dr. Tennant’s great book Philosophical Theology. But his method of approach is so different from mine that I thought it would be more misleading than illuminative to draw attention to the many points on which I am happy to find myself in agreement with his conclusions. The difference is fundamentally one of epistemology; but this difference leads to another affecting the use of religious experience as part of the data to be handled in the enquiry.

My purpose has not been to construct, stage by stage, a philosophical fabric where each conclusion becomes the basis for the next advance. I fully recognize the value of that method of thought, though I believe it to be more fruitful in exposition than in enquiry. For I am persuaded that the initial “certainties” of that method are bound to be abstractions, so that the cogency and clarity of the argument is purchased at the cost of detachment from actuality.

The arguments of Tennant are indeed built step by step upon speculative metaphysical premisses that could I believe never satisfy any mind that had a truly scientific outlook. His chapter entitled “The Empirical Approach to Theism: Cosmic Teleology” will be regarded as anything but empirical by a scientist. Yet he seems to think that he is basing his argument on actuality.

Natural Theology [he says] sets out from facts and inductions; its premisses are as firmly established and as universally acknowledged as any of the stable generalizations of science. Here there is at least common ground, as distinct from private certitude, from which argumentation may proceed. Coercive demonstration being confessedly unattainable, it is to be inquired what kind of justification for reasonable belief natural theology can afford, and the first step is to set forth the facts and generalizations which collectively constitute our data or premisses, (p. 79)

What do his “firmly established and universally acknowledged premisses” amount to? This is how he sets them out in regard to his Cosmic Teleology:

The main fields of fact in which adaptation is conspicuous, and which have severally afforded data for particular arguments of the teleological kind and of restricted scope, are those of the knowability or intelligibility of the world (or the adaptation of thought to things), the internal adaptedness of organic being, the fitness of the inorganic to minister to life, the aesthetic value of Nature, the world’s instrumentality in the realization of moral ends, and the progressiveness in the evolutionary process culminating in the emergence of man with his rational and moral status. A brief examination of these fields in turn will not only enable us to estimate the respective strengths of the more or less independent arguments derived from them severally, but also to appreciate the interconnexions within the world, and the comprehensive teleology which such interconnectedness suggests, (p. 81)

Taking them together he regards them as conclusive of a cosmic teleology; as he discusses each one in turn, however, we see how metaphysical the arguments may be and how unscientific they are in conception.

Let us now turn to Archbishop Temple’s Nature, Man and God and look for a moment again at the Preface in which he contrasts his own method of procedure with that of Tennant.

My own endeavour [he says] is rather to provide a coherent articulation of an experience which has found some measure of co-ordination through adherence to certain principles. The endeavour is exposed to perils of its own, because the experience may contain illusions, and the analysis can never be carried to an ideal limit; but as far as it is successful it has the advantage of contact with actuality at every stage. I do not claim that my method is the best, or only really sound, method of philosophical thought. But I claim that it is legitimate and that it has certain merits of its own.

Again we see that, although based upon quite different and I believe more acceptable foundations, this is essentially a philosophical rather than a scientific or truly empirical approach. The main burden of Temple’s book is to emphasize the need for a natural theology yet at the same time to show that such a theology cannot provide a substitute for actual religion. That indeed we have already stressed several times in our course—theology is not the same as religion, but a natural theology should, we said, embrace a systematic knowledge and theory of religion. Let us see how Temple ends his last lecture:

… Natural Theology, which is indispensable as a source of interpretation and as a purge of superstition even for those who have received a true revelation, yet if left to itself, ends in a hunger which it cannot satisfy, and yet of which it must perish if no satisfaction is forthcoming… Natural Theology ends in a hunger for that Divine Revelation which it began by excluding from its purview. Rightly sifting with relentless criticism every argument, it knows what manner of Voice that must be which shall promise relief to mankind; but the Voice is not its own, nor can it judge the message that is spoken. “Come unto me … and I will give you rest”; it is not Philosophy that can estimate the right of the Speaker to issue that invitation or to make that promise; that right can be proved or disproved only by the experiment of life.

In one sense I am in complete sympathy with Temple’s outlook—but in another I find him a bit unfair to the natural theology which I have in mind—and which I am sure Lord Gifford also had in his. We do not suppose that natural theology can supply us with the Divine Revelation itself—it should aim to be the science of man’s relations and reactions to that Revelation. Optics, the branch of physics studying light, does not give us the experience of light itself, but tells us a great deal about the reactions of both inanimate and animate things to such radiation. I should never suppose that natural theology could be itself the means of giving us religious experience—any more than I should suppose that the most dogmatic so-called orthodox theology could give any such experience. I would only say, however, that for the scientifically trained and more modern mind, a natural theology should be able to show that to believe in the existence of religious experience is reasonable, and in keeping with what else one knows about the natural world.

To say that “natural theology ends in a hunger for that Divine Revelation which it began by excluding” is to my mind to misconceive it as a science—no science in the true sense of the word hungers after anything. Such a statement also misconceives natural theology on another side; it should never exclude Divine Revelation, surely that is its main subject matter. Temple himself would seem to show this at the very beginning of his course; he says a true natural theology should not exclude consideration of records of religious experience contained in the holy books of any religion. It is true that he begins by contrasting the older views of natural religion and revealed religion; he does so, however, in his first lecture in this way:

The truth quite plainly is that the distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion or Theology is in no way directly concerned with the content of the beliefs examined, but solely with the principle determining the method of examination. So far as any doctrine is accepted on authority only, such acceptance lies beyond the frontier of Natural Theology, and all conclusions drawn from the belief so accepted must be excluded from its sphere. But the fact that a doctrine forms part of a dogmatic system, which is itself based on utterances regarded in some quarters as beyond all criticism, cannot exclude that doctrine from the purview of the Natural Theologian, provided that he considers it, or proposes it for acceptance, independently of such authority. (p. 7)

In passing let me just quote Archbishop Temple’s views on Karl Barth’s dogmatics:

The error of the Barthian school of theology—for that it contains error when judged by the canons of either natural reason or Christian revelation I cannot doubt—is, like every other heresy, an exaggeration of truth. To deny the reality of moral progress, or that moral progress is in increasing conformity to the Divine is wanton. To deny that revelation can, and in the long run must, on pain of becoming manifest as superstition, vindicate its claim by satisfying reason and conscience, is fanatical.

Before I leave Temple’s thesis I would like to point out one, to me, most interesting feature. In his Preface he writes:

At one time I thought of giving to these lectures a descriptive sub-title: A Study in Dialectical Realism. But that might suggest an ambition to inaugurate a philosophical tradition suitably so designated. I have no such desire. But I believe that the Dialectical Materialism of Marx, Engels and Lenin has so strong an appeal to the minds of many of our contemporaries, and has so strong a foundation in contemporary experience, that only a Dialectic more comprehensive in its range of apprehension and more thorough in its appreciation of the interplay of factors in the real world, can overthrow it or seriously modify it as a guide to action. I certainly have not supplied that more comprehensive and more thorough Dialectic; but I have sought to make a contribution towards it.

It was only quite recently, while reading in preparation for this lecture, that I came across Archbishop Temple’s view in regard to this and I was much excited by it because without realizing that he had published this in 1934—I wrote in my first lecture of the earlier series thus:

I know, of course, that dialectical materialism is very different from old fashioned so-called classical materialism, but it is nevertheless atheistic in outlook; I am not entirely without hope that in time, with the development of a natural theology in harmony with a scientific outlook, it may not come to drop the “materialism” in favour of a dialectical theism.

Temple shows that Dialectical Materialism is indeed nothing like as completely materialistic as its name would suggest. On his p. 487, after discussing the idea of the intimate interrelation of spirit and matter which I cannot go into here, he writes:

There is reason to think that this conception of the intimate unity of spirit and matter affords the chief hope of securing for the spiritual an effective control over matter throughout any period now worth considering. This may surprise those who recognize it as closely akin to the so-called Dialectical Materialism of Marx, Engels and Lenin. But a close examination of this Dialectical Materialism, strongly distinguished as it is by its upholders from Mechanistic Materialism, suggests that its own dialectic will destroy its character as materialist, except in so far as it is opposed to the idealistic view of matter as existing only “for mind”. Dialectical Materialism so called, asserts the temporal priority of matter, as we have been led to do; it regards mind as appearing within matter, as we have done; it asserts that mind, so appearing, acts by its own principles, which are not reducible to the categories of physics and chemistry; while mind is regarded as originating in, and out of, what is material, it is not itself regarded as identical with matter. What is postulated by this view is not an identity of mind and matter, but a unity of mind and matter; to present mind and matter as identical is condemned as Mechanistic Materialism. (pp. 487–8)

A little later he writes:

Our starting-point is therefore, as has been stated1, nearer to Materialism than to Idealism. It is indeed closely allied to that Dialectical Materialism which Marx and Lenin adopted as the philosophical basis of Communism. This Dialectical Materialism is avowedly drawn from Hegel by a conscious invasion of the logical Dialectic which was his chief contribution to philosophical method. But Marx and Lenin, though insisting on the contrast between Dialectical and Mechanistic Materialism, and on the distinct reality of mind and its processes, yet limit the activity of mind to reaction, according to those processes, to situations presented by the material order, so that mind is always secondary and dependent. We found on the contrary that the distinguishing feature of mind is its capacity for free ideas, and for directing its attention to those ideas apart from any material occasion for doing so.

Because of our insistence on this point our method might fitly be named Dialectical Realism. For starting with a realist view of the physical universe we were led to consideration of the fact that the world-process gives rise to minds, which themselves are capable of free ideas; and this in turn led us forward to a position which in its positive content is almost identical with such Idealism as that of Edward Caird or of Bernard Bosanquet, apart from the method of arriving at it. For after repudiating the priority of mind qua knowing subject as a precondition of the actuality of the objective world, we were led to re-affirm the priority of mind qua purposive as the only condition of the intelligibility of the same objective world.2 Thus Realism becomes a basis for a spiritual interpretation of the universe, and the Materialism of our empirical starting-point is balanced by the uncompromising Theism of our conclusion. (p. 498)

I am greatly in sympathy with Temple’s approach but I believe it suffers, and has not made the impact it might have done, just because it is more philosophical and metaphysical than scientific. If, as I have been arguing, we can make theology as much a science as is psychology—and it will certainly be most closely related to psychology—then I believe Dialectical Materialism might well become converted into a Dialectical Theism.

It is still widely held that the scientific method cannot be applied to the subject matter of natural theology. Let me now quote from the Rev. G. F. Woods, another Cambridge Lecturer in Divinity3, who also writes in that book of essays Soundings. He is discussing the idea of the transcendent:

It is now widely assumed that the transcendent is beyond the limits of our possible experience. It is supposed that we are imprisoned for life within the confines of human experience and that this experience can never include an experience of the transcendent … It is said that we can never understand the idea of the transcendent because it lies beyond the forms of thought… We can have no idea of it. And even if we could form an idea of the transcendent, we cannot prove that it exists because it lies outside the realm in which we can devise proofs and organize tests. We cannot know what it is and we cannot prove that it is. The idea is withering like a leaf in autumn and it will fall and decay when winter comes.

This outlook and temper have consequences which are discouraging for traditional Christian theology, both natural and revealed. Natural theology, understood as the knowledge of God which may be derived from a study of nature by the natural reason, loses its persuasiveness. It does so …

[now this is the point I want to draw attention to]

It does so [he says] because no way seems to be available of passing from the natural order to what may lie outside that order as its cause or ground. The various forms of explanation which are appropriate and adequate in explaining for example the working of a television set lose their ordinary meaning when they are used to describe how the natural world came into being. Revealed theology is also virtually precluded. In the absence of a confident Natural Theology, there is no reasonable belief in a God who may choose to reveal himself. There is no preparation of the mind to receive or expect a divine revelation …4

This failure to see how a “confident” natural theology could be logically possible is due to the failure to realize that there can be an application of the scientific method to other than material things. Physics and chemistry are not the whole of science; but I have discussed this already in the first lecture of the present series (p. 25)—we can apply the scientific method to analyse behaviour without assuming the unproven hypothesis of materialism. We have also seen in lecture v (p. 125) how Professor Sir Cyril Burt has applied this method in the statistical study of values to show that the good and the beautiful are not just individual subjective judgements but realities beyond the self. So after the collection of an enormous number of observations on the religious experiences of individuals we can begin to see whether or not the evidence points to the existence of some transcendental influence acting upon our lives—such evidence too must of course be correlated with the findings of psychologists. It will take a long time—but the quest I believe need not be regarded as a hopeless one, or even beyond our grasp. Natural theology has failed to make its appeal today because it has presented itself only as a philosophical or metaphysical system based upon hypotheses which have lost their validity in the face of the advance of science.

I have found myself spending most of this lecture on stressing that natural theology must become more truly scientific instead of concerning myself, as its title suggests, with the plea that more orthodox theology should become more natural. My apparent digression has, in fact, been to show that the tendency for so much of theology today to become more dogmatic than natural has been because our natural theology has been too weak; ecclesiastics seeing natural theology apparently withering to the point of death under the cold blast of positivist and humanist thought have clutched at the only support they seem to find: the faith of Karl Barth, and those like him, in the supposed infallibility of the written word. I must now concern myself in what little time remains, with the plea I set out to make.

Dogmatic theology may appear to those who have not the scientific outlook to be the only support now available for a religious faith that they “feel in their bones” to be true. But a religion supported by such dogmatism can no longer appeal to the scientifically-minded modern man. The majority of intellectuals today tend to regard the western world as having passed into the post-Christian era and no longer regard themselves technically as Christians. Professor Leuba’s questionnaire survey of the beliefs of eminent scholars in America in 1921 (omitting, of course, theologians and ministers of religion) gave the historians at the top of the list of those who believed in God, but even among them only 48 per cent of them believed; the biologists and psychologists came at the bottom of their list with 31 and 24 per cent belief respectively. If such a survey was taken again today I expect that the figures would be much lower. I also believe, however, that few would deny that the Christian environment has been essential for the development of all that Western civilization stands for, including intellectual freedom. There is a danger of losing this if we lose the Christian spirit; and the danger of losing that spirit is greater if current theology tends to be tied to an irrational dogmatism.

For me it is this spirit of Christianity, not any hypothetical dogma of theology, that matters. Evidence of the working of a Divine Power that we may call God, the reality of religious experience, the sense of the sacred, and a belief in the way of life as taught in the Gospel of Jesus—a belief men have died for—these, to my mind, are vital; for me they form a far more substantial foundation for a theology than the blind acceptance of supposed events in the past—events which cannot satisfy the accepted rules of evidence used in other fields of historical research. “Religion”, said Dean Inge, “is concerned with that which is and not with that which was.” Some of the most beautiful expressions of what I should call the true Christian religion come from an early work by the late H. W. Garrod, Fellow of Merton, who later became Oxford’s Professor of Poetry. The quotation I am about to give comes from one of his essays in his book (of 1906) The Religion of All Good Men:

There was a great deal of theorising about “the spirit” in the time of our Lord, as we may see from the writings of Philo Judaeus. In the old Hebrew prophets “the spirit” is the power of prophecy. But in Christ’s mouth it is the power both to do and to say, “I by the Spirit of God cast out devils”—“The Holy Spirit shall teach you what to say.” This Spirit is not born with a man, but it is the fruit of works. It is at once the result, and the cause, of holiness. Its function is twofold. On the one hand it is the source of strength, and on the other hand the source of comfort (or counsel). The possession of this spirit and the consequent sense of sonship with God is the central and fundamental thing in the religious life. That it was made thus central and fundamental with Christ, we cannot doubt when we see how the earliest Christianity puts the doctrine of the Trinity (into which it had corrupted it) in the forefront of its system. But the Trinitarianism of Christ is pure and simple and illuminating—God and the man, and the Spirit of God working in and with men, by deed and by word, towards a union of the divine and human in which “the son goeth to the Father”. Here at any rate in the teaching of Christ is something that all men can accept, something that none who have once felt the religious principle stirring in them (and no man, if we may believe Plato, can go through life without that experience) can reject. This contrast between the Trinitarianism of Christ and the Trinitarianism of Christianity may serve to illustrate the contrast at all points between the freedom of spirit which Christ achieved and the iron bondage in which so many of his disciples still live. (pp. 78–9)

Whilst I cannot follow Garrod in all of his theological ideas I find that statement of the essence of Christianity one which corresponds most closely to the picture I see emerging from the natural history of religious experience as far as it has gone. It is the vividness of this experience which occurs again and again down the ages and in example after example to be collected in our natural history; it is this which will form the basis of a more scientific natural theology: one which will challenge the more orthodox dogmas.

The orthodox may point to the almost miraculous growth and expansion of Christianity in its early days as an argument in support of retaining old beliefs. It is certain that that expansion was due to an almost superhuman enthusiasm—a brilliant burning of the Divine Flame—a flame kindled and fanned by the spiritual force of the founder, but looking back we should also recognize that its remarkable and fanatical spread was partly due to two illusions. If the accounts are true, an honest reading of them, I believe, must make us conclude that Jesus himself was mistaken in encouraging the idea that the end of the world was coming within the life-time of many of those then living. The widespread acceptance of this view and the subsequent legend of the physical resurrection of his body—with a promise of a similar resurrection to all believers—these were important elements in the driving forces of this amazing movement with its many martyrdoms. Few scholars with a liberal education can now possibly imagine the physical body of Christ still existing in the universe today. To the modern mind it is no longer a question as to whether or not the legend of the empty tomb can be considered historically true or not; it is just that the idea that the material body of Christ can still be existing as a true physiologically working body, somewhere in outer space, simply does not make sense with the revelations of science. If theology does not mean a physical resurrection, and I suspect that a great many churchmen do not really believe it, then it should say so. With the cosmology of two thousand years ago it seemed a reasonable story that, on Ascension Day, the physical body of Christ went up through the clouds to heaven; but it cannot be held by those with a liberal education today. I may be accused of trying to make fun of the Bible—I am not; but I am criticizing those twentieth-century theologians who would endanger the acceptance of the transcendent, inspired message of Jesus by retaining quite unacceptable legends from a pre-scientific age. Would the theologians who proclaim the sanctity of the written word of the gospels have us believe Matthew, 27, verse 52?

The tombs also were opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tomb, after the resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

How many modern men can believe that legend to be actual fact? A theology that clings to such doctrines must, I am afraid, be thought by the great majority of the scientifically-minded to be frankly a theology of nonsense. We should remember the wise words of St. Augustine written at the end of the fourth century—I quote the translation given by Professor Fairfield Osborn in his From the Greeks to Darwin:

It very often happens that there is some question as to the earth or the sky or other elements of this world … respecting which one who is not a Christian has knowledge derived from most certain reasoning or observation, and it is very disgraceful and mischievous and of all things to be carefully avoided, that a Christian speaking of such matters as being according to the Christian Scriptures, should be heard by an unbeliever talking such nonsense that the unbeliever perceiving him to be as wide from the mark as east from west can hardly restrain himself from laughing.

Regarding the supposed belief of Jesus that the end of the old order of the world was coming, we have the choice either of believing that he was mistaken in his views, or, as I think may be true, that the following reports of his words are faulty:

“Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass away until these things be accomplished.”

“Verily I say unto you, there be some here of them that stand by, which shall in no wise taste of death till they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

We know that the gospels as we have them were not written till at least a generation after Jesus taught, and that bearing the name of John much later; and that to these gospels, as our scholars assert, many later additions were made. Knowing the fallibility of man’s memory and the way that legends grow—knowing too of the disputes and discussions of the early Church—how can the modern mind accept a theology that still either clings to ideas of a past age or insists on the infallibility of the scriptures as the definite words of God?

The late Dean Lowe of Christ Church, not actually referring to the passages just quoted, but to the interpretation of the scriptures in general, had this to say:

Nor can I feel that there is much hope for us in the dialectical neo-Calvinism which exalts the Word of God into a slogan at the cost of completely obscuring what the Word of God is … No doubt Karl Barth’s interpretation of the Bible is thoroughly theological … But … the theology seems to me both obscure and defective. We must remind ourselves that a theological interpretation is no advantage if it means the arbitrary foisting of our own inadequate theology into the text. That is one of the things from which the historical critics were rightly trying to escape.5

Is there not a danger that modern western man be turned away from, and lose, the spirit which gave him his culture—that which Jesus revealed, preached and died for—and which has lived on in spite of all the encrustments added to it by mediaeval theology? With the development of scientific thought and the modern outlook, these old overlying encumbrances appear cruder and cruder; not only have they all but smothered the real message of the gospel, but in their obvious absurdity they tend to suggest that the whole of religion is nothing but a fantastic legend and illusion. Is there not a real danger that because of this we may lose our civilization? This is why I believe that the building of a scientifically conceived natural theology is both urgent and important.

We must realize that the New Testament is made up of many strands. This is very well brought out in a recent book entitled Athens or Jerusalem?, by the Rev. Dr. L. A. Garrard, former Principal of Manchester College, Oxford. He traces, with vivid examples, the clash between Judaistic and Hellenistic modes of thought which began in the very early days of the Christian church and have continued to the present day.

There have undoubtedly been times [he says] when the individual Christian, if not the Church, has been in danger of allowing Athens to supersede Jerusalem, of so letting the Greek element in the synthesis predominate, that the life and message of Jesus have almost ceased to make their impact… Today the danger in Christian circles lies far more in the direction of a too exclusive devotion to Jerusalem. The more the churches seek union with one another, the more inward turning they become. As a result they too often give the impression that they are content to speak the esoteric language of a coterie in which, as Alasdair Macintyre has put it, believer speaks only to believer and all human content is concealed. Although the revival associated with the name of Barth took its start, like Luther’s, from the study of Romans, many of its present day exponents are nearer in spirit to the opponents with whom Paul engaged in passionate combat in Galatians. For fundamentally Paul was a liberal, desirous of a church as comprehensive as possible.

Garrard pleads that we should take the best from both Athens and Jerusalem. We must, as he says, recognize that the New Testament is a mixture of different doctrines. As Dr. E. T. Scott says in his study The Varieties of New Testament Religion:

It is freely acknowledged by all modern scholars that various types of teaching are represented in the New Testament, but the idea still persists that they are closely related and attempts are constantly being made to fit them together into a single pattern. In the view of the present author this is a mistaken effort and cannot but lead to many false judgements… Freedom of thought belongs to its [Christianity’s] very substance, and has done so from the beginning …

At the end of his book Scott says:

In that first age the church was divided, as it is now, and the New Testament is in great measure a record of its divisions, and without them could never have come into being. It does not speak for an ideal, harmonious church, such as we dream of, but a church that was constantly divided against itself, like that which we know.

Our natural theology of the future must have freedom of thought and discussion—we must be at liberty to debate theological issues just as physicists can discuss different hypotheses as to the causes of gravity without suggesting that gravity itself does not exist, or discuss the relative merits of the wave or particulate theory of energy without denying the existence of light.

I ask myself whether the leading theologians of the past would have held their views if they had lived today and had had a liberal education?

Would Jesus himself be a Christian? If by the term Christian we mean what so many orthodox churchmen appear to mean, then I, for one, very much doubt it. I feel certain that he would not have preached to us of a God who would be appeased by the cruel sacrifice of a tortured body; the parable of the prodigal son surely belongs to quite a different religion.

What a paradox it is. To me Jesus speaks of reality—the most brilliant burning of the divine flame in all history. Yet I find so much in orthodox Christianity that repels me. I don’t want to hurt the feelings of those who think differently and I do not expect them to change their views, but I must state that I cannot accept either the hypothesis that the appalling death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the eyes of God for the sins of the world, or that God, in the shape of his son, tortured himself for our redemption. I can only confess that, in my heart of hearts, I find such religious ideas to be amongst the least attractive in the whole of anthropology. To me they belong to quite a different philosophy—different psychology—from that of the religion that Jesus taught. I am not claiming to be right, but I think there are a great many who share my view and who have turned from religion because of it. In the natural theology I envisage, the different hypotheses would be debated, as in any other field of science, without claiming any to be infallible dogmas.

  • 1.

    He refers to his p. 198 where he discusses the origin of mind with consciousness.

  • 2.

    See his lecture x.

  • 3.

    He is now Professor at King’s College, London.

  • 4.

    Soundings: pp 45–46

  • 5.

    The Interpretation of the Bible: the Edward Alleyn Lectures, 1943, Edited by C. W. Dugmore, p. 119.

From the book: