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Natural Religion and Christian Theology

1950 to 1952
University of Edinburgh

In his introduction, Raven relates that if nature is mere massa perditionis as Augustine proclaims, so corrupt as to be the antithesis of grace, then ‘natural religion’, if not a heresy, is a contradiction in terms. Such a view of nature has promoted a dualism in Christian theology in which the natural and supernatural, the secular and the sacred, are strictly divided. In his two series of lectures, Raven attempts to bring a synthesis of nature and religion so that the term ‘natural religion’ conforms closer to Lord Gifford’s vision. In the first series, Raven focuses on giving an account of the biblical and historical interpretations of nature in Christendom. In chapter 2, he examines the biblical attitude towards nature, and concludes that the same duality of terror and fascination, ecstasy and abasement, prevails in both the New and Old Testaments. Moving from the Bible to history, in chapter 3, Raven states that the debasement of nature in the early Church resulted in the antithesis between God as immortal, changeless, impassable, and man as mortal, transient, suffering, rendering the unity of God and man in Christ irreconcilable entities, and fuelling controversies that tore the early Church asunder. A view of nature as steadily degenerating had also replaced the universalism and the belief in progress advocated by the Greek apologists. From the early Church, Raven moves on to the Middle Ages in chapter 4, and discusses the efforts of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas to Christianize Aristotle’s position by insisting that both nature and revelation proceed from God. However, the traditional separation of the natural from the supernatural remained dominant, and less able followers of Aquinas asserted reason at the expense of revelation, reducing religion to superstition and banishing it to the realm of the unknowable. Moving into the ‘period of transition’ between the Middle Ages and the Newtonian age, Raven assesses in chapter 5 the importance of the contributions of the German fathers of botany to the rise of modern science: Otto Brunfels, Jerome Bock, Leonhart Fuchs, culminating with the works in marine, animal and plant life of Conrad Gesner of Zürich. An impressive list of the achievements of Gesner and his near contemporaries, including John Ray and William Turner of Britain, is detailed, and Raven asserts the claim that ‘the modern scientific movement began in the biological fields’.

In chapter 6, Raven reiterates the importance of the science of organic life in advancing the modern world. The Baconian ‘New Philosophy’, which embodied belief in an orderly cosmos, the reign of law, and a reliable frame of reference, had given rise to experimental science and a galaxy of genius in England like Ray, Boyle, Hooke, Glisson and Newton. However, the scientific movement cannot be told only in terms of astronomers and mathematicians, according to Raven, and he emphasises Cudworth’s significance as a thinker whose ‘continuous emphasis upon an organic interpretation of nature’ has helped to counter the belief that science has always and necessarily been mechanistic. In chapter 7, Raven traces the progression from the mechanical philosophy of the Newtonian age to the age of the machine in the Industrial Revolution. The Newtonian age of the seventeenth century was genuinely Christian and it saw mechanism and teleology as self-evident, and the presence and control of God as the ground and cause in the mechanical universe. While Newton was systematising the laws governing the physical universe, Robert Boyle started the ‘chemical revolution’ by breaking away from alchemy, a process furthered by Joseph Black and Joseph Priestley and culminating with Lavoisier during the eighteenth century. Chapter 8 discusses how insights from understanding chemical processes such as combustion were applied to the science of life towards the end of the eighteenth century, and the focus for the study of organic life shifted from nomenclature to the functioning and structure of the organism. The nature and working of the universe was gradually explained without any reference to a Creator or to the supernatural, and a scientific Weltanschauung appropriate to the industrial age was fashioned and corroborated.

Chapter 9, ‘Darwin and the Century of Conflict’, focuses on the conflict between science and religion that broke out in the fields of geology and biology in the nineteenth century. Raven, however, highlights the elements in the previous centuries that could have equally precipitated a conflict. Raven emphasises that the dualism inherent in our conception of God and nature is the root cause of the conflict.

The final chapter discusses the situation in the twentieth century. The determinacy in Newtonian physics is challenged by Einstein’s theory of relativity, by Max Planck and Niel Bohrs with quantum mechanics and by Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, which together establish that indeterminacy in the physical universe, though slight in its range, is universal in its scope. The mechanised biological determinacy inherent in the new science of genetics, introduced by William Bateson in 1901 when he formulated the Mendelian law based on the Abbot Gregor Mendel’s work on sweet peas, is also challenged by Udny Yule in his research into wheat. movements. On the religious front, changes include the breaking of the ‘conspiracy of silence’ by the two World Wars, a conspiracy based on the belief that the eternal verities of the Christian religion could not be affected by scientific researches (whatever their results). It was a conspiracy that had rendered the churches ineffectual in offering any adequate response in the face of issues like the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb. The task of forging a theology of nature in which the nature and the supernatural are not antithetical still faces us and is an urgent one, which Raven takes up in the second series of his Gifford Lectures.