Alister McGrath
 on September 15, 2014

Big Picture or Big Gaps? Why Natural Theology is better than Intelligent Design

Natural theology should play a vital role in how we do apologetics and informs how we see the work of C.S. Lewis, Richard Dawkins, Goethe, G.K. Chesterton and more.


This essay is an adaptation of a lecture delivered on July 15, 2014 at the Evolution and Christian Faith Conference held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England. Much of the verbal style has been preserved throughout. The audio of McGrath’s talk can be found here [direct MP3 link].

I want to talk about this whole idea of a theology of nature, or “natural theology,” both as a way of doing apologetics but also of engaging with some issues in science and religion. So, I predictably am going to begin with a quote from C.S. Lewis. Many of you will recognize this; it’s a very well known quote. It comes from the end of his 1945 lecture, “Is Theology Poetry?” This is the final sentence in the lecture:

I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.

This quote articulates Lewis’s mature vision of the explanatory capaciousness of the Christian faith. Lewis is saying is that whatever the Christian faith may be, one of the things it is, is a grid; a framework; a lens that allows us to see things more clearly, to see into the distance far more than would otherwise be the case.

Now Lewis, of course, is a master of the visual image. The sort of image that this quote suggests is standing on top of a hill in the dark as the sun rises. You’re looking down and as the sun rises, the valley is illuminated; the mist burns off, and you gradually begin to see things that were always there, but you couldn’t see up to that point. In other words, the Christian faith gives you a way of looking at things that makes far more sense than its rivals (including, of course, atheism). Lewis, of course, is very alert to the fact that there are still what he calls “shadowlands.” That is to say, areas where we don’t see that clearly, where there’s always a degree of shrouding and always a degree of ambiguity. But Lewis’s point is that we see more clearly than would otherwise be the case, and the clarity with which we see most things gives us courage that those things which we do not see quite so clearly one day will become clearer.

What Lewis is encouraging us to do is to think in terms in a “discipleship of the mind.” We are very, very used to the idea of a “discipleship of the hands,” where we do things; a “discipleship of the heart,” where we try and love God better, but we also need to bring our minds to bear on thinking about the Christian faith and figuring out what its implications might be. You might think of our Lord’s summary of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is an area where perhaps some sections of the Christian church are not as good as they ought to be, if I might speak charitably. There’s a real sense in some quarters that, in a kind of way, thinking is a dangerous process for Christians. They should simply listen respectfully to their pastors and go do something else. I want to emphasize the importance of ordinary Christians, especially those who are active in the scientific field, thinking about their faith, and beginning to make the connections. The whole transformative vision that underlies the gospel is about the transformation of all our minds, our bodies, our souls; not just transformation in terms of our simple nature being redeemed but transformation in terms of putting on a fresh way of seeing things. I think of Paul in Romans 12, talking about the difference the gospel makes to life: “Don’t be conformed to this world [in other words, do not passively reflect what you see around you] but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s a marvelous vision for the Christian mind, not being content with simply buying into what the world tells but in fact saying that there is a better way of seeing the world.

When Jesus preaches the gospel, it’s all about repenting because the Kingdom of God is at hand. We very often translate that Greek verb metanoio as “repent” without actually thinking of its full meaning. The root of that word really is a mental flip; a radical change of mind—not simply repenting but undergoing a kind of mental transformation: “I used to see things this way, now I see them this way.” That is very important to the kind of mental framework that we bring towards natural sciences, and especially towards reflecting on the natural world that we see around me. The Christian faith allows us to stand back and see a big picture of reality. It is, in effect, offering us a vision, in the rich, full sense of that word; a way of looking at things; a way of beginning to take things in, in all their vastness and expansiveness, while at the same time realizing that we’ve got a way of looking at things which actually does justice to them. And I think that Lewis’s point, which I want to echo, is that Christian faith gives us a lens; a framework, that helps us to make sense of the whole of our life—our own experience, the physical world around us, and human culture. Christianity doesn’t just focus down on one little bit of nature and say, “that’s it, folks,” but instead gives us this rich and energizing vision of reality. And so I want to try and explore how this feeds into the topic that’s on our agenda for discussion.

I gave you C.S. Lewis, but let’s give you a female voice, Simone Weil. Weil became a Christian quite late in her (I have to say) relatively short life—she died in her early thirties. But she was excited by the new way of looking at life. I think this is one of her more perceptive quotes:

When I light an electric torch…I don’t judge its power by looking at the bulb, but by seeing how many objects it lights up…The value of a religious, or more generally, a spiritual way of life, is appreciated by the amount of illumination it throws upon the things of this world.

What she’s saying is that you’re not just looking at the Christian faith (although many of us do that and we like what we see) but we’re actually asking: If we look through it, what do we see? Let me just pause and make sure you’ve got that distinction in your mind: Looking at, and looking through. Looking at means, for example, here’s what Christianity is, here are some of its historical foundations, here are some of its leading themes, let’s do some theology by looking at the doctrine of the Trinity, Christology, etc. I’d like to encourage you to ask, “What way of seeing things does this make possible?” Which is to say, what sort of lens does the Christian faith offer that allows us to see the world in a different way? Simone Weil is just saying that Christianity lights things up.

That image of light is very rich indeed. You think of how many New Testament images there are for Christianity impacting people in such a way that their blindness is healed. A veil is removed; the scales fall from their eyes. It’s all about, to use Pauline language, the spirit of this age having captivated us and rendered us blind. We need to be liberated from the spirit of this age by the transforming work of grace, and part of that work of transformation is being enabled to see the world in the a new way. But let me then add a very important note: When I say “new way,” I don’t mean one we’ve fabricated; one we’ve dreamt up, I mean this is the way it really is. Christianity gives us this intellectual framework that allows us to see the world and ourselves as those things really are. Sometimes that’s wonderful and sometimes its profoundly uncomfortable, but the key point is that this is the way it is. That’s why I think it is helpful to think of faith as a lens.

I want you to imagine that you are on the oceanfront, and it’s a lovely day. You see something in the distance; on the horizon. It’s a little white dot on the blue ocean. You get your telescope out and you see a white splotch. You might be tempted to say, “Well, there’s something blurry and fuzzy there, I can’t make sense of it; it’s just amorphous.” You might say, “I haven’t focused this right. Let me just tweak it.” And then the dot comes into focus, and you can see the crew. The point that I want to make is that very often people say there’s no meaning in life because they don’t see meaning. Sometimes, it’s because lenses are unfocused.

Richard Dawkins is an example of someone who I think has that issue. This a quote from Dawkin’s book, River Out of Eden:

The universe has precisely the properties we would expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

And that’s clearly the way Dawkins sees things—I’ve talked to him, and that is the way he sees things. But is he seeing things rightly? If you look at the structure of this, he’s saying, in effect, that the universe looks the way we would expect it to if there is no purpose. Well, I would suggest this is a very superficial surface reading of a deep and complex reality. Going back to my analogy of the lens, what if he is simply looking at things in a way that is out of focus? He sees something that is blurred; that is fuzzy, there’s nothing there. What if there is a better way of looking at things? And in many ways, that’s the kind of point that I want to bring to our discussion, that there is a need for a way of looking at things.

Whether we like it or not, all of us look at the world through (very often) an unacknowledged lens. We’ve got a set of spectacles on already. The question therefore is, which set of spectacles gives us the clearest vision of what we are looking at? And that is important, because you will still find some wonderfully romantic, but I fear, historically uninformed people who say, “Well, you wear spectacles, but I don’t. I have perfect vision, I see things as they really are.” But the human condition is, simply, that we see things through theoretical spectacles—That’s it! The real issue is, which one is right? Which is the best one to use? And how do we go through this process of metanoia (if I could translate this in a very adventurous way, I would say, “changing theoretical spectacles”).

Here is where we come to natural theology, which I think is quite important for the whole science and religion dialogue. The phrase “natural theology” can mean at least five or six different things, but I think it is mainly saying that there is some kind of connection between the world that we see and experience around us, and a deeper, richer, transcendence which we believe lies beyond it, but in some way is sign-posted by the world that we see. Some people would say that natural theology is about proving God’s existence from nature, and I concede that that was indeed the way that this was understood particularly in England in the late 17th and early 18th century. When for historical reasons, we saw a gradual erosion of confidence in both the church as an institution and Scripture (partly for critical reasons and partly for hermeneutical reasons), some people began to wonder, “Is there anything else we can use as a basis for demonstrating that there is a god?” And natural theology emerged as a very basic apologetic tool, particularly in the early 18th century.

But there are other ways of looking at natural theology. You could also say that natural theology is about affirming the intellectual resonance between the Christian worldview and the natural world. If I could grossly simplify, it’s saying something like: “Suppose Christianity were right. Isn’t what we see around us more or less what we would expect if this is right?” One of the ways you might judge a worldview as you might judge a scientific theory is how well the theory correlates with the observation. In other words, when you line up the things that need to be explained, how well does the theory “map on” to what you are seeing around you?

My own approach is not to retreat into explanatory gaps. There are those who say (and perhaps I caricature or mis-say what they say), “Well, you know, science can’t explain that. But if there were a god, he could. Therefore, what science can’t explain—that is a good reason for believing in God.” And part of me wants to say, “Yes!” to that. But part of me also wants to say, well, this is not a very good idea, and leaves us bereft of the richness of a vision of God. It kind of implies that you believe in God because of the tiny little holes in somebody else’s explanation, which you think you can explain better in brackets—at least for the time being. For me, it’s not about saying, “Oh look! There’s a gap there, and that’s where God comes in!” No, no, no, it’s about the big pictureThat is what makes us think that the Christian faith makes sense of things.

A whole series of visual images might be helpful here. I’ve emphasized how Christian faith has this explanatory capaciousness. But I want also to bring in the whole idea of cohesiveness; the coherence of the Christian faith. I want you to imagine again that you are on top of a mountain (maybe in the Alps) and you’re looking down, and beneath you there’s a very rich scene. There are valleys, woods, villages, house, fields, sheep wandering around—a very rich panorama. What you might do is take snapshots of the village, or the woods, or the sky. All of those snapshots are part of the big picture. The point I want to make is that Christianity doesn’t just bring together the snapshots; it positions them. It shows where they all fit in the big picture. It’s not just a random assortment of pictures, so you say, “oh, look, they’re all there somewhere.” It is about giving you a network. That’s why when I am teaching theology I will very often stress how stupid it is to talk about theology in terms of individual disconnected doctrines like creation and redemption. All of these things are interconnected as a web; they all feed into each other and connect with each other as a panorama of doctrine that is the richer picture I am laying before you here.

I also think that whole theme of a sense of wonder is very, very important. Some of you have read the writings of the 18th century author and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I quite like him, but Goethe has one idea I don’t like at all. His basic idea is that you have this sense of wonder at nature. And that’s it; that’s the goal, and when you have that sense of wonder, nature’s done its job. I think Aristotle’s right: You have this sense of wonder in the presence of nature, and this sense of wonder is a gateway. It makes you want to ask further questions. It stimulates a process of engagement. But it does, I think, also make us ask questions like, “Are we saying nature proves God? Are we saying God proves nature? What is the direction or flow of the argument of this whole thing?”

I’m going to give you a few people who help us think about this. This is from a sermon that Anglican priest John Henry Newman preached back in 1850 [ed. note: a transcription error initially listed the year as 1815]:

I believe in design because I believe in God, not in God because I see design.

What he is saying is that you can’t observe design. You can observe certain things that you infer are designed, but design itself is not something you see. You see certain things and say, look, this suggests that this is designed. For instance, in the world of early hominids there’s this piece of rock we’ve discovered, and it’s slightly oddly shaped. Is its odd shape either because someone has made it into a tool, or is that the way it is naturally? It’s not that you observe design, it’s that you observe something that makes you think it could be designed, and then that leads to that. What Newman is saying is that we begin with God, and what we know of God resonates with what we see in the world, and that begins the spiral of hermeneutical interrogation by which you enhance both your understanding of God and your understanding of nature. Newman is saying the spiral begins with God, then moves to nature, then comes back to God.

But there’s another question I want to ask. It seems to me the rise of a new atheism (represented by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others), in which very often the natural sciences are used for the purposes of atheist apologetics, have been met on the Christian side by an increasing appeal to science and fundamental scientific methods in doing apologetics against the new atheism. I see in recent apologetic writings a shift towards a deductive way of doing apologetics. I concede that an awful lot of people prefer deductive apologetics—in other words, you begin from first principles, link together propositions A and B, and then your conclusion C follows by logical certitude. I happen to think that induction is much better. Induction means that observations A and B do not prove C, but if C were true, then it would make sense of A and B (especially where either or both of A and B are surprising). Lewis said the following in an unpublished manuscript of 1930: “I am an empirical theist. I arrived at God by induction.” Lewis is saying that the Christian faith gives us a map; a conceptual, imaginative map. And then that is compared to the real world of what we see in the world and what we experience within us. Lewis argues that if the Christian map were right, the territory of experience and observation would look like what we actually tend to see. Again, there is a resonance between what is observed and what is experienced.

One of the best exponents of this is 20th century British writer and thinker G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton has a lot of good things to say, but one of the most interesting is why he returned to the Christian faith from a period of doubt and skepticism in 1923. Here’s the answer that Chesterton gave to his own question: “Because [the Christian faith] gives an intelligible picture of the world.” He is developing a way of doing apologetics and also beginning to think about natural theology. Chesterton explains,

Numbers of us have returned to [the Christian faith]; and we have returned to it not because of this argument or that argument, but because the theory, when it’s adopted, works out everywhere, because the coat; when it’s tried on, fits in every crease. We put on the theory like a magic hat, and history becomes translucent like a house of glass.

The image is that of stepping inside a worldview, looking at the world and saying, “It fits!” It’s not A, therefore B, therefore C. It’s asking someone to step into this way of thinking, try seeing things this way, and see how much sense it makes of things. His point is that phenomena do not prove religion, but religion explains the phenomena. What he is saying is that we observe in the world does not prove there is a god. It suggests that, absolutely, but it doesn’t clinch things. But religion explains the phenomena such that if the Christian faith were true, that’s what you’d expect. When we have the basic Christian vision of reality inside our heads, a million things become transparent as if a lamp were lit behind them. In other words, things that were out-of-focus become in-focus. What was hitherto enigmatic and veiled in shadow begins to become clearer. You can see what it really is.

What I want to do now is move to the topic of the “god of the gaps.” It often says, “Science can’t explain this, but if God exists, this is what you would expect, therefore that shows [but not very clearly] that there is a god.” I think there are all kinds of problems with this. The most obvious one is that scientific advance squeezes gaps until they get smaller. One of the best critiques of this idea is a splendid book called Science and Christian Belief by Charles Coulson; a Methodist preacher and Oxford professor of theoretical chemistry. The God of the gaps, as he would say,

…Is a fatal step to take, for it is to assert that you can plant some sort of hedge in the country of the mind to mark the boundary where a transfer of authority takes place…it presupposes a dichotomy of existence that would only be tolerable if no scientist were ever a Christian or no Christian ever a scientist, but becomes intolerable when there is one single person owing both allegiances…[Thus] it invites “science” to discover new things and thence gradually take possession of that which “religion” once held… Either God is in the whole of nature, with no gaps, or he’s not there at all.

Christians do not worship gaps. What elicits our excitement; our sense of wonder is the big picture.

Let’s come back to Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, of course, holds that religious belief is irrational; it’s about running away from the evidence. I want to make two brief responses to this point. First, faith is just part of life. It’s not some weird thing that religious people do and nobody else does. It’s simply about realizing that very often when decisions need to be made, the evidence is not sufficiently compelling to force us to this rather than that conclusion. If you want examples, you might think about this ongoing debate about whether there is a universe or a multiverse. Arguably there is evidence of both sides of the argument, but apparently a decision has to be made. However, you cannot make it, because you will always have to say, “I think it’s this, but there are some arguments on the other side too.” It’s a matter of faith. Secondly (and I think this is a much more important point for a natural theology), the truths that you can prove are shallow truths. They’re not existentially satisfying. You can prove that the chemical formula for water is H2O; you can prove that two and two make four, but that does not give you a basis for understanding yourself or living out life. It does not help you figure out what is good and how I might therefore lead the good life. The truths by which we live lie beyond proof. If you think of this transition from modern philosophy to post-modern philosophy, modernism is saying there are truths so luminous and arguments so persuasive that you are compelled by their force to accept their conclusions. Postmodernity is not really a counsel of despair; it’s just saying, “That doesn’t really work.” It’s much more about fiduciary judgments. I may have good reason for thinking this is “right,” but I know I can’t actually prove it.

In his book, Unweaving The Rainbow, Dawkins makes the point that religion impoverishes our view of the universe. That is to say, if you believe in God, then you see the world in such a way that diminishes any sense of wonder or any appreciation of beauty. Dawkins puts this in his own way:

The universe is genuinely mysterious, grand, beautiful, awe-inspiring [I agree with that, by the way]. The kinds of views of the universe which religious people have traditionally embraced have been puny, pathetic and measly.

Let me translate at least two of those words for American readers. “Puny” is kind of schoolboy slang for trivial, lightweight, not punching its full weight. “Measly” just means disease-ridden or rotten. What I want to do is focus in on this perception that if you believe in God, you have a diminished appreciation for the beauty of nature. Why is that important? Well, if you think of Plato’s triad – truth, beauty, and goodness – all of these are elements of a viable natural theology. Beauty really is quite important. In response to Dawkins, I want to say that when you look at a beautiful sight in nature, before you’ve had time to process what it is you’re looking at, something has to happen by which there is a response; a kind of “wow!” It doesn’t really matter whether you believe in God or not; it happens irrespective of that theoretical framework.

But here is the final point: Christianity sees the created order as an imperfect sign (but a real sign) of something still greater. In other words, you exult in the beauty of nature, not because nature is beautiful but because it points to the still greater beauty of God. When Christians look at nature properly there’s no motivation to say, “let’s not think about this,” at all. Quite the reverse – the processes of understanding and appreciation are good in themselves, but also enrich and expand our vision of God. That’s a leading theme of Christian theology: Good theology is about expanding our understanding of God and creating a sense of delicious desperation at the fact you cannot take it all in. It makes you want to know more. Christian faith gives a rich and satisfying view of nature but also moves on to the theme of meaning. Meaning is not an empirical notion, it’s something you read off or read into nature. When Dawkins says he observes no meaning, I agree completely, but that is not the right question. The question of, “Is there meaning there?” is still left to discern.

How does all of this affect the way we look at nature? Imagine looking at a beautiful night sky. What does it say to us? How do we interpret that? If you put on one set of theoretical spectacles, what does it say? If you put on a Christian set of theoretical spectacles, what does it say? I remember as a young man and an atheist looking at the night and thinking that galaxy cluster M31 was so far away that the light would take 2 million years to get to Earth (by which time I’d be dead). So for me, the night sky was simply a sign of the brevity of human life. Nature created a sense of sadness, wistfulness, and despair. This theme of meaninglessness in nature is all over the place. In her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, scientist Ursula Goodenough reflects on nature, and thinking about how this universe is going to come to an end:

The night sky was ruined; I could never look at it again! I wept into my pillow the long, slow tears of adolescent despair… I wallowed in its poignant nihilism. A bleak emptiness when I thought about what was really going on in the cosmos or deep in the atom. So I did my best not to think about such things.

In contrast, the Christian way is about being reassured of the love of God. We are not, so to speak, aliens in this land. The God who made us and made it is there for us and journeys with us as we travel. Thus, Christianity gives a framework that encourages us to think about such things. This framework exults in the beauty of creation, because it reads nature and says that the guy who made these things made me, and therefore I matter.

About the author

Alister McGrath Headshot

Alister McGrath

Alister E. McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford. In addition to his work at Oxford, McGrath is Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and serves as associate priest in a group of Church of England village parishes in the Cotswolds. His personal website can be accessed here.

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