What Exactly Is the “Natural World”? (And Why the Answer Matters)

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Editor's note: this article is the second part of a review of Jim Stump's new book, Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the IssuesRead the first part of the review here.


J.B. Stump, Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). 200 pages. $29.95.

What does it mean to be “natural”? At first glance, the answer to this question might seem obvious. The laptop I’m using, the air I’m breathing, and the trees in my front yard are all natural, we might say, because they are made of the same fundamental “building blocks” of electrons, molecules, and quarks. But consider more difficult examples: Is religion natural? Is the mind or soul natural? Things get complicated very quickly when we try to define what nature is, and how God relates to nature. As Jim Stump writes in his new book Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues, “nature is not an uninterpreted concept” (91). How we think about nature and “the natural” is not only informed by our (often unconscious) theological and philosophical assumptions, but is also vitally important for how we engage with the science and theology conversation.

Jim’s book is refreshingly nuanced in its discussions of what, exactly, it means to be natural in the first place. One common distinction is between methodological and metaphysical naturalism, where methodological naturalism is the basic scientific commitment to using only natural causes and beings in scientific explanation. Metaphysical (or ontological) naturalism, on the other hand, is a much stronger claim. It states that the only things that exist are natural entities. So, one could be a methodological naturalist (that is, assume that only natural causes are relevant to scientific inquiries) without being a metaphysical naturalist—this is why Christians can be good scientists. Christians generally reject metaphysical naturalism because of their beliefs in a supernatural God, in (perhaps) supernatural souls and in supernatural divine action in the natural world. As Jim writes, “For the Christian, there is no assumption that the tools of science give an exhaustive description of reality. Rather, if they hold to methodological naturalism, they are committed to the claim that science is necessarily limited in what it can discover about reality, because it does not deal with the supernatural” (71).

So far, so good: Christians can be methodological naturalists, but reject metaphysical naturalism because they believe in a supernatural God. This implies that science is necessarily limited, insofar as it cannot explain all of reality. Note, however, that we still haven’t defined “natural,” other than to say that it is definitely not the supernatural. But this is unhelpful—if we are defining the natural by saying that it is not the supernatural, we very quickly start going in circles. Moreover, science has a long history of eventually providing naturalistic explanations for phenomena previously assumed to be wholly supernatural. Besides this, how do we know that there are no supernatural realities if we preemptively prohibit the supernatural as an explanation? Methodological naturalism, for example, might seem like a perfectly reasonable way to approach empirical phenomena, but what if those phenomena really do have a supernatural cause?  As Jim aptly notes, “the trouble with adopting methodological naturalism is that it seems we have to predetermine what counts as natural” (71). And if supernatural realities do exist and are active in the natural world, then a full account of the natural world would necessarily include an account of the supernatural. As Jim concludes (rightly, in my view): “The correct implication…is not that reality itself is completely describable by science. Rather, it is to assert that science provides only a limited view of reality” (78).

If we agree with Jim’s conclusion that science is limited in what it can tell us about reality (and possibly the natural world), how then should we understand nature—or, perhaps more accurately, nature in relationship to God? Jim points out that “the concept of nature is a social construction;” various thinkers and cultures throughout history have thought of nature in significantly different ways (90). For example, Aristotle considered nature to be only those things occurring without human intervention (so, movies and music are not natural). Post-Enlightenment thinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries redefined the concept of nature, such that “the natural” was that which was describable by mathematical regularities; this is very much the “clockwork” universe heralded by natural theologians of the time. The discovery of quantum realities in the 20th century transformed the idea of nature yet again, introducing chance and probability into the mix. Again—“nature is not an uninterpreted concept” (91).

The reality that nature is an interpreted concept, I suggest, justifies Christians seeking a robust theology of nature. In other words, once we have established that there is no neutral, objective understanding of “the natural,” we can confidently explore the various ways in which Christians might envision the relationship between God and the natural world—between God and creation. For example, this might invite us to question the assumption that the natural world is autonomous or self-sufficient apart from God’s presence. It is common for people (including Christians) to talk about the natural world as a self-contained machine of sorts, while thinking of God as a supernatural being outside that system who—perhaps—occasionally steps in to act. Or, we might think of our bodies as natural systems, but our minds and souls as uniquely spiritual in some way. But if we develop an explicitly Christian theology of nature that emphasizes God’s active presence and immanence in all creation at all times, there is no reason to partition off natural spheres of reality from the supernatural. We don’t need to be afraid of naturalistic explanations, because God is involved with all natural realities in the first place. Perhaps a full account of the natural world not only includes reference to God as Creator, but also includes an account of God’s presence in, and interaction with, the world as part of what makes it fully natural. As theologian Chris Knight suggests, it may be that what most “call naturalism is…in fact no more than subnaturalism. Only in the context of what has been revealed to us by God can the universe in which we live be fully understood” (Knight 2007, The God of Nature, 95). By recognizing that nature is an interpreted concept in any case, Christians have the opportunity to discover and develop a theology of nature that is far more robust than may have been imagined. As Jim writes, “seeing nature as God’s creation may be an interpretation, but if Christians are right, it is the correct interpretation of what nature is” (91).




Ritchie, Sarah Lane. "What Exactly Is the “Natural World”? (And Why the Answer Matters)"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 28 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 January 2019.


Ritchie, S. (2017, February 28). What Exactly Is the “Natural World”? (And Why the Answer Matters)
Retrieved January 18, 2019, from /blogs/guest/what-exactly-is-the-natural-world-and-why-the-answer-matters

References & Credits

Knight, Christopher C. 2007. The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science. (Theology and the Sciences). Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

About the Author

Sarah Lane Ritchie is Lecturer in Theology and Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh, where her doctoral work focused on the question of divine action in the human mind. A Michigander by birth, Sarah also holds a BA in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University, an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, and an MSc in Science and Religion from the University of Edinburgh. Her published work focuses on questions arising from the intersection of theology, philosophy, and the various brain-related sciences. Sarah’s research interests include divine action, philosophy of mind, naturalism, cognitive science of religion, and the psychology of belief formation.

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