A health warning on theology of nature

Theology can seriously affect your science

One of the more stupid, though understandable, rhetorical questions that skeptics ask about design in nature in particular, but also about divine action in nature in general, is “What mechanism does God use?”

It’s stupid because it presupposes a mechanical view of reality, and God is not a mechanism (and neither is design, even in human terms). It’s understandable because mechanical views of reality have become the prevalent worldview in the last few centuries.

Compare this question, posed by or to a Christian scientist: “By what mechanism does the Spirit of Christ indwell and fill the born-again believer?” We immediately hit an impasse, scientifically speaking, because the Holy Spirit, being God, is immense and not local, and is not a material substance. So the question is scientifically unintelligible.

Yet that’s not to say the reality is unintelligible, though its full answer may well prove beyond human comprehension. However, millions of believers worldwide know they are indwelt by the Spirit, experience it, act on it in their daily lives and have an adequate understanding of what it means. The question is only unintelligible because of the epistemological limitations of science, and that in turn depends on the limitations of the theology of nature on which it is built.

This leads me to my main point, which is that it seems to be a universal truth that the theology of nature you hold will determine the kind of science you do. This is true of our own era, in which the “mechanical philosophy” of the early-modern scientists, de-divinised in the late nineteenth century, neither wishes to encompass the divine, nor has the conceptual tools to do so even if it wished.

But all systems of science are, it appears, the outworking of theologies of nature. The mediaeval scientific enterprise – which was a lot more fruitful than has been admitted in our myopically presentist modern age – depended on Aristotelian metaphysics as theologised by Aquinas, in particular. When the theology was changed, the science changed – in this case, purposefully in order to do science in order to control nature for man’s ends rather than to understand it to know God better.

But even long before Aristotle, ones theology of nature determined science. The Babylonians had no concept of nature as such, yet their theology led to a body of empirical science that formed the foundation for ours in many ways, and which lasted for two millennia or more. I outline that here.

So the health warning is that if I, or anyone else, should develop a better theology of nature, it would probably affect ones whole way of exploring the world scientifically. It appears that it was the early modern scientists’ social prestige and political patronage, and their embodying the spirit of the age, that enabled them to displace the Aristotelian science that had gone before. The Royal Society was not founded to continue a tradition, but to develop a new one.

However, it is possible to live in two worlds, and to hold two views of nature at the same time – to an extent. I suppose the first generation of “mechanical philosophers” did not cast off Aristotle overnight. Perhaps the most graphic example of this “two worlds” mentality is in the Bible itself, in the case of Daniel.

In our flannelgraph understanding of the Bible, we tend to airbrush the fact that Daniel was renamed by his captors in honour of Bel (Marduk), and was trained in that whole Babylonian system of science, which specifically involved the three branches of divination of signs from the gods: the interpretation of omens in animal livers, the interpretation of astronomical signs, and the interpretation of dreams:

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king appointed for them a daily ration from the king’s choice food and from the wine which he drank, and appointed that they should be educated three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s personal service…

…As for these four youths, God gave them knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom; Daniel even understood all kinds of visions and dreams.

And Daniel (like his three companions) was exceptionally good at it, being promoted rapidly to oversee the whole enterprise – he became the equivalent of Chief Scientist to the Government. Though in fact, his likely personal role in the system was “baru priest” – and that did not mean a priest of Yahweh.

Now the whole point of the book is that he remained faithful to Yahweh and to Israel’s law  through all his long official career. He attributed his wisdom at interpreting dreams to God, rather than to the massive body of empirical interpretations the wise men relied on, for Babylonian divination relied on empirical data, not mystical experience – the real skill, as in meteorology, lay in interpreting the signs. Yet routinely Daniel must have worked within the system – he was good at his job, as the Queen Mother noted in the reign of Belshazzar:

There is a man in your kingdom in whom is a spirit of the holy gods; and in the days of your father, illumination, insight and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods were found in him. And King Nebuchadnezzar, your father, your father the king, appointed him chief of the magicians, conjurers, Chaldeans and diviners. This was because an extraordinary spirit, knowledge and insight, interpretation of dreams, explanation of enigmas and solving of difficult problems were found in this Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar.

What we don’t know is how much Daniel bought into the scientific system, and how much he simply applied its techniques efficiently, like Muslim converts to Christianity I’ve heard of teaching Islamic Studies in their own educational systems. Clearly he didn’t believe in the gods normally reputed to have sent the omens, but did he believe, like the Babylonians, that such signs were in the regular order of nature, only governed by Yahweh instead of Bel? Or did he just get on with the job without asking any deep questions (which seems unlikely)? He had to work out for himself a way of living in two conceptual worlds – and unlike the modern scientist he couldn’t even leave his faith at the laboratory door, for it was his God who provided his most important interpretations.

What is clear is that he didn’t simply import Babylonian science into Israel’s culture, as a neutral advance in knowledge, because divination of all kinds was forbidden to God’s people. There are scholars who say that the Magi of Jesus’s time carried on whatever professional tradition Daniel had established (since a large Jewish population remained in Babylon as an educated class). But the biblical theology of nature was clearly not the same as that which Daniel had to work under in Babylon. Somehow he managed to be a faithful Prophet of Yahweh whilst being an excellent baru priest for a succession of pagan rulers, but the circumstances, and the grace given to him, were special. It must have been a somewhat precarious balance for him, though: ultimately the two worlds did not mix.

I leave it to readers who are working scientists to elicit what is to be learned from his example, but for now I simply flag up that such serious implications are on the agenda when the theology of nature is under discussion. Because as history shows, a culture’s science is always an outworking of its theology of nature.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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