[Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in a religious naturalism themed issue of Covalence in 2011. As some wonder how the faith and nature intersect in light of climate change this was a good piece to revisit.]
I call my view of nature and naturalism a “God-intoxicated” concept. My apologies to seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza, whose philosophy has been described this way (but this does not make me a “Spinozist”!). Some would call it “theistic naturalism,” but I don’t like that term, because historically “theism” has depicted a God who is remote and detached from nature — a view I reject. I believe that nature is God’s greatest work — at least the greatest that we know about.
I start with human nature. Nearly every aspect of human life is touched upon in a vast network of scientific research. These fields not only study how our bodies work and how their illnesses can be treated — they also describe and explain our emotions, our thought-processes, our moral life, our psychological processes, and even our spiritual dimension. The research in these areas goes a long way toward explaining human nature. Some people claim that these scientific explanations are all we need — a position that is often described as scientific naturalism or materialism or physicalism. Others consider such a position to be a reductionism that threatens our basic humanity; they believe that being human is much more than the sciences can know.
I hold to an expansive view of nature. We are fully natural, even in our mental and spiritual life. However, we often overlook how this scientific perspective also expands our idea of nature in amazing ways. The last century of scientific exploration has unfolded a picture of nature — human nature and the larger world — that is mind-bending and inexhaustibly rich. So much so that in spite of the steadily increasing knowledge we gain, it is clear that nature is more than we can comprehend. Nature is a realm of knowledge, control and mystery — all at the same time. This is true for scientists as well as for the rest of us. Mystery is not the same as ignorance; it is a matter of richness and texture. Our knowledge about nature continues to grow exponentially, but the more we know about nature, the greater the richness and the deeper the mystery become. This is especially true of our human nature. Paul Tillich was right when he said that each human being is marked by a mystery, depth, and greatness — and it is enhanced by science. I would amend that to say that mystery, depth, and greatness apply to all of nature.
Science, therefore, does not reduce our picture of who we are; rather, it expands it to the point of encompassing us in the richness and mystery of nature. Let me give an example. Cognitive neuroscience traces in detail the brain processes that correlate to such basics as our thinking about specific things (God, for example), our emotions, and our interactions with other people. The detail and complexity of our brain’s activity is awesome. This research forms the surface of the even more awesome work of our brains that science does not explain — how these brain processes bring forth a Beethoven symphony or a Bach chorale, a Shakespearean play or a poem by Emily Dickinson, Darwin’s theory of evolution or Einstein’s theory of relativity, the proposal of Jeffersonian democracy or the Gandhi/King practice of non-violence. In other words, the amazing scientific charting of our brain’s activities exists on the cusp of the richness and mystery of the human spirit. Brain scans do not translate easily into Beethoven’s Ninth or into a marine’s act of heroism in falling on an exploding grenade, thus saving the lives of their comrades, but nevertheless the achievements of human spirit are fully embedded in our biology — science intensifies our sense of this embeddedness. The more we know about it, the more we realize that we do not comprehend it — it is mystery. A Benedictine prayer expresses this — “gift us with true humility that, in knowing how frail and small we are, we may rejoice even more in the magnitude of your love and the wonders of our own giftedness.”
For Christians, this is a picture of how God has created us. The mystery is an invitation to explore what this tells us about God’s intentions for us and how this relates to our traditional beliefs, such as the image of God, sin, and grace. This idea of nature is fundamental to the Christian tradition; it is enshrined in our concept of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ. Christian faith and theology have had difficulty expressing this through the centuries, because the cultures in which we lived did not provide the ideas or the vocabulary for our expansive idea of nature. It may be that the scientific worldview provides us for the first time with the conceptual and linguistic means to articulate what we believe about nature.
To be a bit polemical, I contrast my view with Religious Naturalism, which is espoused by many of my friends. RN frequently substitutes nature for God. I believe, to the contrary, that nature exists on the surface of transcendence, on the cusp of the holy, if you will. Nature naturally (excuse the pun) opens up to the reality of God. A naturalism that resists this reality is truncated; it short-circuits our experience — including our scientific experience. I call my view a full-bodied view of nature and a full-bodied naturalism.
Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center for Religion and Science from 1988 to 2003 and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.