The theme of the natural knowledge of God has made its way into subsequent Christian reflection. As Augustine wrote early in the fifth century in his beautiful opening prayer to Confessions (1.2), “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is of course a prayer and therefore occurs within faith—it is not therefore technically a proof—and in it Augustine gives our natural yearning for God both an existential and creational caste.
More philosophically, the great thirteenth century Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (who thus wrote before the Protestant/Catholic divide), offered an initial outline of the famous “Five Ways.” First, there is the Argument from Motion: since everything that moves is moved by another, there must thereby exist an Unmoved Mover. Second, the Argument from Efficient Cause: the sequence of causes that make up this universe must have a First Cause. Third, the Argument to Necessary Being: since all things that exist are dependent on other things for their existence, there must exist at least one thing that is not dependent. This then is a Necessary Being. Four, the Argument from Gradation: Since all things that exist can be compared to such qualities as degrees of goodness, there must exist something that is an Absolutely Good Being. Finally, the Teleological Argument: The intricate design and order of existent things and natural processes imply that a Great Designer exists. Whether or not these Five Ways are maligned or praised, they have offered an excellent outline for subsequent thinkers who make philosophical arguments for God’s existence and for our natural knowledge of God. In fact, they really constitute a summary of what would have been known to his students reading the Summa and therefore not a full-blown proof. Thomas bases the Five Ways on the conviction that human beings have knowledge that God exists, although revelation is needed to know who God is (Summa 1.2.3).
In the seventeenth century—right at the flowering of modern science—the mathematician Blaise Pascal offered another proof for God. He began, in a similar vein to Augustine with our existential search for rest: “By nature, we all seek happiness.” But where do we seek it? “Some seek the good in authority, some in intellectual inquiry and knowledge, some in pleasure.” Pascal, in his Pensées, continued by observing that all these various potential sources for happiness, for a beautiful life, leave us craving for more. He pondered what that meant:
What else does this craving, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.
It may surprise some in the Reformed tradition—at least those who have read Karl Barth’s cavils against “natural theology”—that the seminal voice of Reformed theology, John Calvin, wrote similarly of the “awareness of divinity.” Calvin was not out to prove God, but to state that inherent in human existence is a basic, vague, and powerful natural knowledge of God. Indeed, in Calvin’s vastly influential 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.3.1), he wrote, “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.” This awareness of divinity or sensus divinitatis is “beyond dispute” according to Calvin. It is the formulation of the natural knowledge of God that I follow in this chapter. (This may be what the Roman Catholic theological giant, Karl Rahner, is after in his transcendental “openness to being,” but I find his reflections too tinged with Kantian notions to be sufficiently biblical or convincing.)
One final note: I am recounting these voices not as proofs for God’s existence (though some certainly presented them as such), but as signs or witnesses to the God the Church confesses as Maker of heaven and earth. They may in fact work as proofs, but that is not my focus; instead I am arguing that the doctrine of creation—that God created this world and us as part of it—implies that we will have a natural knowledge of God. It is not that we see this natural knowledge and therefore God exists. Instead, when we see that the world as created by God, we realize that this sensus divinitatis exists in all people.
For a scientifically informed systematic theology, one promising nexus for the natural knowledge of God is the perception of beauty. (Incidentally, I am not making a proof for God’s existence from the existence of beauty although many excellent Christian thinkers have done so. Consider Augustine’s argument in City of God XI.4, “The world itself, by its well-ordered changes and movements, and by the fair appearance of all visible things, bears a testimony of its own, both that it has been created, and also that it could not have been created save by God, whose greatness and beauty are unutterable and invisible.”)
Through creation, human beings experience beauty. As Gerald Manley Hopkins, the profound nineteenth century poet intones in “The Golden Echo”: “Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” The Psalmist declares desires God’s beauty, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
What is beauty? According to the ancient tradition, beauty is a transcendental—like goodness, unity, and truth—all of which are thereby indefinable. Plato offers three markers for beauty, not exactly a definition: order, symmetry, and proportion; Thomas Aquinas, highlighted integrity, consonance, and clarity (integritas, harmonia, claritas). Beauty arises for both theologians and scientists through rightly grasping and theorizing about their objects of study. Beauty thus leads to truth, and beauty provides a lure for study. In this sense, it is telic, that is, leading human beings toward a preferred future. For theologians, it means grasping God’s true nature, God’s creation, and our ethical life. For scientists, it is rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, nature. When this perception is made there is discovery, which is accompanied by a sense of completeness. In these and other ways, beauty represents a common value for scientists and theologians. (These themes are echoed in the Catholic voice of Hans Urs von Balthasar, specifically through his magisterial The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I cannot overestimate Balthasar’s contributions to a theological aesthetics, and my debt to his theological aesthetics is substantial.)
One of the most important, and underappreciated voices on the importance of beauty for theology is Jonathan Edwards. (For example, in Balthasar’s seven volumes, I cannot find a single line on Edwards.) Beauty captivated this eighteenth century theologian and philosopher—the beauty of the natural world, of God, and of life lived to God’s glory. Edwards spoke of a particular early experience where contemplation led him “into a kind of vision… of being alone in the mountains, or some solitary wilderness, far from all mankind, sweetly conversing with Christ, and wrapped and swallowed up in God.” Steeped in the observation of nature that marked the exuberant scientific explosion following Newton’s impressive discoveries and seminal theories, Edwards gloried in the beauty of nature. It is worth noting Puritan pastors, as some of the most educated members of their day, regularly found numerous causes for reflection on God, nature, and their relationship through “natural philosophy.” They quite naturally engaged in what today we call “theology and science.”
Edwards’s natural beauty “consists of a very complicated harmony; and all the motions and tendencies and figures of bodies in the universe are done according to proportion, and therein lies their beauty” (in “The Mind,” emphasis mine). The echoes of the classical tradition of beauty as proportio are unmistakable. He also underscored the importance of God’s work as Creator of this cosmos:
For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.
In his philosophical-theological writings, Edwards maintained a lifelong “preoccupation with beauty, excellence, and the goodness of creation,” as John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkem comment in the Edwards Reader. Finding beauty is at the core of his definition of the spiritual life. To be fully alive as a human being is to be drawn into Beauty. Beauty in nature evokes a deeper praise for the Source of beauty. In this way, creation leads back to the Creator. (For example, Edwards also linked the beauty of God and the beauty of creation with the beauty of our ethical life, a theme worth developing separately, although not sufficiently related to the topic at hand.)
What do natural scientists say? Remarkably, in reading some scientists’ descriptions of their own work, I have discovered a remarkable similarity with theology, such that I could transpose words between theology and science and the statements would sound nearly identical. The beauty of scientific work is to understand nature rightly and the way it fits together. This common value provides a stimulating locus for collaboration of theology and science. Beauty lures us to truth—both in that its innate pleasure motivates human beings to discover truth and that beauty and truth conform to one another. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “The supreme beauty of human nature consists in the splendor of knowledge.” Beauty is critical to all human knowledge, including the natural sciences. Richard Feynman once wrote, “You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.” Beauty, as both scientists and theologians know, leads to truth.
The Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar presented an important study in “Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science” by pursuing “the extent to which the quest for beauty is an aim in the pursuit of science.” For example, Henri Poincaré, in Science and Method, when answering the question of why scientists study nature at all and how they select the facts they do in formulating scientific theory: “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so.” He continued and thereby countered a purely instrumentalist approach to scientific work and simultaneously described the way that beauty motivates scientific discovery, or to use my terminology, offers scientists a telos or motivation:
He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living…. I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.
Poincaré points to harmony or consonance as a central feature of beauty. Beauty also implies pleasure (which has constituted key elements of theories of beauty for centuries), and thus scientists realize the pleasure of their work in the realization of harmony. This beauty sustains scientists’ research even in spite of the rigors of their work: “Intellectual beauty,” he continued, “is self-sufficing, and it is for it, more perhaps than for the future good of humanity, that the scientist condemns himself to long and painful labors.” Similarly, Werner Heisenberg wrote about the connection between discovering the nature of quantum reality and its beauty. (Worth noting below is the relationship between beauty and Heisenberg’s “coherence,” which is parallel to my formulation of rightly perceiving nature.) Beauty for Heisenberg is surprising and objective. As he describes it in Physics and Beyond, he did not impose beauty, but discovered this beauty in the midst of looking at energy at the quantum level:
I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I now had to probe this wealth of mathematical structure nature had so generously spread out before me.
This pursuit and discovery of beauty has certainly motivated key scientists. I could multiply quotes, but will simply note Einstein’s use of beauty in formulating both the special and general theories of relativity. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann summarized Einstein’s work: “The essence of Einstein’s profundity lay in his simplicity; and the essence of his science lay in his artistry—his phenomenal sense of beauty.” It was that sense of beauty that led him to reformulate our understanding of the cosmos. The particular motivation of beauty for scientists, as Poincaré describes it, is grasping the harmonious order of the cosmos. Indeed, in Adventure of Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead, in Adventures in Ideas, pointed to this ordering function of scientific and artistic pursuits. As he wrote, “Science and art are the consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty.” It is beauty that lures us and that makes truth worth discovering. (See also Alejandro García-Rivera’s reflections on the importance of the beauty as that which moves “the heart,” or the center of human action in The Community of the Beautiful.)
We are coming to a point where it becomes less fruitful to speak of separate directions for theology and science, but in fact, the locus of common understanding and more importantly, motivation. The noted physicist George Ellis, in the lecture “Faith, Hope, and Doubt in Times of Uncertainty,” presented beauty as the highest level of human knowledge: “I believe that for many the experience of great beauty is an immediate striking way of experiencing transcendence.” Ellis noted that this leads many people to “genuinely spiritual experience.” In Ellis (and to some degree in Whitehead), I see the confluence of these disciplines, science and theology, in one person.
I have been noting the importance of beauty in both science and theology as a way to demonstrate that beauty forms a natural knowledge of God. God has created this world beautiful—as it reflects the divine Beauty—and whether explicated as a theological category or not, that Beauty shines through the natural world. And it is a beauty that scientists and believers both perceive.
An evolutionary understand of the development of the human brain provides another starting point for a scientifically based natural knowledge of God, or at least an openness to God. Justin Barrett, through his work in developing a Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), uses the findings of the cognitive sciences to argue that evolution has developed human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events, or are predisposed toward teleology. As he wrote in Cognitive Science, “Evidence exists that people are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered,” which naturally leads to belief in a Creator. For example, preschoolers “are inclined to see the world as purposefully designed and tend to see an intelligent, intentional agent behind this natural design.” Some use this tendency to impugn belief in God—i.e., we cannot help but believe—instead I am arguing here that it is part of God’s creation. We are created with an openness to belief. Another area of research suggests that evolutionary pressures, particularly the human need toward cooperation as it leads to survival, produces a common stock of morality; “a recurring theme is that humans seem to naturally converge upon a common set of intuitions that structure moral thought,” such as “it is wrong to harm a nonconsenting member of one’s group.” Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili have also studied brain activity during meditation and prayer and found a remarkable cognitive function that supports belief in God.
Barrett notes that the similarities with John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis He pointed to a sense of the Numinous, powerful and brooding. “Where can I go from Your presence? Where can I flee from Your spirit?” cries the psalmist in Psalm 139. It is the feeling of being out in a forest at night, knowing that no one is there, but feeling something. Often this experience can frighten us. And yet it also provides a witness to the natural knowledge of God. To be clear, God has used the process of evolution to implant this natural awareness.
What is an appropriate theological appraise of Calvin’s sensus divinitatis? How does he see this sense of the divine? What critique does he offer? And what is the proper place of the sensus divinitatis for a scientifically informed ecclesial theology?
Calvin continued his reflections on the sensus divinitatis by offering some caveats:
Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with a new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawings of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the godless themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind. (Institutes 1.3.2)
The phrase “some idea of God” is instructive—Calvin emphasizes that the sense of the divine is ephemeral and elusive; he also writes that this sensus divinitatis is “fleeting and vain” (Institute 1.3.3). This is not a sturdy foundation for faith. It is the general awareness of a Supreme Being, God’s “eternal power and deity” which Paul describes in Romans 1. Though universal and powerful, this general sense of God has a remarkable malleability.
Along with Michael Welker in Creation and Reality, I argue that this sense of the divine, however, remains powerful but problematic. Welker cites Job 19:6, 8, God “closed his net around me…. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.” This vague sense of deity can even terrify. As Calvin writes:
The most audacious despiser of God is most easily disturbed, trembling at the sound of a falling leaf. How so, unless in vindication of the divine majesty, which smites their consciences the more strongly the more they endeavor to flee from it. They all, indeed, look out for hiding-places where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord, and again efface it from their mind; but after all their efforts they remain caught within the net. Though the conviction may occasionally seem to vanish for a moment, it immediately returns, and rushes in with new impetuosity, so that any interval of relief from the gnawing of conscience is not unlike the slumber of the intoxicated or the insane, who have no quiet rest in sleep, but are continually haunted with dire horrific dreams. Even the wicked themselves, therefore, are an example of the fact that some idea of God always exists in every human mind. (Institutes 1.3.3)
From this vague concept (“some idea of God”) human beings can never distinguish between fears and fantasies and true knowledge. They may continue to develop a neurotic piety: “Those therefore, who set up a fictitious worship, merely worship and adore their own delirious fancies”—a piety that leads into idolatry—“indeed, they would never dare so to trifle with God, had they not previously fashioned him after their own childish conceits.” And later, “Even idolatry is ample evidence of this conception.”
Calvin’s language is characteristically strong and largely negative. (Calvin could never be accused of an inflated view of human nature.) Nevertheless, building a religious, or more contemporarily, “spiritual” practice from the sensus divinitatis has many of the elements of idolatry in that it often leaves human beings exactly where they started. As Lewis pointed out in an address to the Oxford Socratic Society, this vague sense of the divine can be highly manipulated and is even dangerous, pliable to all sorts of distortions. It cannot ultimately convert us to the good. Lewis responding to another paper, “The Grounds of Modern Agnosticism,” calls this a “minimal religion.” It leaves Nazis Nazis and altruists altruists, now with a veneer of belief and an assurance that what they already did is given divine endorsement. “The minimal religion will, in my opinion, leave us all doing what we were doing before. We therefore need more clarity for informed, and ultimately beneficial belief. It can be the basis of nature-worship, built on a sense of numinous natural world. It can be a brash, hedonistic worship of self, embodied in the basest forms of New Age spirituality. Even the Nazi’s propagated an appreciation for what “God is doing through the German Volk” and supported it with the powerful, but vague feeling of the Numinous working to renew the German civilization. It can also be named “transcendence” or channeled in a variety of ways.
I need to summarize: This sensus divinitatis opens us to belief in God. Nonetheless, it is a vague awareness that can neither prove God, nor can it give us fully developed attributes of God. And the specific problems of the sensus divinitatis reveal the more general weakness of natural theology. Nature gives us both stunning sunsets and devastating hurricanes, fertile farmlands and wind-swept dustbowls, impressive mountain peaks and deadly volcanoes. Nature’s supporting data present evidence of two incompatible visions: the gracious, loving God and an angry, evil deity. Pascal, who plumbed the depths of such natural proofs for God, grasped the essential weakness of this approach.
I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God. In a treatise addressed to infidels they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature… this only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of religion are very weak… It is a remarkable fact that no canonical writer has ever used Nature to prove God.
This sensus divinitatis, though part of our creation, leaves us open for God. It also, however, leaves human beings with a desire for clarity.
What then are the purpose of nature and this natural awareness of divinity in leading us to God? It is not a proof, but a witness, a support for the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We need to fill in our natural awareness of God with specificity. Only after we have heard God’s voice to us in Jesus Christ, then we are able to proclaim with the psalmist “the heavens are proclaiming the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). This is ultimately what Ian Barbour has termed, not a “natural theology,” but a “theology of nature.” “Instead of a natural theology, I advocate a theology of nature, which is based primarily on religious experience and the life of the religious community but which includes some reformulation of traditional doctrines in the light of science. Theological doctrines start as human interpretations of individual and communal experience and are therefore subject to revision. Our understanding of God’s relation to nature always reflects our view of nature” (Religion and Science). We see the world through our belief in a good Creator. Scripture, as Calvin concluded, becomes the “spectacles” by which we view the world.
Science acts in some ways, in describing this sensus divinitatis, to offer general revelation. Through general revelation, we can certainly find out truths about God, but those truths receive clarity through God’s special revelation in history, especially depicted in the pages of the Bible. For example, we can find the beauty of God’s design of the human body through scientific work—and thus be led to conclude that God is an incomparable Designer. We can, however, only know that God’s creation is Trinitarian through special revelation.
Returning to my basic guideline: theology can and must journey beyond the strict domains of science, but that it must not contradict those findings, I conclude that we need Jesus to save the sensus divinitatis, because, as the church confesses, Jesus definitively reveals God. In this sense, Jesus Christ saves natural knowledge of God from its vagueness. Christ displays that there is no hidden God, as he is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). This, in some sense, fulfills “Rahner’s rule” in The Trinity that “the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity.” And so, with Barth (from CD IV/1), I conclude, “The meaning of deity “cannot be gathered from any notion of supreme, absolute non-worldly being. It can be learned only from what took place in Christ.” Our natural knowledge of God needs to be clarified by Christ.
Ultimately then Christ saves natural knowledge of God from vagueness and potentially pernicious misuse. In fact, Christian believers are urged to take on that form of that christomorphic (by which I mean literally “formed around Christ) moment-by-moment. After developing his most elaborated christocentric theology in the book of Romans, Paul moves to the hortatory section. We can sure that when he calls the Roman churches to be transformed or meta-morphicized (to transliterate the Greek), he is urging them to take the form of Christ, who is also the goal of human yearning: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, italics mine). Consequently, the Church can be formed, as a community in worship and discipleship, from a vague, amorphous sensus divinitatis, into bearing the image of God to the world.