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apologetics, Book Reviews

“A New Vision for Natural Theology” A Book Review of “The Open Secret” by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath is a well-known name in Christian philosophy, science, and apologetics. His book, The Open Secret is his call to Christians to develop natural theology not just as philosophically, but as a system of theology which touches on all aspects of life.

Natural theology, according to McGrath, is not just a way to argue for the existence of God. Rather, “The enterprise of natural theology… is one of discernment, of seeing nature in a certain way…” (3). He argues that natural theology in fact should not be viewed as a system to prove the existence of God. Rather, it “addresses fundamental questions about divine disclosure and human cognition and perception. In what way can human beings, reflecting on nature by means of natural processes, discern the transcendent?” (5, emphasis his). Natural theology can be seen as an entire worldview, put forth to view the world in a certain way (17).

McGrath, after outlining his vision thus, turns to the human experience of the transcendent. He focuses on three thinkers- Iris Murdoch, Roy Bhaskar, and John Dewey (41ff). He then turns to various ways humans have accessed the transcendent (59ff) and includes an evaluation of the psychology of perception (80ff).

He once more emphasizes the need to see natural theology as a type of “seeing” (115) and turns to Jesus to  demonstrate the approach McGrath favors. Jesus’ parables are a model for natural theology, argues McGrath. They are “open… the interpretation is generally left indefinite and imprecise… the imagery of the parables is readily grasped [but] their meaning is often veiled…” (120-121). Similarly, nature itself is easy to grasp, but it has hidden meanings which can only be perceived by viewing the world in a certain way (126ff).

The Enlightenment approaches to natural theology have been largely unsuccessful historically and are in need of modification (140ff).

A Christian approach to natural theology should focus on “seeing” God in the natural. God has chosen to “self-disclose in history and nature” (178) and natural theology can reveal God in nature (178ff). Christian natural theology is “eschatological… The fading beauty and goodness of the world are to be interpreted in the light of the hope of their restoration and renewal” (206).

Natural theology must also break out of its boundaries. It is not just the realm of philosophical reflection, but also opens many points of contacts with the world. It is “about  perceiving nature in a certain way” (221). Beauty, goodness, and truth are all aspects of reality which can be drawn out through a Christian Natural Theology (222ff). Again,

“natural theology… cannot be regarded as ‘proving’ God’s existence. Rather, it insists that the existence of a God such as that proposed by the Christian tradition makes sense of what may be observed of the world. Such an approach holds that there is an accumulation of considerations which, though not constituting logical proof (how could experience prove anything in such a way?), is at the very least consistent with the existence of a creator God (233).

The goal is not proof but a demonstration of consistency, which will “reinforce the plausibility” of Christianity (234).

Beauty and goodness draw out the reality of the Christian vision of the world. Beauty must not be neglected in natural theology (262ff). Beauty “can… call us, seeking a response” (283). Goodness underlies the resonance with natural law and the moral truths that can be seen as built in to “the fabric of the universe” (293ff).

McGrath concludes by urging readers to see natural theology as a key to open the “mysteries” and “hidden meaning” of nature’s “open secret” (314-315). Natural theology is primarily a vision–a way of viewing the world. The goal of the natural theologian, therefore, is to show how the reality of the world resonates best with a Christian worldview.

There is little to find at fault in McGrath’s powerful work. The Open Secret has enormous depth and breadth. Few areas of development are left unexplored. As one who has great interest in natural theology and who frequently discusses it, this reader must agree with McGrath that the arguments of natural theology often don’t work as proofs so much as pointers. Few are willing to embrace Christianity due only to an argument from natural theology, but the arguments themselves can be used to show how Christianity touches and explains many aspects of reality. McGrath’s vision is really an expanded “cumulative case”; one which focuses not just on many arguments, but brings the beauty of the world and its inherent goodness (while acknowledging ugliness and evils) into the folds of natural theology.

Alister McGrath’s The Open Secret provides a vision for the development and integration of natural theology into the arts, the sciences; indeed, into every aspect of life. It is a vision that will resonate with readers and drive them to see Christianity as an integrated whole. The book is, without a doubt, a must read.

Source

Alister McGrath, The Open Secret (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).

SDG.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

7 thoughts on ““A New Vision for Natural Theology” A Book Review of “The Open Secret” by Alister McGrath

  1. Sounds interesting. I saw an interview once with McGrath and was impressed, but I haven’t gotten around to reading anything of his yet. Thanks for the review!

    Posted by Matt | March 5, 2012, 12:28 PM
  2. I’ll definitely have to put this one on my reading list. His broader vision of natural theology sounds very interesting. Apologetics needs to be constructed so as it reaches more than those people with an interest in philosophy. Reminds me a little of the N.T. Wright approach in “Simply Christian”.

    Posted by Stephen McAndrew | March 5, 2012, 4:13 PM
  3. I have not yet read McGrath’s “The Open Secret,” but I have read his “follow-up” book entitled “A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology.” It describes his alternative approach to natural theology, which McGrath labels a Trinitarian approach. It involves applying counterfactual thinking to natural theology, which results in an “explanatory unification” that “resonates strongly with our observation and experience of the world” and “the capacity to confer meaning.” I found it to be an excellent read.

    Posted by Paul Bruggink | March 6, 2012, 9:45 AM

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