Pat Conover: Sharing the Journey
Class Three - Natural Theology

Pat Conover,
April 8, 2008

The first natural theology was Roman Catholic and it reflected a coalition with an Aristotelian understanding of nature and ethics. Aristotle was a careful observer of nature and human behavior and he reflected and wrote about what he saw. His emphasis on observation and his reliance on observation to test theories of causation make him the philosophical parent of scientific method. But Aristotle reached conclusions on some things that are not scientifically grounded from the perspective of contemporary science.

For example, Aristotle thought that slavery was a natural human state and was therefore somehow good. He thought men were superior to women who were superior to animals, etc. He could argue his conclusions based on available evidence Slavery and patriarchy existed.

The RC version of natural theology relates to observable nature in the same way as Aristotle. The key referent point is the RC doctrine about what is healthy. However, instead of just affirming what is obervable as good or desirable, Roman Catholic applies theological judgements to assert what is good in what is. For example they judge gay and lesbian sexual relations to be unhealthy because they do not produce children and, they argue, it is clear that in nature that the purpose of sexuality is reproduction. RC doctrine about sexuality is basically hostile to sexuality and favors celibacy as the path to spirituality. It makes an exception for sexuality to produce children as natural and as necessary for producing more Roman Catholics.

The biggest challenge for RC style natural theology is the question of theodicy or evil. If God is all powerful then God isn't good because there is a lot of evil and suffering in the world. If God is good and doesn't want such suffering then God isn't all powerful to wipe it out. This is a classic example of, "If you ask the wrong question you get useless answers."

Contemporary natural theology considers the proper relationship between science and theology and asks the question, "What can we know about God from knowing ourselves and the world?" The derivative question is, "Can science help us understand the world in a way that would help us understand God?"

The classic intellectual battle between science and theology is fueled by two problems in communication. The first is that many theologies have claimed a privileged status as revelation that people are supposed to believe and obey because it is asserted by the authority of the Church. For this class we will not assume that theological assertions or testimonials are so privileged. Secondly, many theologies engage in speculation and present the results as if they were established and unquestionable fact. In this class we will discuss speculation as speculation and see whether such speculative thought is helpful.

Both theology and science want to assert truth. This raises questions of what truth is as well as the epistemological question of how we can know what is true. In the discussions you may feel the need to discuss these intellectual challenges between theology and science as disciplines, but I hope you will be able to focus on what you as a creature can sense and know about God, and your relationship to God, because you have some knowledge and engagement with your own life and with the world around you.

Assignment for small groups

What, if anything, can we know about ourselves and God from knowing that we are creatures?


Remember a story from your childhood about you or your family. Write down at least a brief outline of the story. Why do you remember that story and what does it mean to you? Talk about it with someone.

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