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Praise for Re-Imagining Nature

“Encounter this book with enormous respect. In this remarkable text, McGrath is judicious, audacious, and perceptive. Setting the entire project of natural theology in an historical context, he weaves together an account of natural theology that is innovative, powerful, and intriguing. Critics and advocates for natural theology alike will have their worldview changed as they encounter this remarkable argument.”

Ian S. Markham
Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary

“This theological book emerges from a deep and integrating vision of creation – the natural world appreciated through the Christian imaginarium. Composed in crystalline prose, McGrath explores the complexity of theologia naturalis in a way that is both insightful and erudite. He enriches the particularities of place with a spirituality always and only historically and culturally localised. In a time of global ecological concerns, this is a much needed labour. Christians need to engage these concerns, rooting them profoundly in a thick account of reality and what it is to be alive. There's a promise of transformation in doing this, and McGrath knows it. This book is an exciting testimony to the imaginative power behind that promised potential.”

Graham Ward
University of Oxford

“In this game-changing book, Alister McGrath develops a thick theology of nature from a distinctly Christian point of view. He expertly tackles topics that are underexplored in traditional natural theology, such as the moral and aesthetic ambiguity of nature, emphasising the importance of both rational and imaginative ways of engaging with nature.”

Helen de Cruz
Oxford Brookes University

“Being informed about natural theology is essential to any substantive understanding of the relationship of science and theology. The present book nicely sums up and carries further his indispensable contributions to the topic.”

John F. Haught
author of Science and Faith: A New Introduction

“In contemporary theology, the project of natural theology has many opponents. In his latest book, Re-Imagining Nature, McGrath presents an ambitious vision for retrieving a holistic Christian understanding of natural theology that goes beyond the rationalistic proofs of God's existence of the nineteenth century. By stressing the imaginative powers of human beings and not just rational ones, McGrath defends a thick and contextual but at the same time traditional model of Christian natural theology as a way of seeing the world. A stellar addition to the contemporary literature on natural theology.”

Aku Visala
University of Helsinki

Also by Alister E. McGrath from Wiley-Blackwell

The Christian Theology Reader, 5th edition (2016)

Christian Theology: An Introduction, 6th edition (2016)

Darwinism and the Divine (2011)

Theology: The Basic Readings, 2nd edition (2011)

Theology: The Basics, 3rd edition (2011)

Science and Religion: An Introduction, 2nd edition (2010)

The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (2008)

Christianity: An Introduction, 2nd edition (2006)

The Order of Things: Explorations in Scientific Theology (2006)

Luther's Theology of the Cross, 2nd edition (2005)

Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (2004)

A Brief History of Heaven (2003)

The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism (ed., with Darren C. Marks, 2003)

The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, 2nd edition (2003)

The Future of Christianity (2002)

Christian Literature: An Anthology (2000)

Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd edition (2000)

Christian Spirituality: An Introduction (1999)

Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (1998)

The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (1998)

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (1995)

A Life of John Calvin (1993)

For a complete list of Alister E. McGrath's publications from Wiley-Blackwell, visit our website at

Re-Imagining Nature

The Promise of a Christian Natural Theology

Alister E. McGrath

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Natural theology has never lost its deep appeal to the human imagination. Might the beauty and wonder of the natural world point to a deeper order of things, even if this is only partially glimpsed rather than fully grasped? Does nature point us toward – to use the imagery of Dante – a “hidden path” leading to a “shining world”?1 Does the idea of God continue to provide a “repository for our awestruck wonderment”2 at life itself, or the natural world around us? A natural theology is both a response to and an expression of a real experience of the world of nature, which seems to call for further exploration.

This book sets out to explore what a properly Christian approach to natural theology might look like, and how this relates to alternative interpretations of our experience of the natural world. Although I interact with contemporary theological debates about the nature and scope of natural theology, my more fundamental concern is to demonstrate the potential of natural theology in enabling a productive and significant interaction between Christianity and a wider culture, including the natural sciences.3

Re-Imagining Nature opens by offering a genealogical account of the six main divergent senses in which the term theologia naturalis has been understood in the western intellectual tradition since late classical antiquity. Does such a plurality of construals point to the incoherence of natural theology? Or is there some grander vision of natural theology which is able to accommodate and colligate these six approaches? Exploring the genealogy of natural theology discloses its rich and complex history on the one hand, and subverts narrow and inadequate conceptions of the project on the other.

The recognition of the social construction of such notions as “nature,” “science,” and “religion,” particularly during the early modern period,4 indicates that there is no predetermined essential form of nature or natural theology; it is rather open to cultural revision and ideological reconstruction, reflecting the social and cultural location of its practice.5 As C. S. Lewis often remarked, the latest is not always the best; furthermore, “a genuinely new perspective often means embracing and developing an old insight.”6 I argue that a “Christian natural theology project” may be developed which holds together a variety of understandings of the notion as aspects or elements of a coherent greater whole. Such a “thick understanding” of natural theology resonates with some of the fundamental themes of Christianity, allowing a retrieval of forgotten or suppressed approaches to these issues.

Given the impossibility of articulating a natural theology “from nowhere,” this work makes a case for developing a specifically Christian approach to natural theology, and exploring how this correlates and connects with its alternatives. The modernist dogma of a single way of understanding the world has, largely due to its lack of evidential warrant, given way to the recognition of multiple perspectives of reality – including an important family of perspectives which are grounded and shaped by the Christian faith. I argue that a “Christian natural theology project” may be developed which holds together these six historical articulations of natural theology as aspects of a single coherent project. The form that natural theology takes is critically dependent on its context; my approach allows the marked phenomenological diversity of natural theology to be accommodated within a distinctively Christian theological vision of its grounds and possibilities.

I then turn to consider the critically important issue of the interplay of the imagination and reason in a Christian natural theology. Many writers use the term sensorium to designate the amalgam of natural human cognitive capacities, cultural webs of meaning, and accessible evidence which shapes human concepts of rationality in any given situation. Although this notion is important in criticizing naïve notions of a “universal rationality,” it lacks the capacity for imaginative engagement that is of critical importance for theology in general, and natural theology in particular. I thus introduce the critical concept of an imaginarium, which provides a conceptual framework for exploring the interplay of the reason and imagination within a Christian natural theology, offering a way of looking at things in which “a creative imagination is wedded to an acute intellect.”7 A purely rational or ideational construal of natural theology – such as that found in many works of systematic theology – will inevitably fail to do justice to the richness of the notion.8 Vestiges of the modernist suppression of the imagination still haunt the practice of systematic theology, and impoverish our conception of theologia naturalis.

Particular attention is paid in this important chapter to the concept of metanoia – traditionally translated as “repentance,” but more fundamentally designating a graceful re-orientation of the mind, through which the self and the world are seen in a new and more satisfying manner. Natural theology is one of the outcomes of this process of mental renewal and imaginative transformation, in that we come to imagine the natural world in a new manner.

So how does a Christian natural theology cope with the ambiguity and complexity of the natural world? The third chapter notes the difficulties for a natural theology arising from the moral and aesthetic ambiguity of nature, and explores three interpretative strategies that are based on conceiving nature as a book to be read, a picture to be appreciated, and a sign to be understood. Each of these has a long history of use within the Christian tradition, but is capable of further development in dialogue with recent explorations of their potential.

I then move on to deal with questions of motivation and context, noting how the context within which natural theology is undertaken shapes its forms and construals. Among the themes to be considered are the role of industrialization in creating a desire to reconnect with the natural world, the role of a sense of wonder at the beauty and majesty of nature as a gateway to understanding it, and the human quest for an existentially satisfying “big picture” of life, which embraces the world of nature.

The fifth chapter addresses six major concerns about natural theology, identified in conversation and dialogue with critics, including both fundamental protests about the theological legitimacy of the approach (such as that famously articulated by Karl Barth), and wider concerns about the intellectual and cultural viability of the notion in general, and the particular approach that I develop in this study. In each case, I try to give a fair summary of the concern, before offering a response to the issues being raised. This chapter is placed late in this book, thus allowing some of these concerns to be engaged during the exposition of my approach to a Christian natural theology.

The final chapter explores the promise of a Christian natural theology, and sets out how this “re-imagination of nature” offers the promise of an enhanced and enriched vision of theology itself, as well as enabling a principled and productive dialogue with other intellectual and cultural stakeholders.

This work builds on three earlier interventions in contemporary discussions about the nature and scope of natural theology, based on major academic lecture series in the United Kingdom: the 2008 Richardson Memorial Lectures at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne; the 2009 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen; and the 2009–10 Hulsean lectures at the University of Cambridge. These were published as The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (2008); A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (2009); and Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (2011). These three volumes laid the deep foundations for this new study, which is essentially a free-standing essay exploring the promise, potential, and problems of a Christian natural theology. Given my substantial level of engagement with the natural sciences in A Fine-Tuned Universe and Darwinism and the Divine, the present volume focusses on other themes, while noting the importance of a Christian natural theology in challenging the inadequacies of “scientism.”

In those three earlier works, I suggested that Christian discussion about natural theology required retrieval of older understandings of the notion needlessly neglected as a result of controversy. There is a clear need for a reconceptualization of the identity and strategy of a Christian natural theology, and for it to be emancipated from polemical agendas which cast a long shadow over any serious discussion of its nature and scope. In particular, I identified four areas in which a refocussing of the concept of natural theology was appropriate for Christian theology:

  1. A dogmatic relocation of the concept of natural theology from the domain of “the natural” to that of “the revealed”;
  2. A replacement of the fundamentally Deistic concept of God associated with the approaches to natural theology which developed in England during the long eighteenth century (1688–1815)9 with a distinctively Christian vision of God;
  3. A fuller recognition of the theological and philosophical significance of the basic psychological truth that the human observer is an active interpreter of the natural world, not its passive spectator;
  4. An acknowledgment of the importance of the imagination in any Christian encounter with the natural world, particularly in relation to its beauty. John Keats's notion of the “truth of the imagination”10 may be an imperfect realization of this insight, but it articulates the potential of the human imagination as a truth-bearer.

    These four motifs remain embedded within the vision of natural theology which is set out in this volume. Yet my conversations with my critics, subsequently expanded through detailed historical research, has persuaded me of the importance of a fifth theme, hinted at but not fully developed in these three earlier works, which needs to incorporated into an informed discussion of the project of a natural theology:

  5. Natural theology is situationally embedded, so that a theology of nature exists in an interactive relationship with a theology of place.11 The theory and practice of natural theology in any given historical and cultural context are shaped by its present preoccupations and presuppositions, and its memories of the past.

My study of the perspectives from which nature has been “read” during the last two millennia has made it clear that different cultural locations have developed different “protocols of reading” nature,12 making it impossible to reflect on the changing shape of natural theology without a sustained engagement with the cultural location of the reader of the “book of nature.” Although this work is rich in historical analysis, its ultimate object is not the exploration of how natural theology has developed in various cultural places in the past, but how such past developments might illuminate and inform its theory and practice in the present.

It remains for me to thank my many colleagues at Oxford and beyond who have helped me develop my ideas on natural theology over many years, often by challenging the integrity and propriety of the notion in the first place. Theology is always at its best when undertaken in critical and respectful dialogue, and I owe more to my critics than I can adequately express.

Alister McGrath
Oxford, December 2015