Here's one of the many great articles.
God, Strings, Emergence, and the Future of the World
This paper is a part of a larger project in which I argue that a reconnection with nature, and a reconceptualization of nature, are necessary accompaniments to a well developed sensus divinitatis. Schleiermacher talks about faith being neither a knowing nor a doing but a kind of feeling, a sense of absolute dependence, and a consequent understanding of all things in and through the infinite.1 Calvin mentions the sensus divinitatis directly, and also the connection between this sense and the natural world.2 Like any capacity, however, it may remain undeveloped or under-developed. The sensus divinitatis may be awakened by connection with, and participation in the natural world—as centuries of mystics testify—although this connection is then explained by and made meaningful in sacred narratives.
The twentieth century has not been an easy time for a theology of nature. This was the century of Karl Barth and a turn away from nature in the interests of affirming the otherness and holiness of God. At the same time, neo-Darwinians taught us to look at all order as only design-like (spandrels). The indeterminacy of the quantum level, combined with the random nature of biological mutation, made any sense of divine presence in nature much more difficult to discern.
The resulting mix of positions in science and theology tended to gravitate either towards a deism, like that espoused by the 2006 recipient of the Templeton Prize, John Barrow, or to the process-like position of many others, like Ian Barbour. Even with the latter, however, there is little sense that God is revealed in nature; in a process theology of nature there is only the presence and influence of God understood as a continuous but perhaps indiscernible lure.
Towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, however, there has been a pronounced turn back towards a theology of nature. This has been inspired in part by the growth of eco-theology and by an increasing awareness of the fragility of the planet, and is evident in the new theological language of recent years. Alister McGrath has written on the re-enchantment of nature.3 More recently Anna Primavesi speaks of appreciating the paradoxical in nature,4 while those within the ranks of radical orthodoxy argue for a participatory ontology, that is, the understanding that all things exist in and through God rather than as independent beings in their own right, a mistake they credit first to Duns Scotus.5 Moreover, animals have now become the objects of theological attention and concern.6
But what bearing does this theological return to nature have on science, and what place does science have in illuminating eschatology? I will argue that science and theology, including eschatology, should be brought into conscious dialogue at a level of deep grammar. Negative judgments about the compatibility of science and theology are usually made at the level of intuition. This is the level at which the sensus divinitatis is operating or has been stilled. Many assume that science knows almost all there is to know. We can trace the very small and the very large; we know how cells work, how galaxies hang together and how protein folds. Intuitively it is felt that talk of life after death or of a new heavens and a new earth is incommensurate with such scientific knowledge. Where in all the 12 billion years worth of space might there be room for such things?
Shifts of emphasis in the sciences are changing all this. I will argue that there are a number of aspects of the physical world now apparent to contemporary science which makes a conversation between science and eschatology more fruitful and more fitting than was previously the case. For science and eschatology to have any rapprochement requires the possibility of discernment of purpose within nature and the recognition that that we do indeed see all finite things “in and through the infinite,” that there is an infinite depth to reality, and that we observe only a very small part in the aspects we know as ‘nature.’ Both purpose and depth are of the essence of an eschatological outlook, one which believes by faith that God has not dangled ‘eternity’ in our eyes only to take it from us, but that there will be an end or telos to all things, when “God will be all in all.”7 For this to be possible, even though it will always be inscrutable and the movements of God are hidden, requires that we believe in a bigger world than the one we grasp, even in its present immensity, and also that we discern a direction, a movement within a larger whole which can be described as the perception of purpose.
Recent developments in science which are compatible with these eschatological evidences include i) a re-interpretation of evolutionary development that gives more weight to the nature of the constraints under which random mutational change works, and hence more weight to the direction these constraints impose on the process; ii) the advent of the science and philosophy of emergence, in which it is recognized that new ontological states emerge in unpredictable ways from previous states and that the universe will undoubtedly experience more of these; iii) chaos theory, and the pioneering of the physics of strings and of eleven dimensions, of which our small four dimensional time-space continuum is but a small subset. I will argue that the first of these give rumours of purpose and that the second and third present hints of an immensity beyond that which we can see and comprehend. All of this is required if the grammar of eschatology and that of science are to be even partially reconciled.
This new science speaks of a world of wonder and immensity and paradox, a world that can be seen as “re-enchanted” because it is more dense, more interconnected, and more numinous than it once appeared. Science is beginning to glimpse what was once the domain of human intuition and fantasy. What we know of this world is necessarily limited; we can apprehend only a very small slice of all there is. We no longer need to attempt to reconcile transcendent religious longing and hope with the machine-like world of earlier science. In the flat land of scientific modernity God appeared to have so few resources with which to work eschatologically. The more science reduced life to molecular activity and agonized over how many cells constituted personhood, the more it became unthinkable to believe in post-mortem existence. The more scientists believed they were close to cracking the comprehensive understanding of reality, the less room there appeared for the unseen things that faith describes. Now the near impossible glimpses of the future attested by individual and corporate eschatology encounter an almost equally impossible science. Of course eschatology will always remain a matter of faith, something affirmed, as Schleiermacher intimated, at an intuitive, feeling level. But its vision of the future becomes less unthinkable in a natural world which, contemporary science shows, confronts us with its strangeness and otherness.
If we can perceive of God as closely involved in this vast and complex and paradoxical natural world, the more resources God can appear to have to bring a new order of being into existence, an order that is in continuity as well as in discontinuity with this one. If we are able to catch a glimpse of God’s presence in the natural world, our faith in the purposes God has for the natural world will only be increased. At the same time the faith intuitions we experience at the level of feeling are more likely to be satisfied by the juxtaposing of these with scientific understandings.
In what follows I do not explore how we might imagine the resurrection state, or life after death, or the new heavens and the new earth, or how we might understand them scientifically. Much of that necessarily remains obscure, even if wondering “what if” is intriguing and a part of the imagination of piety. In a paradoxical sense, the whole of God’s revelation is densely hidden. Moreover death itself has still a “sting,” a part of which is our not knowing and not being able to understand God’s activity. We may even be said to intensify the sting of death by our illusory sense of understanding comprehensively what, in fact, we really understand so superficially.
My goal is to examine the ways in which science has limited our imaginations and deadened our intuitive connection to God through nature, and to identify some of the ways in which newer understandings of science, which are more compatible with a theological formulation of God’s surprising and unexpected work in creation, may encourage that connection. For if we are able to re-conceptualize nature as purposeful, and divinely imbued—even if tragically flawed for whatever reason—a conversation between science and Scripture, and particularly a conversation with eschatology, becomes both feasible and rewarding.
I will proceed by examining first the grammar of theology, to show that Christian theology has always assumed God’s presence in and guidance of creation. I will then examine three aspects of the scientific understanding of creation which, although not demanding of a theological interpretation, do allow more interaction with theological notions of eschatology.
The grammar of theology
Christian eschatology, at least in its more orthodox conceptions, necessarily points to the future, to an after-life and to a whole new order. But to what extent does it really speak of nature as intrinsically God’s? Is recent theological language of re-enchantment a new and imaginative reconstrual of traditional belief? Or is it the case, as I believe it is, that Scripture and theology have always affirmed that the whole of the natural order is undergirded by and permeated with the divine.Many theologians speak of space and time as theological concepts. The old theological language of creation, providence and governance of nature, together with newer understandings of God’s proleptic call to the future, speak undeniably of God’s indwelling of nature. When theologians speak like this, they point to a deep grammar of God’s immanence in and ultimate concern for creation rather than a day by day meddling.
The testimony of Scripture
Throughout Scripture there is explicit and implicit mention made of God’s intimate involvement with the natural world. Parts of Scripture, like passages which speak of the trees “clapping their hands” (Isa 55:12), could be dismissed as mere metaphor. But the witness to God’s closeness to creation is found in every part and at every level the Scripture. It is not just that “in the beginning” everything was made good. There are affirmations that life itself is God’s special preserve, that life is induced by the breath of God (Gen 2:7). God exists in covenant relation with humankind and “with every living creature of all flesh” (Gen 9:11). Therefore our fate and the fate of all creation is closely linked with God’s.
Throughout the Old Testament there are references to the earth as God’s temple,8 the sphere God fills with God’s presence, and images of temple continue on in the New Testament, albeit with slightly changed reference. Christ, as well as being the son of Mary and Joseph, has cosmic connections. He is both a bringer of the gospel, and also a calmer of the seas and a worker of miracles in the natural sphere. His followers are told to preach the gospel, not just to human beings, but to the whole of creation (Mark 16:15). At the end of the canonical story, we learn that there will be a new heavens and a new earth and that God will dwell with us on earth (Rev 21).
More than any other player, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks of God’s closeness to the cosmos. The Spirit is that boundless, relentless love of God set forth in redemption and in creation, to blow wherever it wills, to inspire and to revive the dull (Ezek 37) and to raise the dead (Rom 8:11) Speaking of the Spirit, Denis Edwards writes: “The Spirit breathes life into the universe and all its creatures. The story of the Spirit begins not with Pentecost but with the origins of the Big Bang.”9 “The Spirit,” he continues, “can be thought of as the ecstasy of the divine Communion, the pure abundance and free overflow of the divine life immanent in creation and grace.”10
One passage where all of this is brought to a climax is Colossians 1:15-19.He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
Whatever this poem means, it is scarcely reconcilable with a shallow mechanical view of the world. Nor is it reconcilable with an entirely knowable or wholly random universe, nor with a universe in which God is absent or even appears to be absent. The text does not require some arbitrary projection of ontology onto trees or nature, but it does require, at least, an appreciationof the billions of years connection between God and the natural world, long before humans ever arrived, a recognition of what Ruth Page calls “pansyntheism”, God with everything.11
Scripture, then, speaks of a God who is in intimate contact with and governance of nature. Theology, from whatever period, also speaks in terms of God’s intimate indwelling of all that exists.
Theology before Darwin
Before Darwin there was ample theological testimony to this God of nature. “The medieval view of nature, inherited from remnants of the Aristotelian, Platonic and Christian views,” was, as Neil Evernden argues in The Social Creation of Nature, “one resplendent with notions of vitality and otherness, overflowing with the ‘signatures’ of God, its creator. Nature was not ours to tame or to own. It was God’s and could only be known empathically.”12
If subsequent theology can be accused of ignoring nature, it is only because its story of human salvation has at times eclipsed proper attention to the natural world. Jonathan Edwards stands out as a prime example of a theologian before Darwin who took the creation seriously, and who studied it as a way of understanding God. Wallace Anderson describes how Edwards “portrayed reality as the emanation, the ‘breathing forth’ of God. The word and idea were somehow unified in an epistemological, metaphysical, and even ontological sense, and conveyed the larger, underlying unity of God and creation.”13 This is exemplified by Edwards himself in the Images and Shadows of Divine Things:Therefore ‘tis allowed that God does purposely make and order one thing to be in an agreeableness and harmony with another. And if so, why should not we suppose that he makes the inferior in imitation of the superior, the material of the spiritual, on purpose to have a resemblance and shadow of them? We see that even in the material world God makes one part of it strangely to agree with another; and why is it not reasonable to suppose he makes the whole as a shadow of the spiritual world?14
Edwards goes on to affirm the sense of purpose in both nature and theology by saying: “all the world, from growing things, to history of redemption is in a progressive state.”15
Edwards is not unique is his theological appreciation of nature. Consider, for example, Colin Gunton. Speaking of the doctrine of creation he says:A third feature…also deriving from its Trinitarian structure, is that God remains in close relations of interaction with the creation, but in such a way that he makes it free to be itself. God’s transcendence as the maker of all things is not of such a kind that he is unable also to be immanent in it through his ’two hands.’16
Conservation, preservation, providence, and redemption, he continues, “are all to do with the way God works in and towards the creation”.17 All of these are evidence, too, that God has purposes for creation which are not entirely obscured. More recently Robert Jenson has underlined this view when he says:Theology need not demand that the sciences reopen themselves to teleological explanations–though for all anyone know this too might prove beneficial. But even if the particular sciences must continue to bracket teleology, it is integral to any plausible general interpretation of the world.18
Such theology is shot through with affirmation that God is very close to the natural world, that God’s glory is revealed in nature, and that the natural world requires the ongoing work of God to exist. God is not posited as a weak force, nor as one secondary cause among many others; rather the “grammar” of God suggests One on which all else is intimately and continuously dependent, acting so to speak at right angles to all other causes. This coheres with the steadfast view of Scripture in which Spirit and logos are the very essence of life and order. The deist picture of the world, now so common, is not found in Scripture at all. Nor to be found there is the Barthian suggestion that God is revealed only through the Word, nor the Calvinist belief that our fallenness is so great that we cannot naturally perceive God’s presence in the beauties of the world around us.
This rich biblical and theological appreciation of nature invites dialogue with science. One objection to such dialogue may be to claim that the two disciplines are non-overlapping magisteria, whose deeper structures never touch. Yet theology has always resisted the idea that knowledge can be compartmentalized in this way. Faith in God’s truth also resists any absolute demarcation, demanding that the two disciplines be brought together in some way, even if this means, as it does for creationists, that modern science is rejected.
A more promising alternative is to attempt a “transversal juxtaposition” of the worlds of science and theology. In this method, developed so well by J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen, the metaphors and life-worlds of two or more disciplines are brought into respectful contact.19 Neither is reduced to the other, and neither discipline can trump the other. Science cannot trump religion’s sense of the numinosity and promise of nature, something to which Scripture refers and which so many ancient societies lived within. This sense of wonder and promise must always be present in any attempt to understand nature and eschatology, whether theologically or scientifically.
Science beyond quantum and the machine world
Yet the twentieth century was not an easy time for reconciling theology with science. Theology was wary, but in part because science gave so little with which to work. Machine models of the universe were common, and although a certain strangeness entered the scientific scene with quantum mechanics, in some ways this only gave us another kind of randomness, in addition to that implicit in natural selection. Neither shallow mechanism nor randomness appeared reconcilable with the deep careful molding of creation by the God of theology and Scripture. John Haught expresses the dilemma this way:The main issue now as always, is that of how to reconcile evolution with the idea of divine providence. After Darwin, what does it mean to say that God ‘provides’ or cares for the world?...What most perplexes theology is the Darwinian recipe for the evolution of life over the last 4 billion years.20
Haught’s answer is to go “deeper,” to the see the creativity of God as inherent in randomness, and to appeal to the notion of God’s kenosis in Christ’s incarnation in the world. Others attempt to resolve the dilemma by proposing that we should be seeking, not evidence of God’s purposes in nature, but instead God’s purposes for nature.21 Still others, like Alister McGrath, appeal to the way in which all explanations of nature are socially constructed, arguing that Christians have every right to choose to construct reality as God’s creation.22 Yet none of these approaches speaks to the deep unease that scientific portraits of the world create for theological grammar, especially in the area of eschatology.
The approach I wish to advocate stems from recognition that our intuitive religious sense, and our sense of wonder, depend upon a deep connection to nature. Seeing God in and not only for the natural world is vital for faith. I am convinced that there has been a long evolutionary process, that we are kin in more ways than one to all the animals, but I am not convinced that God’s involvement in this process must be opaque. Yet nor do I think that God’s hand is as obvious as some proponents of Intelligent Design claim. If the hand of God is at work, it is in the subtle fabric of the evolutionary process itself.
We may begin with Darwinism, which is particularly interesting because it has been in a dialogue of sorts with theology for over a hundred years now. Darwinism, of course, is no longer just survival of the fittest and natural selection; it has long since become more sophisticated. On its edges there are understandings which have gone beyond traditional Darwinian reductionism and are already operating within a paradigm more conducive to theological notions of telos. Jonathan Sapp has recently given us a tour of the heterodoxy of evolutionary interpretation in the previous one hundred and fifty years.23 If Sapp is right there have always been less orthodox voices in the evolutionary mix, and evolution may be construed as equally cooperative and competitive; information flows also from the gene to the environment and backwards as well. With the cracking of the human genome and recent strides in evolutionary theory there have been subtle changes, moving the ground just far enough from a Dawkins-type Darwinism to be more conducive to the idea of formal and final causes behind the evolutionary processes.24
For one hundred and fifty years, give or take a few mavericks, and less known schools of thought, evolution has been seen in a functionalist way, as gradually adding information to the DNA structure, driven only by a randomness the blunt instrument of survival with vague notions of fitness fields hovering somewhere in the background. There is a whole school of evolutionary thought, however, which has until recently received almost no attention. Stephen J. Gould discusses this in a paper entitled...”A Developmental Constraint in Cerion.”25 In this paper Gould discusses the place of constraints in the evolutionary process. Gould, himself had some sort of failure of nerve and reverted back to his doctrine of historical contingency and natural selection in the last decade of his life.
There are now a huge number of other approaches to evolution than the ones made popular in the human mind by Richard Dawkins who is always slanting the Central Dogma of evolution toward one that leads inexorably to the presumption of atheism. The best known alternative voice in this respect is Simon Conway Morris, Cambridge palaeontologist of the Burgess Shale. Conway Morris notes that the evolutionary process comes up with the same or similar answers again and again, namely a pattern of parallel evolution or “convergence”. He likens this to the progression of Polynesians out of Asia into the Pacific Islands. They did not, apparently, go randomly out into the ocean to meet an almost certain death. They had a method for finding islands, using currents, and then returning to base if they found nothing. Evolution proceeds similarly, Conway Morris argues, not selecting from a random set of possibilities but from a much narrower number of outcomes. Some as yet unknown mechanisms guide the evolutionary process toward specific goals, like sentience and spirituality.26 Moreover the scope of this convergence appears to be almost endless in itself. There is a convergence of intelligence, albeit different kinds of intelligence. The prime examples of this is the parallel development of intelligence in crows and apes. Another example, though, is the development of a distributed non-central type of intelligence in colonies and plants. Molecules also exhibit this convergence.27
Constraints and self-organising elements, creativity in the very centre of life, all point to a process which is ‘guided’ from below by deep inner principles of life, by a geometry of sorts—suggestive perhaps of logos. The mystery of life itself is evocative of the constant upholding of being in a dimension at “right angles” to our present existence. Thus God works from below and more actively to uphold all that exists, without in any sense cancelling the freedom, nor the apparent randomness and indeed historical contingency of parts of the process of evolution. What matters to theology here, is that the process is not at heart one of randomness, driven only by the ever pressing will to survive and dominate others. There are deeper, more loving, gentler aspects at work which can be seen to set the direction of the evolutionary process.
This makes more possible a reconciliation of evolutionary theory with theological impulses which affirm the salvation of humans and of creatures as the telos or end of history. If there are deep constraints, working at the level of natural law, as strong and as constraining as gravity and the weak and strong nuclear forces, then we are dealing with a very different phenomenon. This makes more possible the sense that there might be final causes working alongside the efficient and material causes in nature. And if purpose is discernible, as argued in the introduction, then science and eschatology are more compatible.
John Haught, in a recent address, urged us to recognize that evolution can be seen in this multi-layered way, that scientific explanations need not exhaust the possibilities for explanation of a biological event. Nevertheless, offering explanations at several different levels only works if these do not contradict one another or cancel one another out. Natural selection by blind mutation has always had a grammar all but incompatible with that of the indwelling logos and life breathing Spirit. Newer understandings of evolution may break this deep incompatibility and open up new visions of a biology consistent with final causes. In this way, although theology is not directly adding to science, it is contributing to the sense or meaning of the picture science presents.
Others who enter into more exploratory engagements with evolutionary theory include Stuart Kauffmann, Michael Denton, Sean Carroll and Christian de Duve.28 Ian Stewart draws links between mathematics and biology, arguing for levels of reality working in such a complex fashion that they are unpredictable by human observers. The idea that mutations allow an organism to explore its “phase space” and that these are mathematically situated in some as yet unknown manner is subtly but importantly different from the genuinely random mutations of neo-Darwinism.29 Stewart does not at all deny natural selection, which is responsible, he thinks, for the forward movement of the evolutionary process, but he does insist that the constraints on the evolutionary process are of great importance and have been overlooked. These constraints are mathematically determined and are responsible for the recurring patterns and fractal type proportions—not to mention beauty—that keep re-emerging within biology. This sort of understanding of evolution is much more compatible with the perseverance and governing love of God that is a purely random process without constraints.
Both Conway Morris and Ian Stewart allow an understanding of evolution as full of promise and direction, although not a direction that in any sense undermines or devalues the steps along the way. Both see evolution as law-like and humanity as in some sense the telos of evolutionary progress. This resonates with an eschatological paradigm. While we cannot look to evolution to find the key to the universe, or to know God’s ultimate purposes, the theological idea of an ultimate eschatological purpose behind reality is consistent with a progressive evolutionary process, and much less consistent with a random process in which there are no guiding constraints. None of it is conclusive or definitive. A strictly atheistic or agonistic explanation is still always possible. But what was barely audible in science a few decades ago, the possibility of seeing purpose and connection in the natural world, is now being beginning to be heard.
In this respect it is sometimes hard to overestimate the deadening role that Darwinian reductionism has had on religious perceptions for over a century, teaching us systematically to read design as random order. Yet Darwinian insights can also vastly expand and enrich our theological life. Darwin has enabled us to understand deep time and to appreciate the radical interconnection of all life, bound together by common ancestry, insights rich in theological potential.
Emergence, chaos theory and strings
The other characteristic of a science that might speak in the same grammar as theology is one that is aware of the depth of nature beyond our knowing, even our possible knowing. This sense of depth is important in allowing faith space to work. The theory of “emergence” is another clue to God, or at least the possibility of God, and hence of an eschatology. Emergence is recognizable in a number of natural phenomena. Take the hardness of water as it freezes for example. At a certain point a new phenomenon occurs which is not reducible to previous states, even though it has emerged out of them. The universe seems to be full of examples of emergence at every level, of solid planetary bodies from gaseous precursors, of light emerging out of darkness 900,000 light years after the Big Bang, perhaps of life emerging out of the primal mud, of consciousness out of the long evolution of hominids.30
In a world dominated by positivism and reductionist science, distinct levels of reality have long been explained away. Emergence, at least in some of its forms, counters this reductionism, claiming that higher ontological levels really do exist, that direction and movement toward another level is not illusory. There is now a whole science of emergence, with strong and weak forms, and with various thresholds being debated depending on whether the new state can be predicted, whether it acts back upon the substrata, where it is composed or non-composed.
One of the theological repercussions of the science of emergence is that however thorough we think our knowledge of the universe to be, it is likely to be very scant. For inevitably there will be new emergent levels in the future about which we can know nothing or very little in the present. Although a new emergent level sometimes “makes sense” backwards it cannot be predicted or anticipated forwards. This gives us hope that there will indeed be a final, eschatological transformation which will emerge out of this universe, a universe which currently appears to be headed only for annihilation, darkness and emptiness.31 Emergence does not necessitate such but it does begin to open up the possibility within the imaginable for the first time in two hundred years. Extrapolating from present parameters gives us only future death—of our species, of our sun, of our galaxy. But extrapolating from previous emergences of new phenomena suggests there may be surprises in the future we cannot yet envisage or begin to imagine. Overall, a conception of strong emergence points to hierarchies of existence, and to an ongoing process whereby the universe, presumably as it is indwelt by God and transformed by incarnation, gives rise by an emergent process to new and surprising states of being.
Similarly, there has been an explosion of interest in string theory. String theory postulates that the universe is constituted, not of elementary particles, but of resonating strings in ten or eleven dimensions. Surpassing string theory is M theory—the very recent contender to the “theory of everything”—which goes further and postulates that reality is lived on a membrane in eleven dimensions. If true, string theory/M theory affords a view of the world that is more wonderful and strange than ever before. It is a world not only of eleven dimensions but of parallel universes.
Physicists are not yet decided on string theory, though some form of testing will be done in the new particle Hadron accelerator in 2010. I am inclined to believe that even if string theory is not true, then something even more improbable is needed to describe reality. For one thing, mathematics deals easily in multiple dimensions. If it can be done it in two or three dimenions, why not in four or eleven. Mathematics also becomes paradoxical around the infinite. There are higher and lower levels of infinity. There are other paradoxes at the heart of mathematics, in set theory for instance. If the universe is reflected in some way mathematically, then it is not surprising that it would also bear puzzles and paradoxes far beyond our grasp, however sophisticated our theories may become. String theory, then, gives us glimpses of immensity, placing our present four dimensional existence into perspective, and is therefore very conducive to a conversation with theology, and in particular with eschatology.
Chaos theory also breaks up the old deterministic mechanistic worldview. Chaos theory postulates the existence of complex systems in which slight differences in boundary points lead to widely varying end results. Neither the initial conditions nor the end result is predictable, yet patterns of great beauty emerge out of these systems. Chaos theory can be used to ‘model’ everything from storms and air flow to economic systems. Chaos give us glimpses of order—in spite of its name—emerging out of unpredictable and highly variable states. These have been understood to mirror both the orderedness and the ‘freedom’ of complex reality. Chaos also gives us a sense of depth and breadth and a tantalising beyondness to our grasp of physical reality, suggesting the possibility of God and of an end point in and beyond the chaos.
I commented earlier that we are sometimes tempted to wonder whether God has enough resources to bring off the eschaton, especially when the cards seem stacked against the very survival of life on this planet. Developments in physics, such as M theory and string theory, give reason to pause, and caution against asking too many pedantic questions about how exactly life after death fits into our truncated views of reality. For strings give us a glimpse of the enormity of God’s resources, the enormity of the project that would bring the universe or universes to another phase of existence. Worm holes, parallel universes, and eleven dimensions are like rumours of the mysterious interconnections between heaven and earth.
All of this makes possible what has been absent for a long time—a theology of nature that is truly in “transversal” conversation with science. But this is only possible if Christian believers become less cautious about their engagement with science. A new science is giving us a renewed sense of our interconnection with all things, of our relationality, and of the numinosity, extraordinary depth and prodigious richness of nature.
This change of paradigm extends also to ourselves. Just as God has become one with us, we too must recognize our oneness with nature. We must journey conceptually back into nature, to recognize the richness of the nature that has brought us forth, inspirited as it is by God. The journey must be spiritual, emotional and rational, for our connection to nature and our sensus divinitatis contain elements of all of these. The way we think about nature inevitably affects our intuitions and attachments to God. If we can reconnect with the natural world, we may be able to reconnect with God, and with the story of God that has its resolution in resurrection and return.
1 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, translated by John Oman (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958), 36.; Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, edited by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (Fortress, 1976), 36f.
2 John Clavin, Institues, Vol 1:3,
3 Alister McGrath, The Re-enchantment of Nature (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003)
4 Anne Primavesi, Sacred Gaia (Routledge, 2000), 69f
5 Catherine Pickstock, John Milbank, Graham Ward, editors, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, (Oxford: Routledge, 1999) 50f
6 See for example, Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (London: SCM, 1994)
7 1 Cor 15:28
8 See for example Rikk Watts’ discussion of this in Rikk Watts, "The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God," in What Does It Mean to Be Saved?, edited by John G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic, 2002).
9 Denis Edwards, Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004), 171.
10 Ibid. 174.
11 Ruth Page, God and the Web of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1996), 40.
12 See Neil Evernden, The Social Creation of Nature (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992).
13 Wallace E. Anderson, "Editor's Introduction," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, edited by Wallace E. Anderson, Mason I. Lowance Jr., and David Watters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 26.
14 Jonathan Edwards, "Images and Shadows of Divine Things," in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Typological Writings, edited by Wallace E. Anderson, Mason I. Lowance Jr., and David Watters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 53, #8.
15 “Images and Shadows” #10
16 Colin E. Gunton, "The Doctrine of Creation," in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 142.
17 Ibid., 143.
18 Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Works of God. Volume 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 128
19 J.Wentzel Van Huyssteen, Alone in the World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006)
20 John F. Haught, "The Boyle Lecture 2003: Darwin, Design and the Promise of Nature," Science and Christian Belief 17/1 (2005), 5.
21 Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2003), 167.
22 Alister E. McGrath, Scientific Theology, Volume 1, Nature (London & New York: T&T Clark, 2001), 110f, 33.
23 Jan Sapp,Genesis: The Evolution of Biology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
24 Ian Stewart, Life’s Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World, (New York: John Wiley, 1998)
25 Stephen J. Gould, “A Developmental Constrain in Cerion, with Comments of theDefinition and Interpretation of Constraint in Evolution, Evolution, 43/3, (1989), 516-539
26 Simon Conway Morris, Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.
27 See Simon Conway Morris (ed) The Deep Structure of Biology, (Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2008)
28 Christian De Duve, Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative, (New York: Basic Books, 1995); Michael J. Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe, (New York: The Free Press, 1998); Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, ( New York: W. W. Norton, 2005); Stuart Kauffman, The Origins of Order, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)
29 Stewart, 111.
30See for example, Philip Clayton, Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
31 William R. Stroeger S.J., "Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in Our Life-Bearing Universe," in The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology, edited by John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000).