Image Credit: ESA/NASA

I’ve always found theology a little difficult. At times I find myself thinking, ‘This is God they’re talking about. If he’s anything like what they’re describing, shouldn’t they sound more excited?’ I recently came across a theologian who expressed this problem in a way that I found helpful. He said that studying God is something of a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths. They should also spend time on their knees – perhaps mentally in this instance – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.*

I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of the cosmological constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what the universe reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to operate on a purely academic level. On Father’s day you didn’t confine yourself to writing a logical treatise about your dad, and the same applies to a relational God.

There is a huge literature on the beauty of God, and a long-standing tradition of studying what the beauty of creation reveals about the Creator. There are four main pitfalls that Christian theologians are conscious of when it comes to ‘natural theology’ (discovering things about God from nature).

  • Creation is not God, so it does not reveal everything we need to know about him – for that we need Jesus.
  • As creation is not God, it is not to be worshipped or idolised in itself.
  • We are not perfect, so we need to be aware that might make up things about God’s character that reflect what we feel rather than the truth.
  • Creation is described as ‘groaning’: the world we live in is not perfect and will only reveal God’s character fully when it is restored.

For these reasons, some theologians have rejected natural theology entirely. Others have decided that, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should learn to discern what we can of God’s attributes from creation. They believe our universe bears marks of God’s character, however dimly perceived, and that we should test every new insight thoroughly and keep what we learn firmly in context of the full Christian understanding of God.

Alister McGrath put it this way: ‘The Christian doctrine of creation provides an intellectual framework for seeing God through nature; the doctrine of the incarnation allows us to see God in nature, culminating in Christ himself’. Outside of the theological debate, many Christians today experience creation as an important point of contact with God, both at a rational and intuitive level.

Some have spoken of beauty as evidence for God, but I would prefer to think of it as a thought experiment. If a good God created a world, what would you expect? I would expect great beauty. And if we are created ‘in God’s image’, it is perhaps not surprising that we are equipped to appreciate the beauty we see. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar put forward the idea that scientists who are more aesthetically aware are more likely to do great work. More recently Tracee Hackel has suggested that Christians are necessarily more aware of the beauty of God, and therefore more likely to be attuned to the beauty of creation. Or would people who are more attuned to the beauty of creation be more likely to recognise the beauty of God? Perhaps all are true for some individuals. It certainly seems that the experience of beauty in nature nearly always raises big questions.

* This was Karl Rahner, quoted in Theological Aesthetics, Viladesau, OUP, 1999. I doubt I’d agree with all of Rahner’s theology, but I found these remarks helpful.