theology matters: New Frontiers Series - Naturalism and Transcendence

Science has taught us things about the universe that Moses and the Apostle Paul did not know. For example, advances in molecular biology have uncovered worlds within worlds tucked into the tiniest imaginable spaces; and within these miniscule worlds, organized, life-promoting activities rival the hustle and bustle of major cities. And in the macrocosm, advances in astronomy have revealed a vast and expanding universe in which our sun, moon, and planet are but pinpricks within the galactic immensity. As astronomer Harlow Shapely once said, the earth can no longer be seen as the center of a universe governed by a one-planet Deity. In the large and in the small, science has accomplished a new picture of the cosmos; its successes have established science as the pinnacle of contemporary reason. However, there is a high stakes debate about how to interpret scientific discoveries.

This debate manifests what theologian Philip Clayton called a “fractal structure” (Zygon, 2000). Fractals are designs that display repeating patterns at every scale; and across the spectrum of scientific discovery, two possibilities repeatedly arise: naturalism, an interpretation that recognizes nothing beyond nature; and an opposing interpretation that recognizes something above nature in the very midst of nature, one that sees scientific success as a mark of transcendence.

According to naturalism, since nature is the only reality, the scientific study of nature is the only real form of knowledge. From this perspective, religion is just a mass of irrelevant error, because religion attempts to tell us about something that may or may not exist, something allegedly beyond the natural world. The presuppositions of naturalism ensure conflict with belief in transcendence, especially with belief in creation.

Naturalism, however, is not belief-free. Naturalism inevitably incorporates belief in the universe itself, attributing creative capacity to a non-knowing, non-feeling physical realm. According to naturalism, the universe somehow generates its own order and intelligibility, maintains itself in being, and eventually fosters the evolutionary drama in which we find ourselves. In most of its variants, naturalism holds the material universe to be never-beginning and never-ending, which are rather godlike characteristics; but it is a god without consciousness. And yet this completely unconscious universe is believed to produce beings who do have consciousness. Advocates of naturalism have clearly not rid themselves of belief; they have only concentrated their belief onto the material universe itself. They are otherwise known as reductionists, for their position eponymously reduces everything to nature. Naturalism pays an ironic compliment to the work of the Creator, whose personal existence is denied, but whose impersonal universe is extolled.

Although a naturalistic interpretation of science engenders conflict with religious belief, it is not the case on the other side of the fractal structure: when scientific reason is interpreted as a sign of transcendence, science actually becomes a helpful partner to religious faith.

For all their differences, the scientific story is a lot like the religious story, because they are both about truth. Truth, including scientific truth, is already something non-mechanical, something that transcends cause and effect reactions of the material world. Whether truth is realized about natural, social, or spiritual levels, it is already an experience of transcendence. If, borrowing a phrase of from Samuel Taylor  Coleridge, we define truth as “contact with reality,” then science’s cumulative progression in understanding reality, its cumulative understanding of truth, has rightfully earned global respect. In its concern with truth, science is a relative newcomer to an ancient religious pursuit; for as Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Contacting reality—truth—is liberating, empowering, and rejuvenating. We feel good when we solve a problem, because problem solving is a kind of liberation: it releases us from limitation and error. In achieving a new contact with reality, our personal experience is confirming a basic purpose of creation—the human participation in truth.

From the perspective of faith, science can be seen as a quest to understand the details of creation. Far from being a cause of concern, discoveries of microcosmic and macrocosmic splendor have opened new paths into the love of creation. Science has progressively uncovered an intricate order and profound intelligibility in the natural world, order and intelligibility so beautiful that they point beyond science—to something that has made science possible.

In spite of these pointers, these signs of transcendence discovered in the material world, the debate has hardly ended between advocates of naturalism and transcendence. After all, as John Polkinghorne noted, the universe does not appear with components stamped “Made by God.” Yet when confronting the depth of scientific discovery, a basic religious intuition leads us to ask, what is it that makes an orderly, intelligible, and inhabitable universe possible?

Similar questions have been raised by some great scientists. Nobel physicist Eugene Wigner famously asked why mathematics so neatly corresponds to the actual patterns of the physical world, why mathematics has such “unreasonable effectiveness.” And Albert Einstein declared: “The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” But if the universe is created by God, mathematical effectiveness should be expected, and the human ability to comprehend the universe is right on schedule. There is a reason that there is reason; a cause of all causality; and an initiating purpose that makes all subsequent purpose possible.

From the faith side of the fractal divide, the universe can be scientifically explored only because it originates in a Creator of infinite intelligence. Scientific reason is thus not a lucky accident; nor is it a flicker of virtuosity played out on an ultimately meaningless universe stage. Instead, science is a rational activity rationally applied to a universe imbued with its own rational laws. Science is a human response to what the ancient Greeks—and the Prologue of John—called Logos—the reason that there is reason.

This foundational reason, cause, and purpose is in the very roots of reality. In the original Greek language of the New Testament, it is called the Logos. Logos has several important meanings, the most currently well-known being “Word.” But equally well known to the ancient Greeks was reason—reason in the deepest sense, even the ground and source of all reason. For almost 600 years before its biblical use, Logos had been used in Greek philosophical and religious writing, mostly to indicate the divine, rational principle that had caused the ordered, law-like structure of the cosmos.

Drawing upon, yet moving beyond these historical precedents, the opening of the Gospel of John salutes the role of the Logos in creation. Repeating the first phrase of the creation story in Genesis, “In the beginning,” John’s Gospel then elaborates—by stipulating that all of creation comes forth from the divine Person identified as the Logos:

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:1-3)

Since all things come into being through the Logos—the reason or the mind of God—all of creation is imprinted with a share of divine reason. Thus all created things act according to principles of reason, principles which can be scientifically discovered. Given the centrality of the Logos in the Gospel of John, scientific development should be seen as the fulfillment of an expectation, the expectation that an infinitely intelligent Creator, the Logos, has imbued the creation, and especially the human mind, with its own logos. Science is possible because, in the beginning, all things came into being through the Logos.

Three Test Cases

The debate between naturalism and transcendence can be illuminated by examining three areas of relatively recent scientific discovery: big bang cosmology, fine-tuning, and natural selection.

Big Bang Theory

The evidential confirmation of big bang theory came as a surprise to most physicists, and for naturalists, not always a happy surprise. According to big bang theory, the universe began from a “singularity,” an episode of infinite pressure, heat, and density in zero space from which all matter, energy, space, and time originate. Just as an explosion makes things fly apart, the big bang singularity caused the unimaginably hot and inconceivably tiny universe rapidly to expand. For those unfamiliar with the history of the debate about cosmology, it may be helpful to know that the term “big bang” originated as a term of abuse, a shorthand mockery that captured the seemingly outlandish character of a universe with a datable beginning.
However, strong evidence has been found confirming that our universe began in a hot big bang 13.8 billion years ago. In a major discovery in 1929, Edwin Hubble telescopically observed that the universe is expanding—an observation that strongly supported big bang theory. But for opponents of big bang theory, the coup de grâce came in 1965, when researchers at the Bell Labs in New Jersey discovered cosmic background microwave radiation (CMB). This cosmic radiation, found everywhere in interstellar space, clinched the game for big bang theory, because if there was a big bang, there would also be CMB. Since the discovery of CMB, additional evidence has pointed to a big bang beginning. In fact, few scientific theories have enjoyed so much evidential verification. The big bang is so strongly confirmed that, in spite of its theological implications, it is the consensus, virtually a unanimous consensus, among cosmologists.

Discourse about the origin of the universe is now shared turf between science and theology; and having a scientific date for a beginning certainly looks consonant with traditional religious belief in creation, even creation ex nihilo. Big bang theory has led scientists to think what Christians, Jews, and Muslims have long believed—that the universe had an origin, that it is not past-eternal. Nonetheless, it would be rash to think that the big bang proves that God created the universe. But Christianity does not need proof from science, only compatibility. And it is safe to say that big bang cosmology is highly compatible with Christian faith in creation.

It is also safe to say that the success of big bang theory greatly perturbed the naturalistic bent of many mid-twentieth-century scientists. Some eminent scientists at first refused to believe it. German chemist Walter Nernst declared: “To deny the infinite duration of time would be to betray the very foundation of science.” Likewise, American astronomer Allan Sandage said of Big Bang: “It is such a strange conclusion . . . it cannot really be true.” In 1931, Arthur Eddington, a physicist and believing Quaker, nonetheless wrote: “the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me. . . . I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. . . . [T]he expanding Universe is preposterous . . . incredible. . . . [I]t leaves me cold.” Scientists who want to explain everything scientifically are understandably upset by discovering that the universe has a beginning that must escape their explanations. Walter Jastrow, even though an agnostic, humorously addressed Big Bang’s success: “This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians.” Jastrow, a Dartmouth physics professor who also worked with NASA, drew a comic picture of the unexpected development:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

Big bang theory has been what physicist Stephen Barr called a “plot twist” in the relation of science and theology.

However, while virtually everyone agrees that the big bang was the origin of our universe, many astrophysicists continue to seek a breakthrough, to seek a way past the big bang and into a larger universe that would be both infinite and past-eternal. Many alternatives to big bang have been proposed and, if the assumptions of infinite time and space are granted, their mathematics become at least plausible. But to date, proposals for a so-called multiverse are entirely speculative; there is no supporting evidence. Most naturalists believe that some version of the multiverse will sooner or later gain traction. If evidence of a multiverse ever were discovered, the fractal structure of the debate between naturalism and transcendence would likely continue, for a multiverse that is scientifically accessible would still be subject to logos. But for now, the scientific consensus, restless though it may be, is that the one universe we know about began 13.8 billion years ago with the big bang.


Just as big bang cosmology has been surprisingly compatible with Christian faith, so too has the discovery that the universe is finely tuned to support life. As physicists discovered more and more about the universe’s origin and development, they also found how the odds of forming a life-supporting universe were overwhelmingly bad. Looking at the physics alone, our existence, our planet, and our current universe are extremely improbable. There are numerous relations among basic physical forces in which changing any one of the related items—in either direction—would result in a cosmic wasteland.

Fine-tuning is exemplified in the relation of gravity and the explosive outward force of the big bang. These two forces are exquisitely balanced in precisely the right way to form a universe with galaxies and planets. Gravity and the explosive force work in opposite ways: gravity pulls things together; the explosive force drives things apart. If the gravitational force were slightly stronger than it actually is, gravity would stop the expansion of the universe, pulling all matter and energy back into the infinitely dense and uninhabitable starting point. If the explosive force were slightly stronger, then the universe would have expanded so rapidly that no important structural interactions could occur. Both scenarios would be calamitous; there would be no habitable universe. Instead, the balance between the two opposing forces is astonishing. Physicist Paul Davies calculates that almost immediately (10-43 seconds) after the big bang, the opposing forces are balanced to one part in 1060. A change of just 1/1060 in either direction would mean no developed universe and no life. This remarkable balancing act demonstrates the essence of fine-tuning, and there are many other instances of fine-tuning that are equally astonishing.

That fine-tuning has occurred is clear. How to interpret fine-tuning is controversial, displaying once again the fractal divide of interpretation. In the spirit of St. Anselm’s faith seeking understanding, religious believers can interpret the discovery of fine-tuning to be another fulfillment of an expectation. If the universe was created by an infinitely intelligent Creator, by the Logos, then we should expect to find something as remarkable as fine-tuning, another scientific uncovering of the depth of logos wondrously imprinted in the fabric of reality. If we begin in faith and seek to understand, we do not find scientific proof of God, but we do find scientific compatibility.

On the other side of the fractal divide, naturalists have proposed various strategies that would discount the evidence of fine-tuning. Again appealing to a possible multiverse, they argue that the numerical improbabilities disappear when given infinite time for the universe to run through infinite possibilities; one or more of these infinite practice runs will eventually work. Moreover, our current knowledge is limited. There could be hidden factors necessitating what looks like fine-tuning to us.

And so the debate continues. But much like the big bang origin of the universe, the phenomenon of fine-tuning is highly compatible with faith in creation.

Natural Selection

The third test case for the debate between naturalism and transcendence appears at first sight to be the toughest for advocates of transcendence. In his preface to Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch, George Bernard Shaw wrote about evolution and natural selection:

The Darwinian process may be described as a chapter of accidents. As such, it seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

Natural selection was arguably Darwin’s most important contribution. In The Origin of Species, he described it as follows:

Can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.

In combination with mutations and vast stretches of time, natural selection is the driving force of the evolutionary process. Over time, random mutations generate novelty, while natural selection coldly judges novel attempts with life or death consequences. As natural selection judges new developments, it lets most of them perish (along with the creatures in which they occur), and lets only a small minority survive and establish a new standard. Mutations make the evolutionary process dynamic; natural selection makes it stable. Through natural selection, advantages are preserved, disadvantages eliminated. Mutations are either “selected for” or “selected against.” Selection language is offensive to social sensibilities, but it is the reality of the evolutionary world, and a challenge to understanding God as love.

Every biological development is subject to the judgment of natural selection: fit or unfit. The “judgment” is entirely impersonal, blind, and automatic. Actually, there is no judge and no judgment; there is only success or failure. If a new variation works well, it tends to spread through its species. If it does not work well, its bearer normally dies without reproducing. An insect may have the ability to leap or fly, but those that also have camouflage have a distinct advantage in avoiding predators. A grasshopper with a gene for camouflage is more likely to survive and bear camouflaged offspring that can also survive. By contrast, insects without camouflage are more likely to become extinct. In evolution, every advantage contributes to the long term survival of the species. By adjudicating new developments as fit or unfit, natural selection keeps living things strong and competitive. Like a ghost, natural selection has no substance or location; yet like the “invisible hand” of laissez-faire economics, it sorts interactions in the marketplace of life.

In concert with mutations and vast swathes of geologic time, natural selection keeps the biosphere vibrant. Removing unworkable features, it preserves advantageous features, both old and new, thus both maintaining stability and fostering a controlled development of novelty and diversity. These are no small accomplishments, but if they are purely naturalistic, then any role for divine design and activity looks superfluous. For many such as Richard Dawkins, natural selection has been the best argument for naturalism.

Beyond the issue of divine design, natural selection raises a moral issue: Can an evolutionary world governed by natural selection be created by a God of love?

Every organism alive at this moment is descended from a long line of evolutionary winners. Minimally, the ancestors of current organisms had to survive long enough and to compete well enough to reproduce. But untold trillions of organisms and most historical species did not survive. While natural selection is clearly effective, what does its heartlessness, its regime of winners and losers, say about the Creator?

Further exacerbating this challenge, natural selection intrudes into areas Christians hold dear, such as the human brain and motherly love. The brain is a powerful evolutionary feature, but it is biologically expensive. Although big brains are selected for, they require a lot of energy. The chimpanzee brain uses eight percent of the basal metabolic rate; the human brain uses about twenty-two percent, which then necessitates better nourishment. Larger brains not only need better food, they also need larger heads. Meeting these needs is a feat of evolutionary ingenuity.

A seemingly unsurpassable limit for brain size was the size of a woman’s birth canal. If the birth canal were too large, normal movement would be impeded and therefore selected against. The evolutionary solution is ingenious: let human babies’ brains grow in size for twelve months after birth. Essentially, the human baby is born twelve months premature, a situation that demands an intense and lengthy period of mother-child nurture. To get the evolutionary advantage of larger brains, natural selection, by means of selected-for mutations, found a workaround of the birth canal problem. But the troubling implication is that large brains and human motherly love are only by-products and servants of biological adaptation. To think that our brains and mother-love are no more than stratagems of natural selection is disturbing.

Furthermore, when necessary, natural selection can do the opposite and turn a mother against offspring. Again, in his Origin of Species, Darwin observed,

It may be difficult, but we ought to admire the savage instinctive hatred of the queen-bee, which urges her instantly to destroy the young queens her daughters as soon as born, or to perish herself in the combat; for undoubtedly this is for the good of the community; and maternal love or maternal hatred, though the latter fortunately is most rare, is all the same to the inexorable principle of natural selection.

This mother-daughter combat, even though among insects, is still unsettling. We seem to be ensconced in an evolutionary realm wherein natural selection is invisibly manipulating behavior toward one ultimate goal: biological survival. This heartless manipulation and the ongoing extermination of countless evolutionary losers do not seem compatible with a God of love.

The theological challenge of natural selection is deepened when we consider that struggle, pain, and death are biologically universal. The universality of struggle, pain, and death call into question the goodness of creation—and thereby the goodness of the Creator.

The struggle for resources is most intense among members of the same species, giving rise to survival only of the fittest. But by the early nineteenth century, excavations had made it clear that a great number of entire species had died. At some point, every human child learns to deal with death, but the fact that entire species perish, even 99% of those that have ever lived, forces a reconsideration of the natural world. The fossil record indicates that mammalian species last about 2 million years; marine invertebrates about 3.4 million; and insects about 3.6 million. We can only speculate about how long the human race will persist. Both collectively and individually, we are involved in a biological arms race. To struggle and experience pain are the high prices that natural selection demands and, since all biological beings die, the rewards are decidedly temporary.

Pondering this evolutionary reality, a naturalist can simply say: that’s the way things are. But for those who believe in the goodness of creation, the harshness of natural selection is a challenge that requires response.

At first sight, natural selection and a God of love seem incompatible. But in spite of its harshness, natural selection not only serves indispensable biological purposes, but also prepares human beings for something greater than the biosphere. Natural selection has produced a diverse biosphere of strength, complexity, adaptability, and beauty, and Homo sapiens is very much part of this evolutionary development. By providing humanity with a difficult initial setting, an evolutionary creation is part of the training ground that human persons need to develop character fit for eternity.

Natural selection forces us to stop dreaming of a perfect earth replete with creature comforts for all. Instead, it points us toward a principal purpose of creation: to let humanity freely participate in its own growth in biology, culture, and, most importantly, toward God. Seen in this light, natural selection and divine love are in no way incompatible: “Do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Prov. 3:11-12, capitalization altered). Apart from discipline, imperfect and immature beings like us are unlikely to advance in our engagement of nature, culture, God, and one another. We are multi-leveled creatures and for us, on the levels of nature, culture, and spirit, discipline is part of love.

Admittedly, natural selection has played a key role in the evolution of the human brain and the correlated mother-child nurture. Bigger brains are indeed selected for greater survival, but they are also prerequisites of the higher level activities of seeking truth, goodness, and beauty, and these higher level activities go well beyond evolutionary demands.

Naturalism would build an interpretive wall around natural phenomena, focusing solely on the lower level of what happens and what causes what. But natural phenomena can also be construed as servants of supernatural purposes, where “super” is understood in its original Latin sense of “above.” From this perspective, the selective pressures leading to mother-child attachment are only the beginning of the story. Beyond biology, receiving a mother’s love and nurture introduces a child to interpersonal affection and orients it toward future acts of affection and kindness. Absent this parental introduction into a realm of love, it may be difficult if not impossible for the child to love others, let alone to follow Jesus’ call to love all people, even enemies (Cf. Matt. 5:43-46; Luke 10:25-37). By promoting the biological attachment of mother and child, natural selection also supports the higher possibilities of a life of love.

In Darwin’s example of a queen bee attacking its own offspring, the behavior is unquestionably vicious and unsettling to us. The takeaway point is not that insects can be cruel (they can); rather, it is that within the evolutionary biosphere there is a species that cares about cruelty—even when that cruelty is perpetrated within a distant species. Living within nature, humanity has spiritual capacities that exceed nature.

The debate about natural selection displays the same fractal structure that we saw in debates about big bang, the multiverse, and fine-tuning. It is possible but not necessary to interpret natural selection solely through the lens of naturalism. Natural selection is nature’s form of winning and losing. Over 3.45 billion years of evolution, competition for limited resources has prompted the biosphere’s tremendous development. The struggle of the parts, including our struggles, has benefited the whole. Like gravity, there is something unyielding and completely impersonal about natural selection and the price that it has exacted. But in spite of the cost, it is difficult even to conceive a biosphere where losing had no effect and where being weak and ineffectual did not matter. Natural selection teaches us to face reality as it is, and not as we would have it to be. In and of itself, the natural world cannot be called ethical, but it could be called pre-ethical.

Even in Jesus’ parable of the talents, we encounter winners and losers. Two servants develop their given talents and are strongly rewarded. A third servant buries his one talent in the ground and is severely punished (Matt. 25:14-30). It is an unfortunately common illusion that the material world is difficult and the spiritual realm is easy. On all levels of reality—in nature, in culture, and with the Spirit of God—human persons and communities must learn to overcome the given difficulties. It is easy to fail; continued success over time requires character.

Winning and losing are part of the natural world; more tamely, with fewer life-and-death consequences, they are part of human civilization; and greatly transformed, they are part of Jesus’ gospel. Darwin’s natural selection is about winning in the biological world; Jesus’ teaching is ultimately about the greatest possible victory, about entering into what St. Thomas Aquinas called “the fellowship of eternal happiness” (ST II.II.23.1).

Concluding Reflections

The debate between naturalism and transcendence is in many ways a debate about reason. In naturalism, scientific (and other) reason is merely an outgrowth of evolutionary pressure to use bigger brains for better rates of survival in a perennially tough neighborhood. In this reductionist vision, reason is encircled by absurdity, because our appearance, like the appearance of galactic structures to support human life, is accidental, unintended, and temporary. If naturalism accurately describes the way things are, it would not be good news, not even for those who hold the view. But if scientific reason is seen as a logos derived from the original Logos of the Creator, then human reason is not an anomaly, but rather, a sign of transcendence and a bestowed capacity for pursuing meaningful purpose.

That God created has long been a belief of Christians and other monotheists, but this belief, if prodded, too often reveals an underlying flimsiness. For many believers, creation is something so distant and vague that it is ineffective in shaping life performance. The good news is that recent scientific discoveries like the big bang, fine-tuning, and even natural selection have revealed details about the cosmos that can give belief in creation a new solidity, a more realistic understanding of our universe home.

In the 6th century BC, the Hebrew priests provided an inspired view of the origin, development, and purpose of the cosmos. But the science of our age lets us see a universe even more beautiful, with discoverable laws displaying awe-inspiring rationality. Joining faith with scientific understanding, allowing scientific discovery to foster a broader and deeper love of creation, is one of our great contemporary opportunities.

Philip Rolnick is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, and has been on faculty since 2003. His work on theology, cosmology, and evolution will be featured in the Theology Department’s New Frontiers Series, Thursday, Nov. 12, 7:00 p.m. in the OEC Auditorium. The lecture is based on his book Origins: God, Evolution, and the Question of the Cosmos forthcoming from Baylor University Press, October 15, 2015.

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