Nobody knows what “nature” is

Resuming our discussion…

Chapter three of McGrath’s book is called “The Construction of Nature”, and spends fifty pages arguing a simple claim – that no precise and universal definition of “nature” exists, and without such a definition any attempt to construct a theology of nature is doomed to fail. The chapter is mainly, I think we’ll see, prelude to chapter four, which is on the more robust concept of “creation”.

I think we Christians already have some idea how difficult defining “nature” might be. For example, consider the closely related term “natural”. We regularly talk about “natural” events and “supernatural” events – but actually try to define those words and you find it more difficult than you might expect. Maybe your first thought is something like “supernatural events are special actions of God, while natural events happen without his intervention” – but that’s not very good, because we believe God is in some sense in control of everything that happens. OK, maybe supernatural events are events that violate natural laws then? Well, that definition is kind of unfair since we haven’t defined “natural” yet. I’m also reminded of Richard Wurmbrand’s book In God’s Underground – when being tortured because of his faith, he mentions having visions that helped keep him alive. He says the visions were from God, yet also acknowledges that there are medical explanations for them. Should we call his visions natural or supernatural then? My wife suggested that perhaps we could define nature as that which is capable of being investigated and understood by the natural sciences – a definition similar to that offered by C.S. Lewis (see below) that would mean nature has been getting bigger for the last five centuries or so! We could go on – definitions strict enough to build a theology upon are hard to produce.

McGrath goes through many examples of how the concept has been understood in different places and times to show that our understanding of what constitutes nature is more influenced by our society and culture than we probably know. I don’t actually want to say much more since this chapter is mainly devoted to tearing down, while the next chapter will be building up – but let me just give you a taste. McGrath says we use the word “nature” in at least three different ways,

1. To mean the structures and processes of the physical world, studied by the natural sciences.
2. To distinguish humanity as special (when contrasted with nature)
3. To mean all the features of the world, especially as they were before man (in an ecological sense contrasting nature with urban environments, for example)

For a general survey of the evolution of the notion of nature, McGrath recommends a C.S. Lewis book I’d never heard of (what?), Studies in Words. Just FYI. If it’s Lewis, it has to be good. McGrath includes a longer quotation from Lewis to illustrate how difficult nature is to define. Many people would say that “nature” is that which man has not yet conquered. Lewis says just the opposite, and I think you can imagine where he is coming from.

We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may conquer them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyze her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature.

Interesting. I think I’ll stop rather abruptly there, and hopefully return with some positive (in the sense of construction rather than destruction) thoughts from chapter four next Saturday.

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”

3 thoughts on “Nobody knows what “nature” is

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