Beyond Natural Theology: transcendence made greater by immanence

cu campus

One of the first things you notice about living in Boulder, Colorado, is the stunning natural beauty that is all around you. Routinely I find myself stopping to admire the pristine splendor of the towering Flatiron Mountains, even in mundane settings like traffic lights and parking lots. Maintenance vehicles around the University of Colorado bear the slogan “world’s most beautiful campus”. A quick stroll around the grounds of CU, with its elegant Italianate buildings framed by the distant peaks of the mountain reveals that this is no idle boast. So many residents of Boulder, both students and townspeople alike are not from the area originally, or even Colorado itself. When you ask why they’ve moved here, a majority of them mention the glorious natural setting as a major contributing factor, along with all of the recreational and lifestyle opportunities such a setting offers.

 

Now when I go around Boulder, its beauty serves to me as a constant reminder of the marvelous handiwork of our Creator. As Psalm 19 states: “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork”. The idea that God’s existence and even some of His attributes can be inferred from observation of the physical world alone, is called Natural Theology. It has a venerable tradition, dating back to Plato in ancient Greece, and further refined by notable Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo, and later St. Thomas Aquinas. A natural theology would seem to be supported by passages from Paul, such as Romans 1:19-20 where he writes: “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. “

 

But just how viable is the concept of a natural theology? Should people not only be able to discern God’s existence from the world around them, but also be able to come to a knowledge of the saving power of Jesus Christ? We discussed this very question in the college Sunday school class yesterday at East Boulder Baptist Church. The consensus from our group of students and campus ministers was that while the fact of God’s existence was possible to extract from the evidence provided by the natural world, it seems difficult to imagine that someone could then arrive at a knowledge of Christ, solely from observing the world around them. This is not to say that God cannot work in such a fashion. After all, many missionaries have stories of meeting individuals even in supposedly “unreached” people groups, who have somehow already heard of Jesus. Perhaps they have seen Christ through the means of a vision or dream, even though they have never had formal contact with another believer. We know furthermore that the possession of God’s Word alone is sometimes sufficient to convert an individual. The ministry of the Gideons, with their worldwide distribution of the Holy Bible, has aided in many such transformations, the work of the Holy Spirit through Scripture, again without a verbal witness or testimony from a believer.

 

But in the absence of such a verbal testimony, and left simply to rely on their own logical assumptions based on an observation of nature, it’s all too possible that people may reach erroneous conclusions. Deism, for example was a religious and philosophical movement that came to prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, during the Age of Enlightenment. Notable Deists included French philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Deists were often scientifically-minded, and yet their close observation of the natural world, led them to assume a very different God than the one revealed in Scripture. The classic phrase to encapsulate the Deist understanding of Divinity is the idea of a “watchmaker God”, who after having fashioned the universe and set it in motion, remains distant and uninvolved in its day-to-day running. Thus even as Deists accepted the existence of God based upon the order, complexity, and beauty of the natural world, they rejected the Biblical view of a personal God, involved in human affairs. Then there are many who, far from concluding that God exists, use the exploration of the natural world as their platform for exalting a purely physical and scientific explanation of the Universe which excludes any possibility of God’s existence. Many with this scientific bent would identify with and maybe even endorse the message I saw on a t-shirt on the CU campus recently: “Too stupid to understand science? Try religion!”

 

cu fall foliage
At Christian Challenge, we want to make God known amongst the students of CU—Boulder. Our goal is to give every student the chance to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And as much as we have to initially build relationships, and establish common ground, as well as use different platforms for connecting to people, the end goal is the same—we look for an opportunity to witness, or as Paul says in Colossians 4:3 “that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ.” Now as we have mentioned, Paul states in Romans 1 that the world itself testified to the existence of God. Yet if we read further in the same book, Paul seems to be advocating what our Sunday school class determined, that while a knowledge of God is possible from the natural world, such a knowledge is ultimately superficial and incomplete, because it cannot reveal the full glory of a personal God. This is why he offers a definite call for verbal witness later in Romans 10:14-15—“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And who shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” Natural theology tends to lead to an understanding of God as mostly transcendent—powerful, majestic, the author of creation and all life—but perhaps not terribly concerned with human affairs. Yet Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, proclaims a God who is immanent…accessible to all, and deeply in love with and concerned for His creation. The fact that God is mighty and powerful is not so surprising, in a sense. Most cultures throughout history have posited gods and deities that were awe-inspiring in terms of their sheer potency. And so while power is undoubtedly one of God’s main attributes, it is not necessarily His primary attribute. Being powerful and loving, is what truly sets the Christian God apart, from all other conceptions of Divinity, and this great love is manifest most perfectly in the life, work, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 
As a NAMB campus missionary, I am blessed enough to be sent out into the mission field on the strength of the prayers, financial gifts, and Godly encouragement of my many ministry partners. On the one hand, I could never imagine making a more eloquent appeal for God’s existence than the towering evidence of the mountains surrounding Boulder, yet my personal witness is still necessary. Because despite His transcendence, God has also made Himself immanent in my life through Jesus Christ. The Lord of the Universe is as close to me as my next breath. This is the miraculous truth that I have the privilege to share with Colorado students. I pray that I am always able to move beyond getting someone to simply appreciate or acknowledge God’s existence. I want to testify with my words and my lifestyle to the personal presence of the Creator God in the hearts and lives of those who choose to follow Jesus. That is why I am here in Boulder. For God is Transcendent, always, yes. But His Transcendence is given further greatness, and critical value, by the immanence of His love, made available to all through the gift of Jesus. The God that we encounter in nature is spectacular, true—but the work God has done in the physical world does not seem to me to be as spectacular as the work He has done in the spiritual realm, to bring about the possibility of redemption to a sinful humanity through the perfection of Christ.

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