- Is a “Christian Naturalism” Possible?: Exploring the Boundaries of a Tradition
I. What is Christian Naturalism?
Is a Christian naturalism possible? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. However, depending on the meaning of the terms, it is not only possible but highly desirable. The purpose of this article is to sketch the possibility of a Christian naturalism, drawing on a number of twentieth- and twenty-first-century theologians.
Naturalism is a contrast term, like “left” or “up,” which gets its meaning partly from opposition to another term, in this case “supernaturalism” or sometimes “supranaturalism.” It is a set of beliefs which focuses on this world. (Of course, there is no other world, according to naturalism, but since Christians and others have often spoken of God, soul, and/or heaven as distinct from this world, naturalism is a denial of that strand of the Christian tradition.) As Bernard Loomer wrote, it is a shift from living as a pilgrim between this world and the other world to an earth-creature resident in this.1
What would a Christian naturalism be? My suggestion is that, first, a Christian naturalist would be willing to use the term “God” as the focus of the religious attitude. This will be a naturalistic theism. Typically such a naturalistic theism will either refer to God as the entire universe in its creative or other aspect (George B. Foster, Edward S. Ames, Bernard M. Loomer) or else God as the creative or transformative process or forces within the universe (Henry Nelson Wieman, Karl Peters). In the second place, if a writer has a discussion of the positive significance of Christ, this would further validate the use of the term “Christian naturalism.”
Briefly put, my proposal is that a Christian naturalism definitely needs: (a) some notion of God, and (b) probably needs something like a Christology, both within the framework of a naturalist world view. This article explores some examples of both of these. Why bother? Well, since naturalism is a major world view today, it would be well for the future of Christianity if it could be stated in naturalistic terms without losing too much of its heart. [End Page 205]
Affirming a naturalistic theism would remove a key part of the contemporary antagonism between a scientific and a religious world view. Affirming a naturalistic theism with a naturalistic Christology would continue much of the distinctive thrust of the way of life of the Christian communities without an imperialistic attitude toward other religions. Such a Christian naturalistic theism would involve some change from the traditional Christian outlook, even when informed by most liberal theologies. While such change might be seen by some as a loss to be challenged or to be accepted with some mourning, it might be greeted by others as a way to be Christian with intellectual integrity.
A problem arises since many theologians do not use the term “supernaturalism” to describe their own view. At that point there is no useful contrast term to “naturalism,” and the term expands to be nearly meaningless. For this reason, my technical definition of naturalism involves the denial (in however tentative or hypothetical fashion) of “an ontologically distinct and superior entity, realm, or ground (such as God, soul, or heaven) to ground, explain, or give meaning to this world”2
To be sure, any religion, like Christianity, that affirms the creation, incarnation, and redemption has a naturalistic dimension. But naturalists affirm that (as far as we can tell) nature, including humans and their cultures, is all there is.
Many process theologians and panentheists speak of God as immanent within the world and hence of themselves as naturalists. However, God, as generally understood by process thought, is so ontologically unique (e.g., is an entity surpassable by none except itself) as to fall outside of our definition of naturalism. David Griffin, for example, in Religion and Scientific Naturalism, uses the term “naturalism” to describe his own view because it rejects any supernatural interruption of the natural order. However, this God, who is a supreme power, the only entity involved in the origination of every other event and who gives to each its ideal aim, is...