Nature and God

by L. Charles Birch
As a research scholar at Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, and as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney, Professor Birch has blazed new paths into questions about science and faith. Published by Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965.

Chapter 1: The Universe: A Machine or a Birth?

The whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth.
Romans 8. 22 (NEB).

Becoming is no longer the enemy of permanence but its everlasting foundation.
Charles Hartshorne.1

The God of the Australians

In the year 1676 a book was published entitled Terre Australe Connue. In it the author Foigny described an ideal island in the southern seas. This was one of many utopias imagined by writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. All was sweetness and light, in contrast to the wars, inequalities and other hardships at home in Europe. The inhabitants of Terre Australe, whom Foigny called Australians, were descended, not from Adam, but from a being who had never fallen. Furthermore, the Australians were deists; that is, they believed that God had made a world perfect and complete for man to languish in. There was no more to do, either for God or man, save to enjoy the perfect bliss of Terre Australe for ever.2

It is a paradox of history that it was in part their interpretation of science which led men like Foigny to such a concept of nature and God. His was perhaps an extreme version of a view that was widely held in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the first three centuries of modern science. This might appear to be a contradiction, for after all utopia literally means ‘no place’ in reality. But for these dreamers of utopia it was the paradise God had made complete and perfect once and for all but which Adam had lost. Their science and their religion combined to make a natural theology in which all was sweetness and light with no place for imperfection and tragedy. If this did not quite fit the picture at home, then maybe it did beyond the horizon. With a little bit of imagination, you could make out the real paradise on earth which was God’s creation.

We tend to think of the rebirth of science in the sixteenth century as being the birth of a conflict with religion, but before the century was out this same science was being largely used as a mainstay for belief in what became known as deism. This is the theory of the completed mechanical universe presided over by a divine mechanic. As Basil Willey has remarked, ‘Whether one contemplated the infinitely great by the optic glass of the Tuscan artist, or the infinitely little through the microscope of Malpighi. one received at every turn a new assurance that all was according to the Ordainer of order and mystical mathematics of the city of heaven.’2 Science was unveiling a universe that looked like a vast machine. What had God to do with the machinery? The answer the deists gave was -- very little now, but he made it all in the first place. God was the cosmic mechanic, the maker of the machine. How did they come to think of the universe in such terms?

The Universe as Mechanism

Copernicus had given the world a picture of the universe in mechanical and mathematical terms. Galileo added to this picture and put the emphasis for science on measuring. Indeed, he said that only that which is measurable is real. These measurable qualities he called primary qualities; shape, size, position, and mass which was added later. These are the properties of bodies studied in mechanics. Bodies appear to have other qualities to be sure, such as colour, sound, smell, taste and so on. These he called secondary qualities. They were, he said, entirely due to the people perceiving them. A feather brushed on the skin tickles, but you do not say that tickling is a property of the feather. Nor should you suppose that secondary qualities are real properties of things. Galileo’s world had exactly the same set of limited properties as the ancient Greek world of atomism of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius. Their world consisted of atoms of matter moving in empty space. The atoms had only those same qualities that Galileo called primary qualities. The same point of view is pushed further by Newton who, in one fell swoop, provided one universal principle of gravitation to account for the movement of all bodies great or small. The stars in their courses and the apple that falls from the tree both move according to the same rules.

Hesse3 points out that the success of Newton’s system in explaining the motion of bodies led to the demand of the seventeenth century that all explanation in science should be in terms of mass particles or atoms moving in space. This is the ‘billiard ball’ universe of which Whitehead said. ‘The course of nature is conceived as being merely the fortunes of matter in its adventure through space’.4 In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke declared that he only needed to know the position and motion of the bits and pieces that constituted rhubarb and opium and he would then be able to predict that rhubarb would purge and opium would make a man sleep. It was the view expressed later by Laplace in his claim that if he were given the original positions and motions of every particle in the universe, he could predict the entire course of subsequent events. William Blake said that to teach the atomism of science was ‘to educate a fool to build a universe with farthing balls’. It did not take long for the inventors of the mechanical universe to see that there was nothing for God to do in it. He was progressively dismissed from it, except in so far as he might be regarded as the one who made it in the first place. Newton did not dismiss God altogether. He was unable to account for the precise orbs of the planets in terms of his mechanics. So he supposed that God personally intervened when they went off their paths. The universe was like a self-winding clock that ran pretty well on the whole, but it could get out of time. Then it was necessary for God to return to regulate it. Newton’s contemporaries could see that further discoveries in science were likely to replace even this limited role he gave to God. And such was indeed what happened.5

And so was revived in the seventeenth century from its Greek origin the famous mechanistic theory of nature. The physical world was to be explained entirely as the consequence of the disposition of masses which moved each other according to their mass and to the distances between them. Whitehead remarked. ‘It is a view that has reigned supreme ever since’4.

Living Organisms as Machines

What of biology? If we were to choose a single year to mark the birth of modern biology it would be 1543. Not only was this a red-letter year for physics, being the date of publication of Copernicus’ Revolution of the Celestial Orbs. it was also the year of publication of the first great work of modern biology, The Fabric of the Human Body by Vesalius. As the title implies. Vesalius considered the body to be a fabric; the workmanship of ‘the great craftsman’. On the foundations of Vesalius’ anatomy, the Englishman William Harvey was to initiate a revival of the science of physiology with the publication in 1628 of his Anatomical Dissertation concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood. All this new information from biology fitted very nicely into the mechanistic doctrines of Locke and Hobbes. But it was for Hobbes’ more brilliant contemporary Descartes to give explicit development to the mechanistic theory of nature in the living part of the world. ‘Give me matter and motion and I will construct a universe,’ he said, and this is precisely what he found in the works of Vesalius and Harvey. Here were levers and joints, pumps and valves with which to build a machine. And this is what Descartes did in what was the first scientific textbook of mechanistic physiology, his Traité de l’homme (1664). Descartes was trained as an engineer. His textbook was an engineer’s conception of how the body works.

Of course there were problems when Descartes came to consider the brain and the human mind. It seemed quite plain to him that animals could be described as automata. but it was difficult to accept this as an adequate account of the human mind. So Descartes postulated two sorts of entities, matter and mind. Man was a machine but with the difference that he had a mind ‘annexed’ to it. Hence was born the Cartesian doctrine of the bifurcation of nature which has had a profound influence on human thought ever since. The relation of matter to mind remained a mystery in Descartes’ scheme. As to God, he was outside nature. Butterfield summarizes Descartes thus:

God, the human soul and the whole realm of spiritual things, however, escaped imprisonment in the process of mechanization, and were superadded presences, flitting vaporously amongst the cog-wheels, the pulleys, the steel castings of a relentless world-machine. It was very difficult to show how these two planes of existence could ever have come to intersect, or at what point mind or soul could ever join up with matter.6

Descartes had a profound influence on thought about nature.7 Some claim that he has influenced the background thinking of scientists more than any other philosopher. He had a direct influence in the first mechanistic movement in biochemistry headed by Franciscus Sylvius of Leyden. in the discovery of the muscular nature of the heart by Nicholas Steno, and in the application of methods of physics to biology by Giovanni Borelli, Sanctorius and others.8 Descartes gave a philosophical status to the mechanical procedures of science which were to prove so successful in analysing the world. All this was commendable. Mechanism has had its triumphs; it is possible that science would have advanced more slowly without the mechanistic formulation of Descartes. But the subsequent part of the story is different. When carried to an extreme, the mechanistic doctrine of Descartes was to have disastrous consequences in man’s view of the universe.

In Descartes’ scheme God seemed to be outside the system except in so far as ‘God breathed a living soul’ into man. A doctrine of God in the living world was developed much more explicitly in England, notably by John Ray, the Cambridge botanist. His book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (first published late in the seventeenth century. then expanded and reprinted many times in later centuries) determined, more than any other, the character of interpretation of nature until Darwin’s time.9’I mean by the works of creation,’ he wrote, ‘the works created by God at first, and by him conserved to this day in the same state and condition in which they were first made.’10 The study of nature revealed the ‘wisdom of God in his original design’. Ray was not the first biologist to argue in this way. Indeed, the greatest experimental biologist of antiquity. the physician Galen (AD 150-200) was led by his studies of anatomy to a view that all the parts of the body were designedly fixed by a wise and far-seeing God.11 For Ray, the adaptive camouflage of the tiger, the perfection of the human eye for seeing, the maintenance of the right ratio between the sexes, all argued for the perfection of both the blueprint of nature drawn by the great architect and the act of creation itself. Moreover, the long recital of adaptations of plants and animals in itself ‘proved infallibly’ the existence of God as he forcibly tells his reader in the concluding paragraphs of his book. Ray wrote about organ after organ of the human body, the parental solicitude of birds and the non-appearance of wasps until the plums are ripe and other adaptations as evidence of God’s designing hand. Even the most vile insect, he says, provides us with medicine. And as for plagues of insects, they are sent by God to chastise us. God, having made nature, had left it except for such interventions. These were the only present ‘acts of God’. You could say it was a lawyer’s view of the nature of God’s activity. Ray recognizes what he calls ‘errors and bungles’ in nature. These lie attributes to a ‘plastic nature’ or ‘vegetative soul’ of the living organism, a concept he borrowed from Cudworth. But all the wonders of design in nature are to be attributed to the wisdom of the original creation which somehow overrules ‘plastic nature’ in these instances.9, 12

There can be no serious doubt that Ray’s book contributed to the general atmosphere of satisfied optimism in the eighteenth century which Willey has descriptively called cosmic Toryism’.2 This state of thought was summed up in Pope’s famous six lines set forth in the Essay on Man:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite
One truth is clear: whatever is is right

This was the best of all possible worlds. The latter phrase which Voltaire puts into the mouth of Pangloss in Candide came from Leibnitz. But Leibnitz did not imply, as others have, contentment with the whole cosmic scheme. He offered a variety of solutions to the problem of evil and tended to conclude that even with evil as an ingredient, this world is better than any conceivable alternative. Voltaire ridiculed the proposition in Candide by asking, ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what are the others like?’

The historical importance of Ray in this story is surely that he, more than any other biologist in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, provided the details of a deistic view of nature. His book was persuasive for his contemporaries, though rather boring for us. Linnaeus, the prince of botanists of the eighteenth century, who was born two years after Ray’s death, accepted his argument. In his own essay On the Increase of the Habitable Earth (1743), Linnaeus wrote:

Scripture and reason equally assures us that this astounding machine, the universe, was produced and created by an infinite Architect. . . He who has ordered all things with the most singular wisdom, and has regulated the number of the offspring of every kind of animal with a proportion so exact, employed certainly as accurate a calculation in creating them.13

Biology of the seventeenth century headed by Ray reinforced the natural theology that had been constructed by physics and astronomy in the sixteenth century. For three centuries, until the middle of the nineteenth century. nature was regarded as a sure basis for belief in God, indeed a surer basis than theology. ‘Evidences’ for religion meant nature not theology. After all, theology had been a constant source of dispute since the Reformation. This had led to hatred, persecution. even war. Nature was the great alternative to the confused religious background of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

From the uncertainty of traditional theology, the deists of the eighteenth century invented their own ‘natural’ theology. A list of their names is a list of largely forgotten men; scarcely any one of the theologians amongst them was of any distinction. But they left their mark. The one name that stands for them all is William Paley whose Natural Theology (1802) was to become their Bible.

The source of their inspiration was twofold -- nature and the Stoics. They turned back the pages, not of the Bible, but of Greek history. In the Stoic view of the universality of natural law, they found the basis of their world view. Whereas the Stoics used this as a point of departure for belief in a universal community of men, the Christian deists found in it their basis for belief in God. The classic formulation of Stoic laws is found in the writings of Cicero, and to him the deists turned for their arguments. ‘The divine mind’, declared Cicero in The Laws, ‘is the supreme law.’ From Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods they resurrected the analogy of the watch and the watchmaker for the universe and its creator. The analogy became the central ‘argument’ of Paley’s Natural Theology and of a whole collection of similar books with revealing titles such as Physico-theology, Water Theology and even Insect Theology.14

Paley’s Natural Theology became the standard textbook of the educated Englishman. Something of its status may be gained from the fact that it remained an alternative to logic in the entrance examination for Cambridge until 1920. Charles Darwin knew it so well that he says in a letter to Sir John Lubbock in 1859, ‘I could almost formerly have said it by heart’. This remark is preceded by the very surprising comment. ‘I do not think I hardly ever admired a book more than Paley’s Natural Theology’.15 One hardly can tell what it was that Darwin so admired. Perhaps it was the catalogue of adaptations rather than the deistic conclusions.

If Paley were the theologian of deism, then Locke was its unwitting philosopher. Probably no philosophical writings gave more reinforcement to deism than Locke’s two works An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). The works of nature’, said Locke. ‘in every part of them sufficiently evidence a Deity.’ God is to be known from the ‘evidence’ of nature which provides the basis of a rational proof of God’s existence. The proof was given by Locke. How different this was from the Cambridge Platonists. some of whom were Locke’s contemporaries! They looked to ‘inner experience’ as the root of religion. This emphasis was an oasis of spiritual perception and human sympathy in an age in which the dominant mood was for proving God as the end of an argument. This was the mood which persisted with Locke’s philosophical backing until the zenith of deism in the first half of the eighteenth century. Locke, unlike the deists who found support in his arguments, left the door open for ‘revelation’ in religion. That ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ was the one revelation needed for the Christian in Locke’s scheme. This was one bit of information that came by channels other than reason.

Protests against Mechanism

The tide had to turn. Even as early as the opening of the eighteenth century, the great argument from nature for the existence of the divine mechanic was becoming less sure. Dissentient voices came from four sources: theology, philosophy, the poets and biology.

The first voice of theology was hardly influential in its own time. It came from the little band of Cambridge Platonists in the seventeenth century. In 1678 Ralph Cudworth published The Intellectual System of the Universe. This book, like other works of this devoted group of Cambridge theologians, was written in protest against the materialism of Hobbes. It was written in the light of the new science, but was out of sympathy with its most famous interpreter, Descartes. It rejected the mechanical framework of deism and the glib formulation of the traditional dogmas for a feeling for the ‘spirit’ of Christian faith that transformed lives. So Cudworth wrote, ‘The root of all atheism consists in making senseless matter the only self-existent thing, and the original of all things . . . and mind as nothing but local motion in the organic parts of a man’s body’.16 He affirms the reality of mind as the ground of all that is. For our present purposes, Cudworth’s book has a second great interest. It was an exposé of evil in a world that was supposed to be created once and for all perfect by an all-powerful being. Everything in the garden was not rosy; it was not the best of all possible worlds. But how could the deists equate these facts with the notion of a divine all-powerful engineer? Cudworth raised the issue clearly enough. But he was unable to find a way out of the dilemma. As Hume showed later, no answer was possible within the framework of deism. Here is Cudworth’s dilemma.

Consider for a moment the problem of evil. There are four possibilities with regard to evil. Either God is able but not willing to overcome it, or perchance he is not able though he may be willing. It may be that he is neither able nor willing to overcome evil. Or it remains that he is both able and willing. Only the last would seem to be worthy of a good God, and it does not happen.

There is no answer to that dilemma if we think that God is the omnicompetent engineer. Are we to suppose that ‘God himself doth all immediately and as it were with his own hands form the body of every gnat and fly’? This was the question Cudworth put. He gave no answer. Darwin was to take it up later on.

A much more direct attack on deism came from the theologian William Law. His Case of Reason (1732) was an answer to Matthew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation. Law anticipates Bishop Butler’s argument against deism in The Analogy and attacks the shallowness of Tindal’s deism, claiming that it reduced God to the measure of human capacity. Law is now chiefly remembered for his other writings; he had a deep and lasting influence on John Wesley and other leaders of the Evangelical revival.

The decisive criticism of deism came from the philosophers Berkeley, Butler and Hume. Berkeley set out his new view of the universe in his Principles of Natural Knowledge (1710), Three Dialogues (1713) and Alciphron (1732). Locke had argued for a universe consisting entirely of mechanical bodies that interacted with one another. The impact of bodies on our nervous system gave rise to ‘ideas’ in the mind about these bodies. What we are directly aware of are the ‘ideas’. Berkeley argued that if ideas are the only objects of direct awareness, then there is no warrant for belief in ‘matter’ as something independent of our ideas. Everyday things which we perceive are really collections of ‘ideas’. But ideas can only exist in a mind. The universal mind that held all these ideas was the mind of God. The deists on the other hand glorify matter, and end up with a picture little better than atheism. Bishop Butler’s The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature was the most formidable work that the deistic controversy called forth. The deists assumed they knew all about God. Butler points to the perplexity and ambiguity of life and exposes the slick answer of an over-confident argument. He provides no proof for the existence of God, nor did he need to. He was exposing fallacies and had no intention of providing a new philosophy of religion. What we read into nature is not clear but full of ambiguity. Nor should we be surprised that the insights of Christian faith are also marked with a certain obscurity. This is the analogy, since neither religion nor nature leads to an irrefutable proof of God’s existence. So his denial of deism is not a denial of religion but a guide to a more genuine faith.

Hume attacks just about all the traditional certainties. In his works we find the most critical analysis of both the presuppositions of science and the certainties of the deists. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748) provides a criticism of the inductive method of science that has never been answered. The Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) are a devastating repudiation of the argument for God from design in nature. The God you will find for a mechanical universe. Hume says, will be the sort of God who makes the mechanism. The argument for deism is the argument for a mechanic, but this is not the God of Christianity. He is left with a feeling for purpose in the universe and some role for God, though the precise role is difficult to see. In A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 3 ‘On Morals’, he raises the same question as Cudworth about evil and the omnipotence of God. If God is omnipotent, he is responsible for all the evil in the world, and if God is responsible for evil, then he is not morally good. Therefore, either there is no evil, or God is not omnipotent, or he is not morally perfect. If you maintain these three then the dilemma is inescapable. By exposing the problem, he exposes the shallowness of deism, but he declines to suggest a solution to the dilemma.17

The nature poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also played a part in the rejection of the mechanistic philosophy. The mechanistic universe of science was to Wordsworth ‘a universe of death’:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things --
We murder to dissect.18

In the scientific analysis something had been left out. What had been left out contained all that was important. What was left behind was the skeleton of a machine which natural theology had accepted as reality. This was a murderous abstraction from reality. ‘I think we are not wholly brain, magnetic mockeries . . .’, wrote Tennyson.19 William Blake called the deists ‘the enemies of the human race and of universal nature.’20 He sees ‘a world in a grain of sand’ and curses mechanical rationalism:

Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind.
And the wind blows it back again.

In their hands the universe becomes a ‘mill with complicated wheels’:

Reason, or the ratio of all we have already known, is not
the same that it shall be when we know more. . . .
He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God.
He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.21

Bronowski comments, ‘Reasoning, the mill, and the machine worlds of Newton and of Locke are already (in this poem) parts of one symbol about 1788 when Blake etched . . .these sentences’.22

The ‘romantic’ reaction of the poets brought into sharp focus the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science. ‘Thus we gain from these poets’, says Whitehead. ‘the doctrine that a philosophy of nature must concern itself at least with these six notions: chance, value, eternal objects, endurance, organism, interfusion.’4 They were concepts which for centuries had hardly belonged to literature.

No poem illustrates more completely how the poets found themselves out of step with orthodox deism and mechanistic science than Tennyson’s In Memoriam, published in l850.23 Begun as a lament over a personal bereavement, it continued as a lament for the passing of spiritual values in the harsh dawn of a new age. The whole spectrum of nature that was revealed by Lyell’s Principles of Geology and Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation seemed to Tennyson quite opposed to the concepts of the deists. The picture of nature was becoming less and less like the garden paradise of the deists and of natural theology. So Tennyson wrote:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems.
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod.
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope. . . .

Man her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies.
Who built him lanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God and love indeed
And love Creation’s final law --
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed. . . .

And in the face of all this he cries:

What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

To someone who told him that all his doubts about traditional faith were of the devil he replies:

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

The hope Tennyson eventually finds is that man, recognizing himself as a product of nature, will consciously be-come involved in nature’s struggle and

Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die. . . .

No longer half akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffer’d, is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit. . . .

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

And so nine years before Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species, Tennyson had rejected the concept of creation as complete and perfect. He wrote the epitaph of three centuries.

By the latter part of the eighteenth century biology itself brought rumblings of an approaching storm. The idea of nature as a centre of change and transformation, rather than of static perfection, was being suggested by a number of biologists and geologists throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century and right up to Charles Darwin’s time. These were the disturbers of Tennyson’s equanimity. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, was one of them. His evolutionary ideas were set out in his long poem Zoonomia (1794). The great French biologist Buffon is probably the first to suggest the idea of an evolutionary branching tree of organisms. He was in a good position to generalize on the living world, having published Histoire Naturelle in forty-four volumes between 1749 and 1804! The branching tree of life was eventually to replace the Scala Natura or straight ladder of nature in which each rung of the ladder stood for a species or group of species separated from each other by unbridgeable gaps. By 1816 the Frenchman Lamarck had published his theory of evolution in Histoire Naturelle des Animaux sans Vertèbres.

In his preface to The Origin of Species Darwin mentioned 34 biologists who had recognized the possibility of what we now call evolutionary transformation. (It is interesting to remember that he wrote his book scarcely ever using the word ‘evolution’.) There were plenty of ideas in the air about transformation and change. There seems little doubt that it was this atmosphere that led the Earl of Bridgewater to leave a sum of money to the Royal Society for the preparation of the treatise which was to bear his name. The sole purpose of his bequest was to commission a group of distinguished scientists to bring Paley’s Natural Theology up to date. They did just that. Their contributions showed only too clearly that the monolithic picture of nature and nature’s God that had stood for three centuries was being rent from all sides. It was obvious that there was no agreement amongst these various authors as to the problem of creation.

The storm clouds had been gathering. They burst upon the world in the year 1859. with the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

The Darwinian Crisis

It is a mistake to suppose that the impact of Darwin upon religion had to do primarily with a conflict with a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. It was more far-reaching than that. Darwin’s thesis struck in three ways at the natural theology which had become the unstable foundation of so much religious belief.

First, instead of being made once and for all complete and perfect, the living world was and always had been in process of being made. Secondly, Darwin pointed to some of the processes of its growth, and the natural selection of chance variations replaced the idea of design according to a preordained blueprint. The very phrase hit at the whole concept of design. This point has never been more clearly put than by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1864. He was replying to a critic of Darwin who wanted to retain the old watch- watchmaker analogy of Paley which is referred to by Huxley as ‘Teleology’. Huxley’s statement gives the essence of the theory of natural selection:

For the notion that every organism has been created as it is and launched straight at a purpose, Mr. Darwin substitutes the conception of something which may fairly be termed a method of trial and error. Organisms vary incessantly; of these variations the few meet with surrounding conditions which suit them and thrive; the many are unsuited and become extinguished.

According to Teleology, each organism is like a rifle bullet fired straight at a mark; according to Darwin, organisms are like grapeshot of which one hits something and the rest fall wide.

For the teleologist an organism exists because it was made for the conditions in which it is found; for the Darwinian an organism exists because, out of many of its kind, it is the only one which has been able to persist in the conditions in which it is found.

Teleology implies that the organs of every organism are perfect and cannot be improved; the Darwinian theory simply affirms that they work well enough to enable the organism to hold its own against such competitors as it has met with, but admits the possibility of indefinite improvement. But an example may bring into clearer light the profound opposition between the ordinary teleological and the Darwinian, conception.

Cats catch mice, small birds and the like, very well. Teleology tells us that they do so because they were expressly constructed for so doing -- that they are perfect mousing apparatuses, so perfectly and so delicately adjusted that no one of their organs could be altered, without the change involving the alteration of all the rest. Darwinism affirms on the contrary, that there was no express construction concerned in the matter; but that among the multitudinous variations of the Feline stock, many of which died out from want of power to resist opposing influences, some, the cats, were better fitted to catch mice than others, whence they throve and persisted, in proportion to the advantage over their fellows thus offered to them.

Far from imagining that cats exist in order to catch mice well, Darwinism supposes that cats exist because they catch mice well -- mousing being not the end, but the condition, of their existence. And if the cat-type has long persisted as we know it, the interpretation of the fact upon Darwinian principles would be, not that the cats have remained invariable, but that such varieties as have incessantly occurred have been, on the whole, less fitted to get on in the world than the existing stock.24

Huxley’s argument is directed against Paley’s concept of teleology or purposiveness in nature. It does not exclude, nor did Huxley mean to exclude, the possibility of a much wider and deeper concept of purposiveness (see Chapter 5).

The third point of Darwin’s theory which hit directly at the natural theology of deism was the concept of struggle for existence. Tennyson had anticipated this with his phrase ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. T. H. Huxley wrote of nature as ‘a gigantic gladiatorial show’. How could a loving God be involved in that sort of process?

To recapitulate: creation was unfinished and continuing, it involved chance events and struggle. Natural selection took the place of the divine mechanic of natural theology. It was not a case of denying the God of natural theology; that God had now become unnecessary. It looked as though the machine made itself.

The Position Today

The story that I have tried to trace has always appeared complex and probably always will. Part of the difficulty, if we are to see any light at all, is that we must keep in mind what was happening to two interrelated concepts: the mechanistic theory of nature and the concept of God as presiding over the universe but essentially outside it (deism). Deism was the compromise which religion made with mechanism. It was really no more than a transparent frock put over the ugly skeleton of a mechanistic universe. The skeleton needed some investing with flesh and blood if any frock were to fit. This one did not. It should have been torn to shreds. Instead the garment has been preserved, at least in bits and pieces, by much of traditional religion to this day. This has happened despite the fact that informed theology has completely disposed of it. And that is the tragedy of our time. The thinking that comes out of informed theological circles today has scarcely an echo from the suburban pulpit. Suburban theology is one hundred years out of date. If you want to be informed on these matters, you have a much better chance by picking up a few paperbacks in any book-shop than by listening from the pews.

But what about the skeleton left in the cupboard, the mechanistic theory of nature? This is a more complicated problem. But again it is true to say of the average scientist, that he is still prepared to live with a concept of mechanism that is not one hundred years out of date, but three hundred years out of date. If you were to question scientists in their laboratories today you would find most of them still living with Descartes’ system, though from the day it was pronounced it began to crack. Very few are at all informed by the best thinking about the nature of their calling as scientists, or the nature of the universe that modern science reveals. ‘He understands what he is doing about as well as a centipede understands how he walks,’ says Herbert Dingle, the historian of science; and he adds, ‘He does his job well enough and he may know the immediate objective of his efforts, but how it has come about that these efforts are called for, what is their significance in relation to life as a whole, and what will be their ultimate effect, are matters on which his innocence is beyond reproach’.25

Most of us, be we Christians or scientists or both, are profoundly influenced by the dominant thought of the last four hundred years. We tend to cling to remnants of a discredited deism and we tend to think about nature and the universe in terms of a nineteenth-century mechanism now largely discredited. So we are confused. This is why it is important that we see what was happening to both deism and mechanism in the centuries preceding this. Cudworth, Law, Berkeley, Butler and Hume attacked both. Cudworth and Hume showed the dilemma that the evil of the world involved for deism. The poets revolted against mechanism because it left out all that was important to them. The pre-Darwin evolutionists began to show that the machine of nature, if it were a machine, was anything but a complete one, it was still being made. Darwin pushes the argument further and provides a theory of how the machine makes itself. No wonder the nineteenth century ends in utter confusion. Its God of nature was irrelevant. But that did not just leave it with a godless machine, for mechanism itself was under fire. That is the dilemma which we have inherited.26

A Clue from the New Testament

How, then, can there be any room for a God in a world of struggle, accident, chance, suffering and cruelty? Man seemed to be groping for meaning and purpose in a meaningless world. But there has always been another voice, both in theology and in science, though often drowned by harsher voices. Here is just one example, from the side of religion.

In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul gives us a conception of nature as anything but complete and perfect and with it a conception of God as anything but the remote absentee landlord. Not all in the garden is lovely; neither in the garden of nature nor in the life of man. But that is precisely the sort of universe in which God can be involved.27 ‘Up to the present we know the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in pangs of childbirth. Not only so, but even we . . . are groaning inwardly. (Rom. 8.22-23). Here is recognition of struggle and cruelty and pain in nature. But it is a struggle pregnant with possibility, the possibility of new birth. It is a struggle with a hope in it. And as we read on, we see the great synthesis of Paul’s imaginative thought leads him to see a parallel between nature’s struggle and our own. It is a picture of unfinished man in an unfinished universe. Somehow or other both nature and man are incomplete. estranged and separated from what they could be and eventually might be.

I see Paul in these passages looking squarely and deeply at the facts of existence, however ugly and difficult; taking full account of them all in the meaning he seeks to discover in nature and man. And from it there does emerge a picture of God as involved, not as the dramatist who produced the play, but as player involved in the drama, feeling every feeling in a way which words cannot express. He is not the watchmaker who returns at intervals to repair the watch. He is not the remote spectator afar off. He is alongside the creation in all its processes. And what Paul sees in nature he sees in man; estranged yet with a great hope; in struggle, but it is the struggle of a new birth, the birth of a new sort of life. Is God afar off in man’s struggle? No, he is alongside man, and because he is, the end is sure. The suffering is worth while. The cross-pattern is woven deeply into the texture of the whole of the creation as Paul sees it.

This is a point of view which is very different from the view of God and nature in traditional religions. But I hope to show in subsequent chapters that it is vitally relevant to the sort of world in which we live. I have merely stated it in rather stark terms at this point, without giving any reasons why we should give it our serious attention.

We must now be willing to do what Paul does: face squarely up to the facts, and be prepared to go wherever the investigation may lead, come what may. This means looking at Darwin and the century that followed. I do not think that people either inside the churches or outside have really faced up to what this should mean to our view of the universe and of God. Darwin’s great protagonist. T. H. Huxley, puts it this way:

Science seems to teach in the highest and strongest manner the great truth which is embodied in the Christian conception of entire surrender to the will of God. Sit down before the fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.28


1. C. Hartshorne, ‘Whitehead’s Novel Intuition’, in Alfred North Whitehead: Essays on his Philosophy, ed. G. L. Kline. Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1963.

2. B. Willey, The Eighteenth Century Background. Chatto and Windus, London, 1940.

3. M. B. Hesse, Science and the Human Imagination. SCM Press, London, 1954.

4. A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World. Cambridge University Press, 1926.

5. B. Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background. Chatto and Windus, London, 1934.

6. H. Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science. Bell and Sons, London, 1950.

7. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1945.

8. J. Needham, ‘Mechanistic Biology and the Religious Consciousness’, in Science, Religion and Reality, ed. J. Needham. Sheldon Press, London, 1925.

9. C. E. Raven, Natural Religion and Christian Theology. First Series: Science and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 1953.

10. J. Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation. I. F. Dove, London, 1827.

11. C. Singer, ‘Historical Relations of Religion and Science’, in Science, Religion and Reality, ed. J. Needham.

12. C. E. Raven, John Ray, Naturalist. Cambridge University Press, (2nd ed.) 1950.

13. English trans. by F. J. Brand, in Amoenitales, vol. II. 1787.

14. J. Dillenberger, Protestant Thought and Natural Science. Collins, London, 1961.

15. F. Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. II. Murray, London, 1961.

16. F. J. Powicke, The Cambridge Platonists. Dent, London, 1926.

17. D. Basson, David Hume. Penguin Books, London, 1958.

18. The Tables Turned.

19. In Memoriam.

20. To the Deists in Jerusalem.

21. In (2nd) Nonesuch Edition, p. 148.

22. J. Bronowski, A Man without a Mask (William Blake 1757-1827). Secker and Warburg, London, 1944.

23. B. Willey, More Nineteenth Century Studies. Chatto and Windus, London, 1956.

24. Reprinted in T. H. Huxley, Lay Sermons, Essays and Reviews. Macmillan, London, 1870.

25. Quoted by W. L. Sumner, ‘Moral Education: Science and Society’, in Nature, 201, 961-62 (1964).

26. David Lack, Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief. Methuen, London, 1957.

27. C. E. Raven, St Paul and the Gospel of Jesus. SCM Press, London, 1961.

28. L. Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley. Appleton, New York, 1901.