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.


The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science. No reconciliation is possible between religious fundamentalism and modern science. On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position. Far from there being any truce or understanding between science and religion, it is nearer the truth to say that the supernaturalist tradition in theology and traditional science are being driven further and further apart. Many scientists see the issues this way. Some of them, for example Wren-Lewis,1 see the possible consequences as disastrous.

And yet there is hope. Within science and within theology and philosophy, some radical changes are taking place that are altering the whole traditional position. These changes are opening up a new and constructive way of looking at the natural world, in the light both of science and of Christian insights. These changes are little known where they ought to be known. Because of them this generation could be within closer reach of an understanding of nature and God than any previous generation.

A religion that seeks to insulate itself from the wisdom of the world is likely to lose its life in the modern world. ‘The history of religion’, says Professor John E. Smith. ‘is filled with examples of causes lost because their proponents believed it possible to preserve their ancient wisdom free from all the contaminating contact with insights derived from general experience and secular knowledge. A rational religion cannot afford to make that mistake.’2

The dominant mood of the twentieth century is specialization. Attempts to discover any unity in knowledge or any overall synthesis of religion and culture are frowned upon. There have been periods in history marked by the great attempts at a synthesis. The Christian scholars of the Alexandrian school in the third century under Clement and Origen excluded no part of learning or religion in their attempts to make sense of the world they lived in. Another great period of synthesis was the eighteenth century in Cambridge. when a professor of medicine. Ralph Cudworth, could also be a professor of theology. He belonged to that group of synthesists who became known as the Cambridge Platonists.

Then again, no one can read the works of the giants in British science in the century or so preceding Charles Darwin without realizing that the whole of religion and learning was their field. They were not afraid to try to relate their special studies to the meaning of the whole. Scientists were amateurs then. The result was that their scientific writings were done within the context of issues that could concern all thinking people. When John Ray, Robert Chambers and Robert Brown wrote about biology, they wrote so that anyone who wished to make the effort could understand. The same was true of John Dalton, Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday in physics.3 The same was true of Charles Darwin and his protagonist. T. H. Huxley. They wrote with a simplicity and directness that made what they had to say relevant to all who wished to read.

Charles Darwin was well aware that what he wrote about could have a profound effect on man’s understanding of his total environment as well as of himself. In the final chapter of The Origin of Species, he predicted a revolution in a dozen or more fields of biology as a result of his findings. and as well in the new fields of psychology and anthropology. Before the final edition was published, it was clear that the importance of the book for religion was equally profound. T. H. Huxley wrote about all these fields. He called his addresses sermons. He believed they could do what the sermon was meant to do in the Church. He was telling everyman of the relevance of the new learning to him. His zeal was evangelical. It was relevant. It got across.

This century has its synthesists. They do not as yet claim any general attention in an age of specialization and analysis in science, philosophy and religion. However, I believe their time is approaching. Notable among them have been the process philosophers A. N. Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Tillich. They have influenced my thoughts more than I can tell. They, and others like them, have given me the urge to think in fields that I can never know in equal depth. It has meant that I have had to write about history. philosophy and theology as well as science. This involves a risk. Mistakes there will surely be. But if the frontiers of understanding and meaning are pushed a little further forward for some of my readers, then it has been worth while.

This book is an expanded version of the 1964 Centenary Livingstone Lectures of Camden Congregational Theological College, Sydney. The foundation of these lectures provides for a treatment of some subject dealing with relationships between science and religion. The lectures were given in the University of Sydney to an audience consisting of students of all faculties and members of the general public. I have written for a similar group and from the point of view of a biologist who is also a Christian, though one who may not measure up to the judgment of some who regard themselves as the trustees of orthodoxy. I have not written primarily about my own special field of biology, though biology has a central place in the argument. This book is really about God. It is anything but traditional in its approach. Indeed, the traditional approach seems to have struck a brick wall in the mind of many a modern man. It is because I find a real point of contact with the modern questioning student mind in what I have put down, that I am hopeful it may help others.

My scientific colleagues might well say. ‘Cobbler, stick to your last’. But we have been doing that in science for long enough. I have attempted what is not a very popular endeavour in our generation. It is to cover a canvas so broad that the whole cannot possibly be the specialized knowledge of any single person. The attempt may be presumptuous. I have made it because of the urgency that we try, in spite of the vastness of the subject.

I would not have written had I not discovered something for myself that makes sense of the world of specialized knowledge in which I live. The most critical time in my own search for understanding was as a young research student, dissatisfied with the answers of what called itself orthodox Christianity and excited about science. I am eternally grateful that I was introduced at so critical a time to a realm of experience and thought in liberal Christian thinking and process philosophy that I had not known before. To Kenneth Newman of the Student Christian Movement in the University of Adelaide I owe my initiation to that new world of thought.

This book is dedicated to Professor Charles Hartshorne, now of the University of Texas, whom I regard as the greatest student of A. N. Whitehead. I have reason for thinking that Whitehead agreed with this judgment. He introduced me to the sensitive side of nature that science tends to ignore. He helped me to see all the world in a different light. Much of my understanding of evolutionary biology and my interest in the philosophical problems of evolution springs from a lasting friendship with Professor Theodosius Dobzhansky of the Rockefeller Institute, New York. To the Warden of Camden Congregational Theological College in Sydney, the Reverend John Garrett, I owe more than I can say. He was initially responsible for getting me to put my thoughts together. He saw the process through to a final manuscript. His constant help has prevented me from making more errors than might otherwise have occurred. None of these colleagues will agree with all I have said, nor can they be held responsible for anything that I have said! But I could not have got on without them. Finally, I want to thank Miss Barbara Brett who has been meticulous in typing the manuscript and has greatly helped in editing as she worked through it.

L.C. B.
Sydney. July 1964


1. J. Wren-Lewis, Religion in the Scientific Age. 11th Vaughan Memorial Lecture. Gazelle Press, Doncaster, 1963.

2. John E. Smith, Reason and God. Yale University Press, 1961.

3. Science before Darwin. An Anthology of British Scientific writing in the Early Nineteenth Century, ed. B. I. Cohen and H. M. Jones, André Deutsch, London, 1963.