Many of the new theological approaches attempt to distance themselves from the supernaturalistic interpretations in the traditions. They try to “naturalize” their theology. I believe there is some merit to this with a few caveats. Many people today are abandoning traditional religious systems because they are unable to accept the supernatural claims inherent in them. This can have various effects. Some become so disillusioned with religion, per se, that the religious dimension of their lives disappears or is diminished in its potentially beneficial impact. However, many others still have religious longings and forge out on their own outside the traditions to find a religious bearing that does not offend their intellect. What a noble adventure! These folks may then explore new “naturalized” religious frameworks that are being offered. Whether or not these new theological perspectives will fill their needs is an open question.
What I would like to explore in this post is what “naturalism” could mean for a theistic system. If supernaturalism is rejected then it is important to understand in what way theology can be naturalized and still maintain its eternal substance. Typically naturalism is thought to be a rejection of either God or the ongoing providential activity of God in the world. This finds a happy home in atheism and deism but not in theism. The foundation of theism is belief in a personal God. If God is personal then God relates to the world. This means that the divine intentionality is eternally at work in creation. In other words God acts in the world. A God who does not participate intentionally in creation is not a theistic God. Now the idea that God acts is also found in supernaturalistic interpretations. This can create a quandary for those who reject supernaturalism but also believe in divine action. Why should one accept divine providence and still reject supernaturalism? Or to put it more broadly how can one approach the various extraordinary claims found in religion, parapsychology, New Age, etc. Many of these claims challenge the “naturalistic” worldviews found today. Can one be a theist and still embrace a worldview that is emerging in our day? The first thing to consider is the ontology that is to be utilized. This entails deciding on a model of how reality is constituted. I’ve discussed that here. What this model suggests is that both the order and novelty that is found in the cosmos are the result of the intentional activity of God. God creates just the right mix of these two such that life can exist and flourish. What this says with respect to naturalism is that God faithfully maintains the order in the universe. It is because of this that science can characterize much of the structure and dynamics we see. However, what we also find from scientific investigations is that the order that is present does not entail a mechanistic view of reality. Instead it points to an embedded, free intentionality also at work. The mix of order and intentionality does create a challenging situation in evaluating the extraordinary claims made by various systems of thought. Perhaps the best one can do is develop a reasonable approach to this evaluation. This is what I propose. I believe that it is possible and even necessary to do honor both to the worldviews that emerge from science and religion. If truth is the goal, they cannot conflict with each other. To do so will require, however, what I call a faithing fallibilism. If is fallible because no absolute answers will be forthcoming. It is faithing because even with this fallibility, one is warranted in embracing the core belief that God acts in creation. To be a naturalistic theist means first making a strong commitment to forming beliefs based on how we nominally experience reality. I say a strong commitment but not an absolute one. What this means is that claims that go against how we nominally experience reality should be met with some level of skepticism. The farther from the nominal, the more skepticism is warranted. Accordingly, supernaturalistic claims where there is a remarkable divergence from how reality nominally unfolds would be met with strong skepticism. Claims that may seem extraordinary but are closer to the nominal would be met with less skepticism and even possibly embraced as truth. Obviously this requires a judgement call and only the individual can make it. It can, however, be informed by the powerful intuitions one has regarding the depth of reality. It may even be necessary to embrace claims that seem far afield from the nominal if those intuitions are compelling enough. However, if one adopts this approach in good faith, I think it is possible to affirm and do honor to both what science tells us about our world and what our intuitions and religious experience tells us as well.