The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology

by Alister E. McGrath

Wiley-Blackwell, 384 pages, $94.95

Søren Kierkegaard is an example of a philosopher who resists the modern attempt to reduce Christianity to some part of a philosophical system, some addendum to what self-sufficient reason can accomplish on its own. In Philosophical Fragments ”even the title is a denial of the Enlightenment’s systematic rationalism”Kierkegaard uses Socrates as a figure for philosophical reason and asks the key question that every religious thinker must face: “What would it mean to go beyond Socrates, beyond his mode of teaching and way of achieving eternal truth?”

Now in The Open Secret , the theologian Alister McGrath also demands that we depart from the rationalistic Enlightenment approach. He proposes a “new vision,” a “specifically Christian approach to natural theology . . . anchoring it in the Christ event.” The book is learned, covering a great deal of historical ground. But problems, both historical and conceptual, afflict The Open Secret . Despite his stated purpose, McGrath neglects the lesson of Kierkegaard”and he ends up with an account of natural theology that is neither especially natural nor distinctively Christian.

Influenced by objections to the Enlightenment project of proving God on the basis of a neutral and universally accessible account of nature, McGrath embraces two theses from Stanley Hauerwas. The first is that natural theology divorced from a fully Christian conception of God is deeply misleading about the nature of God. The second is that seeing the world rightly is not merely a matter of looking but of a trained capacity to know what to look for and how to articulate what is seen.

Interested in a “natural Christian theology,” McGrath holds that Jesus’ parables about the kingdom presume the capacity of nature, when properly interpreted, to disclose the things of God. He takes William Paley as the chief representative of the narrowly rationalist tenor of the Enlightenment, focused exclusively on “propositional belief.” Interested in expanding natural theology, he wants to “include the totality of the human engagement with the natural world, embracing the human quest for truth, beauty, and goodness.” So, for example, he interprets as “natural theology” the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “noted for his emphasis on seeing God in nature.”

Along the way, McGrath gives remarkably little attention to the influential medieval model of natural theology. He is aware, of course, that the medieval approach is different from what emerges in the Enlightenment; indeed, in his chapter on beauty in natural theology, he appeals to both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. And he gives evidence, at least in certain parts of the book, of an awareness of the vast gulf separating premodern and modern conceptions of reason. He cites, for example, Louis Dupré’s contention that the “crisis of the Enlightenment” arises not from a continuation of the Greek thesis that rationality is “an ordering principle inherent in reality” but from the identification of rationality solely with a human faculty.

Yet through most of The Open Secret , McGrath conflates the ancient and modern understandings of nature. Indeed, he takes them both as believing that nature is an objective reality that transcends human convention and supplies a “secure and reliable knowledge of the divine””knowledge that is “public, invariant, and reliable.” This may accurately describe the Enlightenment aspiration, but it is misleading as an account of the Greek philosophers.

How, for example, could the ancients hold that this knowledge functioned in a public and reliable way when it can be reached, as Thomas Aquinas summarizes the ancient view, only by a few and only after a long period of study? Even McGrath’s language of “secure and reliable” sounds more like the modern Cartesian quest for certitude. Aristotle explicitly states that about the highest things we have only a modicum of knowledge; nonetheless, when the contrast is between a sure and exhaustive knowledge of lower things and a slight knowledge of more noble matters, we desire the latter. Eros for the good and the beautiful trumps the quest for certitude.

McGrath’s failure to distinguish clearly between premodern and modern conceptions of reason and natural theology means that a certain serious intellectual option never comes into view. Thomas Aquinas would agree that we are capable of reaching some truths about God on the basis of natural reason. These truths”concerning God’s existence, his unity, and other attributes following immediately from his status of uncaused cause and unmoved mover of all things”are also revealed. Thomas has a name for this portion of revealed truth amenable to rational investigation: “the preambles of faith” ( praeambula fidei ).

Moreover, these truths are not presented to a detached intellect. They correspond, instead, to the natural human longing to behold the ultimate and highest causes of the universe. Metaphysics arises from the natural human desire to know; it is rooted in the human capacity to wonder about the nature of things. Its origin is an intellectual eros, the desire of that peculiar part of the whole that is open to the whole. Aristotle notes that the philosopher and the poet share a fundamental trait: “the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders.” But metaphysics begins and ends in wonder, in what Jacques Maritain called an “avowal of ignorance.” Thus, when Aristotle discusses the ultimate cause of the motion of the universe, a cause that moves as an object of desire, he describes the wondrous state of contemplative knowing characteristic of God, and he repeatedly refers to the way God’s mode of being provokes our wonder.

In his reception of Aristotle’s thought, Thomas is careful to note both the achievements and the limitations of philosophical knowledge of God. Indeed, its limitations stand out most dramatically precisely in its achievements. That natural theology, the study of the divine on the basis of natural reason, both begins and ends in wonder means that philosophy is not a closed system, that there is the possibility of a dialogue between reason and faith, philosophy and theology. The underdetermination of God by philosophy allows for elaboration in the theological order even as it underscores what is distinctive about the understanding of God from the purview of revelation. Thomas Aquinas is thus able to ask his own version of Søren Kierkegaard’s question: What would it mean to go beyond Aristotle, beyond his account of nature and its ultimate cause?

Like many contemporary philo_sophers and theologians, Alister McGrath is eager to avoid both Enlightenment rationalism and the self-defeating postmodern repudiations of reason. But when it comes to precise answers as to how we are to embrace the postmodern critique of reason and yet resist radical postmodernism, McGrath’s book is pretty short on arguments.

Although McGrath repudiates the claims of the Enlightenment to have moved beyond culture, he later embraces the notion of the “eternal return of natural law” and its critique of legal positivism. If by postmodernism we understand the claim that there is no meaning in the text and that all truth is a human construct, then, according to McGrath, it is an “indefensible alternative” to extravagant Enlightenment claims concerning the power of reason. We need not embrace radical postmodernism, he insists; we can opt instead for an account of reason as pursing the “best explanation,” the criteria for which are “parsimony, elegance, and explanatory power.”

But why these criteria? Moreover, what is specifically Christian about them? They may not be as ambitious as the criteria of Enlightenment science, but they appear to be borrowed from contemporary scientific accounts of rationality. There is nothing in itself wrong with this, but McGrath explains neither how it is that these criteria are invulnerable to postmodern assaults nor how they fit with his Christocentric project.

Even if these issues can be settled, there is a second conceptual difficulty. When I first read the book, I wondered whether McGrath was right to continue using the term “natural theology”; perhaps “creation theology” would be a more accurate way of describing his project. But the more I think about it, the more it seems that the categories themselves are simply not lucid. McGrath is terminally unclear on what distinctions there are between nature and grace, and reason and faith.

Of course, McGrath”like everyone else these days”wants to avoid strong dichotomies of the sort that would set up two independent realms, sealed off one from another. But the lack of clear distinctions can also spell serious trouble. McGrath’s sort of argument (the “best-explanation” sort) invites the conclusion that faith and grace are superfluous.

To put the objection somewhat differently, we might ask: For whom are these arguments intended? Certainly they could assist the believing Christian in coming to a deeper appreciation of the integrative wisdom of faith. But in The Open Secret , McGrath consistently uses the language of apologetics, as though his book were directed toward nonbelievers. One of his objections to an Enlightenment approach is that it focuses on arguments that “do not convert.” To which one might reply: Appeals to beauty and goodness may move the heart and passions more than the exclusive appeal to reason, but they do not convert either”at least not to an embrace of the truth of the central claims of Christianity.

At one point, McGrath quotes John Henry Newman as saying that “grace” is necessary to “synthesize the signs” and that grace offers no “new clues” but rather “bestows vision” and renders the eye “proportionate to what is being seen.” If only he had taken this lesson to heart through the rest of The Open Secret . Alister McGrath seems to forget that Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Newman all insist on the qualitative difference between the achievement of reason and the gift of faith.


Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. His books include Virtue’s Splendor and Arts of Darkness.