A Big-Enough Concept of Nature

Phil Hefner is asking for a concept of nature large enough to encompass both the scientific and the theological epics of creation in their fullness. This is one of the reasons I'm involved with Zygon -- because of Phil and Lea Schweitz, my advisor, for the sake of doing theology as science. It's always a good day when Phil puts his theologian hat back on -- the echoes of Sittler, the more rigorous systematic work, the focus on the doctrine of creation, the precision on theological topics that tends to sit in the background as he talks his way through science.

A big-enough concept of nature. A big enough concept, not only to handle the rigors of our doctrines of God and human being and animal life -- to the extent that we actually have a doctrine of animal life (stay tuned for next term's Advanced Seminar!). A big enough concept also to handle everything we know from the natural and human sciences, even in spite of the naturalistic assumptions and expectations of those sciences. A big enough concept of nature for us as theologians to handle not only scientific knowledge, but also the intersection of technology. And, of course, to still tell the rich stories of creation that belong to our tradition. To speak our epics of creation without self-contradiction.

Phil wants an expansive view of nature -- which requires us to do away with the idea of reductive naturalistic explanation. What James called "Medical Materialism" -- the idea of natural explanations as being exclusively sufficient, and opposed to supernatural or phenomenological explanations. Because there's no sense in the theologian attempting to avoid the validity of explaining the material function of the elements of the world -- but there's also no sense in any other science attempting to avoid the validity of non-material, or not-strictly-material, explanations. Causation is causation -- but causation and function are both complex, and there's no such thing as a thick-enough description for reality. Both etic and emic perspectives are necessary, in every possible depth, to get close to what's really going on.

So: what is nature? The question calls forth our constructions of nature -- our limitations as they've been trained into us from the youngest of ages.

We are nature -- just as for Torrance we are space and time. If we renounce a container concept for the latter two, we should renounce it for nature as well. We do not simply dwell in nature. We are not separable from nature. It is not a thing we can "rise above." Grace perfects nature -- it is not opposed to nature. If we understand nature as the category of all existence, as wide as that goes -- "all existence" excludes only God, who cannot be said to "exist" in any but analogical terms. God's existence is ecstatic, both of which words come from ek-histemi, "standing outside." And yet God is in relationship to all existence. And between the two, God and all existence, we get to a too-large-to-describe quality -- nature isn't God, but it is creation.

And so what Phil reaches for is nature as mystery -- but that's a term that needs to be qualified. "The endlessly knowable" is his best qualifier for it -- because this is mystery and not puzzle, mystery and not ineffable or inexplicable. Mystery possesses infinitely explorable depth and breadth and dimension and quality. Nor is it a secret -- a secret can be "outed," and cease to be secret, but a mystery loses nothing in publication and explanation. In fact, wonderment at a mystery increases with knowledge about it. All knowledge, in the face of a mystery, is inadequate -- a mystery is asymptotically approached, at best. Mystery as a category of second-order description of the real which cannot be exhaustively rationalized.


  1. Matthew, I've been trying to track down a source for the concept of the "endlessly knowable" for over a year. You seem to attribute it to Dr. Hefner, but google isn't helping me find anything written specifically on the topic. Do you have any recommendations to help me solve this mystery? I'd appreciate your help!

  2. Well, my first stop is Richard Rohr, who uses the concept. Stop two is Paul Crowley, likewise. If I had to guess, it comes from farther back in the Catholic tradition -- but I don't have anything precise to lay on you, like a citation from Thomas.

  3. And as I read, it seems like Thomas' Summa contra Gentiles, also known as the Liber de Veritate Catholicae Fidei contra errores Infidelium, might stand back of this phrase somewhere. But I don't find it there in exactly this form.


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