“…he gazes upon creation to such an extent that he beholds God.” [1]
                                       —Hugo’s description of Marius in Les Misérables


Hugo captures the spiritual delight of a soul in tune with the music of the creation, with this depiction of the young Marius lost in joyous rapture as he admires the rich beauty of “the sky, space, the stars, flowers, children, the humanity among which he is suffering, the creation amid which he beams.”

To apprehend the beauty of the cosmos can stir our souls to believe we are seeing God himself. Who hasn’t felt this same awesome sensation while staring into the starry night or breathing summer air scented by blossoms?

Such reverie encourages the belief that one can discover God through nature, using human powers of observation and intellect. The Bible’s authors also feel the excitement of this spiritual response to nature: “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.” [Ps 19:1]

Indeed this impression seems to inform debate over “natural theology”–the idea that the beauty and majesty of the natural world can lead us to apprehend God through his creation. But can we truly discover God through nature? This question has generated much heat, notably between the likes of Emil Brunner, who argued in the affirmative, and Karl Barth who replied, “No!”[2]

 But why the controversy? After all, the Bible acknowledges that God has left his fingerprints all over nature, including upon ourselves, whom God created in his very own image [Gen. 1:27]. These references to God’s image in humanity and his glory in the cosmos would seem to suggest that we can discern God in the creation.

Here is the hinge of the debate—if we are to discern god in our natural surroundings, by means of our natural powers of observation and intellect, what god will we find? And where will this god of our discernment lead us? Here Barth correctly poses the decisive question in the face of Brunner’s efforts to claim discernment of the true God of Scripture revealed in nature. Barth asks of Brunner’s natural theology,[3] “where is all this going to lead us?”[4] Where, indeed?! A theology grounded in nature can indeed lead us to appreciate God’s glory, but it does not lead us to apprehend God himself, in relationship of soul. The natural discernment process of natural theology naturally leads where it has always gone before. Mystics, poets, priests and philosophers throughout all time have been led to discern the god who makes sense to human minds—to the god who is one with nature and all people, to the god of mathematical purity, to the god of exquisite idealism which can be discovered apart from human culture, to a god unstained by human blood, sweat or tears. But natural theology does not lead to knowledge of God who would be known through death on a cross. Knowledge of that kind of God demands something more than can be gained by mere observation of nature and power of reason.

Here then is the defining question on which the debate over natural theology hangs—where does it lead? Depending on our answer to this question, we may discover whether we are on the path guided by revelation of God the Father as revealed in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, or whether we are walking a path that leads away from relationship in Christ, heading toward the slippery slope that we find so inviting in moments of reverie not accompanied by the revelation and presence of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, III.v.iii, “Marius Grown Up.”

[2] Emil Brunner & Karl Barth, Natural Theology: Comprising “Nature and Grace” by Prof. Dr. Emil Brunner and the reply “No” by Dr. Karl Barth, (1934), published by Wipf & Stock (2002). Brunner argues that we can know God through nature, though in part and not in whole–“From nature we know the hands and feet but not the heart of God. We can know… his justice and even his goodness, but not his forgiving mercy.” (p. 38) Barth denies this claim, and warns theologians to “pass by so-called natural theology only as one would pass by an abyss into which it is inadvisable to step if one does not want to fall.” (p. 75)

[3] theologia naturlis, ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 85.