Theistic Naturalism

Michael H. Barnes


To situate current scientific naturalism in the recent history of competition among various recent (17th century to 20th century) philosophies of nature, including Neo-Platonic hermeticism, Aristotelian vitalism, and theistic naturalisms. This history provides extra plausibility to scientific naturalism and thereby also to religious positions which are naturalistic about events in the universe.

Arguments about naturalism tend to reduce the alternatives to just a few. Methodological naturalism proceeds as though all that occurs in the universe is due only to natural causes. Philosophical naturalism turns this supposition into a positive claim. Phillip Johnson correctly points out that many evolutionists like Gould, Dawkins, and perhaps Ruse, speak as though they were quite confident of the truth of the second sort of naturalism. Johnson argues against evolutionary theory and naturalism both, to defend some form of supernaturalism. Unfortunately, he does not tell us what form(s) of supernaturalism he has in mind. Nor does Plantinga. They write as though the sole alternative to naturalism is belief in divine (supernatural) interventions in nature and history.

There is another obvious alternative: naturalistic theism. From the deists and their sometimes otiose God to Whitehead and Rahner, there have been theologies of a God who has made a universe to operate fully naturally, with ongoing divine sustenance of this natural order, but without miraculous interventions. (I explored Rahner's position on this in an article in Theological Studies a couple years ago.) There have also been a number of unsuccessful alternatives of which we now speak little. From Gilbert and Harvey in the seventeenth century down to Driesch in this century, Neo-platonic hermeticism and Aristotelian vitalism argued that either a general soul-power or many vital spirits must be postulated to account for various kinds of activities in nature.

The history of these other theories is instructive. They competed with "corpuscularist" or mechanistic theories of different sorts. Out of the mechanistic models, contemporary "energist" naturalism emerged. This naturalism is therefore not just a an operating supposition, nor is it a single philosophical alternative to supernaturalism. It is a field-tested survivor of competition with many models. This history, including its ongoing effectiveness, gives current naturalism a high degree of credibility. (This is a point I have partly made in an article in Horizons two years ago.) For that reason, naturalistic theism is a more plausible religious position than what Plantinga and Johnson seem to have in mind when they argue for some form of supernaturalism.

Copyright © Michael H. Barnes