Sunday, January 4, 2015

The historical context of the origins of natural theology

Nothing happens without a context.
Furthermore, events can be influenced to varying degrees by their social, historical, and political context.
In his lectures on Science and Religion, Lawrence Principe nicely puts various key events in their historical context. For example, he points out how it needs to be remembered that the trial of Galileo by the Catholic church occurred just after the Reformation. The Pope was under extreme pressure on a number of fronts. His patience was probably bearing thin and figuring out how to respond to dissent was not easy. Furthermore, the whole issue of who [laity vs. clergy] has the right to interpret the Book of Nature, let alone the Book of Scripture, was controversial.

What was the context of the development of natural theology, particularly by William Paley, in late eighteenth century England? The Church of England had lost its pre-eminence due to the rise of non-conformists such as Puritans and Methodists. Furthermore, this had led to not divisions in the church but also in the country. How was unity to be found? Surely, reason not faith, could win people over to find common ground.

But, who would find the arguments of natural theology most compelling and attractive? Those who had comfortable lives that allowed them the leisure to contemplate and study the beauty of the natural world, e.g, wealthy Anglican clergy in the countryside! Not Methodists working among uneducated and poor labourers in cities, exploding with the industrial revolution.

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