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The Natural Theology Of The Future
by [?]

Read at Sion College, January 10th, 1871.

When I accepted the unexpected and undeserved honour of being allowed to lecture here, the first subject which suggested itself to me was Natural Theology.

It is one which has taken up much of my thought for some years past, {313} which seems to me more and more important, and which is just now somewhat forgotten; I therefore determined to say a few words on it to-night. I do not pretend to teach but only to suggest; to point out certain problems of Natural Theology, the further solution of which ought, I think, to be soon attempted.

I wish to speak, remember, not on natural religion, but on natural theology. By the first, I understand what can be learned from the physical universe of man’s duty to God and to his neighbour; by the latter, I understand what can be learned concerning God Himself. Of natural religion I shall say nothing. I do not even affirm that a natural religion is possible: but I do very earnestly believe that a natural theology is possible; and I earnestly believe also that it is most important that natural theology should, in every age, keep pace with doctrinal or ecclesiastical theology.

Bishop Butler certainly held this belief. His “Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature”–a book for which I entertain the most profound respect–is based on a belief that the God of Nature and the God of Grace are one; and that, therefore, the God who satisfies our conscience ought more or less to satisfy our reason also. To teach that was Butler’s mission, and he fulfilled it well. But it is a mission which has to be re-filled again and again, as human thought changes and human science develops; for if in any age or country the God who seems to be revealed by Nature seems different from the God who is revealed by the then popular religion, then that God, and the religion which tells of that God, will gradually cease to be believed in.

For the demands of Reason (as none knew better than good Bishop Butler) must be and ought to be satisfied. And when a popular war arises between the reason of a generation and its theology, it behoves the ministers of religion to inquire, with all humility and godly fear, on which side lies the fault: whether the theology which they expound is all that it should be, or whether the reason of those who impugn it is all that it should be.

For me, as (I trust) an orthodox priest of the Church of England, I believe the theology of the National Church of England, as by law established, to be eminently rational as well as scriptural. It is not, therefore, surprising to me that the clergy of the Church of England, since the foundation of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century, have done more for sound physical science than the clergy of any other denomination; or that the three greatest natural theologians with which I, at least, am acquainted–Berkeley, Butler, and Paley–should have belonged to our Church. I am not unaware of what the Germans of the eighteenth century have done. I consider Goethe’s claims to have advanced natural theology very much over-rated: but I do recommend to young clergymen Herder’s “Outlines of the Philosophy of the History of Man” as a book (in spite of certain defects) full of sound and precious wisdom. But it seems to me that English natural theology in the eighteenth century stood more secure than that of any other nation, on the foundation which Berkeley, Butler, and Paley had laid; and that if our orthodox thinkers for the last hundred years had followed steadily in their steps, we should not be deploring now a wide, and as some think increasing, divorce between Science and Christianity.