2008-09 Conferences: God's Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World

Theme for 2008-09: God’s Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World

National University of Ireland, Galway, 23-26 July 2008

London, 10 January 2009


The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, with its insistence on the way in which scientific advances have deepened understanding of God’s presence in the world, its sadness at the extent to which ‘toil’ and ‘trade’ have distorted humanity’s relationship with nature, and its final optimism that, despite this, the regenerative power of nature will continue to offer us ‘freshness’ in our understanding of ‘deep down things’, captures most of the issues with which this conference is concerned.

For some Christians the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden led to a perception of this world as a form of exile, a vale of tears in which toil and trouble remain the price of sin. Responses to this negative image varied, but all expressed the need for withdrawal from the quotidian: from the desert of the early church, to the medieval cloister, and the utopian experiments of more recent times individuals and communities have felt it necessary to remove themselves from everyday concerns in order to bring themselves and, through their actions and example, the world itself closer to God.

For others the world was truly ‘God’s Bounty’, a ‘book’ to be read alongside the Scriptures, through which God revealed his mysteries to those with eyes to see. Nature itself made up this ‘text’ but in some traditions there were also special places, springs, rocks and trees which were invested with particular spiritual power. The ways in which the beauties of nature, and indeed the intricacies of the universe, have been used to inform spiritual understanding will produce valuable papers, as will discussion of the tensions between such spiritual ‘naturists’ and an ecclesiastical authority anxious to control access to ‘the holy’.

Consideration of natural phenomena brings us to the relationship between natural and supernatural knowledge, a frontier which has exercised thinkers from the time of Augustine but which became particularly acute when the historical sciences, geology, biology and history itself, challenged the traditional chronology of scripture in the mid nineteenth century. The impact of scientific knowledge on religious understanding is an important theme for us, the more so as concerns about our use and abuse of natural resources increase. The question of our stewardship of God’s world has exercised some of the finest theological minds in the past, and in the present Christians have much to learn from other faith traditions about our relationship with the rest of creation.

Finally, but by no means least, that stewardship involves us in political responsibilities of a global nature in which the social gospel of mutual dependence, rooted in the early Christian communities of scripture, can be given expression. Earlier attempts to realise that social gospel will also form part of our agenda. There is much to challenge the society in exploring this theme, and great scope for lively papers and fruitful discussion.


The main speakers at Galway will be Sarah Foot (Oxford) ‘Plenty, portents and plague: ecclesiastical readings of the natural world in early medieval Europe’, Simon Ditchfield (York) ‘Conversion and the Natural World: The Jesuits in the Americas’, Paul White (Darwin Project, Cambridge) ‘Natural Selection: Darwin and the Churches’, Chris Clark (Connecticut) ‘Christian Utopias in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America’, and Bill Sheils (York) ‘Nature and modernity: J C Atkinson and rural ministry in England 1850-1900’. Peter Biller, Raymond Gillespie and Peter Scott will speak at the Winter Meeting in January 2009.

Bill Sheils

President-Elect for 2008-09

For the programme of the Summer Conference, click here.

For the programme of the Winter Meeting, click here.

The resulting volume was published as Peter Clarke and Tony Claydon, eds, God’s Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World, SCH46 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010).

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