Rom 2:14-15: Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

II Kings 6:15-17: When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "O LORD, open his eyes so he may see." Then the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

Realism and Naturalism

As literary movements, European and Euro-American Realism and Naturalism believe the world to be an essentially closed system. Both approaches take their direction from the success of the modern scientific movement, and both attempt to describe the world as they believe it actually exists. Naturalism tends to be the more extreme of the two, for it posits a world of evolutionary determinism where humans are but products of biological and social forces and where the world is essentially in a state of competition. But both stress that the actual world is the physical, tangible world only. As a result, Realism and Naturalism can be deeply reductive ways of seeing and describing reality.

The Christian View of "Nature"

The Christian view of reality admits the metaphysical and spiritual. Equally, the Christian view of nature suggests that "nature" is more than just the physical and biological realms; it is also the ethical and metaphysical. When Paul in his epistle to the Romans wrote that the Gentiles "by nature" practiced the business or work of the law, he was invoking both Jewish and Greco-Roman notions of the world. He had in mind the Jewish idea that God has designed and constructed the world via his own wisdom and that such wisdom is present in the creation for humans to learn from and abide by. The Greek word for nature, physei, used by Paul also touches on Stoic notions that humanity and the world are uniquely fitted for each other. In both cases, "nature" includes the physical and biological worlds, the human and social worlds, and the metaphysical realm that gives structure to the rest. In the Naturalist worldview, the social is simply a deterministic product of the physical. For the Christian, it is the exact opposite. This would seem to suggest that Christians should be wary of descriptions of the world, even fictional ones, that tend to overlook such essential elements of the picture as God and his divine being.

Learning from Naturalism

It would be a mistake, however, for Christians not to learn from Naturalism. Different predispositions to belief shape the way we ask questions of the world, as well as the evidence we tend to notice. Thus, a naturalist might pick up on socio-psychological stresses on a person, while a theist might tend to look more closely at the moral and spiritual crises behind those stresses. The scientific movement has proven extraordinarily successful in its ability to describe certain aspects of the creation. And the realistic novelists tend to hone sharp portraits of the human individual's psychology. While the theist should be wary of some of the naturalist's assumptions, he or she can also learn from such a one's particular insights.

Methodological Secularization

George Marsden has argued that, instead of accepting this sort of reductive "methodical atheism" that requires us to act as if the world were only a product of natural forces, we can choose a functional version of it, a "methodological secularization" that allows us to borrow from the strengths of such a model without abandoning the larger insights our faith also offers: "Methodological secularization means only that for limited ad hoc purposes we will focus on natural phenomena accessible to all, while not denying their spiritual dimensions as created and ordered by God or forgetting that there is much more to the picture" (91). A Christian can learn to ask questions as a naturalist might for the sake of highlighting part of the picture.

Yet if we cannot afford to avoid learning from the naturalist's view of the world, neither can we adopt it wholeheartedly. In fact, from a Christian perspective, realist characterizations, plots, and themes may reveal as much about the spiritual repression of the author as they do about what is actually there. At some point we must pray like Elisha to see the hills full of horses and chariots of fire.

Central Insight: Euro-American Realism and Naturalism offer certain insights of a biological and psychological nature about the world, but they can also act to hide certain other aspects, especially those of an ethical and/or spiritual nature.

Suggestions for Application: Focus on the particular insights that the realism and/or naturalism of an author offers. Or focus on what aspects it tends to suppress. If possible, show a connection between the two.

Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.