15 September 2006

Creation and Double Chaos

This is a book review I have recently written for ESSSAT News:

Sjoerd L. Bonting, Creation and Double Chaos: Science and Theology in Discussion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. x + 275 pp. pb. $22.00. ISBN 0-8006-3759-3)

At first glance, this is yet another general dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences. What sets it apart is the author’s take on theology, arising from his rejection of a central feature of the Christian doctrine of creation, namely, creation from nothing. Instead, he opts for creation from primordial chaos, of which more later.

In his introductory chapter, Bonting sets out his methodology for bringing science and theology into dialogue. He sees both as ‘God-given worldviews of a single reality’(16), so that in principle there should be no conflict between them. Dialogue is possible because both disciplines seek a rational explanation of basic data: natural phenomena in the case of science and biblical data in the case of theology. Further, such dialogue can be direct without any mediating role for metaphysics, which he regards as essentially non-theistic and therefore unsuited for such a role. Interestingly, the role of religious experience is quietly marginalized to such an extent that the famous Lambeth Quadrilateral is reduced to a tripos (106) of Bible, tradition and reason (in that order).

After his methodological introduction, he moves on to give a brief overview of cosmic and biological evolution (the two aspects of the scientific world-view which he thinks most pertinent to the dialogue between science and theology). Inevitably, specialists in the various disciplines invoked in the course of this chapter will quibble with details but setting that aside Bonting has achieved a remarkably lucid non-specialist introduction.

He then turns his attention to the doctrine of the creation. Chapter 3 surveys a variety of creation stories from around the world (rather oddly, in light of his earlier insistence that the ‘data for the dialogue with science must be the canonical texts delivered to us’ (6)), before outlining what the Bible has to say about creation. He sees no evidence for arguing that the Bible offers any support for a doctrine of creation out of nothing. In chapter 4 he explores the origins of creation from nothing and concludes that the doctrine emerged from the Church’s conflict with Platonism and Gnosticism. While it may have had a certain apologetic value for the early Church, in Bonting’s view its introduction presented Christian theology with a number of serious problems, not least the problem of evil. He concludes his examination of the doctrine of creation from nothing with a brief survey of contemporary approaches. However, this is far too brief (13 theologians in fewer than 20 pages) to be helpful to the reader or fair to the theologians surveyed.

Over against the doctrine of creation from nothing, Bonting asserts in chapter 6 that God created from primordial chaos. God’s continuing action in the universe may, therefore, be seen as a matter of overcoming the remaining vestiges of chaos until complete order is achieved in the eschaton. While he denies that chaos as he envisages it bears any relation to gnostic evil matter, he suggests that evil may be seen as arising from the elements of chaos still present in the universe. In chapter 7, he explores how God acts in such a universe, concluding that he does so by influencing chaotic events in an undetectable manner.

The remaining seven chapters are devoted to various applications of Bonting’s chaos theology. He begins by addressing the problem of evil, which he has effectively dissolved by denying that God created the chaos from which evil arises and asserting that he is acting against evil continuously by reducing remaining chaos to order. Chapter 9 goes into greater detail concerning God’s action in the world, while chapter 10 focuses specifically on the cosmic Christ. He is critical of traditional doctrines of reconciliation, accusing them of portraying God as entrapped in divine justice when they assert that God cannot act in a manner contrary to God’s own nature. Apparently chaos theology offers an alternative, but he fails to explain how crucifixion and resurrection play a decisive role in overcoming residual chaos. Chapter 11, on genetic modification and cloning, really adds nothing to either his dialogue between science and chaos theology or current debates on biotechnology. Likewise chapters 12 (on disease) and 13 (on extra-terrestrial life) seem to add little to the dialogue.

Finally he turns to the future, contrasting the pessimism of scientific forecasts with the glorious promise of the Bible. Judgement there will be, but he re-presents this as self-judgement. Having said that, his doctrine of the last things seems to be more informed by the biblical vision than by his own chaos theology. Little is said about the implications of the final state being one of complete order and zero chaos.

Creation and Double Chaos
is well written and offers a refreshingly unconventional perspective on the doctrine of creation and the dialogue between science and theology. I must confess, however, that I remain unconvinced by his approach. In particular, I think the lack of serious engagement with contemporary creation theologies needs to be addressed if his thesis is to be taken seriously on the theology side of the dialogue.

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