21 September 2011

Interpreting the Universe as Creation

Yet another old review of mine from Science and Christian Belief:

Interpreting the Universe as Creation: A Dialogue of Science and Religion
edited by Vincent Brümmer

As the title suggests, this volume of essays is the outcome of an international consultation on science and religion. No fewer than four of the papers are from the pens of British authors already well-known for their contributions to aspects of the dialogue.

The structure of the collection is quite simple. After two introductory chapters of a theological nature subsequent chapters are paired so that we are given a scientific and a theological contribution in the areas of cosmology, evolutionary biology, and human nature. The one departure from this pattern is the concluding chapter which explores the theological implications of the ecological crisis.

The theological introduction is provided by Vincent Brümmer who defends Wittgenstein's concept of religion as a language-game against the charge of fideism. This is developed in the following chapter by Luco van den Brom. He relates it to George Lindbeck’s cultural linguistic view of doctrine. This suggests that the doctrine of creation is part of religious map for the journey of life. Van den Brom maintains the possibility that it makes claims about the nature of reality. However, he effectively marginalizes the doctrine by treating it as a ‘footnote’ to salvation history which is retained primarily because we have no way of deriving ethical norms from scientific facts.

Personally I found the two chapters on cosmology the most interesting in the book. The first, by Chris Isham, discusses recent quantum creation theories. It stresses the highly speculative nature of these attempts to explain the origin of the universe. In its companion paper, Willem Drees explores some of the potential tensions between cosmology and theology. In particular, he focuses on cosmology’s spatialization of time and its platonizing tendencies. However, while recognizing that these are hard to reconcile with traditional Protestant theologies, he suggests that theology need not be unduly worried that we can evade such tensions by reverting to some form of Christian Platonism in which eternity is interpreted as timelessness and the universe is a mere reflection of mathematical entities existing in the mind of God.

By contrast, I found the chapters on biological themes rather disappointing. Taken as a whole they provide a useful introduction to the dialogue between science and religion in the areas of evolution, human nature and ecology. However, they simply go over ground that is already extremely well trod: we cannot answer the question ‘What is life?’; evolution is not incompatible with creation and this has implications for our understanding of God (predictably, little attention is given to whether the view of God revealed in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures has implications for our understanding of evolution); human beings cannot be distinguished from animals by any biological or psychological criteria but only on theological grounds; and, finally, we are told that this distinction is one of the roots of our ecological crisis.

No attempt has been made to integrate these papers into a consistent overview of the subject. The result is a degree of disjointedness which may irritate some readers. However, it does serve to highlight the degree of theological divergence within the debate.

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