Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Book of the Year: Christology and Science by Shults - Part 1 of 2

My thanks to the kind folk at Ashgate for a review copy of F. LeRon Shults, Christology and Science (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)

Every generation of theologians, Shults reminds his readers in chapter one ('Reforming Christology'), must articulate 'the institutions of the biblical tradition about the significance of Jesus Christ in a way that engages its own cultural context' (1). This task is made all the more important because '[m]any traditional depictions of the person, work and coming of Christ are shaped by assumptions about humanity and the world that no longer makes sense in light of contemporary science' (1). Shults' short book attempts to open up fresh avenues in this venture. Yet far from merely offering cerebral re-mapping of Christian vocabulary against modern science, he presents a reforming Christology which seeks to effect contemporary life, to 'facilitate the reformation of ways of living in the world' (1).

The dialogue between Christology and science is, of course, an interdisciplinary engagement. And the potted history of the relation between religion and science will leave some suspicious from the start that such a dialogue is possible. So Shults suggests an interpersonal metaphor for thinking about the interaction of theology and science, namely to think of them as lovers: 'fascinated by the differences, as well as their shared interests', working at their love, 'willing to confront one another for the sake of illumination' (3), and seeking not to annoy each other on the way! As part of the project, philosophy will play a mediating role in this dialogue.

That philosophy must act in such a role is necessary given the need to make explicit the assumptions about the way things are, assumptions that colour our doctrinal conceptions in key respects. For example, try asking these questions, all addressed in one way by Shults in the book: Is a thing's relations a part of that thing, or are they accidental to it? Can we speak of an isolated thing with attributes? Does a thing live in space, or is the relation between a thing and the space that it occupies more complex? Does the genus 'human' exist apart from particular humans? What does it mean to be present? How is causality understood? Is there any meaning in speaking of the time of an event? Etc. Our answers to these questions may share little in common with modern science but rather reflect premodern, Newtonian or some other outdated concepts. Yet much of our Christology is based upon, at fundamental levels, outmoded scientific aassumptions about the way the world really is.

But if theology and science are lovers, more listening needs to happen, just as any marriage/relationship counsellor will say to a troubled couple. And this communication takes place in a reciprocal triangular mediation of Christology, science and philosophy.

Anybody who has read Shults' works before will know his burden to use developments in late modern thinking. These developments change the way we answer (and sometimes even ask) those basic questions, among others, and thus presents theology with a challenge and an opportunity in reforming Christology. In a section titled 'Jesus Christ in the Philosophy of Science' Shults, with special emphasis on developments in the philosophy of science that are relevant to reforming Christology, notes three important themes.

First is the 'growing appeal of relationality as heuristic category in the philosophy of science' (5). No longer can the category of relation be suppressed to that of substance, as in the history of thought stretching back to Aristotle. Through names such as Locke, Hume, Kant and Hegel, the concept of relation came to the forefront, a development reflected in the philosophy of logic, mathematics and physics. For example:

'Einstein's field equations for general special relativity ... are based on the use of functional relations. Quantum physics pressed philosophers of science even further, leading them to challenge the adequacy of substance/attribute predication theory to make sense of the entanglement phenomena discovered at the subatomic level. Here reality itself resists the abstraction associated with the category of "thing" (substance), and physicists increasingly appealed to inherently relational and dynamic modes of talking about what " happens between" and within the unpredictable flow of "interphenomena"' (7).

Second is the emphasis on the contextuality of all scientific enquiry. Importantly, this overcomes the dichotomy between faith and reason, (one made prominent again at the popular – though only at the popular level – by writers such as Dawkins), making them both part of a more relational whole. Third is interdisciplinarity, the 'transgressing of boundaries between disciplines' (10). Besides, Shults adds that 'Christology is interdisciplinary whether we like it or not'. Once again, relational categories 'play an important illuminative and generative role in this interdisciplinary context' (11).

Turning to examine further the relations in his triangular mediation (I will not summarise all of these sections), Shults speaks of philosophy's role in the material shaping and methodological role of Christology. While traditional theological treatments of Jesus Christ have neatly divided Christology from soteriology, pneumatology and eschatology, the philosophical turn to relationality blurs the boundaries around these distinctions. In examining science and the philosophy of Jesus Christ, he argues that the philosophy of Jesus Christ refers to his way of 'knowing, acting and being in the world in relation to God and his neighbours' (16). Hence Shults examines in the following chapters, under the rubric of reforming Christology, the following three areas which correspond to chapters 2,3 and 4:

  1. Incarnation and evolutionary biology
  2. Atonement and cultural anthropology
  3. Parousia and physical cosmology



At 12/08/2008 5:53 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

You listed:

1. Incarnation and evolutionary biology
2. Atonement and cultural anthropology
3. Parousia and physical cosmology

But you forgot:

4. Tap dancing and the millennium
5. Pickle-dipping and the great whore of Babylon
6. Tricycle repair and the Trinity


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