Saturday, December 20, 2008

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

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

The above more detailed overview of his first chapter enables a much more concise summary of the following three chapters. In a nutshell, late modern philosophical and scientific discourse, especially in its turn to relationality, seriously undermines the philosophical underpinnings of some traditional doctrinal formulations relating to incarnation, atonement and parousia. This changes both the material formulation of these doctrines as well as their methodological handling. With reference to Jesus' way of knowing, acting and being in the world in relation to God and his neighbours (i.e. what he calls the philosophy of Jesus Christ), it also changes what this all means for human desire for spiritual transformation in relation to God and other people.

In the following I will summarise the argument of chapter two as illustrate of his basic approach, and only note those in the third and fourth chapter. I will thus leave out much even though his argument is immensely rich and not easily abridged.

Turning to chapter 2, and the incarnation, traditional christological formulations have been based, he argues, upon certain philosophical commitments about sameness and difference, body and soul, origin and goal, which are now redundant. For example, '[t]he theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) challenged the notion of human nature is a substance that always remained the same' (29), as well as a 'historical paradise in which death did not exist' (31). How, then, should we rethink the intuitions of Christian scriptures and tradition in the late modern period, when philosophical and scientific discourse challenges the assumptions behind traditional Christian formulations? In examining changes in anthropological formulations Shults asks:

'Why should we insist on expressing the doctrine of the incarnation in ways that are tied to ancient Greek or modern anthropological concepts of personhood, which focus on the sameness of hypostasized substances? Why not critically engage the relational and dynamic thought forms of contemporary anthropological discourse as we seek to articulate belief in the Word became flesh?' (34)

Having examined the philosophical challenges, in each chapter Shults details the consequent interdisciplinary opportunities. In relation to the incarnation he examines the work of Arthur Peacock, Dennis Edwards and more briefly a variety of other proposals from Teilhard de Chardin, through Rahner, to George Murphy. Again, each chapter ends with an analysis of the corresponding aspect of Christology the theme analyses (incarnation and the identity of Jesus Christ; atonement and the agency of Jesus Christ; Parousia and the presence of Jesus Christ). Shults' constructive proposals take seriously the relationality of late modern discourse, tying the philosophical and scientific challenges to hand in the service of reforming Christology.

In the third chapter, Shults undertakes an analysis of atonement from the perspective of cultural anthropology, detailing the consequent philosophical challenges and the various interdisciplinary opportunities they offer, opening up conceptual space to explore a reformative Christology. In his final chapter he examines Christ's parousia in light of Physical Cosmology. When traditional formulations are often concerned about where Christ is, exactly when he is coming back and so on, what to do with modern philosophical and scientific discourse which maintains there is no same 'now' for all observers (Einstein), no simple notion of space as the place an object occupies? But rather than simply negating older formulations of the coming of Christ, the parousia and ascension, Shults attempts to remain faithful to the biblical and traditional intuitions while again creatively adopting the language in the cause of reforming Christology.

Having already written too much, yet being painfully aware that there is so much more to Shults' arguments, I will end this short review with the usual points of critique and praise.

First, Shults' analysis of the problems is probably more compelling and more clearly presented than his solutions, which themselves beg so many questions. But it is only a short book! Also, some of his rhetoric probably tips over the boundaries of careful. For example, he writes 'theological inquiry that evades contemporary science produces a sterile faith that is not worth having' (16). Hmm, a bit harsh! One also wonders if, in his chapter on incarnation, he has sufficiently appreicated the relational ontology of the Capadocians, as maintained by Zizioulas, for example. But these, and a few other points that could be mentioned, are minor.

So, and second, I have decided to award this book the coveted and illustrious (!) prize of 'Chrisendom Book of the Year'. Surely something LeRon can put on his CV! It is deeply a thought provoking book, well written, concise, and, quite simply, a work of genius. He has managed to hold so much together, skilfully weaving his argument through all manner of disciplines. As such it also resembles a work of art. I can only stand back and look on with a sense of deep respect for the author. Sorry to make you blush, LeRon, but your book is something special. I also found myself gladdened to find such a close conversation partner, in not just a few ways mirroring what I am attempting to do with Pauline Christology from a biblical studies perspective.



At 12/20/2008 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For example, '[t]he theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) challenged the notion of human nature is a substance that always remained the same"

Such a statement would have surprised Origen.

At 12/22/2008 2:56 AM, Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

Chris, it sounds like an excellent book. I'd like to read it.

Lately, I've given a lot of thought to the Incarnation and to atonement theology. I've tried to write a coherent account of my thoughts and tentative conclusions on atonement theology for my blog, but I find it tough going. For one thing, it's going to be too long, and no one will read it.

For another, I don't have the theological vocabulary to express what I want to say in a way that will make sense to others.

My notions of Incarnation and atonement have been turned on their heads with no seeming effects on my faith.

Of course, none of this speculation has much to do with how I live my life, but it is intriguing.

At 12/29/2008 5:41 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

I prefer the author's sequel, due out soon:


At 12/30/2008 12:09 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Anon, thanks for your comment. I wonder if you could give me a reference for me to pursue?

Hi Mimi,
You will love this book. It can be a bit technical in places, but it is relatively short and will reward the person who gives it time.

At 12/30/2008 5:47 PM, Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

Chris, I shall buy the book and try to stretch my mind through the technical bits and prepare to be rewarded in the end. I'll add it to the pile of purchased, but as yet unread books, but who knows? It may be the next that I pick up to read.

At 12/30/2008 9:22 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

"I'll add it to the pile of purchased, but as yet unread books, but who knows? It may be the next that I pick up to read."

Ha! I know that feeling!


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