Trinitarian Traces in Sciency Spaces: a ★★★★★ book review

Science and theology are two different disciplines and, allegedly, never the twain shall meet. The hard sciences lay their claim to objectivity, dealing with sense-data and the observable world. Theology, for its part, is relegated to the realm of the subjective and ethereal. But what if theology and science had more in common than it may appear? What if the Triune God has so imprinted reality with His Presence that the resonances between God and his creation create contexts for dialogue between science and theology? What if these distinct disciplines were more coinherent than conflicted?

9781532616846This is W. Ross Hastings’s argument in Echoes of Coinherence: Trinitarian Theology and Science Together.  Hastings is especially qualified to speak across these disciplines. He has a Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry from Queen’s University, Ontario, a Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews (under Alan Torrance!) and he is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Associate Professor of Theology and Pastoral Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.  He has been a working scientist, a pastor, and a theologian. He brings these skills together as he probes how the perichoretic and coinherent Triune God and the incarnation of the Son have stamped humanity with the image of God and left traces of Triune coinherence on all creation.

Hastings details his aims as these:

I am first seeking to describe coinherence as a feature of the Divine life, acknowledged widely in the tradition of the church, both in the incarnation and within the Trinity. Second, I am seeking to support the further claim that coinherence can be seen to have echoes in creation. And third, I wish to propose that we may, because of the first two, predicate coinherence of the disciplines of theology and science. That is, I affirm that coinherence is part of the  Divine life (an ontological statement) can be said to have echoes in creation (a metaphysical statement ) and may be predicated further as a way to frame these two great disciplines of human knowledge (an epistemological statement)(5).

Thus, through the rest of the book, he explores the coinherent relationship between science and theology with special emphasis on the history of ideas, epistemology (how we know stuff), ontology and metaphysics (the nature of being).

Hastings argument unfolds in 8 chapters. In chapter 1, he lays out the aims and scope of this project and the idea of coinherence. In chapters 2, Hastings gives a short history of coinherence in the Theology/Science tradition, highlighting his conversation partners of Theologian scientists (scientists conversant with theology) and Scientist theologians (theologians conversant with the sciences. Chapter 3 describes the intertwining History of Ideas for both disciplines—the development of the sciences within a Christian context, its compatibility with theology during the Medieval-Renaissance, and the growing conflict and the fragmentation of the two disciplines from the late Middle Ages, on through the Enlightenment to today.

In chapter 4, Hastings tackles epistemology. He argues that though science and theology have been described as having two different ways of knowing (i.e. Scientists have evidence, Religious people have faith), both disciplines have a fideistic epistemology (taking on faith that their subject is knowable),  weigh evidence, and enter into a critical dialogue between the knower and their subject. Hastings traces this ‘Critical Realism’ in both the sciences and theology, concluding:

Critical realism is thus a philosophical system grounded in faith that the Revealer of truth in every realm is neither capricious nor obscurantist and yet also not controlling, in that he does not make things plain easily, for he has created persons in his own image who he expects to be inquisitive, and to explore, and to think and to worship. (120)

Chapters 5-7 describe the coinherent ontologies of science and theology. Whereas theologians take as their object the Triune God, the Creator has left his traces on His Creation. This allows for various resonances between the realm of theology and the world of science. the Trinity’s relationality, freedom, goodness, immensity, particularity and agency are written in Creation and God’s goodness, intelligibility and relationality are imprinted on humanity as God’s image bearers.

Chapter 8 draws these ontological and epistemological threads together:

The common doxological aim is what makes the sheer hard work in both worthwhile. It is the reality that the kingdom of God has already broken into history in Christ, which brings with it a doxological orientation in both theology and science. Christ has come to recapitulate old Adam’s orientation. (221)

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a teaching assistant for Ross (Hastings) once upon a time and he was one of my professors at Regent College. This is by no means an impartial review (if there is a such thing). Ross’s perspective and insights have stamped my own thinking in significant ways, particular his Trinitarian thought, ethics and missional theology. But I think the subject matter of this book is significant and worthwhile for our North American, post-Enlightenment context. I know good Christians who are suspicious of the sciences for the way materialist approaches undermine the idea faith. I also have scientist friends who have felt like the church undervalues and fails to appreciate their work. The time is ripe for a deeper dialogue between science and theology, not to blur the distinctions of each discipline—scientists are gonna science and theologians will theologize—but to mutually enrich our understanding of both God and Creation. Coinherence provides a good, missional model for a way forward.

Hastings describes this well:

The great opportunity of our times for thoughtful, missional Christians is to offer fresh articulations of the Christian doctrine of creation, grounded in the Trinity and the incarnation, which allow theology to be theology and science to be science yet which also affirm the mutuality and inter-enhancement of each. That is, accounts for theology and science which manifest the coinherence of the epistemology and the ontology of these disciplines. In an era when scientism is less and less credible, in which global warming threatens our existence, there is, I believe, a hearing for a world-affirming, science-embracing gospel. A gospel that offers a humble apologetic, a holistic and communal worldview, (or better, world-love), a gospel that is grounded in the triune Creator God, supremely transcendent and yet infinitely immanent; a gospel that leads to human flourishing and creational shalom. (93-94)

Vocationally, he also describes his specific hopes for those in the sciences:

My rather audacious hope is that this work may help scientists to value their work and to contextualize their science within a broader creative and even doxological framework this helping them and all humans to pursue their vocations in more satisfying and humanizing ways (15).

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Hastings is a meaty thinker and this book will demand a slow read. Scientists who are believers will be encouraged in their calling as scientists. Thoughtful Christians will be more open  to seeing the way the Coinherent Divine nature marks not only the things of heaven but the very stuff of earth.  – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review

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