Review: Cosmology in Theological Perspective

Cosmology in theological Perspective

Cosmology in Theological Perspective, Olli-Pekka Vainio. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the place and significance of human beings in the cosmos, how this has been thought of through history, and how Christian theology might address contemporary questions raised about our place, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, the size of the cosmos, drawing upon the approach of C.S. Lewis.

Anyone who has gazed up at the night sky, ancient or modern, has likely been filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of the vastness of the cosmos, and wondered about our place, and how we could possibly think ourselves of any significance before such vastness. Modern scientific discoveries of millions of galaxies, and the proposal of our universe being but one of many multiverses only multiplies the vastness. That leaves all human beings with many philosophical questions, and Christians with particular questions of how they make sense of the cosmos, the magnitude of it, and the possibilities of other life forms, and where God is in all this.

Olli-Pekka Vainio, who is working with NASA on a project on astrobiology, has thought deeply about cosmology and matters of faith and this book, drawing on the approach of C. S. Lewis. He writes of Lewis:

“In his essays, Lewis offered reasoned commentaries on our place in the cosmos that drew from the ancient Christian tradition, encountering head-on the contemporary challenges, which he often showed to be based on misunderstandings or superficial knowledge of history. He resisted the scientistic worldview as “all fact and no meaning,” that is to say, a worldview that tries to be too secure and is thereby paradoxically vacated of those things that really matter to us. By mixing elements from the contemporary and ancient cosmologies, he wished to underline the meaning that was lost, as “pure facts” had taken over the collective imagination. In a way, his science fiction was a project that tried to re-enchant the world after the disenchantment brought by scientism and crude materialism.”

He describes this approach as bringing together three elements: an understanding of history, a coherence of knowledge, and intellectual virtue. Attempts at cosmology must be understood in historical context. Coherence of knowledge for the Christian consists in the canonical witness, the ecumenical tradition, and the ecumenical consensus. Intellectual virtue “includes values like honesty, open-mindedness, critical thinking, courage, and wisdom” without which we end up “in either relativism or dogmatism.”

With this methodology in mind he begins by surveying ancient cosmologies including the Old Testament and those of Plato and Aristotle which influence the early church. He then turns to early Christian thinking, particularly that of Basil the Great and Saint Augustine, considering the philosophical and hermeneutical tools they used. He moves forward to debates surrounding the work of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin and develops observations on how to think, and not to think, in relating theology and scientific facts.

After these first three introductory chapters, he turns to contemporary questions. Chapter 4 considers the possibilities of multiple habitable planets and multiverses and how this might connect to Christian theism and proposes the interesting idea that a good Creator might create good things in abundance, or plenitude. Chapter 5 considers different understandings of the imago dei, and how that might be applied to alien life forms, artificial intelligences, and whether animals might in any sense share in the imago dei. Chapter 6 explores two possibilities: one that we are alone in the universe and two that there are other “alien” life forms. Vainio shows how Christian theism might accommodate either of these possibilities. Having considered the vast cosmos, chapter 7 asks why God did not create a human-sized cosmos and why there is so much empty space. Chapters 8 and 9 explore a number of questions about God–God’s relation to such a vast creation and where God may be found, and the question of whether the Incarnation of Christ was a unique event that might apply for other worlds, or if Christ entered other worlds in other ways.

His concluding chapter returns to C. S. Lewis, and explores how Lewis related reason and imagination in formulating his ideas about cosmology, and how this approach might be helpful in our own day. Lewis did not see these in conflict, leading to extremes either of reducing things to “all facts and no meaning” or that faith is believing what we know is not true. Rather, the cosmic significance of our faith nurtures our desire to understand the cosmos more fully, and good scientific work only deepens our wonder and awe.

The value of this work is not to enunciate inflexible dogma concerning matters of cosmology but rather to explore the questions at the boundaries of our knowledge both of science and theology and to suggest that Christian theism has the resources to address various possibilities and coherent and imaginative responses to the questions we might ask. Vainio offers us careful theological and philosophical reasoning throughout (and an extensive bibliography), that identifies the different possibilities and their strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. I appreciate the combination of careful scholarship and epistemic humility in this work that creates a space for fertile discussions between scientists and theologians working together to make sense of the cosmos.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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