God and the World Of Signs: Trinity, Evolution, and the Metaphysical Semiotics of C.S. Peirce.
Andrew Robinson spent a decade plus in the field of medicine before turning to theology. So although this volume is a revision of a 2003 PhD dissertation, it reflects a level of mature thinking not usually found in the "first book" category. Its ideas were initially developed under the tutelage of Exeter advisor Christopher Southgate (an established scholar at the interface of science and religion), and further honed over the last eight years, in part through a series of substantial grants jointly to author and mentor from the John Templeton Foundation. In short, God and the World of Signs is a substantial contribution to the theology and science conversation.
The central thesis unfolded over the first four chapters (two-thirds of the book) is that the semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) not only illuminates perennially difficult theological topics (the doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and theological anthropology are discussed) but also contributes to contemporary discussions in evolutionary biology (in particular, biosemiotics and origins-of-life research) and philosophy of mind (including the arena of teleosemiotics). This leads, in the fifth chapter, to a trinitarian theology of nature wherein it is argued that the contingency, naturalism, and continuity of evolutionary processes are not merely analogies (which remain at the epistemological level) but actual vestiges of the trinitarian God imprinted in the world (thus having ontological purchase) through the very activity of divine creation. The last three chapters (about a fifth of the book) turn to epistemological matters (defending both metaphysical and theological reflection), argue that the proposed semiotic model of the Trinity is more adequate than classical psychological or social models, and provide a creative retelling of the fourth-century debates about the Trinity in semiotic perspective.
Those familiar with the philosophy of Peirce will appreciate the various moves made herein. Space constraints prohibit any extended summary, so I will focus my explication in two directions, one theological and the other scientific. Theologically, Peirce's fundamental triadic categories of Firstness (possibility), Secondness (actuality), and Thirdness (mediation) are suggested as providing a semiotic model for the classical Christian understanding of the Trinitarian perichoresis. Others, including this author (in Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective, Ashgate, 2002, part I), have made suggestions along similar lines. What is new is Robinson's extension of this semiotic model into both the immanent and economic Trinity. With regard to the incarnation and the mission of Jesus, for instance, Peirce's semiotic taxonomy clarifies how various aspects of Jesus's ministry can be understood as sign embodiments. The last supper in this Peircean schema is an iconic legisign, which signifies through the fellowship around the table (hence iconically) by virtue of being a token or type produced according to a rule, in this case of eating together (what Peirce meant by legisign). By way of contrast, the cleansing of the temple is an iconic sinsign, which signifies in this singular instance (what Peirce meant by sinsign) through the overturning of the tables (hence iconically presaging the destruction of Jerusalem, according to many biblical scholars). More comprehensively, the life and ministry of Jesus as a whole, which included these two major sign-events, can be understood as an iconic qualisign, an embodiment of the very quality of the Father. Thus is Jesus the qualitative representation of the image, presence, and the very being of Israel's God in the flesh.
Robinson goes on to argue--successfully, I believe --for the superiority of his semiotic interpretation of the incarnation over current proposals on offer, in particular, Rahner's "real-symbolic" understanding of Jesus as revelatory of God. The latter is metaphysically robust in terms of its neo-Thomistic ontology, but its minimalist theory of symbolic interpretation results in the inability of humans to refer to Christ in any other than a conventional manner. By contrast, a Peircean-inspired semiotic theology of the incarnation advances beyond neo-Thomistic models--and even existential and Whiteheadian ones, I might add--not only by overcoming the binary and mostly dyadic formulation of how symbols connect with reality, but also by showing how semiosis or interpretive mediation is part of how reality is constituted and signifies.
On the anthropological side, Robinson's discussion includes the evolution of human semiosis (from competence with legisigns through to conventional symbols) and shows how the "gift of abduction" enables human sign-interpreters to infer, discern, and engage, however fallibly, the revelatory signs of God's presence and activity in the world. Intriguingly, an expansion of such considerations into the field of evolutionary biology invites viewing all dynamic and living processes semiotically and teleologically. To be sure, evolutionary biologists are extremely reticent to suggest that either evolution itself (considered as a whole) is purposeful or even that its processes can be understood interpretively. Yet natural selection itself presumes that nature selects, through its various codes, signals, and information-rich interactions, that which has reproductive and adaptive advantage; hence much energy has been expended on how such processes are goal-directed but not necessarily agential. Peircean semiosis comes to the rescue here, Robinson suggests--and not outlandishly, I think--in terms of showing how Thirdness manifests itself not only in terms of mediation but also in interpretation, and how nature's selection for general outcomes neither implies vitalism nor risks undermining the integrity of nature's processes. Applied to origins-of-life research, then, such an approach invites considerations of how protobiotic systems and environments might have facilitated both interpretive and misinterpretive processes (the capacity to make mistaken inferences) being central to semiosis, resulting not only in metabolism and localization but also in reproduction. Both empirical and theoretical ramifications are specified; it remains to be seen whether these suggestions can generate new research projects or complement existing inquiries in these arenas.
Robinson acknowledges that he has not been formally trained as a Peirce scholar, and he relies heavily on T. L. Short's magisterial Peirce's Theory of Signs (Cambridge University Press, 2007). While I also do not consider myself a Peirce specialist, I did not notice any obvious misinterpretations or misapplications of Peirce's ideas. I do have one minor quibble with Robinson's eschatology, recognizing that this pertains only to an extension of his ideas and does not touch on its central elements. His speculative proposal is that even upon the passing away of the space-time universe, human beings "will subsist as eternal centres of Firstness [qualities] in the presence of God's glory" (p. 336). This leaves unsaid, though, that such eternal qualitative realities would be dynamically constituted in relationship to others and especially to God. Such interrelational constitution suggests that creaturely Firstness does not leave behind Secondness or Thirdness. This should not be surprising since the divinity of the triune God also is triadically constituted by Father, Son, and Spirit. If that is the case, then Robinson's vestiges of the Trinity in creation are eternal, remaining even after the passing away of the space-time universe.
As a philosophical theologian, I view God and the World of Signs as a theology of nature (not a natural theology) that makes a significant contribution to the twenty-first century quest for a "grand unified theory" that includes rather than ignores metaphysics. In Robinson's hands, this view of the whole is best unraveled semiotically, and in that sense, it can be read as an update on what Peirce a century ago called a "guess at the riddle." Philosophers interested in theological metaphysics, those engaged in the theology and science conversation, and theologians who have some familiarity either with Peirce or with semiotic theories in general are in the best position to benefit from this book. Yet, because of the vast amount of ground that is covered, most readers will have to work through the volume patiently and carefully. Those persisting through it will be rewarded with a trinitarian and semiotic philosophy that may in due course prove to have explanatory power superior to other metaphysical systems for which Christian faith has sought.
Reviewed by Amos Yong, Dean of the School of Divinity and J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology, Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, VA 23464.
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|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
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