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State Of Affairs: The Science-Theology Controversy.

STATE OF AFFAIRS: The Science-Theology Controversy by Richard J. Coleman. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014. xii + 272 pages. Paperback; $32.00. ISBN: 9781625647016.

If the title of Richard Coleman's first book at this intersection, Competing Truths: Theology and Science as Sibling Rivals (Bloomsbury, 2001), highlighted the contrasts but worked toward synthesis, the main title of the present book, almost fifteen years later, suggests a status quaes-tionis, but actually urges that whatever synthesis might be previously either promoted or achieved is premature given the disparate methodologies. Perhaps this is in part because in the intervening period, Coleman's Eden's Garden: Rethinking Sin and Evil in an Era of Scientific Promise (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) scrutinized the sciences from a theological vantage point and observed that scientific inquiry, no less than any other human venture, is not less susceptible to overreaching in its pursuit of inquiry and knowledge, and hence he has become much more sanguine and realistic about the scientific enterprise. State of Affairs thus suggests that while the value of science should not be underestimated, we ought not to overlook the differences between it and the theological disciplines.

Now Coleman is advocating neither the classical "con-flict" thesis nor the two-truths or independence model of more recent provenance. Instead, he engages more specifically and most extensively with what he calls the movement of "new rapprochement" (NR) between theology and science represented in the last generation by the contributions of Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, and John Polkinghorne, among others. Coleman's argument is that NR, while helpful in various respects, also has been too accommodating to science, its constraints and empirical methods, and thereby has both minimized theology's distinctiveness and subjected its work to scientific frameworks and presuppositions. Along this latter route, theology subordinates its task of clarifying the deposit of revelation to that of "keeping up with the sciences" (my colloquialism), so to speak, and thereby forgets its prophetic stance of readiness to confront critically the shortcomings inherent in all human undertakings.

Note that Coleman writes not as a scientist for scientists but as a theologian for his peers. From my own vantage point as a theologian looking to engage the sciences, I am grateful for this timely reminder about the differences between both endeavors. Yet insofar as the modern sciences are driven in principle by the quest for ever-expanding knowledge, they have threatened, if not dethroned, theology from her status during the medieval period as "queen of the sciences." Hence, if science can overreach, part of the question is whether theology has its own realm and, if such, is anything less than all-there-is. It should not be surprising that if the extent of science's reach is contested even among those working in that arena, the scope of theology for example, whether it concerns the existential depth of the human experience or the eschatological horizon of the cosmos or the transcendent dimensions of the world, or any and everything at all!--might itself not be amenable to clear definition. The extent to which theologians disagree about these matters will incline them to engage with Coleman's thesis divergently.

In the end, what Coleman wants, charitably put, is for theologians to take a more appropriately disputational, even prophetic approach to the sciences, with such contesting and disrupting capacities understood as theology's gift to scientific inquiry. Yet as the scientific method is itself designed to continually question what we know, theologians do not have a corner on the disputational market. This is not to say that theologians ought not to pose hard questions to science, or even that theology might not make a difference in the scientific domain. It is to say that the stance recommended by Coleman might be less confrontational than intimated. Here the carefully developed proposals over the last two decades plus those of Robert John Russell--to whom Coleman refers in passing on a few occasions but does not engage in any depth--deserve to be carefully studied.

Coleman's constructive way forward is complicated on two fronts: first, by the long history of fundamentalist, creationist, and intelligent design voices that understand themselves as disputational interventions vis-a-vis the sciences; and second, by the fact that in the twenty-first century, Christian theology's voice in the religion-sci-ence interface is one among other religious traditions engaging and even challenging the sciences. So the question is how to promote a disputational stance that is constructive for the wider conversation (as opposed to being merely reactive as on the former trajectory) and that is distinctive in a pluralistic world (as opposed to being perceived as merely attempting to get a leg up in a crowded field). When understood diachronically and historically in light of the last millennium of Christian theology's love-hate relationship with the sciences, the question can be expanded: what kind of theology or theological method can be an appropriate "queen"--on the one hand, being bold and prophetic while on the other hand, also humble in recognizing its self-limitations (limitations that are pertinent to all human efforts, which Coleman grants: p. 245) vis-a-vis other bodies of knowledge?

My own proposal (developed elsewhere) has been that such a theological approach should be distinctively pneumatological, following out of the Day of Pentecost metaphor that understands the many tongues inspired by the Spirit as also heralding the witnesses of the many faiths and the many scientific disciplines. This allows both the possibility of honest engagement with others from the standpoint of difference and also the capacity to receive from them in turn. If this is correct, then the way forward involves an enrichment of NR, not its curtailment, and this itself might open up to a healthier, even if no less controversial, "state of affairs" for the next generation of theology's engagement with the sciences.

Reviewed by Amos Yong, Professor of Theology & Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA 91182.
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Author:Yong, Amos
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2016
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