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The Penultimate Curiosity Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs.

The Penultimate Curiosity Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs

Oxford University Press, 2016

ISBN 978 0198747956, h/b, 496pp, 25 [pounds sterling]

Andrew Briggs and Roger Wagner have produced quite a page-turner. Briggs is Professor of Nanomaterials at the University of Oxford. Wagner is an artist, working in a range of materials, whose responses to themes from Christian theology, in particular, have been widely admired. Their book is a hefty one, but then again it ought to be, given that they set out to survey the full sweep of human history, from the dawn of the species to the present day (at least from the geographical perspective of the West). Our understanding of nature is the focus--what would become natural philosophy, and eventually natural science--and how that relates to the deepest questions of all, taking in the concerns of religion, theology and metaphysics. The book's governing principle is that science addresses the penultimate curiosities, and that it has followed in the wake, or slipstream, of interest in the 'ultimate curiosity'.

The general tone is one of a sunny rebuttal of the idea that religion inevitably impedes science. The authors follow the historical route, which certainly gives the lie to assumptions of inevitable conflict. Their bustling, accessible book is an important addition to the growing collection of historical discussions of this relationship.

Sunny the book certainly is, and here and there the reader might find The Penultimate Curiosity just a little too relentlessly up-beat. They show, for instance, that archaeology confirms some important historical details in the Old Testament, which is certainly true and important, but the other side of the coin--what archaeology has yet to confirm --is not broached.

Where is the art in this, the reader of this particular journal might be asking? Well, it is there not least in the sense that this is an artfully woven story. Beyond that, almost every page bears visual illustrations: archaeological photographs, portraits, and the frontispieces of significant books, for instance. As a volume, the design values are impeccable.

In terms of the argument of the book, art is vital to what unfolds, and yet quite how the arts function in the argument is left a little unclear. One thing is sure: it bears upon the ultimate curiosity, rather than the penultimate one--it expresses responses to central questions of God and meaning. To say that, however, leaves us with a fair cluster of disciplines and human activities in the domain of ultimate curiosity. Theology, art and metaphysics span quite a range between them, and we may be left wondering how they relate, and are ordered one to another. The logic seems to be that theology takes first place (as most ultimate), that art and metaphysics hold joint second place, and that science comes next: as not, perhaps, the penultimate curiosity, but the 'ante-penultimate curiosity'.

As for the artfulness of the writing, that shows itself most of all in Briggs and Wagner having a remarkable eye for connections. Some of these links bear argumentative weight, while others are simply elegant, or clever, moving us, and the story, on. The narrative tumbles forward with great energy, driven by these connections: 'meanwhile ...', 'only twenty years earlier ... ', 'close by and only 30 years before ...'

There are several heroes to this tale, but John Philoponus (AD 490-570) sticks out, not least because he is so far from being famous. He receives a 24 page stretch (and various other references), in a surprising contrast to Robert Grosseteste (five pages), Albert the Great (one paragraph) and Thomas Aquinas (a page and a half). Mediaeval experts will have their own personal responses to that. My eye is on Albert as underrepresented.

Philoponus gains his laurels for having got us beyond Aristotle, the need for which is a recurring trope. That assessment of Aristotle bears the marks of the physicist's perspective. A biologist would more likely see the Greek philosopher as the initiator of much that is still recognised today as science, rather than as a barrier to its development. It depends whether one thinks that science is born out of experiment only, or whether careful observation is also important: Aristotle was a master of the latter, rather than the former.

The authors offer something of a paean to Protestantism, which is fair enough. They root the progress of early modern science in the freedom from authority that they take Protestantism to represent, with each man and women reading his or her own Bible as he or she sees fit. There is something in that, but praise is taken too far when they come to Isaac Newton. His 'liberty' from tradition, reading the Bible in his own way, led him to be a Socinian a non-Trinitarian, a modalist, a Sabellian --as the authors relate. The authors are clearly writing from the perspective of classical, credal Christianity, but that Newton fell off the edge of what might, by any stretch, bear that name, is recorded with hardly a qualm. (There is another Trinitarian twist lying behind this book's tale. If Newton downplayed the distinction of Persons, none other than John Philoponus went all out for it, ranking as one of theological history's rather few tritheists. And how did he get there?--by dogged loyalty to Aristotelian philosophical categories!)

This book will likely become something of a classic among surveys of the relationships between theology and the natural sciences, not least for its success in explaining the scientific elements of its story in accessible ways throughout. At 25 [pounds sterling] it is also quite a bargain.

Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge and Canon Philosopher of St Albans Cathedral
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Author:Davison, Andrew
Publication:Art and Christianity
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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