An Exciting Re-Reading of Cosmology
The Sense of the Universe: Philosophical Explication of Theological Commitment in Modern Cosmology
by Alexei V. Nesteruk, Fortress Press, 545pp, £38.99.
Reviewed by Brendan Purcell
What are physicists and astronomers doing when they’re doing cosmology? Alexei Nesteruk thoroughly explores how this question moves way beyond the purely physical measurement of the cosmos to its philosophical and theological dimensions.
He draws on phenomenology, Kantian theory of knowledge, the Greek fathers of the first millennium of Christianity and a range of 20th century Russian and French thinkers, to fashion a unique critical examination of how and what we know in contemporary
Nesteruk summarises the objective of this book as “the unfolding of theological motives in humanity’s perception of existence in the universe” (p.22). But ‘we do not analyse cosmology from the perspective of an explicitly theistic stance based on some dogmatic propositions of God’s existence; rather we proceed cautiously from what we call theological commitment as an existential, experiential mode of communion with God’ (p.24). His justification of this approach is that the natural
sciences normally don’t question their own existence and cognitive operations, nor does knowledge of the universe occur anywhere except within the persons who know it: ‘science is not capable of dealing with the question of its own facticity … In
this sense the universe as articulated reality has existence and sense only in a mode of personhood, which is a divine gift’ (p.25).
Cosmology and human subjectivity
He argues that both the knowing subject and the cosmos as known object mustbe articulated at far deeper levels than is normally the case even in philosophical discussion. He notes that cosmology is developed by a ‘human subjectivity [which] affirms itself through its non-egocentric attitude toward the external world’ (p.113). Thus neither the cosmos nor its human knower can be explained in terms of the natural sciences: as human personhood escapes complete definitions by manifesting itself through “presence in absence”, the universe, being a mirror of the human reason through which humanity constitutes itself also escapes complete definitions, thus acquiring a mode of “presence in absence”, that is, a mode of personal “opposite” of dynamic ecstatic reference… The universe can then be understood as a kind of otherness of personhood that is present in the event of a person’s self-affirmation (p.158).
He explains this otherness of the universe: Cosmology, in contradistinction to astronomy and astrophysics, is rather a “universology” that deals with a single, unique totality of all, which not only cannot be treated as an object and hence subjected to experimentation, but also cannot be made devoid of the delimiters of human insight (p.182).
Nesteruk could perhaps have made things easier for himself if he had drawn on Aquinas’ philosophical understanding of being, especially as his chapter ‘Constituting the Universe: Transcendental Delimiters and Apophaticism in Cosmology’ may run the danger of conflating the notion of created being with the uncreated Being of God. I’m not denying the richness of his rethinking of our relation with the universe as analogous to a relation with a person. Still, the notion of created being of course includes both personal and non-personal existence. A fine expression of that richness can be seen in this characteristic reference to St Athanasius:
[The] intrinsic rationality in the world, according to Athanasius of Alexandria, is maintained by the creative Logos of God, which is not an immanent principle of the world, but the transcendent artificer of order and harmony in created existence, which is thus contingent upon the transcendent rationality of God (p.219).
The standard cosmological model
In his discussion of the rationality of our notion of the universe, he writes that ‘the existential belief in the unity of reality corresponding to the unity of conscious experience permeates the whole standard cosmological model, including all its constructs’ (p.280) and asks why the standard cosmological model is so convincing. He refers to philosopher of science Ernan McMullin who notes that its coherence is due ‘not just to the particular historical reconstruction of a long-past geological or biological episode but in the ways in which one reconstruction supports another, and the scope of the concepts and explanatory concepts on which the reconstruction is based gradually widens’ (p.280).
Nesteruk continues on this topic, contrasting the testable standard cosmological model with the untestable multiverse hypothesis:
Unlike peninsular constructs such as multiverse, which by themselves cannot have any direct relation to the life-world, the construct of the visible universe possesses a heuristic quality of predicting some new properties of the universe that are subject to empirical testing (p.289).
There follows a finely weighted discussion of the kind of truth involved in cosmological theory, including the Kuhnian requirement of acceptance by the scientific community on the basis of its verifiability. He speaks of ‘a weak objectivity that includes the transcendental conditions of establishing truth’ (p.299), which is very close to Bernard Lonergan’s discussion in Insight of the contingency of judgments about the material world. Such judgments, in Lonergan’s terminology, are ‘virtually unconditioned’, that is contingent with regard to their object, not contingent in terms of the cognitive operations grounding the judgment.
Cosmology and the explication of the human condition
He argues that the universe’s origin is just as inexplicable as the origin of each unique human being: ‘In other words, how to interpret the Big Bang idea in the perspective of the interior life of a human person’ (p.306). He has been dealing throughout with what Heidegger called the forgetfulness of being—that cosmology can never explain the facticity of the universe, its existence, its suitability for life, life itself, and of course, the unique existence of each person. He’s aware of how some cosmologists like Stephen Hawking try to dispose of this question ‘by suggesting sophisticated theories of how to avoid temporal origin in cosmology at all’ (p.316). Cosmology itself is rooted in that even greater mystery of the human person: ‘the purpose of explanation in cosmology is related to the explication of the human condition. Correspondingly, the purposiveness of cosmological research acts as a certain delimiter in the explicability of the universe related to the human condition’ (p.350). His questioning of the physicists’ acceptance of the sheer givenness of the underlying laws of astrophysics reminded me of Hawkings’ dogmatic statement that ‘Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…’ (The Grand Design, p. 180).
Strongly theological dimension
One of the threads in the complex weave of this book is its strongly theological dimension. For example Nesteruk writes that ‘It is implied here that a glance at nature and the universe as created by God is accessible to humanity only through the Holy Spirit’ (p.433, n.36). However, I think Nesteruk is merely trying to get beyond the forgetfulness of the mystery of existence that he catches so frequently with remarks like ‘The origin of the universe shows to humanity precisely that its origin cannot be shown’ (p.453, his emphasis). He sees the universe not just as contingent existence but in the richer sense of being pure gift, a cosmic giftedness that requires a response from us.
Theology and cosmology are correlative
Nesteruk sums up: theology and cosmology are correlative, since theology needs human persons embodied in the physical universe, whose nature is explored by cosmology. This anthropological basis for cosmology ‘cannot be explained through reductions to the physical, and forms the foundational mystery whose elucidation and interpretation can only be provided by theology of the Divine image’ (p.475). The book concludes within a specifically Christian vision:
… cosmology can be treated as a theological work, as a spiritual and para-eucharistic activity, bringing the universe back to its creator through exploration and articulation. By so doing, human cosmologists endeavor a task of the moral mediation between the universe and God, contributing to the stages of deification through which the universe will be transfigured and seen through the eyes of the Logos-creator himself (p.479).
So, while being utterly faithful to his own vocation as an Orthodox Christian, Nesteruk has offered one of the most exciting re-readings of cosmology that has ever been carried out, all the more useful to the Western Christian reader since it includes a great many Russian and Patristic sources more or less unknown to the West. The book is immense and will richly reward whoever explores its various natural scientific, cosmological, anthropological and indeed theological summits.
Fr. Brendan Purcell is Adjunct Professor, University of Notre Dame, Australia, and the author of From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution.
To God Through Beauty
Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art , by Richard Viladesau, OUP, 312pp, £25.00.
Reviewed by Guy Nicholls
Art attempts to ‘represent the unimaginable’ in images which speak to us and move us. But in the making of images there is the danger of fomenting idolatry, and inviting the confusion of the reality with the image, when the original is, like God, unimaginable. Richard Viladesau tries to break away from this philosophical impasse by proposing a fundamental theology of the human imagination based on the Logos, the Son of God as Creator. This draws on the teaching that man is by nature ‘capax Dei’, and that the Creator never ceases to draw us to Himself. The ability to know Him, the unimaginable and uncreated One, therefore, even through the medium of created images, is inbuilt and cannot be satisfied except by coming to know Him. Therefore we should expect that this desire for God is made to be fulfilled in Him alone. Human cognition is capable of reaching the truth, even through images of various kinds, which can therefore lead us towards an authentic theology of art and aesthetics, enabling us truly, albeit partially, to ‘image’ the godhead.
Not by the intellect alone
Viladesau therefore asks how beauty can indeed be understood as a way to know God. Undoubtedly, one of the major problems that has beset theological aesthetics is, on the one hand, the modern and post-modern loss of faith in the image and likeness of God in created human nature; and on the other, the loss of conviction that truth is objectively real and attainable by the human person, intellectually and by feeling (aesthesis). Of course, where knowledge of God is concerned, the nature of what we can claim to know of Him has always been difficult to encompass in human language. But that is precisely where the intellectual conception of God alone, unaided or unbalanced by aesthesis, shows its limits. Pascal famously commented that ‘the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of’, suggesting that feelings are an indispensable part of the human heuristic process. The ‘heart’ stands for the apprehension of that which is instinctively and powerfully perceived as desirable. This is characteristic of beauty as it is experienced by the human heart, not as a force opposed to that of reason, but as admitting more than the intellect alone can grasp.
As the anonymous mediaeval English author of The Cloud of Unknowing expressed this truth so neatly: ‘by love may [God] be gotten and holden, but by thought never.’ Viladesau adapts to aesthetics an argument from Kant and concludes that ‘God is … self-subsistent joy in God’s own being and in all that participates in it, and the supreme goal and mover of human desire.’
The foundation of art and beauty
This ‘categorical’ revelation of God in the joyful apprehension of Himself is what Viladesau seeks to establish as constituting the foundation of art and beauty. The experience of beauty is a delight, a joy in the experience of ‘form’, the organising principle that gives ‘shape’ to things and to our knowledge of them. The recognition of form is itself a sign of intelligibility and is accompanied by a sense of joy and satisfaction in the discovery of meaning and purpose. Yet how is it that we often experience beauty as something sad or tragic? Or that we can even sometimes experience what is tragic as beautiful, as desirable, especially when we encounter it in art and music? Viladesau accounts for this puzzling fact by placing God himself at the ‘horizon’ of every experience of beauty. Finite beauty powerfully points towards the infinite but unreachable beauty of God, arousing in us who experience it both joy in possession, and pain in the perceived absence, of the one to whom we may be drawn and directed by a particular aesthetic event. Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant attitudes
Viladesau does not shirk the important differences between various schools of Christian theology in understanding of the place and function of art and beauty in relation to God. The sacramental principle, in which created matter and form can be apprehended in some authentic way as images of God, and as ways towards union with Him, is fundamental to the Catholic and Orthodox attitude to art, whereas the Protestant theological system relies on the priority of the word over the image as the medium through which God communicates Himself to us, and by means of which we apprehend Him. It is significant, for instance, that the Protestant theologian Bonhoeffer described ‘art, culture and religion’ as ‘the three great powers by which humanity contradicts the grace of God.’ Nevertheless, it would be wrong, as Viladesau recognizes, to make this dichotomy too absolute. After all, on the Catholic side, St Bernard strongly disputed the place of sensible (especially visual) beauty. On the Protestant side, Luther himself had a profound appreciation of the power of music especially to convey God’s truth and presence, as is particularly exemplified in the religious works of his great follower, Bach. Viladesau quotes Karl Rahner’s pertinent observation that ‘when listening to a Bach Oratorio ... we have the impression that, not only through its text, but also through its music, we are in a special way brought into a relationship with divine revelation about humanity.’
The cross – divine love made incarnate
The hermeneutical key to the proper understanding of beauty in art, Viladesau states, is the cross of Christ. From an aesthetic point of view, the cross is not itself a beautiful thing, but it is the symbol of a beautiful act, that of the self-giving of the Son of God incarnate out of love for the Father and for fallen creation, in order to restore the beauty of what He had made but sin had marred. So ‘if the image and presence of God are found in the poverty, ugliness and suffering of the world, it is precisely as the hope and promise of transcending these conditions.’
Viladesau therefore asks whether Christian spirituality has been too exclusively preoccupied with renunciation and has taken too little account of ‘the fact that Jesus, in contrast to the ascetical John the Baptist, came in a spirit of celebrating the arrival of God’s kingdom.’ Theological aesthetics must eschew any hint of dualism, and fully accept that ‘body and soul were both equally created by God, equally attacked by corruption, and equally saved by Christ.’ Hence we may therefore speak of an ‘aesthetic conversion’ that takes place when we recognise beauty not merely as that which produces feelings of pleasure, but as ‘form’, understood as ‘perceivable order, intelligibility and value’. Yet this conversion must take place in the light of the cross, understood specifically as the historical sign and fulfilment of divine love made incarnate.
The problem of idolatry
The resolution of the problem of idolatry, in both its intellectual and its asceticaldimensions, is to be found in intellectual, moral, aesthetic and religious conversion, rather than in the renunciation of any intrinsic dimension of human being. Viladesau
warns us that ‘a lack of experience of the beauty of what is truly good, a lack of taste for the holy – turns people ... towards the pursuit of material pleasure.’ The human thirst for aesthetic fulfilment is insatiable. The question is whether what fulfils that
thirst is good and true, and convincing. The conclusion of this book is that the only authentic beauty capable of bringing us to the end for which we have been created and redeemed is the splendour of truth and goodness in the everlasting glorious vision of God, mediated to us by the Crucified incarnate Logos.
Fr Guy Nicholls of the Birmingham Oratory has just completed a doctoral study of
Complicity and How To Avoid It
The Servant and the Ladder: Cooperation with Evil in the Twenty-First Century by Andrew McLean Cummings, Gracewing, 443 pp, £20.
Reviewed by Helen Watt
This is a lively and thought-provoking book on the topic of cooperation and complicity in others’ wrongdoing. The ‘Servant’ of the title is an imaginary character attracting centuries of debate and even a papal condemnation: the employee of a would-be rapist who is asked to hold a ladder while his master climbs in a window. May he hold the ladder, many have asked, and if so, in what circumstances?
Those who regard the Servant example as perhaps a little strained and antiquarian may prefer to think about other cases mentioned in the book: the shipping clerk who dispatches land mines, or the nurse who hands instruments to a doctor who plans to use them for an abortion. How should we make sense of these cases, and what if the Servant, the nurse or the clerk were ‘going through the motions’ at the point of a gun, rather than merely (as in the condemned Servant view) in fear of their jobs or an ‘angry look’?
Formal and material cooperation
Twenty-first century readers benefit from the distinction now drawn between ‘formal’ and ‘material’ cooperation – where material cooperation in others’ wrongful choices is unintentional, while formal cooperation is intentional. Formal cooperation with the main wrongdoer’s act, however reluctant and however disapproving, is always itself morally wrong. Material cooperation, in contrast, may or may not be morally wrong – and despite clarificatory remarks in Veritatis Splendor – the identification of formal and material, and permissible and impermissible material cooperation, is still a matter of much dispute.
Cummings leads us through the history of discussion of this and allied areas, taking in some entertaining if horrifying views requiring censure: proof, if proof were needed, that laxism did not begin with our current age. He also sets out his own views on cooperation, which are not only quite restrictive but not entirely convincing to this reviewer in the particular shape they take. While rightly willing to assert the duty to refuse illicit choices ‘even if it hurts’, Cummings is perhaps too quick to identify some choices as ‘formal’ that might be better seen as ‘material’ cooperation, however unjustified these choices may remain.
The role of intention
Cummings not unnaturally fears that “if negative consequences are held to be in no way intended, they will be permitted for a sufficient reason; if there is some intentionality, they may fall under absolute norms and be forbidden in all cases” (p.94). So willing is Cummings, at least sometimes, to impute intention from foreknowledge that he even says at one point (p.244) that someone who draws the curtains to keep out the sun intends that they fade! However, intention, as we normally use the term, is about our actual goals – our choice of ends and means – rather than about states of the external world, however important these are in providing choiceworthy options.
Rather than sometimes stretch the definition of intention to breaking point, it might be better simply to admit that intention should not be ‘made to do all the work’ when identifying what is absolutely morally excluded. For example, to condemn lethal organ harvesting, or pre-viability removal of an unborn child from its mother, it is not necessary to claim that the surgeon ‘must’ have intended the foreseen death for the unborn child or the organ donor – as a result of what he did intend for the object of his assault.
As I see it, Cummings, like many others who support morally restrictive conclusions on these issues, overstates the role of intention as required to reach such conclusions. That said, there are also welcome signs in the book that Cumming recognises that certain wrong intentions cannot be so readily imputed in some cases where the moral verdict is, however, clear. For example, as Cummings rightly notes (pp.134- 5) you do not have to intend to give scandal to give it, and Cummings refers at one point (p.336) to “an exaggeration of the role of the intention of the acting subject in determining the moral value of the act”.
In his entirely reasonable desire to argue that certain cases of collaboration are justified material cooperation, Cummings can be unconvincing: for example, he presents as a mere omission to remove from his mailbag the delivery of morally offensive mail by a postman – which merely raises further questions about mail for that address consisting solely of offensive material, not to mention the blameless actions of colleagues in filling the mailbag in the first place. Again, though rightly showing some desire at least to exculpate the bank clerk who in effect helps the bank robbers steal, and certainly intentionally helps them move the money, Cummings is on shaky ground given the general points he makes. The clerk’s collaboration is necessary to the theft, something much stressed by Cummings, and is not something the clerk was ‘doing anyway’ or necessarily part of his duties (or recognised duties) as a bank clerk – two other factors stressed by Cummings.
Elsewhere, however, Cummings makes some much-needed distinctions – for example, correctly pointing out in a discussion of an example of Germain Grisez that a temporary contractor who wrongly cooperates in arranging escort services as required by another firm may not be intending that any such services actually take place once the contract has been signed (p.237). It would have been good here to focus more on the co-operator’s illicit intending of the business partner’s plans to offer such services to clients, as such plans are of course morally wrong at every stage. The business partner is intending at least that his clients be attracted to the business by the availability of such services, and the co-operator is intending at least the immediate pursuit on the business partner’s part of that immoral intention, as a condition of the contract being signed.
Concentration on deliberately assisting wrongful plans can help us negotiate many complicity problems: for example, whether or not a morally conflicted nurse intends that a doctor succeed in performing an abortion, she may be wrongly intending that he try when she passes him an instrument, on his orders, that will help him do so. (Of course, it goes without saying that she should not be passing the instrument anyway, even without this formal intention, especially if no-one is training a gun on her, even if her job is on the line.)
Heroism and self-sacrifice
While good at showing us problems, The Servant and the Ladder is perhaps less good at finding solutions; it remains, however, a valuable exploration of a very perplexing area of ethics. It is engagingly written, attractively produced (barring mysterious asterisks at some points where page numbers should be) and generally well worth exploring. There is much to inform and indeed inspire in the book, not least the spirit in which it is written. One can only admire the author’s willingness to accept the sometimes radical demands of conscience: to acknowledge these demands is ever more important in a world where pressures on people of conscience multiply by the day. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists, soldiers and business people, are all too often asked to do what either they should never do (in the case of some choices) or only under unjust pressure (in the case of other choices).
Looking back to the last century, the author quotes the words of Franz Jägerstätter, martyred for his refusal to serve in the Nazi army, on its being too late to save the world, but never too late to save your own soul, and bring some other souls to Christ
4 as well. We may not all be called to be Jägerstätters and it can feel uncomfortable making moral judgements on such cases from the safety of our armchairs. We must distinguish between genuine duties, however demanding, on the one hand, and on the other, ‘supererogation’ i.e. ‘going above and beyond the call of duty’. That said, as Cummings notes (p.386), in words that should resonate with all of us, “There are many degrees of heroism and self-sacrifice, and many if not most Christians are called to some degree of it.”
Dr Helen Watt is Senior Research Fellow of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre; her books include The Ethics of Pregnancy, Abortion and Childbirth and the edited collection Cooperation, Complicity and Conscience.
Contemplating Where The Magi Bought Their Gifts
Advent Joy - Journeying Towards the Nativity by Julien Chilcott-Monk, Gracewing, 104pp, £6.99.
Reviewed by Ella Preece
Advent Joy – Journeying Towards the Nativity is a book designed to help the reader to contemplate the Stations of the Cross. It has 24 stations beginning on the 1st December rather than the first Sunday of Advent, which varies. The stations themselves cover salvation history from creation to the adoration of the Magi. They each begin with a quote from Scripture which sets the theme of the station, the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, a contemplation, a short prayer taken, for example, from the Divine Office or a sequence from the Mass, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be.
Each contemplation is only about a page long, allowing the length of each station to be very comfortable. The language used is easy-going which makes it suitable for use with young children. There are, however, a few points that should be noted. Each contemplation has been inserted into the middle of the Our Father, which is a bit clunky, to give an example... “Our Father who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. When you told that group of questioners...”; and similarly at the end the contemplation concludes, for example, “Help me heavenly Father to do my part. Give us this day our daily bread...”. Because the contemplation is a completely different writing style the sudden entry back into the formal prayer does break the flow of the meditation.
Random things, not deeper mysteries
The writing style itself can be hard to follow at times as the author uses many double negatives, “Did not you..., was it not..., were they not...”. The contemplations of the author can be a bit rambling at times and sometimes seem to focus on random things like what Mary thought of Joseph’s home and workshop, and what the house was like, did the workshop look out onto a busy road, was Joseph well known for his carpentry skills etc. There is less focus on the deeper mysteries of God’s actions and messages in relation to our lives, which might be of more interest to readers of this magazine.
There were also a few statements which made me personally feel a little uncomfortable. For example, “It is likely that Abraham did not apprehend you as the only one and only God but caught glimpses of you in a great morass of distractions […] doubtless he believed that you shared the heavenly stage with strange and terrifying divinities.” This is hard to believe when Abraham (the father of the monotheistic faiths) says “I have sworn to the LORD God Most High, maker of heaven and earth.” Elsewhere we hear that shepherds lived apart from the rest of the community “almost leper like”. Again, this comment fails to put forth any of the relevance and importance of the shepherd but places a somewhat negative label on them in the contemplation.
This only happens occasionally in the book but prevents the reader sharing in the deeper revelation and love of God that is occurring at that point in salvation history, especially in light of the New Testament, and raises the question that if the person in Scripture who is experiencing this unique relationship with God didn’t really understand God, then how can we?
Undermining the traditional reading
The book is designed to spend the Advent period focusing our thoughts on the mystery of the Incarnation, deepening our understanding through the revelations of salvation history, and our relationship with God. However, when reading it, on several of the days it seems that instead of “reading them in light of the Resurrection of our Lord” the author is undermining a traditional reading of Scripture. He takes faithful characters who humbly place their trust in God and portrays them in a negative light of ignorance and doubt, often with his personal opinions which tend to be mundane and superficial in nature.
There seems to be little to gain by speculating what Joseph thought about why he had to travel to Bethlehem for the census or if the Magi picked up their gifts in the market on the way over to the stable, in comparison to the great mystery of the Creator of the cosmos taking on human form in order to save us from the fires of Hell and restore us to how we were created to be, let alone “considering afresh the Holy Incarnation”. In short, it does not leave you feeling like you have done a mini-retreat.
To conclude I would say that the book is not terrible, but I am not sure it would appeal to the readers of this magazine. The idea and layout are great, but sadly the spiritual and meditative content leave something to be desired.
Ella Preece is a home-educating mother whose hobbies include archery, juggling and general adventuring.