Book Reviews
Book Reviews

Book Reviews

FAITH Magazine March-April 2010

Evolution & Emergence: Systems, Organisms and Persons,
edited by Nancey Murphy and William R. Stoeger SJ, Oxford University Press, xiv + 378pp, £76

Nature works at every level to produce more complex and highly organised systems and organisms from much simpler components: this is the theory proposed and investigated by this collection of essays. This review concentrates on how some of the authors apply this supposed "universal phenomenon of emergence" to anthropology and theology, Christology especially.

For more than a decade many of the contributors to this volume, including its editors - Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary and William R. Steoger SJ, Staff Astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory - have collaboratively developed a "nonreductive physicalism" or "emergent monist" anthropology. This holds that though man is a single, solely physical substance he is irreducible to his simplest, physical components. Rather man is a highly complex, multi-levelled, hierarchically structured organism from which emerge higher-level capacities, such as thinking and willing. Although these intrinsically depend on lower-level physical processes, they cannot be explained by simple description of such processes. Moreover, these higher-level properties are"causal players" in their own right over and above, and able to exert downward causation upon, the effects of lower-level processes. Hence "nonreductive" indicates a rejection of causal reduction, but not ontological reduction. It is a physicalism claiming to escape determinism without recourse to a properly spiritual soul, if "soul" is understood as implying that man's nature is composed of an entity ontologically distinct from his purely physical being.

This concept of "soul," and the physicalism proposed by many of the contributors, is unacceptable to those who hold that Christianity teaches that man is one unified being but composed of two essential parts - a physical body and a properly spiritual soul which, though the substantial form of the body, is a subsistent entity capable of conscious existence when separated from its body between an individual's death and the General Resurrection. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the physicalism espoused successfully protects human freedom, a power traditionally rooted in man's spiritual soul. Many critics argue that nonreductive/emergent physicalism simply replaces bottom-up determinism with top-down.

Turning to theology, Stoeger, for example, seeks to defend a portrait of divine action consistent with revelation and enriched by this emergent, physicalist portrait of the world which, he argues, the natural sciences provide. This involves inquiry not only into God's continuous activity of maintaining creation in being, but also into "special divine action" in history, including the Incarnation and Resurrection. Stoeger accepts that reconciling these with the natural sciences is a "considerable challenge." He responds thus:

"It seems to many that God does, in some sense, intervene or reveal God's self in a special way in nature and in history in order to answer prayer, effect the Incarnation and the Resurrection and so on. Is this what happens, or is there some other way of understanding these events? One way to deal with this question is to stress the regularities, processes, structures and relationships that constitute the laws of nature as they actually function in nature" (p. 243).

From this Stoeger argues that "special divine action" is really a matter of the "higher laws of nature" as they actually function, rather than as we understand them, subsuming, modifying and marshalling the "lower orders of nature"; those of physics, chemistry and biology. Hence "divine intervention" is "only relative to our limited understanding of the full laws of nature."

Stoeger seems to limit the manifestation of God to the operation of divinely established natural laws whilst excluding effects transcending the order of that created nature, explicable only by the direct, supernatural action of God. Even the Incarnation and Resurrection appear attributable to natural processes which, potentially, could be explained in terms of completely natural laws.

For Arthur Peacocke, the now deceased former Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre, the followers of Jesus encountered in him a dimension of transcendence which they could only attribute to God: "But they also encountered him as a full human person [!], and in his personhood they experienced an intensity of God's immanence in the world"(p.280). The "fusion" of the transcendence and immanence of God in Jesus led to the belief that they were experiencing something new "and they ransacked received concepts to try to give expression to this discontinuity... eventually designating it inter alia as 'incarnation'" (ibid). However, this "new kind of reality," who is Jesus, is an emergent manifestation of God in human life emanating from within creation: "a unique manifestation of apossibility always inherently there for human beings by virtue of their potential nature being created by God... a new mode of human existence emerged through Jesus' openness to God making him a God informed human being"(ibid).

Jesus is presented as the fulfilment of natural human potentialities, with his "divinity" understood not in ontological terms but in relation to his divinely inspired response to God by which he became the brightest manifestation of God's action in human life.

The Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Philip Clayton, begins with the premise that the beliefs and doctrines of traditional theism can be modified or abandoned in light of emergentist theories. He thinks that the only indispensable for Christology is "some way to think of the Jesus event as involving an act of God." He says:

"In contrast to much of the tradition, I do not define the incarnation first in terms of the ontological status of Jesus Christ. Most of the two-natures doctrines of the incarnation are based on the categories of a substance based metaphysic that is foreign to how most people think today. These doctrines also require a pre-existence logos Christology that remains in tension with the fundamental humanity of Jesus" (p. 329, fn. 20).

Instead, Clayton portrays the "divine" in Jesus as the perfect submission of his will to that of God such that his action and that of God are identified. Jesus manifests the divine power by subsuming his will to God's, and at the same time God acted through Jesus to manifest God's will and bring about God's intentions.

"This fusion of human and divine is what was right about traditional 'two natures' Christologies and the traditional doctrine of 'incarnation'; it's just that emergentism now locates the fusion in shared action and attitude rather than in some a priori ontological story" (p. 332).

Jesus, then, may be viewed as a unique revelation of God in that more than any other human his will is attuned to God's so that his actions disclose God's purposes. Yet this unique attitude is also the exemplar for all of humanity in that it actualises the possibility that each man enjoys as made in God's image.

However, because nonreductive physicalism does not seem to defeat determinism, it appears to render impossible this freely and perfect submission of Jesus' human will to God. Moreover, whilst admiring their insistence on the true humanity of Jesus, I question whether these authors adequately express Christian belief that the "Word was made flesh." It appears that for them Jesus is only a man, with a special - unique even - relationship to and identification with God, but no more; and whose entire being is wholly emergent from processes which, though established and directed by God, are fully natural. Yet nor can their understanding of Jesus' humanity be shared by anyone who believes that Jesus' human nature includes a properly spiritual, immortal soul, which, separated from hisbody, yet united to the divine Word, descended into Hell as an essential dimension of his mission to redeem man, body and soul. Indeed, is Jesus truly the Saviour who elevates man beyond his created nature and its possibilities into a supernatural deification of his existence?

The desire clearly discernible in so many of the pages of this book -to engage seriously with the natural sciences and demonstrate the compatibility of Christian faith with them - is highly laudable. Although I must leave others to substantiate the argument that the interpretation and application of the findings of these sciences by some of the contributors are unwarranted, I may certainly conclude that their understanding of the Christian faith sits uneasily with that of this reviewer's (spiritual) mind.

Fr John O'Leary

Too Much, Too Soon -The Government's Plans for your Child's Sex Education
by Norman Wells, Family Education Trust, £2.JO, 36pp (available from FET, Jubilee House, 19-21 High Street, Whitton, Twickenham TW2 7LBJ

Choose Life - Prayers for Life
Copies available from Human Life, 18 Chelsea Square, London SW3 6LF, (free, donation appreciated) 12pp

There is a great deal of talk about sex education at the moment. For some, it seems to be the universal panacea, especially if it is accompanied by widescale distribution of contraceptive drugs and devices to children. Here, at last, is a well-written commonsense guide to current Government plans, and practical advice to parents who may be confused on the subject.

Too Much, Too Soon looks at what has actually occurred in Britain over recent decades with regard to teenage sexual activity - the steadily rising figures for teenage pregnancies and abortions, and for sexually-transmitted diseases, linked to the commercial and ideologically-based campaigns for more and more propaganda aimed at the young, encouraging belief in the idea that sexual activity is just a matter of mutual pleasure supported by contraceptive equipment. Crude and explicit materials, devoid of any reference to marriage or even to love, produced by groups with links to lobbyists promoting abortion and the "morning after" pill, have become the standard for sex education. Evidence for the misery and chaos that this has created is now widely available, but voices calling fora fresh approach are ignored or stifled.

There is something rather chilling about the names and slogans now being used by officialdom in this territory. "Bodyzone" is the gimmick name given to a youth clinic distributing contraceptive and abortifacient drugs, and children are urged to attend sessions with names like "Speakeasy" where they are assured that parents and teachers will not be told about the contraceptive equipment they are getting.

The fact that sex education schemes of this sort positively encourage more teenage sexual activity is no longer even regarded by officialdom as wrong. On the contrary, one enthusiast, admitting that such activity could be increased said that she didn't think that this was necessarily harmful - she spoke instead of the value of removing taboos and seeing sex as "valuable and life-enhancing", an odd expression to come from one associated with provision of abortion.

What can parents do? Give their children clear moral direction, exercise control over sexual content in the media in the home, be honest and truthful about the consequences of extra-marital sexual activity, uphold marriage and emphasise the benefits of saving sexual activity for marriage. "What young people really need is not more talk about the mechanics of sex and contraception, but encouragement to develop the character qualities of stability, faithfulness and commitment - the qualities they will need to build a strong and lasting marriage based on something that runs deeper than feelings and physical attraction." This is wise advice, and the author is clear about the wrong direction taken by current policies: "In the name of non-judgementalism, the government's approach is abandoningyoung people to the shifting sands of relativism and depriving them of the moral compass they so desperately need."

What does this booklet have to say to Catholic schools and Catholic parents? This booklet is not written with the Church in mind, and does not specifically tackle this aspect of the debate. But it has wisdom to offer. Having established the horror of what passes for "sex education" in official government-sponsored schemes, it also emphasises that there are indeed things that can be taught, but that these are precisely the things that officialdom has thus far blocked and banned - the virtues of faithfulness and commitment, the centrality of marriage, the importance of family structures, the necessity of truth. "What we really need is to recover a proper respect for marriage and a proper respect for parents."

Catholics can and must take a stand on this, and Catholic schools can, within the law, present the Christian moral teaching as the right way to live and refuse to use any materials which are either too explicit or which in any way infringe parental rights or impose a message contrary to Christian moral norms. If necessary, this could be tested in the courts. There is no need to shrug and assume that current government-funded schemes of sex education or vague imitations of them are the only way forward: Catholic schools are popular and highly-regarded by the public in general in Britain and in a stand-off between them and officialdom the latter might find it had fewer allies than it imagines.

We need a certain confidence, and this is a message that emerges from this booklet: official schemes of sex education over recent decades have failed. It is time for a fresh approach. Many of us are tired of the debate, exhausted by the relentless and well-funded propaganda pushed by those whose ideas have dominated the official attitudes, and despondent of ever seeing change. But we need courage and hope. This booklet urges us to have both, and not to give up. The stakes are too high for that.

The Choose Life booklet of prayers is rather charming. It is nicely-produced, pocket-sized and with pleasing decorations. The prayers include the Magnificat, the familiar "Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle..." and a rather good hymn which can be sung to the tune of Come, Holy Ghost and is specifically aimed at begging for protection on unborn children. This hymn is beautifully composed around an Incarnation theme and is rich in doctrine. It would be good to see it adopted at pro-life prayer-vigils and services "Begotten of His Love Divine/Before Creation's dawn/Let God's own Son our hearts incline/ To cherish the unborn."

I detect a gently Anglican feel to this little prayer-book - it brings with it a waft of the best of what that tradition can offer. If it is a taste of what those who come into the new Ordinariate may bring with them, then we can be glad and grateful. Meanwhile, this is a prayer-book that could usefully be ordered by groups and parishes and widely distributed - it would come in handy for common prayer at meetings of Catholic women's groups and youth groups as well as having much value for private devotions. Aborting large numbers of children is now a standard part of our National Health Service and accepted by many as normal -defeating this horror is only possible by prayer. I like the quote from Julian of Norwich on this little book's frontispiece, "The Lord showed me about prayer. I nowsee that there are two conditions about prayer. One concerns its Tightness, the other our sure trust."

Joanna Bogle
New Maiden Surrey

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