Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Book Review: Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Introduction

To describe the historic relationship between Christianity and science as contentious would seem to many a grand understatement.  In defense of the view that Christianity and science are compatible, many would argue that the entire scientific enterprise was founded by those who believed in a Creator God and desired to learn more about Him.  Others, such as the late paleontologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould, contended that "religion and science were two completely different realms of thought and action." [p. 337]  He referred to them as "non-overlapping magisteria," or NOMA.  And New Atheists such as the late Christopher Hitchens would have us believe that religion was our primitive first attempt at explaining the world around us, but that science now offers a superior explanation to the important questions of human existence.  Is it any wonder that the editors of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science write:

"Possibly more than at any other time in history, views about the relationship between science and Christianity in Western culture are both polarizing and confusing.  Thus reasonable dialogue about the intersection of these two topics and clarification of their respective concepts and implications is essential." [p. 11]

This reader could not agree more.  I know that in my own interactions with people of various stripes, Christianity is treated as a pre-science view that has been proven deficient.  This attitude has even crept into the church!  How can the Christian find common ground with someone who holds such a view?

Furthermore, there exist "in-house" debates that center around the intersection of Christianity and science that can be rather combative and potentially divisive.  As the editors point out, "Evangelical Christianity does not have a shared mind regarding science." [Ibid.]  It is important that believers learn to discuss these secondary issues respectfully and thoughtfully while striving to understand the various views within Christendom.  How can a believer learn to do so?

It is this reviewer's contention that the Dictionary of Christianity and Science answers these questions.  This volume will aid readers in developing the skills necessary to think clearly and factually about the most important scientific topics of the past and present.

Further, I would challenge the unbeliever who is under the impression that Christianity and science somehow contradict to consider the arguments therein.  At the very least, you will learn that Christians, while certainly not agreeing on everything, are serious about science.

Book Layout

This volume provides entries by more than 140 contributors on over 450 key terms, theories, individuals, movements, and debates at the intersection of Christian faith and contemporary science.   The entries are arranged alphabetically.

The dictionary includes three types of entires: 1) Introductions 2) Essays 3) Multiple-View Discussions.

The Introductions strive to outline the central facts about a topic in a summative format.  The Essays, as one would imagine, are longer entires that further explore a given topic and offer references to important figures and works related to the given matter.  Finally, the Multiple-View Discussions are different in that they "are not meant to be dispassionate." [Ibid.]  As the editors write:

"...on key subjects that have stimulated ongoing disagreement and have bearing on the broader relationship between Christian and scientific thought, representatives of significant viewpoints have written pieces that vigorously yet charitably propose their point of view.  Argumentation against and anticipation of opposing views' critiques are included.  It should be noted that the viewpoint authors did not read one another's entries prior to publication.  These viewpoint pieces rely on current research and attempt to present others views accurately, yet the thrust of each piece is to persuade rather than merely to inform." [p. 11]

Strengths of the Book

This volume is an invaluable tool for various reasons.

First, the work is comprehensive in scope.  The amount of topics covered are vast and many of the subjects dealt with are often overlooked in the church.  Examples include global warming, psychology, and quantum physics.  Whether we as believers recognize it or not, these types of issues directly impact our faith and how we think about the world around us.  This volume enables the reader to think clearly about these topics and even offers resources for further investigation.

Second, this volume goes out of its way to fairly represent those with opposing views.  One place this was especially evident is in Jonathan McLatchie's piece on atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins, an outspoken public critic of religion, is treated with charity, and his notable accomplishments are highlighted.  Further, when speaking of Dawkins' refusal to debate philosopher William Lane Craig, McLatchie even allows Dawkins to have the last word by quoting the famed atheist speaker's response.

This type of balanced writing is evident throughout the work and should be modeled by all who desire to practice Christian charity.

Third, the "Multiple View Discussions" mentioned above are helpful.  The entries are fair-minded and for the most part focus on the key issues surrounding the topic being discussed.

Fourth, simply put, the entries are very well written.  The shear amount of topics and the various authors make this work difficult to put down.  This reader sat down to read one entry and ended up reading several!

Fifth, this work succeeds in demonstrating how theological issues intersect with science by addressing challenges to the Christian faith through modeling a proper understanding of science and theology.  For example, in Paul Moser's entry on the so-called "problem of divine hiddenness," Moser demonstrates how a proper comprehension of science and God directly impacts this challenge.  He writes:

"According to various skeptics about God's existence...the claim that God exists must be evaluated along the lines of a typical scientific hypothesis.  If, however, God is a personal agent who has redemptive purposes in hiding from people at times, we are not dealing with a typical scientific hypothesis in the claim that God exists.  Instead, we are dealing with a claim about a unique personal agent who is no scientific object but is intentionally elusive at times and nonetheless worthy of worship."[p. 351]

Finally, it was nice to see a balanced view of science represented in this dictionary.  One frustrating aspect of secular scientific resources is that one never learns of the numerous contributions to scientific thought that theists have made.  Stephen Meyer's work on the information found in DNA or J.P. Moreland's extensive work on methodological naturalism and scientism are ignored simply because they have theistic implications.  In this work, that is not the case.  Both theist and non-theist scholars and thinkers are represented.

Conclusion

The editors of this work recognize that some may not be pleased with their work:

"Well-established camps, often with their own publications, organizations and events, disagree on fundamental issues.  While no book can claim perfect objectivity, the aim of this volume is to represent various evangelical camps and viewpoints as fairly as possible on their own terms.  Such an approach will not please everyone. Readers who would prefer settled conclusions might be disappointed."

And this illustrates all the more why this work is so very important.  We as believers need to learn how to discuss and even disagree on these important matters while maintaining unity within the Body of Christ.   As the editors continue:

"Yet the goal of this dictionary is to chart the outlines of evangelical thought on science and to suggest a framework for future discussions, not to bring such discussions to an end."[Ibid.]

This volume does preciously that.  It succeeds in providing a thoughtful framework to discuss these sometimes contentious issues, while equipping the reader with the necessary tools to learn more.

The Dictionary of Christianity and Science is a one-of-a-kind resource that will be useful for scholars, pastors, students, and any Christian wanting to better understand the most relevant issues and ideas at the intersection of Christian faith and science.  It is an indispensable resource for today's Christian case maker.

I highly recommend this work!  You can find sample entires here and here.

You can order your copy here.

Courage and Godspeed,
Chad

*** Many thanks to Chris Reese and Zondervan for the free review copy!

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