Book Review: The Sacred Cosmos

Terence L. Nichols, The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith & the Challenge of Naturalism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), pp. 240, $6.50 (USD), ISBN1-58743-046-0 (pbk).

In recent decades interest in the relationship between science and Christian theology has grown rapidly.  Among several factors the rise of an aggressive atheism, based on philosophical naturalism, acted as a central motivator for current interest.  Terence Nichols’ work The Sacred Cosmos offers a stimulating response to naturalism.

            Nichols bases his response to naturalism on Thomistic thought.  While some chapters are more explicit in their use of Thomism than others, two primary Thomistic assumptions are prevalent, the first being the axiom that ‘grace does not destroy nature but perfects it’.  Furthermore, to perfect nature God cannot be ‘wholly other’ (50) from creation; following Aquinas, Nichols argues that God cannot be seen as separate from nature, but rather while transcending it God is also immanent within creation, being what is ‘innermost in each being, closer to them than they are themselves’ (35-6).  These two Thomistic assumptions pervade Nichols’ critique, and provide the framework for his central argument that the earth should be viewed sacramentally, as a ‘sacred cosmos’, based on God’s sustaining presence within creation.  In fact, the reason naturalism exists today is because in the late medieval and modern periods God and nature were ripped apart, leading to a distancing of God from everyday life and the philosophical assumptions of the scientific enterprise (9).  Nichols will later argue that this dualism has caused the modern disdain for the miraculous.  Viewed in this light, Nichols project is a call to the recovery of God’s presence.

            Nichols’ applies his Thomism to three primary areas of current scientific investigation.  Nichols begins with modern cosmology, noting the unease scientists feel with the big bang due to the possible metaphysical implications.  He surveys recent attempts to make sense of the big bang apart within a naturalistic framework and finds them lacking, since most attempts terminate in question begging.  In response he proposes that since God is ‘One who exists necessarily’(85), He is capable of creating and sustaining the universe, but remains unobservable due to the higher level of being He has by nature of not being contingent.  Nichols concedes that an element of faith must accompany his model, but argues that this theological understanding gives a more complete and accurate picture of reality.  Theology gives the ‘why’ of the origins of the universe, science the ‘how’ (85-7).

            Evolution follows cosmology.  Nichols doesn’t dismiss evolution, but instead argues that evolution should not be held captive to naturalistic assumptions and can be intelligible within a Christian framework.  After a lengthy survey of undirected and directed evolution, Nichols develops a tentative theology of evolution, using the metaphor of a journey.  The basic structure of this journey is that of creatures being sent out from God (creation), and eventually finding their telos back in God.  Of course, along the way there will be hardship, death, and extinction, but Christianity, a religion founded on the redemption bought by an executed man, contains the resources to respond to the suffering and pain that evolution entails.

            Nichols devotes two chapters towards understanding human nature.  The first chapter sketches a brief history of conceptions of the human person, followed by a critique of reductionist naturalistic anthropologies.  The second chapter explores the current affirmation of emergentist understandings of human nature from those in the religion and science dialog.  Nichols concludes that while emergentism is an attractive option, ultimately it cannot cogently explain the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of all believers, a theological essential.  Nichols defends the traditional dualistic body and soul anthropology, but eschews its Cartesian underpinnings, opting instead to turn to the theology of Karl Rahner (and interestingly not Aquinas) to argue that the soul is created when God, likely sometime after conception, begins to relate to the ‘newly formed person,’ which ‘elevates the capacities and horizon of awareness of the developing embodied soul or person, just as grace elevates human nature’ (175).  This allows Nichols to affirm a body-soul duality while avoiding a hard Cartesian split, which he notes is ‘today indefensible’ (176).  The idea that a soul is not fully formed at conception but grows and develops allows one to maintain both the resurrection of the body and the psychosocial unity of the human person that is heavily emphasized in science.       

            In this work Terence Nichols engages with the primary questions of current scientific thought and seeks to show the relevance of one great tradition of Christian thought to clarify it.  While not every tradition will appreciate the vision Nichols has offered to engage with the sciences, he does an admirable job showing how a Thomistic view of reality can still offer resources for navigating through the maze of complex issues accompanying the relation between theology and science.  In the end, Nichols concedes that science and theology cannot be fully integrated, but neither should they be seen as separate, since both seek to understand reality.  Nichols’ vision of a world that is infused with the presence of God offers more than a mere sentimental return to days before science had drained our world of mystery, but presents a serious call to see how rigorous inquiry into the laws governing creation does not require one to see God as absent.  Instead, even in this scientific age Nichols argues that the world can be a sacrament, bringing one into the presence of the living God.

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