Evolution and the Fall edited by William Cavanaugh and James Smith

02 June 2017

Andrew Davison on the Fall in the face of modern knowledge

Evolution and the Fall

William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith, editors

Eerdmans £21.99

(978-0-8028-7379-8)

Church Times Bookshop £19.80

  

THIS book is unexpected and greatly to be welcomed: unexpected, since neither of the editors, nor some of the other contributors, have previously been closely associated with “science and religion” ques­tions; and it is welcome, both be­­cause the contributions are con­­sistently of such high quality, and because it breathes new life into a discussion that can often be stale.

The title mentions the Fall, and that idea is kept admirably in view throughout: the contention that a primordial, but still historical, event cast humanity on to both a propensity to sin and to sin’s conse­quences. The authors consider theology here from several perspect­ives (what is at stake? what is central? what is dispensable? how does it relate to other doctrinal ideas?) and similarly also the science (in relation to palaeontology, gen­etics and archaeology, for in­­­stance).

The volume had a distinctive, time-intensive, gestation. The con­tributors met for a week in each of three years, for discussions in the context of Bible study and communal, liturgical prayer. This was brokered and supported by the Colossian Forum of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They deserve our grat­itude. I hope that their model will run and run.

A distinctly theological approach to “science and religion” is offered here, characterised by a thorough­going confidence in the broad Christian tradition, and the assump­tion that theologians have com­pelling theological reasons to pay careful attention to scientific find­ings. There are important reflections on method in the opening chapter (from the editors), in terms of the practices of com­munal thought, and in the closing chapter (from Peter Harrison, unsurpassed as a historian in this field), on what more and less helpful notions of peace between theology and science might look like.

The collection opens with a sur­vey of the science from Darrel Falk (who approaches it on its own terms) and Celia Deane-Drummond (beginning to relate it to theology). Jamie Smith considers how the Fall relates to other aspects of theology, in his characteristically clear and brilliant way.

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Chapters follow on how the Fall and human origins feature in Genesis 3 (Richard Middleton), Paul and James (Joel Green), and Chris­tian doctrine (Aaron Riches). Brent Waters writes about perfect­ibility in relation to transhumanism, and Norman Wirzba on what it means to look at the world from a life shaped by Christian discipline, drawing on Maximus the Con­fessor.

In a surprising essay that adds a good deal, William Cavanaugh shows that a sense of what is prim­ordial is also inherently political, and that it shaped the early modern transformation of the state: peace or conflict? harmonious relation or coercive government? the common good or personal appropriation?

To say that I was delighted with this book is not to say that I agreed with every part of it; but that is to be expected: I could hardly not have quibbles, given quite how many ideas are packed into its 230 pages, and how much analysis. I can shrink my review to three words: do read it.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College.

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