“A BOOK like this, offering a grand narrative about the meaning of life and the nature of reality, may seem rather alarming to many.”
So suggests Keith Eyeons, Chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge, in the course of this 21st-century tilt at a currently outmoded theological genre.
Yet scientists continue to pursue a theory of everything, and this irony is not lost on Eyeons, who sets out to reclaim this territory for theologians in general, and for Christian theology in particular.
The subtitle channels Renaissance Man (sic) as the archetype of a mindset committed to a comprehensive and all-embracing account of reality. Modern dualisms that attribute what is physical or spiritual, objective or subjective, religious or scientific to separate silos need to be roundly challenged — especially when they are then co-opted to support atheism as the only respectable option for people today.
Eyeons describes this as “a journey across the breadth of human experience”, and he certainly covers plenty of ground. From the complexities of particle physics to the banalities of school league tables, no stone is left unturned.
Furthermore, beyond human experience in this world we are transported to a dimension of on-going God-directed development, where goodness ultimately displaces evil, and love conquers all.
He begins by identifying three views of reality, and these provide the framework for his exposition and analysis. Two of these points of view he describes as (pre-modern) hierarchical and (modern) mechanical. These are found to be positively influential but ultimately inadequate, notwithstanding the achievements of the Renaissance and Age of Science respectively.
What is needed is a third view that can draw on these achievements, but then transcend them in a unifying Theory of Everything.
This third view is social in so far as it relates everything to everything else, and therefore reflects the social character of God as Trinity, in whose image we are made.
Subsequent chapters describe how aesthetics, physics, rationality, consciousness, and personality all cohere in a cosmos calculated to evolve human beings capable of loving and creative relationships with God, one another, and the world around them.
Religion and science, so often seen as separate and distinct accounts of reality, are synthesised through a theological filter, just as Renaissance Man believed — and we can believe again.
When focusing on the specifically Christian contribution to this theology of everything, the author does get rather bogged down in the intricacies of historical theology — but his succinct account of Jesus’s life and teaching is brilliant. He also makes a cogent case for a social view of reality as the most plausible lens through which to make sense of our present and future prospects.
By no means least, his focus on reality as a function of human consciousness and, ultimately, the mind of God effectively complements Keith Ward’s The Christian Idea of God. Clearly the ancient philosophy of Idealism is attracting strong 21st-century advocates.
Meanwhile, we live with the apparent inevitability of evil and suffering — what Eyeons repeatedly refers to as “the terrible cost” entailed in the evolution of a world such as this. Free will, and the formation of character, are offered as mitigating this cost, and his persuasively written appeal to Jesus’s work of redemption holds out hope for something better.
But, as so often, theodicy remains a stumbling-block in the path of an otherwise original and stimulating theological adventure.
Overall, while Renaissance Man is, for us, a citizen of another country, this profound and accessible attempt to recover a commitment to a comprehensive and comprehensible God-centred reality is very beguiling.
Given the breadth of topics covered, and the citing of so many secondary sources, the lack of an index is a shame. But there are useful suggestions for further reading.
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
The Theology of Everything: Renaissance Man joins the 21st century
Ellis &Maultby £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20