Peacocke, Arthur. All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century. Philip Clayton, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.
Just before his recent death, the noted biologist-theologian Arthur Peacocke composed a final essay that in brief chapters summarizes his position in the religion and science conversation on which he has been a major influence. The essay itself is just more than fifty pages, but Philip Clayton, also an important thinker in this dialogue, has brought together additional essays from some of Peacocke’s friends and admirers in the dialogue to respond to the short essay. All of the contributors are scholars known already for their own work in religion and science, so Clayton has served us well in giving us a collection of essays from leading scholars commenting on the work of Arthur Peacocke. That in itself recommends this volume for those interested in the field or for students who want to be introduced to the most important work being done.
My comments will be a review of the entire book since to comment on Peacocke in particular would only serve to add one more voice to an already crowded field. My interest is to assess the project as a whole from my perspective built on twenty years also teaching and writing in this field and having been engaged as a colleague and in conversation with many of the authors in this volume. I bring concerns that are especially my own, although I believe this may help to put the volume into some perspective. My interests have focused on whether the dialogue is presented as a fair representation of all who should be involved. Does this picture of the dialogue invite a multi-religious conversation? Does the book give us a real interaction between scientists and religious thinkers? Finally, does the volume suggest practical applications for the conversation? I feel a bit encouraged to approach this text through the lens of my interests because Peacocke seems genuinely also to desire to address precisely these elements as key to a successful dialogue between science and religion.
The first matter is compelling in that Peacocke is so keen on showing how different religious traditions can and should be involved in the conversation. His effort to forge a Christian point of view that can allow for other religious perspectives is a notable feature of his essay. We see quickly, however, that the essay is clearly an effort to work out a specifically Christian theological view that focuses attention on specifically Christian faith tenets. Peacocke’s efforts are understandable as he is clear about his project from the outset and, at least, he tries to show how such a particular perspective can open up to conversation with those who are differently religious and even those who declare themselves not to be religious at all. In addition, Peacocke does not aim at a defense of Christian views. Consistent with his work throughout, Peacocke asks whether a specifically Christian view make sense to anyone who also takes science seriously. This means that Peacocke opens the Christian claims to honest critique based on what we think we know about reality according to the sciences. This approach is fully amenable to any other religious thinker and for those who also are religious skeptics. All are welcome to the conversation.
The issue for me can be found in the essays that come from his commentators. All are, with the possible exception of one, confessing Christians. There are no other voices represented by this collection. That is not so problematic as the actual direction of the essays. Clearly there are those who are ready to take issue with Peacocke in different ways (Drees and Ward are two who are likely at different ends of the spectrum), but they do so entirely within the framework of a Christian debate. Others may find this entertaining and instructive in a limited sense, but the contributing authors so eager to take on Peacocke’s project with academic rigor but also with more than a high degree of respect end up making the conversation pretty much an intra-Christian debate. Perhaps Karl Peters and Don Braxton can be seen as exceptions but neither of them actually pushes for a broader discussion of the religions.
My second interest is also perplexing to me. Peacocke surely represents a thinker who participates as both a scientist and a theologian. Others like Drees and Russell have done work as scientists. However, the approach taken by both Peacocke and his commentators is fundamentally theological/philosophical. Even when science is brought to the discussion, the material is present as a component of a theological problem. Again, one cannot blame Peacocke for this, since he says from the outset that this is a theological treatise. Following on that lead the others focus essentially on that task. There is much to be done in that effort, but I am amazed that there are no scientists, not to mention the possible real scientific skeptic, who were invited to comment as scientists. We have theologians essentially describing science, some who are obviously very knowledgeable. Still, we lose some of the perspective that this is after all a science and religion dialogue. Perhaps even more perplexing is that the agenda is clearly set as a theological agenda so that, even if scientists were to be involved, it is not fully clear in what way they would contribute to this discussion. Even Peacocke’s notion of a hierarchy of complexity that leads to his emergentist perspective can open the door to the appearance that science does not participate in the discussion past a certain point. Is this a dialogue then? This is not Peacocke’s intent, I believe. He would leave open the possibility that science can bring critical questions at every level and thus challenge theological claims about reality, that very reality that the sciences also attempt to describe.
Perhaps it is clear that my turning this review toward the particular interests I have named is a way for me to voice my disappointments with the volume. These are the very areas that I find to be weakest in this text. Even as I turn to my last point, I must again wonder why there is so little direction given in shaping a practical application of all of this conversation. To be sure, Peacocke assures us that there is a practical aim for his theology, but this has to do with the practice of religion as such. He develops a thoroughly sacramental view rooted in both his creation theology and in his Christology. And there are those who take him up on these themes, notably Karl Peters, Don Braxton, and Ann Pederson. Pederson’s essay does indeed hint at an issue, and Peacocke is appropriately chastised for not taking account of feminist contributions. But even this push does not actually eventuate in raising the very specific practical, dare we say ethical/political goals of much of feminist thought.
More concerning is that the contributors, Peacocke and Heftier to be sure, have often urged that this dialogue must have the aim of contributing to a better, more wholesome human situation, on a global scale one would hope. I believe that most if not all of those who have written for this volume share this aim. But we hear little about ecology or the environment generally, about disease and medical research, about the dire consequences of global warming and what this means for the poor, the starving, the desperate of the planet. The sacramental view proposed by Peacocke could be and is for these thinkers in their own right a stepping stone for looking closely at these issues, but not in this volume. It is striking that a final word is added by Peacocke as he narrates his experience of facing death because of the ever prominent effects of cancer. Surely, this is a place for real conversation between science and religion. Still, this final “Nunc Dimittis” as Peacocke calls it remains a personal narrative. That is perhaps appropriate in this case, but the volume falls short of pushing the conversation past the internal theological quandaries toward the global issues that I think all of these scholars would agree are even more pressing concerns for the great majority of people as well as for the religions as such.
But my comments follow after I have already given my recommendation for what is in the book. There is in Peacocke’s essay a beautiful and elegant summary of his theology as it has developed over the years, and the conversation that ensues surely brings together a very high class of thinkers who have engaged in both honoring Peacocke’s contribution as well as showing how it does become the basis for a lively discussion. That is the marvel of Arthur Peacocke as a major player and shaper of an honest dialogue between the sciences and the religions.
James F. Moore,