Review of The Dictionary of Christianity and Science

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book so that I could do this review.

The question about the proper relationship between science and religion has a long history in Western thought, going back to at least as far as the fifth century with St. Augustine. Over the centuries Christians have approached this question in a number of different ways and from various different angles, with new approaches being developed all the time. This overabundance of ideas can make it difficult for the layperson, the apologist, or the theologian to know where to start when it comes to answering their own questions about how science relates to Christianity, and what options others have proposed.

To those who are in this situation, or who are simply interested in the intersection of science and the Christian religion, The Dictionary of Christianity and Science will prove to be a very useful resource. It aims to be the definitive reference on these questions, and having spent some time with it I can say that it seems up to the task. The editors have clearly given careful thought about who they asked to contribute to the book. Some notable contributors are James Hannam, author of The Genesis of Science and God’s Philosophers; Craig Keener, new testament scholar and author of the voluminous Miracles; and Michael Murray, philosopher and author of the Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Reading over the list of all the contributors and their credentials at the beginning of the book, one can’t help but anticipate a well-researched and helpful discussion of a wide variety of topics. And what follows does not disappoint.

The word “dictionary” in the book’s title might give the false impression that its only aim is to outline the meanings of words. Really, each entry is one of three kinds. There are introductions, which most resemble normal encyclopedia entries in giving a brief explanation of a particular topic. Then there are essays, which are much more long-form entries, giving the contributor space to unpack some specifics of the topic. And finally, there are multi-view discussions, which have different contributors defending contrasting views on a particular topic. We will have more to say about this third kind below.

Breadth and depth

By far the most impressive feature of the book is the variety of topics and views it is able to include. At the broadest level, we see topics including the early chapters of Genesis, the ancient Mesopotamian flood accounts, the hominid fossil record, the nature of explanation, the mind-body problem, life after death, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, epigenetics, the multiverse, the image of God, and infinity. Peppered between these are entries on important figures in scientific or philosophical thought, such as Kant, Leibniz, Polkinghorne, Aristotle, Einstein, and Hawking.

As we zoom into more specific groups of topics, there continues to be significant variety, with entries covering theme from many angles. The group of topics surrounding the early chapters of Genesis, for example, are covered by separate entries on Adam and Eve, the age of the universe, the role of genealogies, interpretations of the days of creation, interpretations of the Genesis flood, the serpent in the garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and more.

The individual entries themselves are very well written and in-depth; and while this may be easier for the essays and multi-view discussions to achieve, the shorter introductions also succeed in this. Each of the contributors has put a lot of effort into conveying the important points of each topic, giving the reader a good idea of how it fits together. And after every entry, there is a list of references and recommended reading, so that the interested reader can delve more deeply into the relevant literature on that topic.

Multi-view discussions

Of the three types of entry, the multi-view discussions differ the most from typical dictionary entries. I was very pleased that the editors thought to include these, because some topics can only be fully understood when they are discussed in a debate where alternative perspectives are defended. And indeed, the way the multi-view discussions are handled in the present book does, for the most part, enable this to happen.

An interesting decision made by the editors is that the contributors for these multi-view discussions would not see each other’s contributions before writing their own. Now, for many of the discussions, this poses no problem at all. This is because the major points of disagreement between the represented views are well-known, and since each contributor is cognizant of this they endeavor to say something about them. The result in these cases is a very helpful contrast of the different views on the particular topic, without the drawback of one the views being given the “final say” on the matter.

Sometimes, however, things do not go so smoothly, as with the entry on divine action, which has two views represented. The concursus view, defended by Robert Bishop, holds that God continually works in and through natural causes, rather than winding up creation like a clockwork machine that is left to run by itself. While the engaged-governance view, defended by Jeffrey Koperski, holds that God can work miraculously in creation without undermining or violating the laws of nature. These views are not alternatives to one another, since they focus on different aspects of God’s action: the first affirms that God generally acts in creation by sustaining and concurring with it, and the second affirms that God can and does act specially in creation without violating its integrity. Indeed, each of these entries the contributor affirms the truth of the other view in a passing comment!

Now, I hasten to add that this problem of talking past one another is not a common one. Far more often than not the multi-view discussions provide a healthy contrast of opposing views on the topic. I mention it only in the interest of a thorough review. I can, however, propose that in future editions the topic of a multi-view discussion be specified more clearly. This could be achieved by giving each of the contributors a brief description of what is meant by the title of the entry. Or it could be achieved by giving them suggested key points to touch on during their discussion. Or it might be sufficient to simply disambiguate the topic in the entry name itself, so that rather than there being an entry on divine action there could be separate entries on general divine action and special divine action.

Topics included

I’ve already mentioned that the book covers an impressive number of topics, but I was quite pleased to see the value of casting such a wide net when deciding which topics to include. For instance, Michael Murray’s entry on animal pain discusses the problem of reconciling the reality of suffering in the animal kingdom with a good and powerful God. In the course of this, he references work in neuroscience and the role evolutionary biology might play in developing an explanation of this suffering. Thus, the entry is an example of how scientific work might be deployed to answer a theological and moral question. This and other entries like it show us that there is more to the relationship between religion and science than the resolution of conflict.

Some topics covered are less directly related to modern scientific notions, but paint a picture of science as an ongoing and developing human enterprise. So, there is an entry on human dissection which discusses the role the medieval church played in it and how it developed over the centuries. There is an entry on alchemy which discusses its principles and aims as well as its relation to the development of chemistry. And there is an entry on just-so stories which discusses the origins of the term and how it gets used by scientists to refer to overly-speculative hypotheses.

I wonder, however, if the net was cast just a bit too wide, with some entries seeming out of place. For instance, there is an entry on natural law theory, a family of meta-ethical views on how ethics is grounded. While the entry is well-written, I struggle to see its relevance to the question of Christianity and science, apart from having the words “natural” and “law” in its name. I found no entry on divine command theory (another popular meta-ethical view), so it doesn’t seem as though the editors thought meta-ethics as such warranted inclusion. Other examples of entries that seemed out of place were the one on the incarnation and the one on the trinity, both of which seemed more relevant to the broader question of the coherence of Christianity than its relationship to science. Fortunately, these out-of-place entries are few and far between, and for the most part, the wide casting of the net did not come at the expense of relevance.

Cross-referencing

Any good reference book should enable readers to cross-reference effectively, so that they can properly explore the topics covered within. This is all the more important for a book that covers as many topics as the present one, and the editors were evidently cognizant of this. As you read through any entry, the words or phrases that make up the title of another entry are set in bold, to signal to the reader which of the ideas covered in the entry have further information elsewhere in the book.

One thing that might be worth adding in a future edition would be entries which have the sole purpose of linking to other entries on the same topic under a different title. This would make it easier to find an entry on a topic which a reader might know by a different name to the one the book uses. I experienced this when trying to find the entry on animal pain, which I only managed to find after looking for entries on animal suffering, then suffering, animal, then pain, animal, and then suffering, problem of. Not all topics would admit of multiple names like this, but for those which do these “pointer” entries would make them easier to find.

Conclusion

The Dictionary of Christianity and Science is a valuable resource for the layperson, the scientist, the apologist, and the theologian. It collects the effort of many experts walking the reader through a vast array of topics related to the questions surrounding Christianity and science. With the multi-view discussions, it introduces readers to ongoing debates on various topics, while at the same time using these debates to define key terms and ideas within those topics. I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in exploring this question that has been with us for centuries, and will probably continue to be with us in the centuries to come.

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