Theological Anthropology is probably the theological field most exposed to scientific developments and recent research trying to better know human condition. The impact has been specially felt when traditional views and doctrines are contrasted with new discoveries describing human origins and evolution; its genetic and neurological underpinnings; biological and other naturalist explanations of human behavior, together with many attempts to provide reductive – i.e. parsimonious – theories able to explain human beings in the most simple and straightforward way.
Very often theological anthropologists have paid scant attention to all these developments. In most cases, recently published handbooks used by students following that course – usually a basic one in a theological curriculum – just ignore or diminish the extent of the expected impact, or address the possible challenge placing theological discourse at a higher level, out of scientific reach, so that Christian understanding of personal beings remains safe from uncomfortable or even embarrassing effects from the scientific gaze. However, other colleagues have done their homework and have tried to build their theological approach to humans after taking into account in- puts and views from scientific research. In that case a more interdisciplinary approach has grown, one that really builds inside a faith-engaging-reason paradigm, and leaving behind the dominant model based almost exclusively on biblical hermeneutics and an updated understanding of the Christian Great Tradition.
The Companion under review is a good example that allows one to assess to what extent theology is able to engage reason and science, in such a sensitive subdiscipline. In their Introduction the Editors state that their approach is analytic, and so it is “interested in clarity, logical rigour, and detail” (2). Using an expression by M. Rea, this style “involves clarifying, systematizing, and model-building”. Such a program is promising and includes a bid for a ‘multi-disciplinary’ approach, involving authors trained in scientific disciplines and able to provide a wider perspective, and to overcome fears about scientific studies of human beings. They will rather look for opportunities in science to develop a theologically engaged anthropology. However this set of 27 contributions is quite variegated, and less than a third of the chapters can be counted in that interdisciplinary category.
Beyond science, other fields are visited to render theology more attentive to cultural trends, as happens in the case of feminism. More attention is paid to current philosophical discussions, like those concerning free will, human self, or mind and body issues. In other cases traditional models, like Aristotelian hylomorphism, appear as an updated option worthy to be juxtaposed with more recent approaches in order to make sense of the human condition.
I will try a quick round through all this abundant material, to identify the most relevant issues concerning science and theology. The first part deals with methodology, its two contributions proposing methods that are founded in revealed Christology or in historical-tradition development. Science appears as absent from what could be a central issue: how to receive scientific input within a theological framework. The second part is much more attuned with scientific views – its title explicitly names “the brain, the body and the sciences”. It comprises four chapters. The first one deals with evolutionary biology and theological anthropology (Moritz), and questions traditional views on human uniqueness and dualism. The second confronts theological anthropology with cognitive sciences (Visala); a long list of issues becomes affected by such fresh developments, and invites theology to a more committed engagement, involving many traditional issues, from the soul and religious capacity, to human uniqueness; most points would need to be rewritten in the light of cognitive research. The third contribution focuses more on brain sciences and their theological impact (Robinson), and indicates some ways that allow re-insertion of religious experience into a meaning system with neurological basis which, however, cannot be reduced to that dimension. The fourth contribution introduces feminism.
The third part carries the title “Models for Theological Anthropology” and clusters six chapters. The main concern is how the several models grown in an ambient where philosophy has to consider scientific views, are more or less compatible with Christian person understanding. The first one, by Brown and Strawn, is a remarkable attempt to build a complex and emergent representation of human beings as the fruit of self-organizing processes; its main merit is the articulation of a model that clearly overcomes more reductive or very simple theories on human nature. The second one (Fakhri) builds a case for ‘constitutionalism’, the view that real things are formed or composed by “some sum of physical particles” (109). Fakhri holds that such a view is compatible with physical resurrection, in contrast with sheer physicalism. Hylomorphism and substance dualism are examined in the next chapters, with the possibilities and challenges they offer. A different approach makes good use of the modern Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, and his understanding of “human person as communicative event”. The last contribution in this section goes back to emergent theories and their possible applications.
Part four deals with Imago Dei and its multiple models. In five chapters it presents a variety of possible traditional and new interpretations. Substantial and relational views come into conflict: the first ones are vindicated in the first contribution, by Farris, one of the Editors. Other voices point to less substantial and more functional theories trying to explain that major theological concept. In other cases this motive is expressed by resorting to traditional developments, like the strong Christological reference. Judging by these contributions, science seems to have little to say on this issue; this is strange from the reviewer’s perspective, after so many recent incorporations into the discussion on human specificity that could nourish a more updated view on what is special, and hence more ‘divine’ in humans.
The fifth part deals with freedom and salvation, with two chapters exploring recent discussion in philosophy and their theological consequences, when human falling and saved stages are considered. Compatibilism appears as plausible for Paul Helm and theological views, more than libertarianism, within the main established tendencies in the current philosophical discussion.
The sixth section deals with sin and salvation, with five contributions. Hylomorphism still makes an entry to justify free will. Most arguments developed in this section are reflection on classical theology and its main topics and authors.
The seventh and last part is devoted to Christology, even if this stance could include some other chapters already presented under different labels. It offers three chapters that represent three traditions: materialism, hylomorphism – again – and Cartesian thought. In all cases the authors look for better theoretical models that could allow us to represent the meaning of the incarnated Christ in a more accurate and satisfactory way.
In my opinion the present volume offers excellent developments in the right direction suggesting how Christian anthropology could engage – or is already engaging – with a more scientific framework. However the book can be seen as eclectic and not seeking to focus on the interdisciplinary challenges and opportunities that science poses for any attempt to deal with human nature. In any case, some issues seem to be neglected that should be part of a more comprehensive anthropological companion. Perhaps the one I miss most concerns original sin; it is briefly referred to in a couple of chapters, but nothing that could remotely inform readers about what is going on in this very hot field, where scientifically well informed research is helping to better address that cumbersome problem (Downing). In the course of this review I have already noted how other relevant issues in the interface between Christian and scientific anthropologies could get much more attention, like the Imago Dei, after recent research on human specificity; or the attempts to assess the relevance of recent paleoanthropology and other advances in genetics, biological anthropology, or neuroscience.
Possibly I am missing a different kind of companion – one where theological anthropology is more explicitly engaged with scientific development, updated and well informed about the ongoing impact that new research exerts on theological views. The good news is that many extremely reductivist models that were the main currency during last twenty years have give place to new understanding in science and philosophy that adopts a more complex and organic view, and pays more attention to aspects, like meaning, the self, symbols systems, and others that were almost completely neglected. Theological research should ‘be there’ to take advantage of the new opportunities now opening to us.
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 26:2 (June 2016), pp. 38-41.