Theological Anthropology is probably, among the theological treaties, the more sensitive to scientific views and development, especially concerning human nature, origins, evolution and other relevant features. Being myself a practitioner for more than 20 years of this sub-discipline, I think that surely it makes little sense nowadays to build a Christian anthropology that neglects the scientific views on human condition. In a similar case, medieval Christian thinkers developed their theories on human nature, body and soul, assuming what was the current knowledge from classical philosophers. However it is always tempting to put aside these other sources of anthropological wisdom to focus exclusively on Christian revelation and its great tradition. Indeed, and to some extent, Christian theology has achieved along the centuries a deep insight into what means to be human, as have done many great literary works and philosophers of every kind. The point is whether we can get a better insight, a more helpful understanding, when we make place for other approaches to examining human condition, and we integrate them into the standard theological interpretation.
The text I try to introduce is a handbook, and hence, it aims to summarizing the main issues of Christian anthropology, their recent developments, and what could be of interest for those approaching this theological area, especially for students and for those trying to take first steps into that field. The book accomplishes this scope. It is divided into four big parts. The first is devoted to Methodology and offers 3 chapters: one on classical methods; the second on the modern “turn to subject”; and the third on postmodern approaches. Regrettably, a reference to interdisciplinary methods, including science and religion, is missing in this section.
The second part is devoted to Key Themes, and includes 7 chapters: on creation, the Imago Dei, the “relational turn”, finitude, sin, grace, and freedom. The list is quite complete, and to some extent it displays the three central classical issues of Imago Dei, sinfulness, and grace, plus some of the main features that give content to the idea of humans as special beings, like freedom; however other key themes are missing, like love or altruism – even if the “relational turn” plays a similar role – self-transcending and religious ability. Some related topics appear later in the fourth part.
The third part gathers presentations of Key Figures, in all 15 classical, modern and contemporary authors are introduced as their contributions have clearly influenced the way we think theologically on the human condition. The selection is probably a matter of interests and emphases. There is a good deal of Catholic big names from XX century; being myself Catholic, could nevertheless miss some other great names in the Protestant side, like Moltmann and Pannenberg. Then some attention is paid to recent developments in the fields of of post-colonial or race studies, and gender issues, which become hot topics in many academic settings; less to authors in the area of theology and science.
The fourth part is on Contemporary Constructive Concerns, and it offers 7 chapters to review topics of particular interest: artificial intelligence, disability, racism, gender, neuroscience, neoliberalism, and cosmic Christianity. I will come back soon to some of these topics as far as they deserve a deeper treatment in our context of science and theology.
At the first sight, this Handbook offers several contact points with scientific issues that concern anthropological topics, but we cannot expect a more specific treatment of them into that big context, like in the case of original sin, or grace, where scientific development becomes harder to accommodate in those areas. However some points awake interest, like the treatment of evolution and creation, a central issue relevant for our Christian view of created humans. The chapter on ‘Creation’ makes the case for a greater engagement with evolutionary studies (pp. 55 ff.). The author, Daniel Horan, quotes an article of Elizabeth Johnson to offer a solution to the conundrum that results from combining our faith in divine creation, and evolution science. After discarding Intelligent Design as less scientific, the author pleads for a model that combines random chance and lawful process in how nature displays its riches, including humans, and achieves great stability. The divine providence is seen in such combination and the great scale of possible forms opening to a creative process. For those used to contemporary discussion on divine action it is clearly too few, but possibly enough to keep peace between both traditions: the Christian and the scientific.
More relevant topics are found in the last part, where several issues deserve closer attention. For instance, the first chapter deals with artificial intelligence (AI) to explore areas in the interface between human and machine, and how far personhood can be attributed to thinking machines. Stephen Okey reviews progress in some relevant areas, like intelligence, affects, embodiment, and agency, to conclude that – at the moment – we are still quite far from the minimal requirements that could allow for attributing personhood to such devices or robots, as conscious process seems still missing, and hence intentionality: “AI is not and cannot be human” (329) states Okey after his examination, even if he leaves an open door to future achievements.
The second relevant chapter in this section deals with neuroscience, another area of concern for Christian anthropology. Its author, Heidi Russell, presents a comprehensive view on advances in this very dynamic and changing field, and distinguishes relevant areas developing these years: cognitive, affective and social neuroscience, to review some studies on religion from that perspective. The author concludes that such scientific approach is at the moment unable to render a satisfactory theory of religion, but it provides some useful descriptions of religious experience. The other relevant topic is the body/soul discussion, and here again the discussion shows a plurality of views – with good arguments and data in every side – and some perplexity, after quoting experts like Philip Clayton. Despite the registered limits, Russell pleads for a good use of neuroscience to assist in a better description of human complexity, which includes several levels and dimensions.
The third interesting chapter carries an enigmatic title “Cosmic Christianity”, by the senior professor Oliver Davies. This is probably the most inspiring chapter in this book for those dealing with science and theology, and the one with greater scope. Davies claims for a theological understanding of human condition that takes into account scientific data, a program that is not shared by everybody in theology but becoming a central issue after reading this book: whether Christian anthropology needs or not contemporary science to get a better insight into human beings. Davies reviews three special cases: evolutionary anthropology, social neuroscience, and physics of symmetry. In all three, recent developments open doors to deeper theological views, and they clearly enrich and help to update traditional ideas, like those regarding the Imago Dei. In the first case, those studies show the importance of early evolution to implement human sociality, and the role these dynamics play besides more conscious and instrumental processes. The second, points again towards the social dimensions involved in some views of extended and enactive mind, as conditions to better grasp human sociality, language, and the ethical impulse. The third scenario is more ambitious and collects ideas from the Oxford physicist Andrew Steane – here reviewed too – that reveal symmetry in most physical areas and hence some universal properties that can converge with human identity and its deeper traits, like freedom and ethical capacity. The concluding page is more intriguing and an invitation to further exploring: Davies claims that after four centuries we cannot any longer use the spatial-temporal categories that served in classical times to represent our relation with the divine, but the recent developments in physics and other sciences allow for new models which could help to overcome that ‘hiatus’ and offer better and updated views to represent Christ proximity to humans.
I must say that probably the quoted chapters offer good material for those interested in approaching better science and Christian anthropology, but the field is much bigger nowadays and possibly some review of the related issues could have contributed to better describe that rich and intense interaction. Indeed, a general issue is methodological, and concerns to what extent theology finds in science what classics called a locus theologicus, or an important source of inspiration. Big issues like the new scientific study of religion, and altruism studies, are almost absent, something that needs some updating in further editions However, some chapters in the last section can be considered as achievements that offer great insights for all those who are convinced that theological anthropology needs the assistance of science, as much as it needs Christian revelation.
Antonianum University, Rome
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 31:4 (December 2021), pp. 34-37.