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Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Scientific Perspectives in Fundamental Theology: Understanding Christian Faith in the Age of Scientific Reason, 2022

Building a fundamental theology that takes into account a scientific mentality as the main cultural background represents a challenge and invites theologians to an exercise of deep revision and updating. To some extent, this is an original program and a much-needed contribution to develop a truly "contextual theology," as we are aware that scientific reason represents possibly the most important factor in contemporary Western culture.

Possibly for our colleagues in other theological traditions – and still less for those in other disciplinary realms – Fundamental theology means little or becomes a minor dimension inside systematic theology. For the Catholic academic milieu, this sub-discipline represents a well-defined area, which to some extent replaces the old “apologetics” to focus on Christian revelation and the conditions endorsing its credibility, as the foundations for all theological development. For a long time, since the first treaties were published in the sixties, theology in general and Fundamental theology in particular, have ignored or paid little attention to science and all the universe around it; philosophy was the main reference outside Christian tradition and the provider of external inspiration. This is clearly a long-delayed duty, especially after many in theology asked for a greater engagement with our cultural contexts. Many took some pain to justify that delay or the reluctance to come to terms with science, and to persist in a more self-referential program.

Tanzella-Nitti is a mature Italian theologian, teaching at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome, and by training, he is an astrophysicist as well, and so he is well endowed to undertake such a project. He starts his book introducing the style and character of his theological program, which is inspired by an effort to place itself “in front of an interlocutor”, that is, to meet others in a dialogical movement, a “theology in otherness” one might say. It also emerges as a theology “in the contemporary context”, and less that of the golden age of theological production; indeed, contexts have changed a great deal. Fundamental theology emerges as a task of actuality, a commitment to constantly reading the signs of its own time, without indulgences or nostalgia for the past. This means taking seriously the historical character of revelation as an event, and also the disciplinary seriousness of this undertaking, which finds its vital medium in the university and should earn in its competence the respect of colleagues from other disciplines.

A third important trait of this proposal regards its apologetic tone. Apologetics is not a discipline within fundamental theology, but its constitutive dimension, its method capable of integrating knowledge external to dogmatic elaboration. This complements and renders more explicit the character of “public theology” that fundamental theology assumes, namely that it must make itself meaningful even in a non-ecclesial university context, or in other words, a reflection of academic depth that can coexist and interact with other human, social and scientific disciplines in the higher academic sphere. But it means above all to look at revelation from the point of view of its credibility in our cultural environment, which requires its very focused elaboration, attending to the knowledge it can integrate from abroad. 

This is a long and rich work that engages deeply with many issues arising from the scientific cultural context. I will try to present those points I consider more relevant in such engagement. A starting point is the need to better describe the conditions that warrant the credibility of the Christian message, starting from its historical sources and early testimonies. But next steps move toward a reflection on the doubts that such memories could nourish, and the problems that repeatedly arise in a more scientific mind concerning the reception of Christian revelation. This is almost a constant in modern thought, which could be more encouraged by positivism, Marxism, and other philosophical currents, and finding a more recent expression in the New Atheism movement and several approaches to “naturalism”. Tanzella-Nitti takes this criticism as an occasion to expose his apologetic strategy. First, he takes aim at naturalism and its reductive stance, its materialism and monism as an untenable position that ignores the “much more” in reality and “the unresolved problem of contingency” (87). However, this not about science, but about a metaphysical position which tries to appear as more compatible with science. However, here lies the critical point: whether this extreme naturalism is the only legitimate or even the most plausible way to make sense of a scientific understanding of reality. The response is negative, and the author makes an effort to show why a theistic view is more akin and makes more sense when approaching scientifically our world. This point is made after recognising that past errors, like supporting geocentrism, did teach theologians that we cannot develop an alternative model of reality, but we need to assume the scientific knowledge as a guide to better interpret Christian revelation. The idea is that a better science is the best way to contrast New Atheism, and not avoiding science at all.

In the pursuit of the described program – to show how science is open to transcendence and not closed in immanence –chapter 4 is possibly among the best in this book. It describes a program based in four openings of science towards that transcending capacity moving to the Absolute, in clear contrast with the naturalistic program. These openings are, in its own expression: “a) the incomplete character of formal language, indicating the opening of science to a semantics that transcends syntax; b) the ontologically incomplete character of the physical-contingent reality, indicating the opening of science to a metaphysically necessary Foundation of being that transcends the empirical level; c) perception of the rationality and intelligibility of the cosmos, which transcends matter and indicates the opening of scientific research towards the notion of Logos, and, finally; d) the openness of researchers’ activity towards the search for truth and ultimate meaning, which transcends science but makes science possible” (95). 

The issue of meaning is present in this apologetic strategy, and indeed, it seems pointless to isolate the scientific activity from the personal experience of those who undertake it. However, scientific knowledge becomes a source of meaning or at least of wonder and awe, which could be understood as some sort of preambula fidei, or a precedent of faith. This is the case when science helps to better appreciate the revelatory character of nature, or to give a new and fresh content to the traditional idea of the liber naturae, which assumed that nature with its order and beauty becomes, in its own, a revelation of the divine presence and plan. The book devotes an entire chapter, chapter 6, to this and offers many testimonies of scientists who expressed such an experience. Even if such views could give rise to pantheistic or deistic positions, they do not exclude a Christian theistic understanding. 

The book develops several more topics assuming the positive opportunities which offers the interface between science and theology. For instance, chapter 9 deals with the relevance of a scientific cosmos for an updated understanding of Christocentrism, or how all creation finds in Christ its centre and reference point. Then, chapter 10 deals with the thorny issues of human creation and evolution, taking into account the scientific views, and the still thornier issue of extra-terrestrial life (299 ff.). Chapter 11 reviews issues related to Darwinism and the persistence of pain and evil in the natural world. Chapter 12 revisits the topic of divine action in a world that science explains by natural causes. Lastly, chapter 13 poses the question of finality in nature and the eschatological Christian representation, which can be rendered compatible with the scientific views. 

This book is an essential contribution to the theological curriculum, and absolutely recommendable for those who try to show that theology is not at arms with science, and that the Christian faith is perfectly compatible with scientific knowledge, as many Christian scientists can witness, and without discounts, as some theological naturalism and other similar attempts could do. This is a worthy effort and a most needed treatment for a theology looking for relevance and cultural impact, after a long season in which, perhaps due to theological neglect, Christian faith appeared as an outdated expression fitting only for those with less formation and no scientific sensitivity. In any case, this effort at convergence and encounter between science and theology needs to be steadily nourished and updated, considering the fast developments of research. This book encourages us to pursue this effort and to continue to show that an engaged theology with science has a lot to gain, and less to risk. 


Lluis Oviedo 

OFM Pontifical University Antonianum, Roma


Reprinted from Reviews in Science, Religion and Theology, 2(1) March 2023, pp. 40-43