Friday, July 04, 2008

Theology and Cosmology from the Middle Ages to the Present

Reviewed work(s): The Theologian and His Universe: Theology and Cosmology from the Middle Ages to the Present by N. Max Wildiers


The premise of this insightful study, winner of the Belgian National Prize, is Whitehead's conviction that "religion is world-loyalty." Thus, according to Wildiers, a theology which ignores cosmology "soon loses all contact with reality and is reduced to a completely other-worldly affair" (p. vii). Working from this basis, the author goes on to evaluate the impact of cosmological views on the development of Christian theology from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The study falls naturally into three main sections. In the first, Wildiers outlines the cosmological underpinnings of the great scholastic theologies: a perfect world order, strictly hierarchical in nature, geocentric, and immuta-ble. Cosmology and theology were mutually reinforcing: Christian faith guaranteed the dominant world picture and the world picture guaranteed Christian faith.

Unfortunately, this medieval harmony proved ephemeral. The second part of the study details the impact of a new world picture based on the rise of empirical science on theology. As Shakespeare prophesied in Troilus and Cressida: "Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark, what discord follows!" Wildiers vividly describes the continual series of assaults, "from Copernicus to Darwin," on the citadel of Christian faith and the desultory defense-and-withdrawal tactics of its defenders, the theologians.

The third section is not as successful as the two historical ones. After a 420 rather routine description of the contemporary world picture (boundless, dynamic, and organic), Wildiers offers only brief hints of the contributions of current theologies of hope, liberation, and process. Despite this let-down, however, he had made a good case for his thesis-that theology cannot offer simply an existential interpretation of reality.

Washington Theological Union DOMINIC V. MONTI Silver Spring, Maryland



Issues ranging from the environmental crisis to the general malaise of anthro- pocentrism demand careful reconsideration of cosmology. Far from being a dead subject, cosmology is being used by such writers as Hesse, Toulmin, and now Wildiers to show just how much of our contemporary problematic can be traced in its terms. Max Wildiers is best known as a student of Teilhard de Chardin, but he has allowed that background to come to bear only in the final section of his fine study of the relationship between theology and cosmology. Wildiers takes us from the medieval "world picture" to the "new confrontation between world picture and theology" detailing the shifting world picture and its implications for religious thinking. He draws from a wide variety of theo- logical, philosophical, and scientific sources to relate the paradigm shifts in cosmology to those in theology, attempting to show how the fundamental questions raised by the new science (particularly evolution) both challenge and demand response from theology. His claim is that Christianity's "clinging to an outmoded world picture has proven to be extremely harmful and has pro- moted a growing alienation" (p. 235). Wildiers's hope for The Theologian and His Universe is that it will contribute to the rethinking of Christianity in light of the new authoritative voices with which it must establish dialogue or be doomed to a type of irrelevance that the present crises can ill afford. Toward this end it is a welcome contribution and is recommended not only to anyone interested in the interaction between science, cosmology, and religion but to those interested in the history of being (in the Heideggerian sense) as well, for, as Wildiers points out, it is in our history that we shall discover our future.

JAMES BUCHANAN, University of Montana.



Max Wildiers, an early champion of the work of Teilhard de Chardin, taught theology at the universities of Louvain and San Francisco. This book stresses the value to theology of being in tune with the reigning cosmology of the culture. Accordingly it tells the story of the rise and fall of medieval cosmology in theology, and calls for a new theology appropriate to what we know about the cosmos today.

The medieval world picture was a synthesis of Biblical elements with Greek philosophical/scientific elements, in which the Greek elements were dominant. Medieval theology, in turn, sought a synthesis of that world picture with Christian doctrine, so as to present a coherent account of reality as a whole. The key idea of medieval culture, that of reality as an ordered hierarchy, was used to integrate God, nature, and humanity into one all-embracing scheme of things.

That synthesis continued to shape Roman Catholic doctrine long after the medi- eval world picture itself had been given up, with the result that theology became increasingly alienated from modern science. To overcome that alienation, theology must re-express the meaning of Christianity in a way that is congruent with current cosmological conceptions. With evolution as the key notion of a scientific world pic- ture, Teilhard's thought suggests itself as a model for the kind of theological recon- struction that is needed.

As an account of how scholastic theology became entwined with the medieval picture of the cosmos, how that world picture broke down, and how Catholic theo- logy has been hampered by its reluctance to part with remnants of the medieval outlook (especially its principle of hierarchical order), the book is an interesting essay in intellectual history. As a manifesto for a new theology, hailing Christianity as "the religion of progress," it is less impressive.

Russell W. Palmer University of Nebraska at Omaha

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