Summer reading: Hot topics for the season
Both books oppose the "religion-science conflict" viewpoint. They blame the misconceived science-religion rivalry on atheist philosophers who have used science in their anti-religious fight, thus warping science and turning it into an ideology. Both books argue that, in fact, science and Latin Christianity are intimately linked.
The medieval Christian view held that a reasonable, knowable God had created a reasonable, knowable universe, and that creation was therefore the second book of divine revelation (after the Bible). This gave impetus to scientific exploration of the world. Medieval and early modern churchmen eagerly sought God through scientific knowledge.
The church has been the greatest patron of science, and when squabbles such as that between Galileo and the church happened, they were not religion versus science but inner church and inner scientific squabbles. The church was open to continuously refining its theology to be in accord with the latest scientific findings, but many scientists held strong opinions and used their ecclesiastical power to squash their scientific rivals, much as nowadays scientists skeptical of climate change get silenced.
As Wiker notes, scientific learning thoroughly imbued the church: "In the universities (which were church institutions at the time), even theology was taken up only after the intense study of the seven liberal arts. All theologians were first mathematicians and natural philosophers (scientists)." Theologians, unlike today, were scientifically literate, in other words.
Wiker observes that the church was the finest instrument the world had theretofore known in the spread of scientific knowledge through its universities: "The universities of Christendom ensured that far more people were mathematically and scientifically literate than in any previous time."
After setting the background of this most scientific church, Wiker spends much time looking into the Galileo affair, and the slow but certain move toward a heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the cosmos, which Nicolaus Copernicus had taught.
Readers get a strong sense that Copernicus, Galileo and Isaac Newton were resting on the shoulders of giants, including medieval Christian giants such as Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), Thomas Aquinas' teacher and a scholar of high standing in his own right. He defended the church's right to explore the physical world, and helped to classify the different branches of medieval science.
In their book, Giberson and Collins spend far more time examining the actual science, showing how absurdly precise the elements need to be to enable life. The core atomic elements must be calibrated just so in order to be able to form planets and stars. Stars need billions of years to "cook" the various elementary compounds, such as carbon, the building block of life.
The essential chemistry must itself be incredibly precise if it is to bring life into being. But the authors claim that science has no idea of how chemical compounds suddenly turn into unstable RNA or stable DNA, which form life's basic components. Life's origins, and the beginning of the universe itself through the big bang, remain as mysterious as ever.
In addition to all the scientific information, Giberson and Collins ambitiously examine the pros and cons of various theories, such as intelligent design, the biblical fundamentalist view and the standard form of evolution. They accept "Darwinian evolution" because they see no reason why it would prevent a view of God working through this long process to bring about desired change and growth. The most basic atomic elements have total freedom in their movements, which means that nature enjoys the same freedom as humans.
They see no reason why God didn't work to bring about certain changes throughout the epochs. For example, nature's solutions to evolutionary problems tend to converge on the same answer. Creatures that share very distant genetic relatives, such as apes and octopus, both developed eyes, even though their shared ancestor had none. Their eyes are remarkably similar. How can scientists explain that?
Wiker focuses more on the social and religious issues, whereas Giberson and Collins incorporate the latest science into their theological musings. Both are challenging though accessible reads for those who want to know more in this exciting field of science, theology and history.
Death and dying: A comprehensive assessment
Is God Still at the Bedside? The Medical, Ethical and Pastoral Issues of Death and Dying by Abigail Rian Evans. Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2011). 478 pp., $29.99.
In our death-defying culture, the subject of death and dying may not immediately beckon. But "Is God Still at the Bedside?" is hard to put down. Its tapestry of engaging personal stories, interviews, research and analysis easily propels the reader through several hundred pages.
Abigail Rian Evans, a retired Princeton Theological Seminary professor and scholar-in-residence at the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, has given us a comprehensive study that engages at every level.
It reflects the wisdom she has garnered in 25 years of teaching courses about death and dying, and covers such topics as contemporary attitudes toward death, legal questions (i.e., definitions of death), organ donation, suicide and physician-assisted suicide, hospice, the role of clergy in ministering to the dying and their families, Christian funerals, and grief and bereavement.
Her motivation? "Because death will come to everyone and often will be accompanied by painful and difficult choices," she writes in the preface. "As we struggle with these choices, we look for guidance, hope and insight as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death."
Throughout, the author's thoughtful Christian perspective informs the narrative. For instance, in a section dealing with the experience of dying, she poses the important question: "Is suffering sent, permitted or used by God?" She then explores how various theologians and bioethicists have tried to answer it.
Ultimately, she rejects Rabbi Harold S. Kushner's suggestion in "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" that "suffering is a sign of God's absence from the world." Rather, Evans writes, the story of Job shows us that "suffering is a mystery, but God's goodness ultimately triumphs."
Here it is essential to recognize that "God is with us in our suffering," she continues. Like the Rev. Martin Marty in his book "A Cry of Absence," Evans believes "that we cannot escape the winter of the heart that is at the core of the believer's struggle."
"Is God Still at the Bedside?" is a compassionate, wise and practical guide that will help families, nurses, doctors and pastors. Evans covers a lot of ground, drawing from the fields of medicine, law, theology and ethics, but organizing and presenting the information so clearly that it always remains accessible. This is no small achievement, given such a complex and interdisciplinary subject.
One of the most fascinating chapters reports on the author's research interviews with palliative care staff (hospital chaplains, hospice nurses, pastors, physicians, social workers and others). They reported that they found their work with dying patients to be extremely meaningful. "Another blessing mentioned was helping the family feel less anxious and scared, thus in some ways reflecting God's love of the patients and families."
For their part, Evans discovered that "what the dying consider to be of great importance is giving them space to share their stories and experiences, an opportunity to ask questions, and even to confess and ask forgiveness of estranged family members — which can give them a sense of peace."
Perhaps surprisingly, she found that the dying don't spend much time pondering when they will actually expire; there is a seeming disconnect between getting a diagnosis of terminal illness and the fact that one is going to die. In part, this may be a self-protective aspect of the human psyche. Still, it can be extremely helpful and comforting for caretakers to draw out dying patients' fears, anxieties and wishes about their final days. To this end, Evans offers many practical suggestions about how to approach and how to listen.
"Is God Still at the Bedside?" is nothing short of thorough. Detailed appendices give information about resource organizations that address end-of-life issues, advance directives, a patient's bill of rights, do's and don'ts for caretakers, and other subjects. Most of all, the book inspires with its demonstration that, "As the words on Carl Jung's door, and later on his tombstone, declared: 'Bidden or not bidden God is present.'"—Nancy L. Roberts
Sex in the Bible: A scholarly examination
Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire by Jennifer Wright Knust. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2011). 343 pp., $25.99.
"Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire" is a book by a scholar who knows how to write for a general, educated readership, as Jennifer Wright Knust's witty title indicates.
While footnoted with an extensive bibliography and index, the scholarly apparatus does not intrude on what is basically a good read for anyone interested in better understanding the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. I mention the former because Knust is adept at using rabbinic as well as ancient, medieval and modern Christian interpretations of the passages she interprets so well for the modern reader.
Knust is an American Baptist, so there are some places in which Catholic readers will take Catholic tradition into account in a way she does not. But she is a superb biblical scholar, so readers can rely on her interpretations, and at times multiple interpretations citing ancient and modern commentators, of biblical texts.
Knust argues, convincingly, that the Bible cannot be used as a simple guidebook for sexual conduct. Written over such a long period of time, it reflects the changing mores of vastly different generations and times.
The patriarchs of Israel, as depicted in Genesis, practiced polygamy, as did the kings of Israel as depicted in later books. Mere fornication in the Hebrew Scriptures does not cause major disruptions in Israel's relationship with God, though adultery does. The crime of the people of Sodom was not "sodomy" in its modern understanding, but the violation of hospitality and the crime of rape, as is shown in a parallel story of the rape of the daughter of a Levite. Paul in his time, though, understands homosexual sex as a more serious sin.
Sex in the Bible is at once a divine command, a source of joy and a reflection of divine love between God and Israel and God and humanity, and a powerful desire that, out of control, can disrupt and even break the covenantal relations between God and the people of God. Knust notes that the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament charge non-Jews and non-Christians with sexual deviance, turning other religions into purveyors of cultic prostitution, when there is no evidence such practices existed. Prostitution in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament becomes a central metaphor for idolatry.
Knust describes the fascination with and abhorrence of the ancient biblical writers of both testaments with the possibility of sexual relations between angels, the "sons of God," and human women.
In her concluding chapter, she examines the changing theology of circumcision and the emissions of men and women — semen and the products of a woman's womb, both menstrual and at childbirth — and how these precluded people from going into the temple to offer sacrifice and, later, Jewish men and women from going to synagogue and Christian men and women from going into churches (the Christian replacement for the destroyed Jewish Temple).
This book will give Catholic readers a new perspective on the Scriptures. It is recommended not only for personal reading but for Catholic-Protestant and Catholic-Jewish dialogue groups.—Eugene J. Fisher
—Brian Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.
—Nancy L. Roberts directs the journalism program at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her books include "Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker."
—Eugene J. Fisher is professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.