Book Write-Up: Cosmology in Theological Perspective

Olli-Pekka Vainio. Cosmology in Theological Perspective: Understanding Our Place in the Universe. Baker Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

Olli-Pekka Vainio has a Th.D. from the University of Helsinki, where he teaches systematic theology. He has also taught at Oxford. As the title indicates, this book examines cosmological issues from a theological perspective. It evaluates the challenges and questions that cosmological issues have posed, or have been believed to pose, to Christian theology.

I will comment on each chapter, offering my impressions:

Chapter 1: “Every Saga Has a Beginning: Philosophical Cosmologies in the Ancient World.”

This chapter looks at ancient Near Eastern (including biblical), Norse, and Greek cosmologies. Some interesting details: ancient Egypt had somewhat of a “Fall” narrative, and Plato did not believe that the Demiurge prioritized humans in fashioning the cosmos. In terms of its view on biblical creation narratives, the chapter seems to lean in the John Walton direction. Stylistically, this chapter was like others: a lot of information, packed into a few pages. The asset to this approach is, of course, the abundance of information. The liabilities, on the other hand, include some sacrifice of depth and a lack of absorbing prose.

Chapter 2: “The Voyage Home: Cosmos in Early Christian Thought.”

This chapter complemented my recent reading of Craig Allert’s Early Christian Readings of Genesis One (IVP Academic, 2018). Vainio cites passages in which Origen and, on some level, Augustine appear to disparage a literal, historical interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (Origen, De principiis 4.16; Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis). This chapter also argues, in a sense, that the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe was not an essential aspect of early Christianity, even though ancient Christianity tended to adopt it.

Chapter 3: “Resistance Is Futile: Galileo, Newton, and Darwin.”

Among other things, this chapter conveyed how the Copernican model looked to those who lived when it developed, as opposed to criticizing those who rejected it in hindsight. On page 48, Vainio states: “There were several scientific phenomena that the Ptolemaic model could explain satisfactorily and that were not explained by the Copernican model.”

Chapter 4: “All These Worlds: On the Multiverse.”

This chapter is informative about the historical views in historical Christianity about the existence of other worlds. There were those who rejected such a concept, as they adopted Greek philosophy, and there were Christians (in some cases, non-orthodox Christians) who were open to the possibility of other worlds and life on those worlds. Vainio lays out the different scientific proposals on how different universes may develop. People who are not scientifically inclined may glaze over some of these discussions, but they might also get something out of them. Vainio effectively laid out different views and offered his assessment. Regarding the theological ramifications of the multiverse, Vainio seems to ask “Why not?” Some Christian theologians regard the multiverse concept as wasteful, since there are so many empty universes, but Vainio wonders why God could not work through such means, considering that God providentially acts through events that, to us, might appear contingent or even random. At the same time, Vainio raises problems that he has with the concept of multiverses: if all universes are possible, would God create or allow a universe that lacks goodness?

Chapter 5: “If It’s Just Us, It Seems Like an Awful Waste of Space: On Human Uniqueness.”

This chapter is about the possibility of life on other planets. It includes a quote by C.S. Lewis about how skeptics of Christianity assert that life being on other planets and life being only on earth both challenge Christianity. Vainio refers to ancient thinkers who reflected on the possibility of life on other planets. Vainio wrestled briefly with the problem of evil and the issue of animal suffering, referring to a thinker who posits that animals, too, may have a post-mortem existence that would make their pain worthwhile. This chapter surveys different Christian perspectives on life on other planets, including that of William Lane Craig, but it does not land anywhere. The result is that there is a tone of “on the one hand, on the other hand,” and the chapter does not quite hit the spot.

Chapter 6: “Infinite Space, Infinite Terror: Our Cosmic (In)significance.”

If life only exists on earth, does that challenge Christianity? Why would God create a vast universe and populate only a tiny planet with life? Vainio’s answer, essentially, is that God honors the least. A predictable response, but this chapter also talks about such concepts as axiarchism, ananthropocentric purposivism, and nonnaturalism, and the question of whether objective value can exist in an atheistic universe. Vainio is not afraid to address perspectives that are contrary to his own, while acknowledging that they raise understandable considerations.

Chapter 7: “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream? God and Being.”

This chapter is largely about how humans can speak meaningfully of a God they cannot understand. Vainio talks about the Analogia Entis. He seems to gravitate towards Kierkegaard’s story of God bringing Godself down to people’s level, in pursuit of a relationship.

Chapter 8: “There Is No Gene for the Human Spirit: Images of God.”

What is the image of God? And can animals or extraterrestrials possess it? My impression of where Vainio lands is here: the image of God includes rationality and the capacity for relationships. Animals can have that, too, on some level, albeit not as much as humans. And humans do not possess the same level of rationality as angels, who bear the image of God more fully. A question that I had was how to account for human disability: do humans with lower IQs or relational skills reflect less of the image of God? That would be a troubling prospect. There also was not much biblical exegesis in this chapter, or even the book as a whole. The book is informative about theologians and philosophers, but it was rather lacking in terms of a biblical component, so one might wonder if the theologies hang on anything divinely-authoritative.

Chapter 9: “Come with Me If You Want to Live: Incarnations.”

Suppose that there is life on other planets. Did Jesus Christ die for them, too? As far as I can recall, this chapter did not address head-on a major reason that some think life on other planets would pose a challenge to Christianity: if the sin of two human beings plunged the entire cosmos into chaos, does that not imply the priority of earth, or that human life only exists on earth? So much of God’s plan in the Bible seems to be tied to God’s interactions with earth (Romans 8). This chapter had its high points, though, as when it addressed the question of how people on other planets could be saved. An intriguing feature of this book is that Vainio often asks if, say, people being saved on other planets is truly inconsistent with things that Christians already believe, or if the two may overlap. Vainio tries, however, to argue that Christ could be incarnate on other planets, and he is not very convincing, in my opinion. If the risen Christ remains a human being, how can he be aliens, too?

Chapter 10:  “To Boldly Go: Beings in Search of Greater Understanding.”

Among other things, this chapter talks about C.S. Lewis’s engagement with Kant. In a sense, what we see is how things appear to us, not necessarily what they truly are. Lewis did not go in the direction of complete skepticism, however. This chapter builds on insights in Lewis’s Space Trilogy. It is a bit meandering, but, like the book as a whole, it has its share of interesting details and intriguing insights.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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