Pictures of the World (Scott Steinkerchner & Peter Hunter) -- A Review


PICTURES OF THE WORLD: Three Views of Life, the Universe, and Everything. By Scott Steinkerchner and Peter Hunter. Foreword by Peter C. Phan. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. Xvi + 165 pages.

How should we view life and the universe? On what basis might we make informed statements of belief? What resources might we turn to in order to make judgments on such matters? What might philosophy or theology or science contribute to the conversation? When speaking to such matters, can we all get on the same page? While science and theology need not be enemies, they do not, necessarily look at things from the same vantage point. Since this is true, should we give primacy to one or the other? While there might be some overlap between religion and science, is there room for true dialogue?

Scott Steinkerchner and Peter Hunter have attempted to create a pathway for dialog. Both men are Dominican theologians, so they are likely to make sure that theology has its say, but from my reading of their book, Pictures of theWorld, they want to give science, along with another religious tradition (Buddhism) a fair shake. They ask the question of the nature of life, the universe, and everything by bringing three world views into conversation. They do this not by talking in generalities, but by bringing three particular voices—representing three specific worldviews, Christianity, Buddhism, and Naturalism—into conversation with each other. By choosing Christianity and Buddhism as their religious conversation partners they bring both Western and Eastern forms of religion into conversation. They have turned to a scientist, an experimental psychologist, to represent Naturalism.  When you move to particularity, you quickly discover that no one figure can represent the whole of a tradition. This is true in this case, but I would say the authors have been relatively successful in their effort.

The way the book is laid out, the authors first introduce us to the three conversation partners. Chapter One introduces us to Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval theologian, who represents the Christian view of reality. This isn’t surprising since Aquinas was himself a Dominican. Being that I'm a Protestant, I might have chosen a different figure, but Aquinas is one of the recognized figures in Christian theology, so I will accept this choice. Chapter two introduces us to a Medieval Tibetan Buddhist leader, Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang-grags-pa (1357-1419). He is an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and especially as he was a leading figure in the origins of the Gelukpas order, of which the Dalai Lama is the current leader. As with Aquinas, one must acknowledge the diversity of Buddhism. Finally, we are introduced to Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist, who represents for us the position of Naturalism. Pinker was chosen over a figure like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking because, he has studied the "evolutionary roots of language, logic, and morality," thus giving '"him a full view of human nature that springs only from the potential within the natural realm, with no recourse to supernatural explanations" (p. xii). As they note, Pinker stands with other scientific atheists like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who like Pinker see “the spiritual realm as a delusion created as a by-product of evolutionary useful adaptions,” but which have become “particularly problematic in the modern world” (p. 45).

If the authors use the first three chapters to introduce us to the three protagonists in this conversation, including the way in which detailing how each views the world.  Then, in chapter four we get to the heart of the matter. They compare the way each of the three figures looks at the human person, the nature of reality, consciousness and free will, arguments for and against creation, the basis of morality, gender equality, homosexuality and gay marriage, and finally research using human embryonic stem cells. They seem to address all these issues with fairness, allowing each figure to speak. It was interesting, for instance to see how the three figures viewed homosexuality. They note that Aquinas didn't finish the Summa, and so he didn't address marriage and sex, though it is clear he viewed sex in terms of procreation, which would naturally lead him to rule out homosexual relations. With Buddhism, the particular form offered rather traditional views of sex. Again, homosexuality would be frowned upon. In fact such acts would lead to bad karma. Like Aquinas, Tsongkhapa was a product of his own time and place. Turning to the modern era, they note that the Dalai Lama sees this as simply a matter for inter-Buddhist conversation. As for Pinker, sex between consenting adults, as long as it doesn't lead to harm, is permissibly. Again, considering the context, this isn't surprising. What is interesting is that Pinker understands morality in terms of serving the greater good of all. There is both an individualism here and a sense of community as well. What we see in examining the three positions is that there are both similarities and differences in belief and practice. The question is, are the similarities significant enough to create a foundation for conversation?

In chapter 5, the two Dominican theologians ask the question, on behalf of Catholics, what can be learned from others. They explore original sin and the nature of salvation. In this they asked traditional questions. On the other hand, they also take the bold step of asking a rather hypothetical question: Do Martians need to be saved. If so, then how does Jesus factor in? Now we know that even if there is life on Mars, none of it would be considered advanced. However, we get the point? If intelligent life exists in the universe, is there a need for Christ’s ministry? This would include his death and resurrection. Neither Aquinas nor Tsongkhapas lived at a time when such questions might be asked, however, the question of extraterrestrial life does allow us to consider the salvation of those in our world who did not have the opportunity to connect with Jesus. As for Pinker, he doesn’t ask if Martians need Jesus, but he does wonder about the possibility of extraterrestrial existence. So, the question is a valid one. They conclude the discussion with a conversation about the nature and purpose of heaven. Here they seek to compare Christian views of whether there is life after death with two traditions who view such questions very differently. Why ask such questions?  The authors believe the dialog created here has deepened their own theological understanding and believe the same can be true of the reader, whom they invite to join in the journey. 

In the Epilogue the authors acknowledge that the three imagined conversation partners have very different views of reality. As for which is closest to reality, they again acknowledge that the answer probably lies with where one stands. As a Christian, I’m most likely to embrace the Christian view, though I can learn from other perspectives. This is to be expected. The point here is not conversion but understanding. By learning from and about one another, we might be better equipped and even willing to partner to make this a better world. Thus, the journey into which the authors invite us is a valid one.

This is an intriguing book. I found it both challenging and enlightening because my understanding of Buddhism is rather limited. I have much more experience with Islam and Judaism which shares many of the same foundational beliefs. At the same time, while I have some knowledge of Aquinas, I wouldn’t say his theology defines my theology. That truth makes a book like this all the more helpful. Peter Phan in his foreword raises a provocative point, that is worth discussing for the good of the world: "to be religious today it is necessary to be so multireligiously and interreligiously," and he believes that this book "opens the door for a challenging and fruitful conversation about mutual teaching and learning." his is true even for those who are ideologically, and I may add theologically, far apart (p. ix). 

While this book is deeply theological, it is by no means exhaustive in its treatment of theology. One needn’t be scholarly trained to read the book, this isn’t an easy read. It will take concentration to engage. Again, the particularity of the choices leads to the question, how might a different figure answer the questions? What if Calvin was exchanged for Aquinas? Or Barth? Or James Cone? Or Elizabeth Johnson? The answers might be different, but my sense is that the authors of this book would welcome such an exercise, but they made choices they thought allowed them to contrast positions, stirring conversation. .

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