I know this author, and my review includes a few personal facts that will help readers appreciate this book, which has filled me with enthusiasm.
In a dangerous world where accelerated and often chaotic change makes life more difficult, it is harder to find meaning and to achieve wholeness and integrity. If we put the harmony of science and religion into our philosophy of living—and then live that philosophy, the result will be a game-changer.
People hunger for an invigorating vision that rouses us to honestly face our evolutionary circumstances. Add an inspiring addition of scientific understanding that portrays the beauty of creation, and our our motivation to live better is enhanced. As a result, our personal development and our efforts for planetary progress are based on better understanding and a better appreciation of what the magnificent Creator is up to.
These desiderata are present in Origins: God, Evolution, and the Question of the Cosmos by Professor of Theology Philip Rolnick of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota; he chairs the Science and Theology Network in the twin cities. This most recent book of his sounds notes of humility, peace, justice, and compassion; but its larger emphasis is on a compelling scientific and religious vision of cosmic and biological evolution, character growth, and cultural and religious progress.
In a confused world where science-centered philosophies attack sad stereotypes of religious thought, Origins equips readers to participate in the discussion in a constructive, well-informed, and spiritually fresh way. The book calmly takes matters in hand and puts the pieces back together again, giving a readable, up-to-date, realistic, and informative portrait of a complementary relationship of science and religion.
One of the things I like best about this book is that Rolnick has been able to achieve two goals that one would never expect could be attained in the same book. First, this is a book for the general reader. It is intended primarily for an intellectually oriented Sunday School class or for readers (such as upper division undergraduates) who have taken a course or two in philosophy or religion. During the past month (October 15 was the publication date), Rolnick has been able to use this book in class, and his theology students love it (except for a couple atheists who find the power of its logical reasoning uncomfortable), and the students find that they can read and understand it more quickly than the average college text. Second, Origins takes the reader farther—especially in the discussions of cosmology—than many widely esteemed writings on science and theology (I have John Polkinghorne in mind); many books on science and religion give the reader a necessarily simplified picture of the science and take great care not to burden the reader with technicalities. But Rolnick has worked long and hard with specialists in biology and physics and has devoted himself to writing in greater detail without becoming unintelligible to the general reader.
The overall structure of Origins can be read in terms of one of its repeated themes: the trio of truth, beauty, and goodness. After a very inviting introduction, Part II shows how we can understand evolutionary reality—and thereby our lives—by coordinating two levels of truth: science and religion. Part III continues to coordinate these levels of truth while giving us such a beautiful vision of the universe and its creative Logos as to inspire us to fall in love with creation. Part IV shows the goodness of the perspective developed in the first two parts by its capacity to invigorate the individual and the community. On the one hand, there is the much-needed fiber of resilience required by our evolutionary condition in this very material life. On the other hand, there is the transforming spiritual perspective in the life and teachings of Jesus. The implications for communities from families and institutions of government to the church moves beyond a static traditionalism in an approach to tradition that honors abiding truths while staying informed and eager on the frontier of new truth. Rolnick adapts a famous line from Augustine: “The human soul is restless until fed with the food of transcendence—the true, good, and beautiful discovered in relationship to God” (193).
“In spite of fortune (good or bad) and unfairness, most of us, most of the time, cut our path through life by the way we contact reality—or fail to do so. To say that we can contact reality is to say that we are capable of experiencing truth. And to experience truth is to gain greater freedom and strength—on whatever level reality has been contacted. The experience of truth is a uniquely human kind of victory. On higher levels of human living, the function of truth is somewhat like the function of selection in the biosphere: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Those who refuse truth or cling to error live cramped and obstructed lives; but realization of a new truth is often accompanied by exhilaration, as the burden of error is released and an expanded freedom is experienced. On a higher level getting rid of error and embracing truth are also selected for, because they improve the way we think and live. In this sense, discarding error and finding truth are spiritual analogues of natural selection.” (61-62)
“Within the limited duration of each event, and within the limited duration of our lives, the implied command of Jesus’ parable of the talents takes on intensified force: intelligently develop the history that is being lived; maximize its possibilities for truth, goodness, or beauty. But for those who are alert, each event, task, and relationship is a unique opportunity to inscribe something new into the living stream of history—and into our own souls. Even more so, every episode of our history is an opportunity to perform the will of God in a new way in a new setting. It is the great human privilege to live in and to be cocreators of history, a continuously unfolding realm that transpires between the hard actuality of the past and the fluid possibilities of every present moment.” (193-94).
Origins is centered on Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). Rolnick presents many innovative applications of this parable, chapter by chapter, so that the parable speaks to us in unforgettable ways. The discussions of evolution, cosmology, character, and community all add layers of meaningful interpretation to the parable, which comes to symbolize a contemporary philosophy of living. Origins equips readers with ideas they can understand, incorporate into their own attitudes, and share in conversation in a world that so desperately needs this wise blend of scientific realism and spiritual idealism.
Now, an overview of the book. After a simple, clear, and inviting introduction (Part I), Origins leads the reader into a chapter which sets forth four challenges that the theory of evolution appears to pose to theism. Some books would present compressed summaries of these challenges and move quickly into refutation; but here the reader is made to feel the force of the critique. The following four chapters present clear, well-organized, and quietly compelling reasons to regard the alleged objections to theism as supports for religion when the data are interpreted in the context of a theological perspective on evolution. “When examined through the lens of Jesus’ parable of the talents [Matthew 25:14-30], evolution no longer appears to be a dangerous opponent of faith, but rather a compatible and informative friend. Evolution has become an important part of contemporary human self-understanding, and it can also be part of an updated and invigorated religious understanding.” (104)
“Natural selection’s heartless sorting of evolutionary winners and losers seems cruel, but it has produced a biosphere of complexity, diversity, strength, and beauty. As natural selection shows the deadly cost of failure, it warns us to get reality right; and for us, getting reality right is not a matter just of physical survival but also of seeking our spiritual purpose. . . . Indisputably, the evolutionary setting contains a great deal of struggle and pain, and every living thing eventually experiences death. But there is a purpose in confronting these evolutionary difficulties. An evolutionary creation is a teaching environment, a setting suitable for promoting character fit for eternity. Difficulties and disasters have led some to question the righteousness of a God who would allow such things; but because the laws of nature are reliable, humanity has been motivated to learn how these laws work.” (103)
Part III recounts Big Bang theory in enough detail to add much to the understanding of most non-scientists. I have read many accounts of the cosmic microwave background radiation, but not until I read Origins did I gain a level of understanding that feels comfortable. The book goes on to discuss the fine-tuning “coincidences” that seem to invite a purposive interpretation of nature as creation—all of which leads to a discussion of the Logos (John 1:1-3) who imparts rationality to creation and reason to human minds, so that we can increasingly discover the truth about the evolutionary realm that we are so deeply part of, even as we also transcend nature as the sons and daughters of God.
Part IV does two things well. Those who are know the Aristotelian and Thomistic heritage of virtue ethics, the next to last chapter find it familiar territory; but every tradition demands fresh restatements that do not merely rehash, but somehow add new life and insight. The last chapter accomplishes the same. Those who know Michael Polanyi’s masterwork Personal Knowledge will be able to predict the structure of the chapter; but once again, Rolnick does an extraordinary job of stating a familiar truth in a way that adds truth, makes us enjoy reading it, gives us the feeling that we have now understood some essential ideas in a more satisfying way.
Baylor University Press is nominating this book for a $100,000 award. At the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, the press displayed books in the usual way, arranged on tables, but on the wall behind the display was a very large picture of the cover of Origins dominating the entire exhibit.