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Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action by Philip Clayton

In the book’s prologue, Clayton sets the stage for what follows by highlighting the denial by many that middle ground exists in the interaction of sacred and scientific, of ancient and contemporary (pp.vii-viii). A key aim of the book is to show that the dichotomy between conservative/evangelical and liberal/modernist is a false one, that there are in fact a range of possible views all along the spectrum. We are not forced to choose either to merely preserve or merely dismantle and destroy.

The book itself is unusual, inasmuch as it is a collection of Clayton’s earlier writings, dating from 1997-2008, edited by Zachary Simpson, and Simpson, while not unappreciative of Clayton’s work, is also himself rather critical – at least, moreso than one might have expected the editor of a volume of this sort to be. The introduction nonetheless provides a helpful overview of what is to follow, contextualizing the book’s arguments into the wider range of both Clayton’s writings and those of other theologians.

Among the highlights of the introduction are some key terms and ideas which are presented. One major emphasis, which will characterize the book as a whole, is the desire to take completely seriously the data from the natural sciences, even when these require rethinking of traditional theological ideas. This attitude is characterized as “devout uncertainty” (p.4), and represents nothing more than the committment to allow one’s views, even deeply cherished theological views, be subjected to rigorous critical inquiry and when it seems necessary to revision. It is this submission of one’s views to scrutiny, including that of experts in other fields of knowledge with which coherence is sought, that is the only way to achieve “traction” for one’s religious views (p.5). This is perhaps the aspect of Clayton’s writing that makes it the most exciting – even if one feels that he, inevitably, doesn’t fully achieve his aim, which is this: to not keep any of his beliefs or presuppositions off the table, away from scrutiny and the possibility of rethinking.

Other concepts that will be central to the argument of later chapters (and the book as a whole) are introduced first by the editor, such as emergence, divine action, panentheism, and the notion that God, as greater than any single component of the universe, ought to be conceived of as “at least personal” (p.15, quoting Arthur Peacocke). One potential criticism of Clayton’s argument noted by Simpson is that, because of the former’s focus on human personal agents as loci for divine activity in the world, his system is open to the charge of being inappropriately anthropocentric (p.17). Be that as it may, one thing that becomes clear as the book progresses is that Clayton is in dialogue not only with natural scientists but with philosophers both ancient and modern, including some who are all-too-infrequent dialogue partners in discussions of contemporary theology or of the relationship between religion and science. Although the book’s title focuses on Adventures in the Spirit, the book offers an exciting and stimulating intellectual journey as well – not that “mind” and “spirit” can be separated.

I intend to dedicate a blog post to each major section of the book. Part One is labelled The Methods of Philosophy and Theology. Within it, the first chapter is entitled “Critical Faith: Theology in the Midst of the Sciences”. That’s where we’ll pick up again next time. In the mean time, I will mention that there has been a series about this book on Bob Cornwall’s blog, which I’ve avoided reading thus far, lest I either simply duplicate what was said there, or feel that what was said there was so exhaustive that I might as well forego my own blogging about the book. It even includes video of Clayton himself!
Posted by James F. McGrath

Philip Clayton is a philosopher and theologian specializing in the entire range of issues that arise at the intersection between science and religion. Over the last several decades he has published and lectured extensively on all branches of this debate, including the history of modern philosophy, philosophy of science, comparative religions, and constructive theology. Clayton received the PhD jointly from the Philosophy and Religious Studies departments at Yale University and is currently Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Claremont Graduate University and Ingraham Professor at Claremont School of Theology.

In addition to a variety of named lectureships, he has held visiting professorships at the University of Cambridge, the University of Munich, and Harvard University. Above all, Clayton’s books and articles address the cultural battle currently raging between science and religion. Rejecting the scientism of Dawkins and friends, he argues, does not open the door to fundamentalism. Instead, a variety of complex and interesting positions are being obscured by the warring factions whose fight to the death is attracting such intense attention today. Clayton has drawn on the resources of the sciences, philosophy, theology, and comparative religious thought to develop constructive partnerships between these two great cultural powers.

As a public intellectual he seeks to address the burning ethical and political issues at the intersection of science, ethics, religion, and spirituality (e.g., the stem cell debate, euthanasia, the environmental crisis, interreligious warfare). As a philosopher he works to show the compatibility of science with religious belief across the fields where the two may be integrated (emergence theory, evolution and religion, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and consciousness).

How can we talk about God
Philip Clayton discusses the steps necessary to talk about God with integrity in our contemporary context.

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