First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 60-64

Books in Review

Briefly Noted


By Nancy Pearcey

Religion, Science, and Naturalism.
By Willem Drees. Cambridge University Press. 314 pp. $59.95.

Among philosophical naturalists, there are what one might call the mean ones and the nice ones. Mean ones, like Tufts professor Daniel Dennett, sternly inform us that natural causes explain everything and that religions are thus either dangerous falsehoods or quaint residues of earlier evolutionary stages that belong in "cultural zoos." Nice ones likewise insist on the sufficiency of natural causes but they brightly reassure us that religion is still a wonderful thing--a tapestry of symbol and metaphor that enriches our lives, as long as we're not naive enough to think it is actually true. Willem Drees is a nice naturalist. A philosophy professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, Drees argues that naturalism does not require us to deny the existence of a transcendent God. But it does require us to deny that God has acted in the world or that we can know much about Him. "Such a philosophical concept of God is fairly empty," Drees admits, reducible to a vague sense of "gratitude and wonder." We're welcome to fill in the details from our own particular religious tradition, though we must understand that, like all traditions, it arose through "a long evolutionary process" for strictly functional reasons. The concept of God is merely a human construction, a regulative idea giving force to our values. Drees is to be commended for his clear-sighted grasp of the drastic stripping-down of religion required to fit the naturalistic grid. But his book also reveals the contradiction at the heart of naturalism--for naturalism cuts both ways: it implies that science, too, is a product of evolution and hence not true but merely functional. As Drees writes, "Our epistemic capacities arose because they were advantageous to our hominid ancestors." But in that case it is not clear why religious believers should feel compelled to redefine their beliefs to conform to what naturalistic scientists decree.

The Turn of the Millennium: An Agenda for Christian Religion in an Age of Science.
By Jeffrey C. Sobosan. Pilgrim Press. 264 pp. $16.95.

This book is an example of something we're sure to see often as the year 2000 approaches: a book with the word millennium in its title that has nothing to do with the millennium. The title seems strictly a sales pitch, since the content is little more than a manifesto for Jeffrey Sobosan's environmentalist version of process theology. A Catholic theologian and follower of Whitehead, Sobosan teaches a radical redefinition of Christian doctrine. The "old tradition that Jesus was ransomed for our sins" he rejects as "theologically repugnant." He suggests replacing it with "the idea that plants and animals are always being ransomed to our well-being"--which inspires "a eucharistic (thanksgiving) ethics." And he calls for repentance for the sin of "species-centrism." Well, what did you expect from someone whose last book was titled Bless the Beasts? Sobosan's prose is weighed down with brooding, self-indulgent introspection. One section concludes by apologizing that the issues discussed are perhaps "not what any other reader might consider the most important or intriguing in the book; that is quite possible. But they are what come to my mind as of this writing, and in offering them I too am not just the writer but a reader of the book." Reading this kitsch is like dipping into a teenager's diary.