‘Cosmology in Theological Perspective’ by Olli-Pekka Vainio

Posted on May 29, 2019 in Book reviews | 0 comments

Cosmology covers the origin and development of the cosmos as a whole. In astrobiology circles, this usually refers to a branch of astrophysics, but the term also applies to theology. How do we understand the universe and what rules do we use when proposing models? Olli-Pekka Vainio tackles these questions in Cosmology in Theological Perspective: Understanding Our Place in the Universe. Vainio provides a great introduction, suitable for academics interested in the intersection of astrobiology and theology.

Vainio covers many issues that arise when thinking about the role of life in the cosmos. The first four chapters look at the development of cosmology through the centuries, demonstrating the sophistication and observational savvy of Ancient and Medieval models. Three more chapters look at the place of humans in the cosmos, what it might mean to be unique, significant, and in the image of God – or not. A final three chapters explore the relationship between knowledge of the universe and knowledge of God.

The approach shows both awareness of and respect for the state of the art in astrobiology and cosmology, while remaining solidly theological in focus. Vainio turns to Anglican theologian C. S. Lewis for inspiration, both as a theologian and as an interpreter of Medieval worldviews. Thus, he is broadly positive toward nature and natural science, while being humble about the position of humanity. We are worthy of God’s love but not, therefore, more valuable or more enlightened than the rest of creation. Vainio frequently steers a middle-way course between confidence and skepticism, always asking what we can and cannot say about a particular topic. Nonetheless, he conscientiously places his positions in theological context. Scientists will appreciate his articulation of key theological and philosophical themes. Theologians will appreciate his insights into the relationship of astrobiology to theology proper, theological anthropology, and soteriology. Vainio’s interest in theological epistemology shows; a few sections will prove too detailed for the non-specialist reader, but he returns quickly to common ground.

The broadness of Vainio’s approach presents the only potential drawback to the book. Advocates for more dogmatic approaches (e.g., Barthian Dogmatics or Thomistic Natural Law) may be disappointed that Vainio does not commit to specific doctrines or methodological constraints. His perspective will be useful to theologians of all stripes, but most compelling to Lutherans, Anglicans, and those with similar sensibilities.

I highly recommend the volume to anyone interested in knowing more about how religious and scientific pictures of the cosmos interact. This is the best book currently available on the topic and particularly appropriate for introductory courses on astrobiology and society.

Reviewed by: Lucas Mix, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard

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