The New Cosmic Story

Inside Our Awakening Universe

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John F. Haught
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $25.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300217032.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With The New Cosmic Story, John F. Haught, an eminent systematic theologian, long an advocate for continuing creation, turns to the narrative mode in order to augment the discursive argumentation found in his other works. A narrative adopts the trajectory of our emotional patterns with beginning, middle, and end and gains explanatory force as we focus on its total story and then assimilate that into the familiar life-narrative each of us spins.

Haught employs an anticipatory perspective in order to render a “realistic reading of religious symbolism that is also completely consistent with new scientific discoveries of an unfinished universe” 125). He explores what the dialogue partners of religion and evolutionary science say to each other.

“Religion” includes not only the Abrahamic faiths but also non-theist traditions that seek “something permanently trustworthy” (4) and evince “an instinct to worship a hidden and indestructible source of all being” (5). Therefore, rather than the linguistic symbol “God,” Haught speaks of an “indestructible rightness.” Each of the twelve chapters of the book explores one of the traits of “religion” he finds common to all these traditions.

Haught opens a conversation among three worldviews: archaeonomy, analogy, and anticipation.

Archaeonomy combines two Greek words for origin and law. This stance, held by most scientists, breaks down present phenomena into their primordial elements. Thus, it is reductive, deterministic, and physicalist, embracing a materialism both wrong-headed and self-refuting. Haught dubs this a “metaphysics of the past” (59) that leads to “cosmic pessimism” (34) and an “ontology of death” (72).

Analogy tends to ignore science in looking toward a perfect, timeless, transcendent and mysterious realm beyond this world which is praiseworthy only when viewed sacramentally. Haught vigorously separates himself from what was his own earlier posture and, notably, from two of its prime expositors, Augustine and Aquinas. His chief criticism of this standpoint is its unwillingness “to look for meaning in the still unfinished story of a temporal universe” (40). Haught labels it the “metaphysics of the eternal present” (61).

Anticipation fully embraces new discoveries of science along with the uniqueness of human consciousness. It situates religion as the subjective heart, or “interiority,” of the cosmic story, avowing that the unplanned and unfinished universe will gradually manifest “more being, richer meaning and more intense beauty” (154). Thus arises hope not only for the redemption of humans but for the entire cosmos. Consequently, Haught denominates his stance a “metaphysics of the future” (88).

In surveying our present story of the evolutionary cosmos (“Big History”), Haught apprehends that the universe progressed through successive epochs marked by emergent transformations. First came matter, then life, and next mind (human consciousness). What then eventuated was religion, born from our innate impulse to seek “indestructible rightness.” Inasmuch as meaning must ground itself ultimately in some purpose, for the cosmos and ourselves, we seek a “liberating communion with an indestructible rightness” (129), or, for some, “God.” That intensified at the time of the “axial age” (800-300 BCE) into a spiritual awakening oriented to a transcendent force/entity which both seizes us in faith and infuses in us a concomitant hope.

Haught reminds us that the “laws of nature are themselves subject to change over the course of time” (36) and, further, that “religion, since it is webbed into an unfinished universe is unfinished, too” (5). He insists that we conceive of the universe as having “a dramatic rather than an architectural constitution . . . as insideness (us) inaccessible to objectifying comprehension . . . not a fixed plan but instead a long story whose intelligibility, unlike that of a design, cannot be laid bare instantaneously” (172). Therefore, though our religious attitude is active anticipation, we must be patient as evolution occurs slowly over long periods.

Haught delivers a singular contribution with his fresh, panoptic perspective on our cosmic story, synthesizing thought from his own earlier work and also that of prior philosophers and theologians whom he expressly acknowledges: Paul Tillich, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred N. Whitehead. The reader will discern the influence of these three predecessors on the following issues, among others.

Tillich contends that the vocation of the theologian is to coordinate the enduring message of the tradition with aspects of contemporaneous culture including science. He asserts that spirit is present from the origin of the universe, even if manifested later. According to Tillich, we can speak about “God” only symbolically, and says that faith is the condition of being grasped by the Unconditioned, whereupon hope supervenes.

Teilhard de Chardin urges that we “trust in the slow work of God” (109); maintains that in an unfinished universe, religion is likewise unfinished; affirms that the divine spirit works in the cosmos from its beginning; directs us to attend to unfolding science; and posits that the universe has a transcendent telos.

Whitehead conceives of the universe as an organism that strives to grow and proposes the aim of the cosmos is an “endless intensification of beauty” (140). In passing, I suggest Haught alludes to the “consequent nature” of a dipolar God when he writes: “Rightness transcends the universe but is vulnerable to internal change by virtue of what happens with the cosmic story . . . indestructible rightness (Haught’s placeholder for ‘God’) is not lurking in fully finished splendor outside the universe . . . the inside story is recorded and preserved everlastingly in the interiority of indestructible rightness itself” (82-3).

One theologian Haught does not mention, but whose overarching anticipatory vision parallels his own is Wolfhart Pannenberg. His key notion is prolepsis: that is, because the Divine has manifested itself in history, the Kingdom of God is both already and, until the eschaton, not yet.

The “new narrative coherence” (102) Haught offers our search for rightness in the context of the dramatic setting of an evolving and unplanned universe bolsters our active but patient quest. We are co-creators as “a part of a grand cosmic pilgrimage toward fuller-being, deeper subjectivity, and intense beauty” (155).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles G. Conway is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John F. Haught is distinguished research professor, Georgetown University. He is author of twenty previous books, many of which deal with questions on the relationship between religion and natural sciences.

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