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Lord of Snow and Shadows [Book One of The Tears of Artamon].
Lord of Snow and Shadows [Book One of The Tears of Artamon].
by Sarah Ash
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A promising start, 31 Aug 2011
Sarah Ash's new trilogy opens with the artist Gavril Andar falling hopelessly in love with Astasia, the daughter of the Duke of Muscobar. Fortuitously he discovers that he is the son and heir of the recently assassinated ruler of Azhkendir, a buffer state between Muscobar and Tielen. Naturally he hopes that this might be the answer to his romantic problems. However, the Duke of Muscobar hopes to marry Astasia off to Prince Eugene of Tielen in a bid to avoid a ruinous war. To further complicate matters, Gavril soon discovers that he has inherited more than a bleak, poverty-stricken northern state. The dynasty to which he is heir is founded upon possession of (or, rather, by) a demonic force that will gradually devour his humanity but which he must use if he is to avenge his father's murder and defend his people against Tielen aggression.

The place names locate this novel rather too obviously in a mythical analogue of Russia. That quibble aside, Ash develops her world with loving attention to detail, building up a vivid picture of a late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century Russia without the external threat of Napoleon (we are told that Prince Eugene's father decisively defeated Francia in a sea battle a generation earlier) but also without the internal unifying force of a czar. The result is a collection of squabbling duchies at various stages of modernization. In some senses Muscobar is the most modern with the common people beginning to resent the aristocrats who exploit them. At the other extreme, Azhkendir remains thoroughly feudal much to the discomfort of Gavril who has been brought up in decadent Smarna.

One of the strengths of Ash's writing is her characterization. Even her minor characters feel like real people rather than stock figures. You feel that their words and actions are driven by their various personalities and situations rather than the demands of the story. As for the major characters, they are in most cases complex figures with complex personalities and motivations. Take, for example, Prince Eugene of Tielen. He could so easily have been presented as the stock villain of the novel and Ash makes no secret of his obsessive vision of a Rossiyan Empire reunited under his leadership. However, she forces us to sympathize with him by making him the viewpoint character at various points. Thus, in addition to Eugene the ruthless expansionist we get to see him as Eugene the loving father of sickly, crippled Karila. He is torn between the memory of his dead wife and the political expediency of marriage to Astasia Orlov. Perhaps most surprising is the barely suppressed homoeroticism in his feelings for his young protégé Jaromir Arkhel, the last survivor of a dynasty that once challenged Gavril's father for the throne of Azhkendir.

Given the demonic aspect of Gavril's inheritance, it is no surprise that the supernatural plays an important part in this novel. Ironically Gavril initially denies the existence of magic and the supernatural and only reluctantly comes to acknowledge the true nature of his inheritance. Prince Eugene has no such doubts and makes full use of the skills of his court alchemist to bolster his military advantage (for example, turning condemned criminals into werewolves to be used as a kind of commando force).

Magic of a different kind plays a crucial role in Gavril's struggle with the demon he has inherited. As he settles into his new role as ruler of Azhkendir, he befriends the serving girl Kiukiu. Like him, she is an outsider. Although a faithful servant of the Nagarian line, she is despised because her mother had been seduced by a follower of the hated Arkhel clan. However, and again like Gavril, she has inherited something more from her father. She discovers that she is a guslyar, a `ghost singer' with shamanistic powers - powers that she uses to aid Gavril.

The book is very well written and Ash brings it to as satisfying a conclusion as is possible in the first volume of a trilogy. Naturally, since it is a first volume, she has salted it with unanswered questions to pique the reader's curiosity about what happens next. I am certainly looking forward to the next stage in the larger story.

The Earth Beneath: Critical Guide to Green Theology
The Earth Beneath: Critical Guide to Green Theology
by Ian Ball
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't live up to the promise in the title, 29 Aug 2011
This volume is a collection of essays which grew out of a conference held at Ripon College, Cuddesdon in 1990. The editors have organised the papers into three distinct sections, dealing in turn with issues underlying the contemporary environmental debate, specific case studies in green theology and possible approaches to environmental exploration within the churches.

Part 1 focuses on the question of human identity. The two papers which make up this section suggest that contemporary environmental concern has as much to do with anxieties about our own identity as with the damage we are perceived to be doing to the natural world. What emerges from the first chapter is that environmentalism may be seen as an arena in which conflicting understandings of human nature (an 'orthodox' individualism and an 'alternative' relational approach) are struggling for dominance. This is followed up by an exploration of some of the spiritual and theological implications.

Part 2 turns to specific examples of green theology beginning with a chapter in which Clare Palmer warns against too much reliance on the concept of stewardship. She rightly points out that it may be used by politicians and industrialists as a legitimation for exploitative policies. However, she fails to develop the positive potential of stewardship when treated as just one of a constellation of metaphors for our relationship with the environment.

Ian Carter offers a bland account of Teilhard de Chardin. His critique would have benefited from acquaintance with, for example, Paul Santmire's analysis of Teilhard in his historical study The Travail of Nature.

Margaret Goodall and John Reader rightly subject Matthew Fox to severe criticism. Unfortunately they dismiss his theology out of hand and concentrate instead on the ideological potential of his use of religious language. Their approach appears to be based on the postmodernist assumption that style is more significant than content. Nevertheless, this is a helpful critique of an approach to green theology which is far more popular than they admit.

Part 2 concludes with a diatribe against various efforts to develop a theology of nature which bears some relation to Christian orthodoxy. The author, Ian Ball, dismisses appeals to Scripture with comments like 'it seems strange that the members of a major institution should feel so obliged to justify themselves by constant reference to the quasi-metaphysical speculations of nomadic tribesmen of the second millennium BC!' Predictably the approach he favours is an old-fashioned liberalism embracing interfaith dialogue (of a certain kind), modernity and a commitment to change. It would be an interesting exercise to apply Goodall and Reader's critical tools to this paper!

Finally we are offered various approaches to environmental exploration within the churches. This section begins with an excellent paper on 'Creating Spaces' by Margaret Goodall and John Reader. They argue that our culture lacks genuine spaces in which real life-changing discussion of matters of public concern can take place. Drawing on the Eastern European experience they suggest that this is a role for the church and they outline some of the social and theological implications of adopting such a role. Sadly the remaining chapters do not reach the standard set by this paper. The topics covered (pilgrimage, community drama and creative synthesis) suggest that, for some of the authors at least, exploration has taken the place of action. It takes little imagination to guess what environmental activists like Murray Bookchin would make of their proposals: 'Ecolala'!

As you will have gathered, this is a patchy book. The intended readership is by no means clear: significant portions are written at a semi-popular level (though that is belied by the style of those same passages). In spite of some valuable contributions, I cannot recommend it as an adequate survey of green theology.

Science of the Gods: Reconciling Mystery and Matter
Science of the Gods: Reconciling Mystery and Matter
by David A. Ash
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful little book, 29 Aug 2011
The task undertaken by David Ash and Peter Hewitt is the ambitious one of uniting physics and metaphysics! They propose that this can be achieved by a radical revision of physics in the light of Lord Kelvin's vortex theory of the atom. Precisely how this revision is to be achieved is left as an exercise for the reader. Instead the authors move rapidly on to extol the virtues of vortex theory as a theory of everything. We are assured that it offers us a naturalistic explanation of resurrection and ascension, miracles and UFOs, crop circles and apparitions of the Virgin Mary.

The chief virtue of this book lies in its stark presentation of some of the assumptions underlying New Age thought. Specifically, the authors are unequivocal about the philosophical idealism implicit in their worldview: 'Consciousness is the prime reality, the ground of all existence' (p. 173). All finite existence is an illusion which we can manipulate by changing our patterns of thought. Humankind has a lofty purpose in such a cosmos, namely, to evolve into a conscious awareness of our own divinity.

Surprisingly they are even prepared to be unequivocal about the amorality of their world-view: good and evil are mere masks, and 'Earth is an adventure playground where we can't really hurt ourselves' (p. 181). What then are we to make of Auschwitz or Hiroshima? Are gas chambers mere toys for infant gods?

Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul's Letters
Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul's Letters
by Clinton E. Arnold
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing treatment of principalities and powers, 29 Aug 2011
The author has set out to present us with a semi-popular account of what the New Testament actually teaches about the principalities and powers. He is well qualified for the task, having previously completed a doctoral thesis at Aberdeen on the concept of power in Ephesians.

This volume is divided into three major parts dealing, in turn, with 'First-century belief in the powers,' 'Paul's teaching on the powers,' and 'Interpreting the powers for today.'

Part I tackles such issues as magic and divination; astrology; and popular beliefs about the supernatural among Jesus' near contemporaries. Although the section claims to focus on the first century AD, it actually covers a period of at least four hundred years. In spite of the difficulties involved in attempting such a task in so little space, I think he succeeds in presenting a fair picture of the popular beliefs regarding supernatural powers in that era. Having thus set the scene, the section concludes with a summary account of Jesus' teaching and practice in relation to the demonic.

The heart of the book is a popular presentation of Pauline teaching on the powers. Arnold approaches the material thematically with chapters on the nature of the powers; Christ's defeat of the powers on the cross; the implications of Christ's victory for believers; the continuing impact of the powers upon the lives of believers; the exclusivity of faith in Christ; the nature of spiritual warfare; and, the eschatological subjection of the powers. There is much food for thought in these chapters, particularly the parts about the continuing impact of the powers and the nature of spiritual warfare. However, I did become uneasy at times about his references to divine power being imparted to or appropriated by believers. God does not plug us into some spiritual battery charger! He gives himself to us in the person of the Holy Spirit: person not power -- the difference is tremendously important.

That uneasiness increased as I read the final part of the book. This is easily the least satisfactory part. It begins with an attack on the mythological interpretation of the powers. Here Arnold draws a sharp (and questionable) contrast between myth and reality. Perhaps he should reread C.S. Lewis's essay 'Myth Became Fact'! However, the low point of this chapter was his misunderstanding of Carl Jung. Arnold is simply wrong to suggest that Jung denied the reality of the 'powers'. The fact that Jung located them in the psyche does not mean that he saw them as merely psychological or subjective. On the contrary, for Jung, the psyche was a largely uncharted spiritual realm, every bit as real as the material world. My point is not that Jung was right, far from it, but rather that when we criticize others we should be sure that our criticisms hit the mark.

The same point applies to Arnold's treatment of Walter Wink since his case against Wink rests upon the latter's appropriation of Jung. Wink's apparent approval of the activities of Findhorn (a New Age community) suggests that we should approach him with caution. But, given the weakness of its foundations, I wonder how helpful Arnold's critique will be.

Another worrying aspect is the approval Arnold gives to the work of Frank Peretti. His novels are certainly popular among evangelicals but this does not make their view of prayer orthodox! This relates to my uneasiness with part II since Peretti favours the language of spiritual power over that of personal relationships.

My uneasiness with this emphasis on power highlights the chief weakness of the book. A responsible theological account would qualify the language of power with the language of persons. This would be lead to a more cautious use of the term 'personal' in relation to demons. Possessed of will and intelligence? Yes, certainly. But capable of personal relationships? C.S. Lewis, whom Arnold seems to admire, knew better. The powers know only power relationships. More generally, this book manages to present biblical teaching on the powers in remarkable isolation from other theological emphases. Thus it falls short in the theological effort of relating what is said in the New Testament to the lives of believers.

J.R.R. Tolkien (Christian Encounters)
J.R.R. Tolkien (Christian Encounters)
by Mark Horne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.50

3.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien deserves better, 28 Aug 2011
This new biography of Tolkien takes the form of a brief chronological summary of Tolkien's life. Three chapters are devoted to his childhood in and around Birmingham, culminating in his childhood romance with the girl he would eventually marry. Chapter 4 deals with his time as an undergraduate in Oxford, while Chapter 5 outlines his experiences in the First World War and his marriage to Edith. Chapters 6 and 7 summarize his academic career between 1918 and 1937, first in Leeds and later back in Oxford. Chapter 8 focuses on the decade following the publication of The Hobbit during which time he wrote much of The Lord of the Rings, while Chapter 9 deals with the public reception of LOTR and Tolkien's later years. A final brief chapter entitled `Legacy' explores Tolkien's influence on modern fantasy literature and attempts to say something about Tolkien's Christian vision.

My initial reaction to the volume was one of disappointment. The account of Tolkien's life appears to be reasonably accurate (at various points I checked it against Humphrey Carpenter's biography), but the book is too short to deal adequately with the important relationships in his life. In particular, there is surprisingly little about his relationship with C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Inklings. More importantly, it fails to live up to the series promise that you will learn `how Tolkien's faith was an intrinsic element of his creative imagination, one that played out in the pages of his writings and his life'. Scattered references to his Roman Catholicism and a brief attempt in the final chapter to address the Christian underpinning of his writing do not amount to a demonstration that his faith was integral to his creativity. For example, more could have been made of his understanding of fantasy as sub-creation; stronger connections could have been made between his penchant for anarchism and his faith; and it would have been good to see something about his concept of eucatastrophe (a concept that embraces both the cross of Christ and the destruction of the ruling ring). To add insult to injury, the book is simply not particularly well written; the text is grammatically correct, but it is dull and lifeless. Tolkien deserves better.

NB I received this book free from the publisher through the book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Understanding the Present: An Alternative History of Science
Understanding the Present: An Alternative History of Science
by Bryan Appleyard
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful critique of scientism, 26 Aug 2011
Arguably science is the most effective form of knowledge the world has yet known. The developments of the past four centuries have given us unprecedented powers to manipulate our environment. But, in addition to the technological innovations spawned by science, it has bequeathed to us an outlook on the world which has had far-reaching effects on western (and, more recently, global) culture.

Bryan Appleyard's interest in the cultural implications of science stems from interviewing Stephen Hawking for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1988. The result of his investigations is a powerful critique of modern scientific culture.

He adopts an essentially historical approach, tracing the development of scientific culture from the emergence of the modern scientific method some four centuries ago. Appleyard argues that the success of the scientific method provoked an epistemological crisis from which emerged a new worldview.

This worldview (namely, scientism) is the bedrock of modern liberal culture. However, it precludes the possibility of taking about ultimate meaning and purpose. In the face of its ability to manipulate the world around us western non-scientific culture has been gradually overwhelmed and transformed. Appleyard traces this 'long tale of decline and defeat' with particular reference to religious and moral responses. He concludes that western Christianity has been roundly defeated by the new culture of science: theological liberalism represents its capitulation.

In later chapters he examines contemporary developments. He explores the way in which doubts about the morality of hard science (fuelled by the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima) have encouraged a green reaction. Within science itself, the strangeness of twentieth century physics has given rise to suggestions that we may be able to develop a new spirituality but Appleyard remains unconvinced. The final element in his indictment of scientific culture is an examination of attempts to develop artificial intelligence and the erosive implications of this for a more humanistic view of personality and selfhood.

Appleyard's concluding chapter is both the most important and, in another respect, the weakest chapter in the book. After a lucid summary of the argument so far, he outlines the dangers of the real enemy: modern liberal culture based upon the assumptions of scientism and bolstered by the successes of science and technology. His diagnosis is superb; his proposed remedy is so feeble as to seem ridiculous. He asserts that, 'Science begins by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ends by claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked. Once the implications and shallowness of this trick are realized, fully realized, science will be humbled and we shall be free to celebrate our selves again' (p. 249). In other words, all we have to do is disentangle science from scientism. But it is not enough merely to reject the worldview of scientism. The human spirit abhors a vacuum. Unless some constructive alternative is offered, other ideologies, perhaps even more abhorrent than scientism, will rush in to replace it.

Many historians and philosophers of science will hate this book. His historical analysis is simplified to the point of distortion. For example, Galileo's telescopic observation of the moon is blown up out of all proportion. He turns it into an icon of the scientific method. More seriously, for most of the book he confuses the method and the attendant worldview: science and scientism.

Nevertheless this is a helpful book. It is a clear and resounding critique of scientism. Appleyard's journalistic abilities have resulted in a work capable of reaching a much wider audience than the more erudite tomes usually reviewed in these pages. It should be compulsory reading for all sixth-formers (and undergraduates)!

Impossible Stories
Impossible Stories
by Zoran Zivkovic
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Impossible Stories, 22 Aug 2011
This review is from: Impossible Stories (Hardcover)
The nice people at PS Publishing have collected five of Zoran Zivkovic's mosaic novels into a very attractive limited edition hardback. Many of the short stories of which the novels are composed first appeared in Interzone but it is good to have them gathered together in a more durable form.

So what is a mosaic novel? It is more than just a themed collection of short stories. To my mind, `story cycle' would be a fairly accurate translation. The individual stories within a particular cycle may be very different but they share certain themes, motifs and possibly characters. And the final story in each cycle tends to be a recapitulation of those themes and motifs. Zivkovic's use of the term `mosaic' is suggestive: each story is a complete entity in itself, but when the various stories in a cycle are fitted together they constitute a unity that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first cycle in the collection is `Time Gifts'. In each story the devil offers someone a time-related gift. An astronomer facing possible execution is offered a vision of the future and with it the choice between posthumous fame and a long life of obscurity. A palaeolinguist facing retirement and obscurity is given the chance to visit the distant past as a disembodied spirit and hear for herself the languages about which she has speculated. A watchmaker is given the chance to change a tragic event in his past, thus creating a very different present. Finally, an artist in an asylum learns the stories of the other characters from the devil. But, as you might expect since the devil is the source of the gift, each gift hides a curse.

As the title suggests, `Impossible Encounters' relates a series of meetings: a narrator recounts a post-death meeting, a young man meets his Doppelgänger on a mountain top, a science fiction writer meets a character from his latest novel, a businessman meets God on a train journey, a priest with a guilty conscience is absolved by the devil. Finally, the author meets a character from `Impossible Encounters'. Tying the stories together are the themes of death, loss and forgetfulness.

`Seven Touches of Music' explores the revelatory impact of music on the lives of seven characters: a teacher, a librarian, a widower, a spinster, a painter, a dying scientist (hints in the story imply that Zivkovic had Einstein in mind) and a luthier's apprentice. In each case, the central character has an unusual or extraordinary experience that is connected with music, and in each case the experience leaves them more isolated from their fellows than before. Perhaps because of my love of music, I found these stories particularly evocative.

`The Library', which won a 2003 World Fantasy Award, examines the nightmares that can be created by misplaced or excessive love of books. Perhaps the scariest one for writers is the story `Virtual Library' in which an author discovers a website on which he can read all his future works. Zivkovic has chosen to use the first person in all the stories in this cycle, which makes reading through them in succession a bit of challenge as you have to remind yourself that each `I' is a different narrator.

Finally, `Steps Through the Mist' presents five women of different ages each confronting in her own way the hand of Fate. However, you might only discover that all the stories are about women by reading the dustjacket, since the central three stories are written in the first person. Again Zivkovic uses a variety of tools to tie the stories together into a satisfying whole, not least the mist of the title, which appears throughout in one guise or another.

Not content to see five of his mosaic novels merely juxtaposed in a single book, Zivkovic has supplied an epilogue for the entire collection. `The Telephone' draws together the central themes of each story cycle into a final autobiographical fantasy (or should that be fantastical autobiography?) in which a writer receives a phone call from the devil.

Zivkovic's characters are simply drawn, perhaps even bland, but nonetheless effective. Often they are unnamed. Most of the time they seem very ordinary but they do tend to be neurotic, even obsessive-compulsive. Likewise the settings of these stories are unembellished, almost generic, though almost invariably claustrophobic: dingy mid twentieth-century Eastern European cities (no, they are never identified as such, but that is what his urban descriptions evoke in my mind's eye), small (often rather shabby) rooms, fog-bound hilltops. Even when he describes an abundance of light, it seems to be blinding, imprisoning.

I can't say that Zivkovic's work makes for comfortable or enjoyable reading. It is too dark and claustrophobic to be either. But it is certainly one of the most compelling things I have read in a long time.

The Ephemera
The Ephemera
by Neil Williamson
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A box of delights which is really not ephemeral, 22 Aug 2011
This review is from: The Ephemera (Paperback)
In this exciting collection, Elastic Press have brought together sixteen of Neil Williamson's short stories. Most of these stories have been published before (in The Third Alternative and elsewhere), but it is good to have them gathered together in a nicely presented paperback with a stunning cover design. Readers will soon discover that the title refers not to the stories themselves, which are anything but ephemeral. To be human is to be ephemeral - eyes meeting across a crowded room, a throwaway remark, first love, success or failure, all the details that make our lives unique, ultimately life itself. What these stories have in common is an uncanny ability to evoke some of those ephemeral humanity-defining moments, emotions and experiences.

Some of the stories have a definite science fictional flavour. `Amber Rain' deals with an alien invasion with a difference but we never meet the aliens, except perhaps as a fleeting glimpse towards the end. Instead the story is told through the reappearance of Colin's ex-girlfriend Paddy and the scepticism of his drinking companions. `The Bennie and the Bonobo' builds a time-travel story round the unsuccessful Scottish inventor George Bennie. Like most time-travel stories, it has a number of unsatisfactory loose ends but the quality of the writing and characterization is such that the problems only become apparent after several readings.

A couple of stories venture into territory that might best be described as horror. `Harrowfield' explores the aftermath of one man's occult attempts to bring his wife back from the dead. `Sins of the Father' (co-written with Mark Roberts) is perhaps the darkest story in the collection, following an ageing thief into the jungle as he attempts unsuccessfully to prevent his son unleashing an ancient terror.

Several of the stories take superficially ordinary situations and give them a twist. For example, `Cages' is written from the perspective of a man caring for the dying father of his ex-lover and the cages of the title could refer to the bars that confine the old man's canaries or the invisible cages of obligation that we find ourselves trapped in. `Hard to Do' describes a woman tidying the flat she shares with her partner before walking out on him, but again the situation is not entirely what it seems.

Loss in one form or another is a recurring theme: lost love or lost opportunities. The story that begins the collection, `Shine, Alone After the Setting of the Sun', is a good example. It is a melancholy and evocative account of the last days of a lesbian relationship. A less obvious example is `Well Tempered', a grim little tale about a mother who hires an unorthodox tutor to help her daughter with the piano. She gets what she thought she wanted, a child who plays the piano, but at what cost?

Many of the characters in these stories are alone or isolated, by vocation, madness, circumstances or a vision not shared by others. In `The Bone Farmer', for example, a father and daughter are cast out of a paranoid post-apocalyptic community because they have been exposed to the plague that has devastated the human race. By chance, they meet another loner, a man who is isolated by his immunity to the plague and the knowledge of how to heal others (or is he merely mad?).

My personal favourite is `The Euonymist', which is one of the more overtly science fictional pieces in the collection. Here, Williamson picks up on the ancient idea that knowing the true name of something gives you power over it. In the interstellar alliance of which earth has recently become a part, the naming of things gives you political power. Calum, the euonymist of the title, has recently returned from the recently discovered planet Ghessareen where he has been employed to name the plant and animal species discovered there. The contrast between his grandiose and politically sensitive employment and the much humbler yet no less sensitive task of naming a new member of his own family makes for some gentle humour. But the naming ceremony is overshadowed by the discovery of an alien plant. Unless Calum can name it, there is a real possibility that humanity will lose significant political power to an alien race. In an ironic twist that reminds us of the value of the old-fashioned, the commonplace and the parochial, it is not Calum who saves the world but his Glaswegian auntie.

The collection ends with `The Codsman and his Willing Shag', which is far from being the bawdy romp that the title might suggest. Damien, the protagonist, is a teenager frustrated with the dullness of his life in the small Yorkshire village of Robin Hood's Bay and longing to escape to the bright lights of the city. He is a member of a folk group and the title of the story is also the title of one of the numbers they play. In the story he is shown that there is more to the song and more to his home town than he had realized. His reasons for leaving remain, but he is given reasons for coming home.

Inevitably some of the stories work better than others, but they are all enjoyable. This is a very strong collection, well worth buying and reading, not once but many times.

Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology
Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology
by Max Jammer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.33

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful introduction to Einstein's views on religion, 22 Aug 2011
Everyone with an interest in the relationship between physics and theology will welcome the publication of this volume by the distinguished philosopher of physics, Max Jammer. In spite of the general recognition of the importance of Einstein's thought both for modern physics and its relationship with religion this is, as far as I am aware, the first comprehensive account of Einstein's own views on the relationship.

Jammer has organised his material into three main sections. The first of these deals with 'Einstein's Religiosity and the Role of Religion in His Private Life'. As the title suggests, this chapter deals with Einstein's personal attitude toward religion from childhood until his death. It is a detailed and roughly chronological account in which Jammer documents Einstein's apparently self-contradictory attitude towards religion. On the one hand, he had a lifelong aversion to authority that was expressed in a distaste for organised religion (culminating in his request not to be given a Jewish funeral). On the other hand, as a personal response to the cosmos, he experienced what can only be described as profound religious feelings. In short, Einstein's personal religion is shown to be typically late modern, affirming personal spirituality while disavowing organised religion.

In his second chapter, Jammer turns from Einstein's personal attitude to what he has written about religion and its role in human society. The chapter is entitled 'Einstein's Philosophy of Religion' and sets out to be a logical justification of the attitudes described in the first chapter. I must confess that I felt rather suspicious of this (re)construction of Einstein's philosophy of religion. Jammer's interpretative approach seems to have been to assume that it must always be possible to reconcile apparently contradictory statements. The result is a superhuman degree of consistency. Frankly I doubt whether even someone of Einstein's stature could achieve such consistency outside his own field (and, indeed, his vacillations about the implications of relativity theory for the nature of time suggest that he did not always achieve it within his own field). That criticism apart, this chapter offers a valuable summary of Einstein's articulated views about religion. In particular it explores his lifelong admiration for Spinoza and sets his well-known determinism, realism and insistence on the impersonality of God in that context.

The final chapter is devoted to 'Einstein's Physics and Theology.' Here Jammer moves on from Einstein's own views to explore some of the ways in which his contributions to science have been received by theologians and philosophers of religion. These explorations are organised logically (following roughly the order in which the ideas on which they are based appeared within the development of relativity theory) rather than chronologically. Among the issues tackled are the implications of Einstein's redefinition of simultaneity for our understanding of eternity, determinism and omniscience; theological uses (and abuses) of time dilation; T.F. Torrance's use of mass-energy equivalence as an exegesis of Incarnation and, more generally, Pannenberg's assignment of theological significance to Einstein's concept of field. Finally he explores some of the theological implications of quantum mechanics (on the grounds that Einstein's criticisms played a major role in shaping its development). Some readers may find this final chapter both confusing and inconclusive. In part this is due to the fact that Jammer distances both Einstein and himself from the discussions he is reporting. Thus it reflects the current status of theological efforts to appropriate Einstein's ideas.

Jammer has done an excellent job in bringing together and making accessible the scattered evidence for Einstein's views about religion. Unfortunately the work is marred by the extreme length of the chapters (Chapter 3 runs to 110 pages!) and the complete lack of internal divisions. This makes reading the book a more daunting task than is necessary. Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution to the subject.

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