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Reviewed by:
  • Christian Naturalism: Christian Thinking for Living in This World Only by Karl E. Peters
  • Daniel J. Ott
Christian Naturalism: Christian Thinking for Living in This World Only. Karl E. Peters. Boston: Wipf & Stock, 2022. xvi + 152 pp. $25.00 paperback; $22.00 eBook; $40.00 hardcover.

The number of scholars who would call themselves Christian naturalists and the number of books that think through what it means to be both Christian and naturalist are quite small. Karl E. Peters has been an outstanding figure in this small group for many years. He is a leader in the science and religion dialogue in the United States and has been thinking theologically for a long time about what it means to be a Christian in an age of science. For these reasons, I was eager to read Peters’s Christian Naturalism as it promised to be a concise and systematic summary of his thinking about Christian Naturalist theology. What I found was a book that may have its uses but is not always successful in both its approach and its argumentation.

Peters states in the Introduction that the book is “intentionally written for a general audience” (xi), and he maintains an accessible style and vocabulary throughout. Often, the book has an autobiographical quality as Peters weaves in reflection on his own educational journey in both science and theology. Chapters 1 and 3 helpfully lay out a brief comparison of ancient cosmologies and a contemporary scientific cosmology. Chapter 3 is a good example of some of the interesting heuristics that Peters uses throughout as he tells the story of the beginnings of the universe and the emergence of life on Earth in a first-person narrative. The rest of the book proceeds in brief and accessible treatments of categories one would typically find in theology primers: God, Jesus, evil and sin, salvation, ethics, and after death. The remainder of this review will take up two of these categories: 1) evil, sin, and ethics and 2) after death. The former will serve as an example of the book’s relative weaknesses and the latter as an example of the book’s promise and usefulness.

“Human Evil,” chapter 4, begins promisingly. Peters builds on an earlier introduction to the idea that we can associate “God” with the creative processes at work in the universe or with creativity itself. Here, Peters argues that being faithful to creativity becomes the norm for Christian faith and morality. “So, being moral means sustaining the well-being of already created dynamic systems and at the same time being open to creativity (God) and the emergence of new systems” (42). Perhaps these arguments would be better positioned at the [End Page 97] beginning of a chapter on morality and ethics rather than the chapter on evil and sin, though, especially since the corollary definition of sin doesn’t come for another twenty-four pages. There, Peters explains that “sin (the Christian term for human evil) is the attempt to limit the work of creativity (God) and to limit what is included in the family of life that arises from the work of creativity (God)” (66). These two definitions taken together offer one of the most theologically pregnant ideas in the book. Unfortunately, they are not pursued and applied in a systematic way throughout the remainder of this chapter and into chapters 7 and 8 on ethics and Christian practice. What we get, instead, is a collection of reflections on various ethical topics including: racism, xenophobia, sexism, and climate change.

Perhaps if these sections were retitled “Karl’s Reflections on Wrestling with White, Male Privilege,” the reader would have the right expectation and their usefulness would reemerge. But as they stand they often lose the thread of their connections to his theological definitions and sometimes slip into problematic assumptions. The latter is exhibited when Peters employs the first-person again, this time in reference to certain social histories, as when “you and I” migrated from north Africa to the Caucasus Mountains (47), or when “you and I arrived in America from England in 1630” (58). The assumed “you” seems to be white, male people of anglo origin and therefore cuts...