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Echoes of Coinherence: Dr. Ross Hastings Discusses his New Book

September 27, 2017
This book is more far-reaching than the other books ... It is an extension, if you like, beyond just systematic theology or pastoral theology into all of reality. In that sense maybe it is a culmination.

Dr. Ross Hastings, Sangwoo Youtong Chee Associate Professor of Theology at Regent, just published his fourth book, Echoes of Coinherence: Trinitarian Theology and Science Together. This book, which is part of an ongoing science and theology initiative at Regent funded by the John Templeton Foundation,* was launched at Regent College with a public lecture on Tuesday, September 27. In this interview, get insight into the ancient roots of the word "coinherence," hear some of the personal story behind the book, and find out what Ross's next project will be.

You’re on a bit of a creative spree right now: you’ve had three books in past three years, is that right?

Roughly three in three years, yeah.

Have they been connected in some way? Have they been gaining momentum on the same stream of thought?

The Trinity is a key theme in each of them. The one previously was a pastoral care book on grief and the concept of relationality in the Trinity was crucial. Before that it was Jonathan Edwards and Karl Barth. That was an exposition of union in the theology of Jonathan Edwards in dialogue with the Reformed heritage, especially with Karl Barth. Before that was Missional God, Missional Church, in which I argue along with the general trend in missional theology that God himself is missional, the Father having sent the Son, and the Father—or the Father and Son, depending on where you sit on that controversy—having sent the Spirit. That mission being a participation in his mission is the essential theme of that book.

Do you feel like this book is a culmination of what you have been working on in your last three books?

To some extent, yes—that’s an interesting question. This book is more far-reaching than the other books, in the sense that it anticipates the relationship of the triune God to creation, and particularly the incarnation in relation to creation, and therefore science. It is an extension, if you like, beyond just systematic theology or pastoral theology into all of reality. In that sense maybe it is a culmination.

The central term that you are talking about is coinherence. Can you define this for us?

There are obviously some very extensive definitions in the book, but coinherence is a trinitarian term going back to the early church fathers. It simply describes what is in the New Testament already. When Jesus says, “I am in my Father and my Father is in me” that is the essence of coinherence. Julie Canlis uses the term “in-ness.” So it is the in-ness of the Son and the Father, or the in-ness of the Spirit and the Father. And yet it is not just mutuality; it is also particularity. That’s the wonder of the word. Coinherence means not just that the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, but that the Son still is the Son with irreducible identity. It is in-ness without merger. The term was used first of the two natures of Christ, the divine Son taking into himself the human nature, which is suggestive of the relation between theology and science.   

In the book I argue that because that coinherence is in God, one might expect to find it in creation also. Therefore, in our study of God who is coinherent, our study of creation might not only look for coinherence in the creation, but look for a coinherence between the ideas that form these two disciplines: theology and science. The reason it is so important to stress that it is in-ness without merger is that any scientist listening to me say that science belongs within theology is going to say “hold on—don’t pre-judge my scientific results with your theology.” And I would argue that I am not doing that. Science has the right to be science. It is its own entity. It has its own guild, its own ways of doing research, and yet from the perspective of Christian theology and trinitarian theology I would say we have to say that science does belong within theology.

By the same token theologians don’t want to submit to some so-called neutral science narrative, or the hegemony of science over theology. Theology is a science in that it studies an object (kata phusin) but its object is a transcendent and immanent God and that requires its own approach, especially since only God can reveal God.   

The medieval term labeling theology the  “queen of the sciences” comes into my head when you say that. You are comfortable with that kind of language?

I am comfortable with that language, but there is a great quote in my book from John Polkinghorne that says, and I’ll paraphrase: the regal nature of theology does not lie in its control of other disciplines or its squelching of other disciplines. It preserves them as they are, yet it must integrate them, because they are integral.

My primary theology is coming from scripture, and is reflected in the creeds. I don’t think that science will ever contradict those: that’s my position of faith. However, I want my theology to extend from that primary theology to be an encyclopedic theology. An encyclopedic theology will respond to all reality. It will respond to what we are learning in science. Yet, theology will maintain its ascendency, if you like. There’s an asymmetric coinherence.

When you speak of the coinherence of the disciplines of theology and science, it reminds me of some of the church fathers—Augustine for example—who found three-ness all over in the physical world. Your approach is more nuanced than this…

[Laughs] Yes it is.

But that’s an example of seeing the Trinity in creation. What are some legitimate ways to talk about reflections of the Trinity in the world?

It’s a much higher level than that. I mean, Augustine’s especially powerful illustration of the Trinity was the human mind: the memory, intellect, and emotions. And I don’t deny that that may in some sense reflect the Trinity, but I am not looking for—and this is made clear in my book—for a three-leafed clover or something like that. There is the revealedness of God, and there is the hiddenness of God. It is never that obvious. It is at an ontological level, seeing who God is and seeing those same … almost philosophical ontological categories that are in God as Trinity, and therefore are in creation.

What are some example of these categories?

I argue for relationality in God and relationality in creation. I argue for agency in God and agency in creation; I argue for the fecundity of the creation related to the fecundity of God. There are all sorts of these categories.

Take relationality—God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: it doesn’t matter what side of the fence you’re on with regard to social Trinity versus psychological Trinity: you believe God is relational. Therefore I would expect to see a profound relationality in creation.

I look for example at quantum physics, the entanglement phenomenon where if two quanta bump into each other they apparently don’t forget that they bumped into each other. That they behave in commensurate ways after the collision is quite remarkable. I think about electrons (one has to be careful; you push things too far and can become a laughingstock), but I think of electrons and the scientific term “electron affinity,” which describes the power of an atom to bond. The whole existence of atoms in the universe is so that they will bond. Why do they bond? They bond to lower the energy levels—to increase the stability.

Sometimes as scientists we just see the trees and don’t see the forest. One of the Catholic theologians I studied talks about this and says that this quality of electrons is a remarkable image of the Holy Spirit who is the bond of the Father and the Son. And seeing the Spirit was involved in creation too, wouldn’t it be surprising if there wasn’t some element of bonding going on in the universe? That’s an example of relationality in the Trinity and relationality in creation.

What about your other two categories: fecundity and agency?

Well, regarding fecundity, just look at the Big Bang for example. Whatever was the first micro-particle that caused the Big Bang; look what it has produced: this is a fecund universe.

Agency is the one I am most fascinated by. You think about one of the great mysteries of Christianity: how does God, who is spirit, create a creation that is material. The answer obviously is the incarnation. But that doesn’t happen until Christ comes to earth. But Karl Barth says—amongst others—that the Son was incarnandus before he was incarnate: The Son has an orientation toward incarnation, and is the agent of this God in creating the universe. He seems to have an orientation toward creation even before he becomes incarnate.

Then I take that and apply it, saying, “Now where is there agency in creation?” Take the Big Bang for example. We don’t know that the Big Bang is how God started the whole thing, but if he did, then the stuff he made had a freedom to be involved in the creation of itself. It’s similar with the theory of evolution. Matter and organisms seem to have had, under the sovereignty of God, a role. And it’s an asymmetric role—again I argue for asymmetric compatibilism—that the universe, or cells, have some freedom to participate in their own creation.

How would you envision these ideas would affect the way that a scientist, on the ground, would practice science?

If the scientist would grasp the full import of what I am saying about coinherence, it gives them a much more integrated view of what they are doing. Paul Stevens talks about it all the time: removing dualisms. The scientist in that lab is doing God’s work just as much as the pastor preparing a sermon. But the scientist in the lab often doesn’t have a sense of that. Rather they feel alienation, aloneness, frustration.

I was there. I have a PhD in chemistry and I know all the frustrations of those years. For two years I did not have anything I could publish. Everything seemed to fail. You ask, what is this for? I can remember my buddies around me, sometimes having their head on their desk, saying “What am I doing this for? Such a waste of time.” If only I could give them one word from Loren Wilkinson—that scientists help give creation a voice: they are priests of creation. If some scientists grasp that, my book will have been worthwhile.

I sometimes say, tongue in cheek, that if I had known Loren Wilkinson and his work before I was finished with my PhD in chemistry, I might still be a chemist. I just didn’t seem to get my bearings for it. I don’t regret that I became a pastor and now a theologian, but I wish I’d had a greater sense of shalom about my work as a scientist. Then I could have enjoyed it, not just been aching to get enough publications to get a PhD and get out, which is sometimes what PhD programs can become.

Quickly a science career can become technological or utilitarian—you just want to get a degree to get a job. One of my biggest worries for PhD students in the sciences is the great danger of their isolating science from philosophy and theology. You can’t do physics without metaphysics. You can’t study creation without already having a theology. I think every student at that level should have had one course in the philosophy of science—at least. And of course, my desire would be that they have a course in the theology of science even more so.

Wonder and curiosity: I want scientists to have a greater sense of meaning in what they do. I mean, I think Dawkins is just wrong: there isn’t just science. There is meaning. And without theology there is no meaning.

You seem to have an almost pastoral angle toward scientists in the book. Is that a stretch? 

I wish it would, although I don’t know if it’s come across as strongly as that. The last chapter really does exhort and encourage scientists with their work—to know the dignity of their work and to know the value of their work—and also the responsibility of their work in terms of caring for creation, stewarding creation.

What about those of us that are not scientists: can we read this book?  

I am not asking people to know much science. I explain the science that I include. And actually, by way of comfort, I don’t understand a lot about quantum chemistry and quantum physics. I did a course in it, but the quantum chemists and quantum physicists are intellectually a notch above most of the science world. A guy at Queen’s used to bump into the wall as he walked down the corridor, you know, absolute genius. I have written some things I know I have to draw on others for. There is not enough detail in this book’s science to worry people about their knowledge of science.

What kind of impact do you hope the book has on the regular person?

I wish for them a doctrine of creation, and therefore of living as created and embodied people. I hope people overcome dualistic ways of thinking, to live into shalom, and to flourish as individuals and to seek to help creation flourish. One of the things I say in the book for non-scientists is that I hope this book will help you become more curious.

I think I talk about my dad. My dad left school at 14 and had no science in his upbringing at all, but that guy used to read the National Geographic avidly every month when it came in. And I, as a science graduate, I had no interest in it. It was like, “oh whatever…nice pictures, let’s just move on.” That was his science and he took it seriously. And he had a curiosity about science that I did not have… 

Are you going to take next year off of publications?

I have just made a proposal to write a book on the atonement, so this will be completely…well, not neglectful of science, but it won’t be primarily about science. It will be purely theology proper. I am hoping to write something on the doctrine of the Trinity and the atonement. I have an interest in all of the, shall we say, motifs or models of the atonement, and a theory of the atonement. I have a great openness to all four or five major views, but I am particularly burdened about penal substitution theory which is under severe attack in certain quarters, suggesting, for example, that it sounds like cosmic child abuse. My antidote for that, of course, is the doctrine of the Trinity. It is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit together who deal with human sin. It is a mystery for sure, but I would like to write on that in the field of dogmatics.

It’s in keeping with a trend: I seem to be moving into teaching more theology here and less pastoral theology. I have always had a passion to write about the atonement. In terms of payoff, I hope it gives people a fresh appreciation for the mystery of the passion of Christ. 

Thanks for the sneak peek into your recent work. 

* This publication was made possible in part through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

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