Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World
Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World
Eric Dietrich
Columbia University Press, 2015
208 pp., $30.00

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Doug Sikkema

The New Scientism

Still fighting the phantom war.

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In Charles Taylor's account of our secular age, the disenchanted world is one that is locked within an immanent frame, the realm of strict materialism that Dietrich champions. Yet what marks the secular age in Taylor's accounting is a vague yet insistent longing for something more, something transcendent that the immanent frame can't fully provide. And no matter how hard people within it search for something that might help make sense of the frontiers beyond the senses and beyond death, the strictly natural world seems to communicate a resounding indifference.

The gospel Dietrich brings is that the real mysteries exist within the immanent frame. They are the most viable replacements for the transcendent because, unlike the gods (God) of other religions, "These mysteries are real … and they are trying to tell us something." But just as Dietrich's language of a "human blueprint" seems to pull the rug out from beneath him, so does this language of a universe that communicates to us. How is he suddenly entitled to smuggle in notions of design and communication in the natural world?

One can't help but imagine that Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Descartes, Pascal, Rowan Williams, and a host of orthodox Christians would pronounce a collective "amen" at Dietrich's assertion that the mysteries of the natural world all "point" to (at a minimum) some supernatural "something" responsible for it all, even as they noted that he was thereby contradicting his own premises. As if he were half-aware of the contradiction, Dietrich adds that these "mysteries" reveal something rather chilling: "The excellent beauties challenge the idea that the universe in which we live is a place for humans"—that is, a place designed for us. And while it seems that perhaps Dietrich's "new" science is opening up pathways to a much older "religion" or, as he frames it, a less divisive and violent religion, there is almost nothing in his account of these natural mysteries that will form us into better people, provide a grounding of morality, give us hope in a broken world, and turn us away from the nihilistic reality a strict physicalism entails. If the final knowledge these mysteries usher us into is a reminder that this earth is not our home, we no longer have a religion we would die for; we don't even have one we could live for.

Doug Sikkema is a senior researcher for Cardus and managing editor of Comment magazine. This review appeared in a slightly different from in Convivium.

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