10 January 2015

Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology

Review of Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A. J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Practice, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2014.

In this recent addition to the burgeoning literature on ecotheology, a diverse team of evangelical theologians set out to introduce an evangelical ecotheology.

The volume is structured in four parts. They begin with methodological issues. An autobiographical introduction suggests that this book has arisen out of their personal experiences of environmental crisis. Chapter 2 takes us to Scripture – the predictable starting point for an evangelical approach to the environment but also the appropriate starting point for any orthodox Christian perspective on the subject. Thus in our engagement with the environment they recommend that we return constantly to the biblical witness, while maintaining a dialogue with the various Christian traditions and always conscious of the fallibility of our interpretations. They take for granted the popular metaphor of the two books: Scripture and creation are equally revelatory; and they warn against reading creation in ways that might lead us to romanticize, deify, or, spiritualize it. And they conclude the chapter with a brief survey of biblical reasons for creation care. In the following chapter, they pick up and further develop the theme of creation as revelatory.

Part II is an introductory exploration of ecotheology, beginning with a whistle-stop tour of how Christian traditions have viewed the natural environment, which admits the ambivalence of most of those traditions but nevertheless gives the reader an impressive introductory list of resources for further development of an ecotheology. The other two chapters of the section are devoted to a systematic survey of the major theological loci and how they relate to environmental issues.

With Part III, we turn from theory to Christian ecological practice. This is not so much because of the traditional Western intellectual prejudice that prioritizes theoria over praxis, but rather because for Christianity the two are inseparable: by their fruit shall ye know them and a theology that does not bear good fruit must always be questionable. After a discussion of what is involved in developing an ecotheological mindset, the authors embark on an exposition of good ecological behaviour for individual Christians in which they outline no fewer than ten spiritual/ecological disciplines. The final chapter of the section recalls that as believers we are not isolated individuals but members of a community as it explores ways of greening the Church.

In a brief concluding section, they highlight a distinctive feature of Christian environmental care: it is rooted in a specific hope – the restoration of all things. And they flesh out some of the characteristics of Christian hope as they relate to the environment.

The book certainly offers ample resources for someone embarking on an orthodox Christian exploration of environmental issues, but in what ways is it distinctively evangelical? Starting as it does with the Trinity, their systematic account of ecotheology suggests a post-Barthian perspective (albeit one informed by wide reading in the major Christian theological traditions) rather than a distinctively evangelical outlook. I must confess I was left wondering whether the approach is described as ‘evangelical’ simply because the authors self-identify as such.

One striking feature of the book is its perspective. This is particularly evident in the chapter on embodying down-to-earth living. For example, they offer, inter alia, an ecological examen, which includes such questions as ‘What kind of car do you drive?’ ‘How often do you fly?’ and ‘How often do you select cleaning products that are biodegradable or nontoxic?’ And they recommend buying a stainless steel thermos so that you can drink tap water while on the move rather than buying bottled water! This is environmentalism for suburban, middle class North America.

In conclusion, this is a well-written volume, and while it does not break new ground in ecotheology (evangelical or otherwise) it is a useful introduction for newcomers to ecotheology who want something written from an orthodox Christian perspective.

25 December 2014

Christmas

 Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
       Eternity shut in a span;
 Summer in winter; day in night;
       Heaven in earth, and God in man.
 Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
 Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

 Welcome; though nor to gold nor silk,
       To more than Caesar’s birthright is;
 Two sister seas of virgin-milk,
       With many a rarely temper’d kiss,
 That breathes at once both maid and mother,
 Warms in the one, cools in the other.

 Welcome, though not to those gay flies
       Gilded i’ th’ beams of earthly kings,
 Slippery souls in smiling eyes;
       But to poor shepherds, homespun things,
                                          Whose wealth’s their flock, whose wit, to be
                                          Well read in their simplicity.

23 December 2014

Editing tips: Removing field codes

Are you ever annoyed by blocks of text (often within bibliographies that have been created by bibliographical programs like Endnote) that turn grey when you click somewhere within them? Do you ever want to get rid of an automatically updating date? Or remove lots of hyperlinked URLs without applying the Remove hyperlink command individually?

All of these are examples of field codes in Microsoft Word. These are pieces of tagged text which allow advanced users of Word to do clever things with their documents. Some of the things that field codes allow you to do include
  • Building a document automatically in response to information provided by the user. Thus, you could create a template which prompts for a list of standard paragraph names and then assembles the specified paragraphs into a new document.
  • Inserting information about the document into the document itself. For example, you might want to create a document summary sheet, showing the document’s file name, the author’s name, the date created, word and page counts, and similar details.
  • Performing calculations. You could use expression fields to create an ‘intelligent document’, such as an invoice or purchase order which automatically calculates line totals, discounts, or tax amounts.
  • Producing complex numbering systems that go beyond the capabilities of the Bullets and Numbering dialogue.
So field codes can be extremely useful. But for most editorial purposes, they are superfluous. And one of the basic rules of on-screen editing is that all superfluous formatting or coding should be removed from a document before passing it on to the typesetter.

Fortunately there is a very simple way of removing superfluous field codes in just a couple of seconds:
  1. Select the section of text you want to remove fields from. (Ctrl-A selects the entire document.)
  2. Hit Ctrl-Shift-F9. (If this doesn’t work, it could because this key combination has been reassigned, e.g. by Editorium’s Editors’ Toolkit.)

Health warning: Make sure those field codes really are disposable before hitting that key combination! For example, if the document you are editing contains equations, do not use this method to deal with unwanted hyperlinks or the coding associated with an automatically generated bibliography. If you do, the equations will become uneditable graphic objects. Such a mistake can be embarrassing, expensive, and time-consuming. (Imagine a maths or physics textbook with thousands of such equations, which would have to be retyped or pasted in from the author’s original text. You did keep a copy of the original? Of course you did!)

PS If you want to learn more about Word field codes, the Techsupportalert website offers a useful document, ‘Understanding Word Field Codes’.

14 November 2014

Thought for the day: seeing with other eyes

if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another (Marcel Proust, The Captive)
And that is precisely what the great novelists, poets, musicians, artists, photographers, etc. enable us to do.

27 October 2014

The Age of the Spirit

A review of The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle with Jon M. Sweeney, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of what the (Western) Church thinks it has learned about the Holy Spirit and what this divine agency of change is doing in the lives of the churches today.

The story as told by Tickle and Sweeney is in two parts. Part I comprises a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity focusing particularly on the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. The authors breeze their way through to the Cappadocian formulation, which seems to represent the high watermark of Christian orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy) by way of such heresies as Arianism and Montanism. En route they also express serious doubts about orthodoxy with a small ‘o’ (a concern for doctrinal correctness). The section concludes with two chapters that summarize the Filioque controversy and take a clear stance against this Western creedal innovation.

Part II attempts to continue that historical journey through the second Christian millennium to the present day while at the same time moving forward our thinking about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. They begin in chapters 9–11 by effectively revisiting topics dealt with in Part I, warning again about orthodoxy’s pathological (p. 90) concern for doctrinal correctness and reiterating their earlier critique of the addition of the Filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, they also suggest that, although arising out of Western Christianity, the contemporary Emergent Church Movement aligns more easily with Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism.

Chapter 12 is a popular exposition of Joachim of Fiore’s doctrine of three ages, which concludes by hinting that Emergent Church may be a sign that his hoped for Age of the Spirit has finally arrived. Chapter 13 proposes that we think of the Spirit as the divine agency of change, asserts that Emergent Church is the authentic form of Church for today, and tacitly assumes that the Age of the Spirit has arrived.

The final three chapters begin by stepping back to the birth of Islam (Chapter 14), which is presented very much as a monotheistic reform movement inspired in part by Muhammad’s disquiet over the Filioque controversy (which, one suspects, grossly overestimates his familiarity with Christianity). One outcome of that foray into Islam is the proposal that we need to rethink Trinitarianism in ‘less biological’ terms. We then return in chapters 15 and 16 to the roughly historical approach of Part I and fast forward from the Middle Ages to the present day via medieval mysticism, the Reformation, and Pentecostalism.

This story is framed by two chapters. In an introductory ‘Back Story’ Tickle and Sweeney explain their fundamental assumption about the way the history of Western Christianity has been shaped. They see it as having been formed by a regular series of revolutions (or paradigm shifts): the Great Transformation (around ad 1), the Great Decline and Fall (ad 500), the Great Schism (ad 1000), and the Great Reformation (ad 1500). On this basis, they predict another significant paradigm shift occurring at the present (the Great Emergence).

Now I have no problem with the idea that Christian belief and practice have over the centuries been dramatically reshaped by a number of paradigm shifts (cf. David Bosch’s magisterial treatment of missiology). However, the near mechanical regularity of the shifts discerned by Tickle and Sweeney makes me uneasy. And I am more than a little sceptical about what they have identified as the key revolutions in this history. Take, for example, the Great Decline and Fall, which they date to about ad 500 (close to the high water mark of Byzantine culture in the reign of Justinian). If I were looking for critical dates around then to symbolize the decline of Rome (Western or Eastern), I would probably opt for the fall of Rome to Alaric (410) and its impact on Augustine’s thought (with all sorts of implications for the subsequent history of Western theology and philosophy) or the sieges of Jerusalem (637) and Constantinople (674–8), which symbolize the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate as a power to rival the Byzantine Empire. Again, while it is true that the formal date of the Great Schism was 1054, this was merely the final act in a drama that had played out over the preceding four centuries. But even if we accept their assertion that Western Christianity has been marked by a series of revolutionary changes spaced at roughly 500-year intervals, the attempt to use this ‘fact’ to predict a fourth happening now strikes me as an unwarranted generalization.

Based on that underlying assumption and the story they have told in the 16 intervening chapters, they conclude with a ‘Front Story’ in which they propose the Emergent Church Movement as a qualitatively new kind of Christianity. However, given that the authors are closely associated with this movement, which they have been at pains to identify with their putative Great Emergence, one can’t help feeling that the thesis is to some extent self-serving. Certainly, Emergent Church is cast in a very positive light and presented as the way forward, while one of its leading spokespersons, Brian McLaren, is likened to Martin Luther (p. 114).

They clearly hope that the Emergence perspective will bring with it an openness to new metaphors (such as fire), which may move us beyond the use of biological language in Trinitarian theology (by which they mean talk of ‘Persons’) towards a more theological account of the Trinity (e.g. p. 152). However, their repeated criticism of the language of ‘Persons’ as biological and their insistence that we need to move beyond such language if we are to achieve a properly theological account of the Trinity makes me profoundly uneasy. How are the three aspects of the Trinity to be understood if not as ‘Persons’? (NB the initial capital and scare quotes: theologians have always understood this language to be metaphorical, speaking of relationships of an ‘I–Thou’ rather ‘I–It’ kind, rather than literally biological.) Surely they don’t want us to see the different manifestations of God merely as the elements of a threefold impersonal force?

In conclusion, this book is interesting and well written. However, I can’t recommend it as a reliable guide to either the doctrine of the Trinity or the history of the Spirit’s dealings with the churches.

14 October 2014

Basil of Caesarea

A review of Basil of Caesarea by Stephen M. Hildebrand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014)

Basil of Caesarea was one of the key theologians of the early Church. As such, he is well known to contemporary students of theology, but often only in a fragmentary way and often only as a theologian. In this detailed and lucid introduction to Basil’s life and thought, Stephen Hildebrand has integrated those fragments to give us a rounded picture of the man and his thought. More importantly, the book clearly relates his theology to his life and his radical spirituality.

After an introductory chapter outlining Basil’s theological and spiritual context, Hildebrand begins his study of Basil’s theology with anthropology. There are some strikingly modern notes in this chapter. Apparently Basil held that, at the heart of our identity, we are both readers and interpreters. He also argued in favour of the equality of men and women. But Hildebrand also offers interesting and useful excurses into Plotinus and Origen on the body and puts Basil firmly in his historical Origenist context while making clear his more positive view of the body.

One reason for starting with anthropology is that it forms a natural jumping off point for dealing with creation and Scripture in the next chapter. Central to this chapter is Basil’s description of creation as a book that declares the glory of God. Thus there are two books – creation and Scripture – in which God is revealed. The impression left by the chapter was that Basil held an instrumentalist view of creation: its raison d’être is revelation. I must admit I was surprised by this: Was Basil’s view of creation really so different from that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus?

From revelation, Hildebrand moves in chapters 4 and 5 to its subject: the triune God who accomplishes our salvation. In Chapter 4 he examines Basil’s credal and catechetical treatments of the Trinity followed by his better-known controversial works in Chapter 5.

Chapters 6 to 8 were for me the most interesting part of the book. They deal in turn with Basil’s understanding of Christian discipleship, the importance to him of Christian community, and the relationship between his theology and his spirituality.

I was particularly struck by the extent to which Basil’s approach to discipleship foreshadowed the Franciscan emphasis on evangelical poverty. It is a salutary reminder that Francis’s rejection of private property was no medieval innovation but rather a rediscovery of something that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Perhaps with one eye on his potential audience (American, evangelical, and capitalist), Hildebrand is careful to stress that Basil’s rejection of private property had more to do with living in anticipation of the eschaton than with any this-worldly concern for social justice or equality.

The emphasis of living in the light of the eschaton is also a feature of Basil’s view of Christian community. And he expects this of all Christians: he makes no distinction between lay and religious lives. All Christians are called to participate in a communal renunciation of this world. Ultimately his spirituality is about the movement of human community towards God.

The portrait of Basil painted by Hildebrand is that of a reformer and innovator rather than a traditionalist. Yes, he turned to tradition to help him understand Scripture. But he was not afraid to use fresh insights from that understanding to modify and correct the received tradition.

In conclusion, Hildebrand’s book is a valuable introduction to the life of this key figure. It will be of particular value to undergraduate and graduate theologians and historians of early Church seeking a reliable overview of Basil’s life and work.

30 September 2014

Brush up your New Testament Greek

I recently decided that I needed to brush up my New Testament Greek and, largely because I haven’t studied 1 John for some considerable time, I decided to work my way slowly through 1 John in Greek. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Robert Plummer of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has just begun a series of short videos translating a verse of 1 John from Greek to English every day. If you fancy brushing up your Greek in this way, you can sign up for daily email reminders here.