27 November 2006

Creation Set Free

Another book review for ESSSAT News:

Sigurd Bergmann, Creation Set Free: The Spirit as Liberator of Nature, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans (2005) xvii + 388 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8028-2224-6 (pbk)

In this volume Sigurd Bergmann offers a very demanding re-exploration of theology in light of the environmental crisis. The title suggests that the book is about the role of the Holy Spirit in setting creation free; and a glance at its contents might lead to the gloss – free to participate in the life of the triune God. But such a summary would be entirely inadequate to convey the sheer scope and complexity of what Bergmann has packed into fewer than 400 pages. His own summary of the book runs to 7 pages and no fewer than 28 theses!

Since this is a contextual theology of the environment, Bergmann begins with the context, namely, the altered understanding of nature in modernity and the ecological challenge that is presented to theology. Environmental scientists (and many others) will be surprised to discover that the problem areas he focuses on are not such things as pollution and climate change. Instead he chooses to concentrate on the problematics of ecological discourse. The challenge to theology appears to be how can we speak adequately about the natural world. He notes that, to date, theologians have responded to the challenge in one of three ways: conjunction (a flat refusal to integrate theological and ecological discourse), syncretism or critical integration.

Having outlined the context of his study, Bergmann moves on in Part Two of the book to his main dialogue partner, the church father Gregory of Nazianzus. This part consists of two chapters: ‘The Context of Cappadocian Theology’ and ‘Gregory’s Theological Interpretation of Creation Set Free’. In the first of these, Gregory is shown to have been himself a contextual theologian who struggled to formulate a theological response to problems that have parallels with the present day. In the second, Bergmann expounds Gregory’s theology under four headings: sociality, movement, suffering and spirit. This chapter is unquestionably the centrepiece of the book, making up as it does nearly a third of the text, in which Bergmann offers a painstakingly detailed survey of Gregory’s understanding of creation as set free by the triune God. It makes for a fascinating introduction to one of the most important theologians of the early church. However, one does wonder how Bergmann arrived at the schema into which he fits Gregory’s theology. It is not clear that the schema comes from Gregory himself and the neatness with which it fits into Bergmann’s larger project suggests that this reading of Gregory owes a great deal to the questions Bergmann brings with him from his survey of the ecological challenge. To be fair to Bergmann, this is no mere postmodern ransacking of a texts in order to create a theological bricolage in response to a modern problem. On the contrary, Bergmann approaches Gregory’s texts respectfully with his questions.

Part III is entitled ‘Cosmology as Soteriology—a Constructive Correlation’ and consists of three chapters. Chapter 4, ‘Correlating the Interpretations of Late Antiquity and Late Modernity’ uses the schema developed in Chapter 3 to explore how modern theologians have addressed the challenges of ecology and compares their responses to those of Gregory. I felt that this chapter tried to do too much. Specifically, Bergmann seems to be working with too many modern dialogue partners (I noted at least a dozen in a 70-page chapter). The result is that he is forced to write in a condensed, even cryptic manner heavily laden with unexplained technical terminology. If Chapter 3 was the centrepiece of the book, Chapter 5 is Bergmann’s constructive proposal. Entitled ‘Considerations from the Perspective of Liberation Theology’, it proposes an ecological expansion of liberation theology. The main text of the book finishes in a strangely anticlimactic fashion with a chapter on ‘Methodological Considerations’ in which Bergmann considers criticisms of various theological approaches to correlation and justifies the method he has adopted in the book.

I began the book with high hopes that here at last was a serious theological response to the environmental crisis. By the time I reached the end those hopes had transmuted into a strange ambivalence. On the one hand, I think this is an important study. It is stimulating and suggestive because full of valuable insights and perhaps even more so because it raises more questions than it answers and points intriguingly at lines of enquiry that one might pursue further. But on the other hand, it is a very frustrating book. This is largely to do with the impenetrability of the English translation. Contrary to what is suggested on the back cover, this is not a book that ‘will appeal to thoughtful pastors’ or ‘educated laypeople’ for the simple reason that they won’t understand half of it. Indeed, I suspect the text will try the patience even of theologians who are familiar with the subject. The environmental challenge is an urgent practical, ethical challenge – perhaps the most urgent challenge the human race has faced to date – but this treatment feels too cozy, too academic, perhaps even too complacent. Ironically for what aspires to be a liberation theology, I can’t help feeling that the entire tenor of the book privileges theoria over praxis. On the basis of what I have read here, I shall certainly be looking out for more from Bergmann – hopefully he can be persuaded to follow this work up with a practical liberation spirituality of the environment.

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