08 June 2016

Creation’s Diversity

A review of Creation’s Diversity: Voices from Theology and Science, edited by Willem B. Drees, Hubert Meisinger and Taede A. Smedes (London: T&T Clark, 2008)
This volume contains a selection of papers from the 2006 ESSSAT meeting in Romania. As the title suggests, the editors have chosen them to offer the reader a variety of perspectives on the diversity of creation. After two introductory chapters, the papers are organized into two sections of six chapters each: ‘A Diversity of Visions of Creation’ and ‘Sustaining Creation’s Diversity’.

The first introductory chapter, by Willem Drees, simply offers an overview of the book itself. Its companion piece, by Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea of the Romanian Orthodox Church, is an interesting call for dialogue between science and religion. Unlike many similar calls, this one is rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy and specifically the theology of Dumitru Staniloae (whose work deserves to be much more widely known among Western Christians).

‘A Diversity of Visions’ offers six quite disparate perspectives on creation/nature. First we are offered a Gaian perspective of the biosphere by the feminist theologian Anne Primavesi. While I am sympathetic to the holistic view of the environment she presents, I was disturbed that there was no acknowledgement of the potential for ecofascism in this approach. In contrast to Primavesi’s focus on the history of nature, Regine Kather offers a philosophical exploration of humans as the products of nature, concluding that value is intrinsic to nature. David Goodin offers a fascinating Eastern Orthodox perspective on the Leviathan passages of the Old Testament from which he gleans a timely ecological message about the intrinsic value of creation. With his chapter, Christopher Southgate draws our attention to suffering within the evolutionary process. He revisits the concept of kenosis to suggest how the suffering of creatures might be reconciled with the notion of a benevolent creator. Alfred Kracher explores the popular myth that technology and nature are in opposition. The section ends with an article by Tony Watkins on new cosmologies and sacred stories, which calls for a re-imagining of our relationship with the environment by means of metaphors drawn largely from deep ecology and a new transcultural creation myth based on evolution.

The second section focuses on ‘Sustaining Creation’s Diversity’. Again it consists of six chapters from a variety of perspectives. It begins with Sam Berry objecting to the concept of ‘sustaining diversity’, which appears in much of the current literature to suggest the maintenance of a status quo. He prefers to speak of ‘developing sustainably’. Unfortunately, this concept also has a track record in the literature. Perhaps we should be speaking instead of nurturing diversity. In the next chapter current threats to biodiversity are picked up and explored in some detail by Jan Boersema. Having been presented with a call to nurture diversity and dire warnings about threatened loss of the same, there follows a short paper in which Chris Wiltsher plays devil’s advocate. He argues, contrary to popular opinion among environmentally minded theologians, that nurturing the diversity of creation is not a clear theological virtue. Peter Kirschenmann explores the more general question of whether there are moral principles that would oblige us to maintain biodiversity. His conclusion is that such ‘sustainable development’ has to be rooted in an ethic of responsibility. Zbigniew Liana shifts the emphasis from biodiversity to cultural diversity. He proposes a Popperian approach to pluralism, which would allow an acceptance of the kind of philosophical and religious diversity apparent in this volume without descending into relativism or scepticism. Finally Dirk Evers draws the book to a close by examining the nurturing of diversity as a theological task in a climate of religious pluralism.

The editors have certainly succeeded in representing the diversity of opinions as to how to relate environmental engagement in the context of religious convictions. The contributors are certainly not of one mind, nor do their papers direct the reader to a particular set of conclusions. But this lack of an overarching argument does have the virtue that the book allows a view into an ongoing discussion. Sadly there is little evidence of interaction between the chapters. I think the book could have been made more useful by allowing the authors to write short responses to each other’s papers.

My main reservation about the book is that it doesn’t really live up to the title. The emphasis is all on diversity, but judging by the content of these papers most of the authors seem blithely unaware that ‘creation’ is not merely a synonym for ‘nature’. For a book of this kind to ignore the very real theological distinction between the two is a major shortcoming. However, in spite of that reservation, this book remains a useful contribution to the continuing dialogue between theologies and the sciences on environmental issues.

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