All posts in “Review”

Review: “Schleiermacher and Sustainability” (Ed. Shelli Poe)

Book: Schleiermacher and Sustainability: A Theology for Ecological Living Edited by Shelli M. Poe [AMAZON LINK]

Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018. Columbia Theological Seminary: Columbia Series in Reformed Theology. [PUBLISHER’S LINK]

Overview: This book is a well-organized and timely collection of essays from a few of the leading voices in Schleiermacher-studies, including the veteran scholar Terrence Tice. As a study of Schleiermacher’s theology, it is superb; and as a timely meditation on the fruitfulness of his theology in the context of the ecological crisis, it is vital. 

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Schleiermacher turned 250 this month (Nov. 21, 2018), but least anyone imagines his theology has ceased to be relevant for the modern era, this new volume, edited by Shelli Poe, proves that there is still so much we have to learn from him. 

After a helpful introduction by Poe, the book begins with James Brandt’s essay on the importance of Church and ethics in Schleiermacher’s thought. Brandt has long been vocal about reviving interest in Schleiermacher’s ethical theology, in contrast to the claim that he is ethically deficient. (See his excellent book, All Things New.) Brandt’s essay continues that argument and places Schleiermacher in the context of the ecological crisis, thus setting the tone for the rest of the book. 

The second chapter, by Shelli Poe, has three interlocking concerns: economics, election, and ecumenism. The important concept of Naturzusammenhang, the “interconnected process of nature,” is introduced here. A constructive proposal regarding Schleiermacher’s concept of the afterlife is persuasively argued. 

The third and fourth chapters, by Ed Waggoner and Anette Hagan (respectively), offer an account of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation and preservation. Hagan’s chapter was the most interesting of the two, which discussed divine causality and providence.

Chapter five, by Kevan Vander Schel, explores Schleiermacher social doctrine of sin. Thus, the conclusion is reached that the social evil of ecological devastation is a consequence of collective human sinfulness. 

Terrence Tice concludes the book by reflecting on concrete actions that must take place to avoid planetary destruction. He writes:

To put the matter more directly: each of us can acknowledge that we are part of the problem, but each must also become part of the solution. We can easily take action right where we live, in our own households, every day.

So in the end, Schleiermacher and Sustainability is more than just an excellent study of Schleiermacher’s theology—though it is certainly this. It is also a timely challenge. It seems as if we are confronted, almost daily, with the news that the world as we know it is on the brink of ecological catastrophe. Yet we are not here to despair in what might be but to join hands and work towards a better, more ecologically-conscious future.  

Schleiermacher’s communally and socially oriented theology is a fruitful resource for constructing an ecologically sustainable theology, an “ecotheology.” 

A theology of this sort is vital, especially when we reckon with the fact that 88 percent of conservative evangelicals are unconcerned about the ecological crisis, and only 28 percent believe human activity has caused climate change. 1 An ecotheology that stresses the interconnectivity of the world and its relation to God is, perhaps, precisely what the theological world needs right now to help save the planet from its ever-approaching devastation. 

The one criticism I have with the book, however, is that it lacked any critique of capitalism—which is by far the leading cause of climate change today. 2 In fact, it seems as if the authors believe that capitalism only needs to be reformed, not removed, in order to avoid the effects of climate change. Connections may have been drawn, however, between Schleiermacher’s community-centric thought and modern critiques of capitalism. For example, Schleiermacher believed that the Church must be free from any sort of hierarchy. How could this line of reasoning be used in the economic world in such a way that capitalist systems that place the rich over the poor, giving them unequal possibilities for success or even survival, could be critiqued? In its own pews, the American Church is complicit in economic inequality. (The rise of “celebrity pastors” and megachurches is only a symptom of this larger issue.) The abuse of the planet in the name of corporate profits should be critiqued fiercely and rejected as sin if we are going to undo the effects of climate change before it is too late. Perhaps these considerations fell outside the parameters of the book—or perhaps my own bias is on display here—but it seems like an unfortunate oversight in an otherwise excellent book.  

Click here to purchase Schleiermacher and Sustainability, ed. by Shelli M. Poe

My thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections on the book.

Notes:

  1. According to Pew Research, cited here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2017/06/02/why-dont-christian-conservatives-worry-about-climate-change-god/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f08a967b88b3
  2. See the recent report for the UN by Bios that concluded that climate change and capitalism are mutually exclusive, as reported by Huffington Post.

Robert Jenson’s Alpha and Omega: a Review

Book: Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth by Robert W. Jenson (Amazon link)

Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002 (Publisher link)

Robert W. Jenson’s book, Alpha and Omega, is an excellently clear, and precise study in the theology of Karl Barth. Jenson asks how it is that the historical event of Jesus’ life might be the decisive reality of our present life, calling this question “the chief problem of modern theology.” (13) Jenson holds Barth’s theology up as a “grandiose and pioneering answer to this challenge [of modern theology].” (16)

With clarity and precision, Jenson examines some of the most difficult aspects of Barth’s thought, including Barth’s doctrine of nothingness, of creation, of election, of salvation, of history, of the incarnation, and of God. The overarching question behind these inquiries is the relationship between Jesus’ historical existence and our present lives, but along the way I found myself attending a masterclass in Barth’s doctrine of election, creation, and providence. I can’t recall reading anything nearly as erudite in secondary literature as Jenson’s presentation.

The three specific questions that Jenson asks of Barth’s theology are as follows. First, “To what end does God rule human history, and what is the course of the history of salvation?” Second, “In what sense does God have a history, and what is the relation between this history and ours? That is how does God guide human history?” Third, “What is the reality to which talk in the Church bears witness?” (17-8)

Of God’s plan for history and the mode of God’s rule in history, Jenson notes that these questions are, for Barth, never asked separately. For Barth, “The coming of Christ to sinners is absolutely determined from all eternity and is the purpose of all that happens.” And furthermore, “Christ’s life, as a movement of God’s eternal will, is itself the basis of its appearance in time.” (113) These for Barth are one of the same proposition, according to Jenson.

In other words, Jenson shows that for Barth, God’s plan for history and His rule in history are one and the same: the life of Jesus Christ. This event is the event of all history and existence, the plan God determined before creation. Jesus’ life is then, for Barth, the central event of all history and of creation. This is the core of Barth’s doctrine of election, that God determined Himself to be God for us in Jesus Christ, to be the God of sinners, to reconcile us to Himself.

The brilliance of this position is shown in how sharply it contrasts with other common presentations. Often the incarnation and salvation of Christ is portrayed as the reaction of God to human sin, placing God in a kind of “hail Mary” position in the face of evil. But Barth reverses the order. If Jesus Christ’s life is the epitome of all history, than this event precedes even the creation of the cosmos. The choice to reconcile human beings to Himself, to become man in Jesus Christ, is an eternal choice in the Triune life of God. Salvation wasn’t an afterthought, God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ was the basis for His act of creation. The difficulties in this position are apparent, but Jenson navigates them masterfully and with clarity.

To the final question, of the reality to which the church bears witness, Jenson turns to Barth’s inclusive Christology. Jenson writes of this reality: “We are what we are in Him. Our existence is ‘virtually accomplished’ in His. In that He has kept the covenant, we have kept the covenant. In that He has obeyed God, we have obeyed God. Our existence is enclosed in His from all eternity. … This history, the history of the man Jesus with God, is our real history.” (132-3)

This inclusive Christology is the reality the church proclaims. The reality of Jesus Christ, who is our obedience, our relationship with God—who is the covenant with God and all humanity—is the proclamation of the church. We proclaim: Look to Christ, here is your history, the basis for your existence as a human, this man with God is all mankind with God! “Our history is participation in Christ’s history.” (136) “Jesus Christ as God and man is the one great history of the eternal covenant between God and man[kind].” (139)

To conclude the book Jenson gives a helpful summary of Barth’s doctrine of election, followed by some final reflections on Barth’s theology. Jenson outlines many areas where he agrees with Barth, but he also offers some insightful criticisms.

Summary:

This book was surprisingly easy to read, written with a clarity often absent from many studies of Barth’s theology. The precision of this study will be of tremendous value to any student of Barth’s thought. Jenson doesn’t dance around the difficult questions, but masterfully navigates through its many challenges. Instead of walking away confused by complex jargon and paradoxical images, I left this book with a better, clearer understanding of Barth’s thought. An excellent book, one I highly recommend.

My thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work. 

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