Awake to the Moment
An Introduction to Theology
- ISBN: 9780664261887
- Published By: Westminster John Knox Press
- Published: September 2016
In Awake to the Moment, Vanderbilt University’s Workgroup on Constructive Theology has come up with an introduction that is comprehensive, critical, and accessible. The book serves as a helpful gateway for those who are curious to know what Christian constructive theology is and does, as well as for those who want to clarify and deepen their understanding of the discipline. It is commendable that this work, co-authored by twenty-eight scholars, each with their own areas of focus and specialization, manages to maintain its consistency in content and presentation.
The book begins with the acknowledgment that fundamentally theology is to think and talk about God while being fully aware and ethically responsive to the realities in the world and by identifying and upholding the life-affirming elements in religious traditions without ignoring their histories of violence and injustice. But given that what we imagine and speak is based on what and how we know, the authors suggest it is necessary to begin with the question of epistemology. Noting the necessity of the element of mystery to keep us humble and alert to the possibilities of new and greater truths, three suggestions are offered to negotiate the epistemological concerns of our day: (1) allow space for skepticism that is curious and aware of the complexities of life; (2) acknowledge the ever present relation between knowledge and power (both to dominate and oppress and to resist domination); and (3) learn from those who have struggled in the past with epistemological issues and concerns.
After acknowledging the significance of learning from the past, the workgroup turns toward the relevance of traditions. While recognizing that tradition, especially the Christian tradition, has an embarrassing history of control and colonization, constructive theology seeks to uphold its healing potential, particularly as envisioned and experienced by those who have been “hurt and harmed in our world” (72). This is certainly helpful since traditions are dynamically diverse and can be either oppressive, like that of slaveholders’ Christianity, or liberative, like that of the enslaved people. Therefore, the authors emphasize that there should be norms to guide our theologizing and living, “norms of love, justice, and flourishing” (81), as taught and exemplified by the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Further, centering the norm of justice is particularly helpful in a multi-religious context to bring together different religious traditions and their communities reminding us that we are (in) a “world house,” a global community that is called to care for one another and our planet.
For constructive theologians, to be a caring community means that “theology’s work is to stage a kind of intervention” (105) to show, in the midst of destruction and despair, that there is a different world(view) possible which foregrounds the well-being of all. To realize this possibility however, requires that theologians both learn from and themselves engage in practices that are life affirming. The authors therefore identify and suggest practices that not only resist life-denying power structures but also uphold ways of creating spaces for flourishing. Beginning with prophetic protests, the authors note that being mindful—with a sense of wonder—enables a relevant and effective response to events, be they those that reflect or impede divine glory in the world. Along with prophetic intervention, the book also calls attention to the practice of lament to “decry loss and devastations in affective ways” that “lay out possible life-affirming paths, turning grief and anger into commitment, energy, and vision for constructive world making” (128).
In the following chapter, the workgroup suggests practices that underscore self-awareness and relationship building. First, in order to ensure that constructive theology’s work for justice is not based on hate but rather rooted in compassion, the book suggests contemplative practices to create “a visceral awareness of the interconnection of all beings” (134). Second, the authors identify practices of community building that are not only literal but also virtual, such as the creation of online communities made possible through technology. Finally, noting that “bodily practices are . . . crucial for theology,” they argue that one of the main tasks of theology is to “help identify communities . . . that are creating forms of church that embody the values of inclusion and love” (167–68). The book concludes with the reminder that constructive theology’s reflection on God primarily begins and ends “by locating God’s presence and activity in the complexity of lived experience” (186).
There is no doubt that Awake to the Moment is a commendable and courageous attempt to introduce Christian theology. However, it is not possible to overlook the fact that there are places in the text where there seems to be discontinuity between sections, perhaps because of the multiple authorship. But there are two things that are particularly concerning. One, is the over-use of illustrations from popular media, which is helpful but also distracting. This attempt to “sound cool” assumes a certain type of reader who is familiar with the American media culture, thus failing to recognize the diversity of readership within and outside the academy. The other issue, somewhat related, is even more worrying. The entire book is (over-)focused on the United States of America, its problems, and its liberation strategies and theologies, with very little engagement with scholarship from the global South. While it is necessary to be contextually situated, limiting an entire introductory academic text to the US is quite concerning, particularly as we are becoming increasingly aware of the global nexus of unjust structures and practices, such as racism, patriarchy, homophobia, etc., and the growing global solidarity and cross-cultural learning among theologians and activists. It is important to note that to introduce Christian constructive theology with an “America only” myopia, even if unconsciously and unintentionally, can be counterproductive in the age of “America first” and “Make/Keep America Great Again.”
Joshua Samuel is Visiting Lecturer for Theology, Global Christianity, and Mission at the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, New York.Joshua SamuelDate Of Review:March 4, 2020