Christian Ministry in the Divine Milieu

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Donald C. Maldari
Catholicity in an Evolving Universe
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , January
     2019.
     208 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983137.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christian Ministry in the Divine Milieu is a plea directed to the Christian Church for a broad reconsideration of the word “ministry.” Author Donald C. Maldari makes the argument through a brisk narrative of the evolution of the universe, from Big Bang to consciousness to Jesus Christ to the Church today, in its various Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox forms. As this story is told, the book highlights the language used in different eras to describe the types of work people do in the Church. According to the author, the Church has used many terms to name and organize specific roles. Critical definitions of many roles—including apostle, bishop, clergy, deacon, priest, and presbyter—are presented and explained in the contexts of their early and later uses. Ultimately the book defines “ministry” as any work that effectively collaborates with God in the progression of salvation history. When persons labor in accordance with their own talents or charism and their work helps the Church’s continued evolution, that work is called ministry.

This makes “ministry” a very broad concept. That breadth fits the book’s understanding of the Church’s catholicity. Here, catholicity means neither universality nor uniformity but diversity in unity. Understood this way, catholicity affirms the unity of the body of Christ while also drawing attention to the particularity of each Christian’s labor in that body. The diversity of that unity, of many laboring in mutual cooperation, is a strength of the Church and essential to its collaborations with God.

Maldari relies on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmology and Trinitarian theology. Writings of Gary Macy, Thomas O’Meara, and Avery Dulles support the book’s ecclesiology and Church history. Even though the book is building an argument, its snapshots of the stages of ecclesial evolution never claim more certainty or grander conclusions than are warranted.

The book is appropriate for a seminary course in ecclesiology, Church polity, or practical theology. For such courses it could serve as one week’s reading to offer a sampling of ecclesiological innovation based on less mainstream theological systems. An ecologically minded church-based reading group, if well motivated, could use this book to spark discussions about ministry, vocations and the meaning of ordination.

Furthermore, the book’s introduction of ecclesiology, doctrinal development, hermeneutics and other theological methods are quite readable. Maldari describes the Church within the context of the evolution of creation, carrying through this contextualization from the Big Bang through to the parishioners who iron altar cloths, repair the rectory’s wifi, and bake treats for meetings. This is a vision of labor as cooperation with God’s work in the world, and of a community of busy believers who are continuing a sacred mission that is as old as the universe.

One potential sticking point of the book is inherent to its use of Teilhard de Chardin. As we look at the Church’s history, how are we to know the difference between salvific progression and the failures resulting from human sinfulness? The book offers a litmus test. A good understanding of the catholicity of ministries within the Church can be recognized by its fruits. If an ecclesial view of ministry collaborates in salvation history well, then it is a good view. When it does not work well (Maldari describes what this might look like on page 118), then the Church must reevaluate and make changes. The book mostly successfully avoids pitfalls of this way of using Church history.

A second fault is also difficult to avoid in evolutionary theology. The book uses Jewish history and sacred texts as an earlier, imperfect phase of the same tradition which evolved to become Christianity. A discussion of supersessionism as a potential danger for evolutionary theology would be very beneficial.

Though the book’s brevity is a strength, I also wanted to see some consideration of human social power incorporated here. This could support a more nuanced presentation of the twists and turns of doctrinal development. It could also ground a detailed definition of charism which includes the fact that individuals do or do not recognize their own talents under the influence of their cultures, including, powerfully, their religion.

This book’s modest plea to the Church is clearly motivated by a larger desire. The argument pushes back against today’s sacred/profane dualism. The book’s discussion of catholicity seeks to cultivate a sense of “religion” as a culture, a religio. In this book’s framing, a reconsideration of ministry would oppose gate-keeping practices that aim to restrict who is permitted to do the forms of ministry that are often deemed higher or more important. Reconsidering the Church’s sacerdotal traditions as deeply as this book advocates would profoundly reshape the Church. But the frame Maldari offered here for such a reconsideration deserves the Church’s honest and courageous attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nancy M. Rourke is Associate Professor at Canisius College.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald C. Maldari is Professor of Theology at the Pacific Regional Seminary in Fiji, and past Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse. He has also taught theology at the Centre Pedro-Arrupe in Port-au-Prince (Haiti), and he has worked as chaplain in a Mexican penal colony, a parish priest in Brooklyn, and the Associate Director of Novices for the Jesuit novitiate in Syracuse.

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