T&T Clark Handbook of Christian Theology and Climate Change

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Editor(s): 
Hilda P. Koster, Ernst M. Conradie
T&T Clark Handbooks
  • London: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2019.
     592 pages.
     $157.50.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567675156.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hilda P. Koster and Ernst M. Conradie’s T&T Clark Handbook of Christian Theology and Climate Change endeavors to provide both a survey of current scholarship pertaining to the relationship between Christian theology and climate change and a novel contribution to that scholarship agenda.

The editors set themselves a significant challenge: to provide form and structure to what could easily become an interdisciplinary cacophony. They admit to adopting a “risky and counter-intuitive strategy” (3), which was to ask the main contributors to “engage self-consciously in a form of North Atlantic contextual theology,” writing with North Atlantic Christian students as the “implied readers,” while maintaining awareness that their contributions will be subject to the critical gaze of those situated “outside” that context (2). This criticism takes concrete form in the short replies to a number of essays from scholars and practitioners from Africa, India, South America, and Asia (but not the Middle East or Eastern Europe, curiously). The editors are right to see a risk in such an approach: in trying to affect a destabilization of any fixed sense of theology’s privileged “center” and dependent “periphery” by an embrace of contextualism, they may inadvertently reinforce it, relegating those outside the North Atlantic sphere to the constrained role of “respondent.” The justification proffered is that North Atlantic societies are responsible for the greatest historic carbon emissions, and its theologians write within traditions that have wittingly or unwittingly contributed to the resultant crisis. These theologians are asked to launch the discussion in a posture of confession and humility.

The collection is made up of forty-six essays divided into seven parts, and a number of shorter critical responses. Part 1 attempts a multidisciplinary collaboration, including climate scientists, evolutionary biologists, environmental economists, political scientists, engineers, artists, and activists. It features bold attempts to encourage theologians to reject the doctrine of “non-overlapping magisteria” (24). Clearly, theologians have a lot to learn, but whether they have anything to offer those who have not subscribed to the church’s language games remains an open question. The most robust essays in part 1 include Lisa Sideris’ survey of recent Christian engagements with the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (31–48), Willis Jenkins’ survey of political theologies of climate change (83–89), and Forrest Clingerman’s essay, which deploys an analogical approach that lifts resources from theological medical ethics to weigh the promise and risk of geoengineering (90–102).

Through attentive description of the reality of climate change, these early essays raise the spectre of tragic utilitarian decisions to come, thus paving the way for part 2, with its focus on developing a moral apparatus fit to meet the challenge. Here, under Larry Rasmussen’s inspiration (153–156), essays take on a homiletic and rhapsodic character to envision an integrated eco-virtue ethic. This project is worthy and ambitious, but part 2 would be improved with deeper engagement with current debates in moral theory, and greater engagement with the insights of moral psychology, which might help readers to better understand “generational buck-passing” and outright denialism. As it stands, the opportunity was largely lost to test notions of Christian moral realism and natural law in light of the advent of the Anthropocene.     

Part 3 asks representatives of various Christian traditions to consider their own histories of anthropocentrism, as well as identifying unique resources for repair. The results are necessarily impressionistic, but insightful nonetheless. These include descriptions of liturgically embedded notions of cosmic redemption within Orthodox teaching on the environment (although Russian perspectives are overlooked; 229–239), perceptive overviews of relevant Catholic social teaching (244–254), descriptions of Anglican enmeshments in colonial exploitation of “nature” (259–269), and a succinct history of environmental advocacy on the part of the World Council of Churches (340–350). Also included here is a perceptive case study describing the evolution of American Mennonite attitudes, where commitments to nonviolence and agrarian simplicity have coincided (in some cases) with unsustainable land use (308–319). The decision by the editors to combine Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions in one essay (340–350) is unfortunate, forcing the author into unhelpful generalities.

In part 4, the editors curate essays on creation, sin, providence, salvation, covenant, eschatology, and election, posing hard questions as to how the climate crisis may destabilize and provoke reform within the Christian tradition. The choice of narrative framework here seems arbitrary (360–361), or at least not essential to the main task of the proceeding essays, which is to challenge doctrinal articulations that alienate humanity from the natural world. The essays are focused on the task of retrieval and repair, and are more concerned to persist within an “orthodox” rule of faith than, say, the arguments made by feminist and process theologian Catherine Keller. Part 5 seeks to build on these conversations, attempting to affirm a Trinitarian doctrine of God free from anthropocentric (and patriarchal) renderings as a basis for a revised participatory ontology of “nature.” Sigurd Bermann’s exploration of “spatial eschatology” (in contrast to reductionist time-centred eschatology) in his essay on pneumatology is a fount of insight born of deep scholarship (497–508). Jürgen Moltmann, Karl Rahner, and Elizabeth Johnson provide a grounding for Denis Edward’s fine essay, affirming a participatory and relational Trinitarian metaphysic, and on this theme, readers would do well to consult the recent work of Peter Scott. Sallie McFague ably represents a growing number of eco-theologians who see kenoticism as a resource (518–523), but the moderating influence of Karen Kilby is needed to avoid the temptation to make kenosis a metaphysical absolute.   

Part 6 moves into the realm of liturgy, preaching, and pastoral theology. Christina Gschwandter’s essay (566–575) provides a historically informed introduction to ecological perspectives within liturgical studies, but could draw more deeply on sacramental theology and ecclesiastical art history. Barbara Rossings’ excellent essay (579–592) on hermeneutical and homiletical praxis raises the question as to why the editors have otherwise omitted sustained discussion of scripture and patristics, surely worthy of dedicated attention in every part of the collection.  Finally, part 7 offers some concluding observations, with various senior scholars sharing helpful observations on the strengths, weaknesses, lacunas, and possible future directions for scholarship.

The strength of the volume is its comprehensiveness, which also gives rise to its weaknesses. There is a great deal of repetitiveness, as many essays rearticulate the basic problem of theological anthropocentrism. And for the sake of brevity, readers must negotiate such generalities as “North Atlantic theology,” “African conceptions of God,” and “Asian theology,” deployed in such broad terms as to be question begging. Despite such frustrations, the editors have curated essays that will introduce students to key debates, and inspire further vital labor from scholars in the future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Bowyer is dean of divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford. 

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hilda P. Koster is associate professor of religion at Concordia College, USA.

Ernst M. Conradie is professor in the department of religion and theology at the University of the Western Cape.

Keywords: 

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