Earth Community Earth Ethics (by Larry Rasmussen)

Earth Community: Earth Ethics

By Larry Rasmussen

(Review by Ron Sanders)

What do we do about the threat of the potential (actual) inability to sustain the earth?  Larry Rasmussen argues that our most basic impulses and activities must be constantly measured by their contribution to an earth ethic and their advocacy for a sustainable earth community.  He breaks his work into three sections: (1) Earth Scan—identifying the threat, (2) Earth Faith—marshalling theological resources to solve the problem, and (3) Earth Action—offering practices that encourage a sustainable earth community.

The thesis of his book is that our “beloved world is steadily being destroyed by cumulative human activities.” (xii) In part one (Earth Scan) he makes the case that our current course of human activity is unsustainable.  Utilizing historical and scientific analysis along with more recent policy debates and proposals, Rasmussen concludes that the current trajectory of human activity is unsustainable.  Important in his analysis is a critique of our understanding of “economic development.” He maintains that the three great revolutions—agricultural, industrial and informational—have progressed in such a way that we are extracting more from the earth than we are investing.  Especially important to Rasmussen are the last two centuries of “progress” that have come at a great price to the earth and to the poor.  He argues that the consequences of the damage done to the earth are felt more by the poor than by the wealthy.  He cites several cases where minorities and the poor suffer the consequences of imbalance environmental policies and laws.  For example, penalties under hazardous-waste laws were 500 hundred percent higher at sites in largely white communities than penalties at sites in minority communities.  Rasmussen calls this eco-racism and a form of apartheid.

In part two, Rasmussen asks whether religion, especially Judeo-Christian religion can provide the framework and practices to stem the tide of unsustainability.  Does religion have the resources to usher in a fourth revolution—an ecological revolution—that can roll back the negative consequences of human activity on the earth?  Rasmussen maintains that religion (especially Christianity and Judaism) has the tenacity and the imagination to provide the theological resources necessary for a sustainable future. Religion puts the story in broader perspective, it gives power, it provides hope, it stirs the imagination and it provides meaning and symbolism for sustained action (Ch. 12).  Two examples will illustrate the resources that religion offers for a sustainable earth ethic.  First, in the creation story we find a narrative of the integrity of creation–“the integrity of creation refers to the value of all creatures in themselves, for one another, and for God, and their interconnectedness in a diverse whole that has unique value for God.” (99) Therefore everything created by God has moral importance.  Second, in the incarnation of Jesus God demonstrates his involvement in, his identification (not ontological, but relational) with, and his redemption of the earth.  Rasmussen is asking us to see differently.  He draws on a certain brand of Luther’s panentheism to highlight the relationship between God and the earth and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a model for a sustainable earth ethic that draws from theological resources.

In part three—the briefest section—Rasmussen outlines some practices that will move us to a more sustainable earth ethic.  This is a short section, guided by the overarching principle that “easier” and “simpler” is better (340).  Much more needs to be said, especially about how Rasmussen details the dominance of the “economic development” paradigm that fueled expansionism and consumerism in part I.  This is a detailed work that deserves more time and a careful eye toward what Rasmussen means by “panentheism.”

A Fundamental Practical Theology (By Don Browning)

A Fundamental Practical Theology (By Don Browning)

(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)

Don Browning’s book A Fundamental Practical Theology is considered by many practical theologians to be a seminal work for the discipline of Practical Theology in the United States. When we talk about Practical Theology, what are we talking about? For many, the notion seems to be a sub-category of theology, below systematic and historical theology. From this point of view, Practical theology is the effort to apply the theories to everyday living. Thus, practical theology becomes the application of the fruits the difficult work of comprehending transcendental theory that has already occurred in the classroom. It is the last step of a cognitive “theory to practice model” and is what is commonly understood by the notion of practical theology, or practice. 

Browning argues that this common understanding of practical theology, with its platonic understanding of practice, is wrong. People do not arrive at situation as objective observers, and we do not simply apply pre-figured, pre- understood theories to concrete situations like a band-aid. But in the effort to comprehend what we are obliged to do, and what is the nature of the good person, Browning describes practical theology as a holistic discipline that binds together theory and practice as a practical hermeneutic, in a deontic and aretaic concern that interacts concretely with the experiences of daily living.

 Central to Browning’s description of practical theology is the notion of praxis. It is different from practices, which Browning describes as “the simple non-reflective performance of a task in a dispassionate, value free manner.” The notion of praxis, on the other hand, recognizes that we have pre-existing theories embedded within our actions. Praxis is theory-laden action, and practical theology advocates critical, theological analysis of our theory-laden practices in the context of crisis, as well as daily living.

Also crucial to Browning’s method is the notion of practical reason. Browning describes three types of reason in his description of what he values: theoria, techne, and phronesis. Theoria is theoretical reason, and corresponds to the enlightenment pursuit for pure scientific knowledge. Techne is technical reason, and is descriptive of the application of pure scientific knowledge for the purpose of achieving a desired goal. Phronesis is practical reason that seeks to answer the question “what shall we do in light of this particular situation, and how do we live in light of the decision we make?” Phronesis is knowledge connected to the concrete experience of daily living. German Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer interacting with Aristotle’s notion of phronesis claims that phronesis is concerned with application and action from the beginning. Different from the enlightenment focus on understanding-prior-to-action, Gadamer claimed that understanding and application are mutually interpenetrating. Gadamer’s notion of “the hermeneutical circle” implies the mutually interacting experience of action and interpretation in the hermeneutical process. According to Gadamer, we come to the process of interpretation with fore-knowing, and fore-concepts, and in the process of the hermeneutical circle, by acting and interpreting, understanding occurs. This is the notion of practical wisdom.

  Browning’s theory of revised critical correlation is attendant upon this notion of phronesis. Browning borrows from David Tracy who claimed that theology consists of two key sources; Christian texts and human experiences. The two sources must be plumbed together in the process of decision making. This is involves practical wisdom, and is a critical process because it also advances reasons for the decisions arrived at by practical reason. In this process, Browning argues that the correct starting point is with praxis, not with theory as Tracy suggested, but with praxis. Thus his is a revised critical correlational approach.

Finally, all of these constituents fit together as parts and processes within what Browning calls an inner core and outer envelope. The inner core consists of the concrete activities of daily life for individuals and communities. It is within the course of daily living that a crisis occurs, moving us into the outer envelope. In the outer envelope, we find the narrative structure and thick cultural descriptions that house and validate the inner core. It is in the interaction with this outer envelope that we critically correlate, and make use of phronesis. All of the sub-categories of the theological discipline are present in the outer envelope, and make up what Browning calls a Fundamental Practical Theology. As such,  every sub-movement in the outer envelope concerned with praxis.  

There are four sub-movements in the outer envelope: deep description that begins the analysis with a description of the what and why of our behavior. It is a deep description because it engages the sources of our narrative embedded within our praxis that form our way of thinking about what we do. Historical theology engages the biblical and historical theological content of our praxis to validate or invalidate it according to the doctrinal sources our community values. Systematic theology brings us to the correlational approach in which the praxis we analyzed in description, and the praxis suggested within historical theology are brought together to suggest a new horizon. This movement is critical correlational as it brings together activity and texts, and seeks to advance reasons for a new praxis. Finally strategic practical theology is the fourth move that brings the earlier three moves together to answer the questions “what should we do” and “how will we live?” It is a strategic movement that establishes the norms and strategies of concrete practices in light of analyses of concrete situations.

Mining the Motherlode (By Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas)

Mining the Motherlode (By Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)

Mining the Motherlode by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas is a venture that captures various resources of womanist analysis in one project in order to enable practitioners of Christian ethics to become familiar with womanist analysis, and better advocates of justice. Floyd-Thomas claims that womanist is a confessional title; a black woman claims the title in an effort to differentiate her theoethical efforts from the normative mode of ethical analysis that neglects her presence. Thus, in order to incorporate the lives and voices of black women in theoethical analysis, our perspective must be broadened in order to see them. This claim implies that our normative Christian social analysis has been too narrow. For example, Floyd-Thomas points to H. Richard Niebuhr’s notion of the responsible self which he described as a moral agent who has the power and autonomy to exercise freedom in relating to God and to neighbor (xii). Similarly, John Rawls classic theory of justice does not envision embodied people, but theorizes in the abstract. Both situations, Floyd-Thomas claims, the white-male derived notion of agency, and the abstract notion of justice leave out the everyday situations of black women. Floyd-Thomas borrows from Emily Townes to argue that much of what is considered virtue ethics also deprives black women of virtue. The virtues of thrift, hard work, and suffering are typically associated with economics. Yet, once again, calling these experiences virtues only serve to valorize the injustices experienced by black women.
Womanist theological ethics steps into this process of normative theological ethics with a disruptive voice that calls attention to “the least of these” among us. Womanist analysis highlights the value of every being’s race, gender, sex and class, recognizing in them a God-given voice to be heard and seen (xiii). It is an overall project of restoring agency where it has been denied.
With the task of womanism defined, Floyd-Thomas highlights three methods of womanist analysis: black women’s literary sources, sociological analysis, and historiography. She does her analysis through the lenses of what she calls “the four tenants of womanist ethics: radical subjectivity, traditional communalism, redemptive self-love, and critical engagement (8). With each womanist method, she peers through three lenses.
The literary sources of womanist analysis are mined based on the premise that the guild of Christian Ethics is not the only place in which codes of conduct and survival strategies are kept. Floyd-Thomas examines the literary method through the lenses of radical subjectivity (with a borrowed made-up word she calls biomythography), redemptive self-love (with an analysis of virtue-ethics) and traditional communalism (which she calls diasporic analysis).

 The sociological analysis pays attention to the manner in which the social experiences of black women are transformed and the community—of men and women—uplifted. Hence, there is a relationship with black male liberation that is recognized when we pay attention to the sociological analysis. She examines the sociological method with the lenses of redemptive self-love (which she calls the dance of redemption), traditional communalism (which she calls case-study analysis) and finally radical subjectivity (which she calls emancipatory metaethnography).

Lastly, Floyd-Thomas describes a womanist approach to historiography as an effort to “debunk the historical accounts about black women and their trials and triumphs” (12). It is humanizing for black women to have their voices, experiences and perspectives included into the narratives of the history that we recognize as important. Floyd-Thomas examines this method with radical subjectivity (by attention to slave narratives), traditional communalism (what she calls moral biography and auto biography), and redemptive self-love (what she calls emancipatory historiography).
Womanist theological ethics challenges us to pay attention to the plight of everyone in our community because it encourages analysis from margin to center. It is a liberative analysis that does more to bring attention to the plight of the entire community than anything else that the academy has yet produced. Hence, Floyd-Thomas questions whether or not real Christian ethical analysis can be practiced without attention to womanist methods?

The Souls of Black Folk (By W.E.B. Dubois)

The Souls of Black Folk (By W.E.B Dubois)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois invites Americans, at the turn of the twentieth century, to uncover the life of a hidden segment of the American population. For white Americans, the information they would find in this collection of fourteen essays would be discovery. But for blacks, Souls is a masterful articulation of their unique American experience. For Dubois, the hermeneutical key to black American life is what he calls “double consciousness” (5). It is both a gift and a curse given to African Americans at birth, Dubois describes, wherein blacks are “born with a veil, and gifted with second sight” (5). What is this “second sight” or “double consciousness?” It is a barrier, and survival skill, by which blacks see themselves through the eyes of the dominant, white, society “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” To be an American/Negro is to be torn by two competing identities. And Dubois argued that “Negro” history is one of struggle, in which blacks have sought to merge the two identities into one truer identity. Hence, we may describe Dubois’ Souls as an argument for black agency without using the word.

Conversely, Booker T. Washington was an adversary who wrestled with the veil. He was a latent opponent throughout Souls, but directly addressed in chapter three. Washington did not seek black agency. He embraced the veil, seeking to keep it in place, and pressed blacks to conform to life behind it. His rhetoric was oppressive, which was startling and ironic since Washington was a fellow “Negro” and a former slave. Indeed, his “Atlanta Compromise” speech of 1895, in which he claimed “In all things that are purely social we [blacks and whites] can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” was perhaps instrumental in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Jim Crow segregation in the landmark case of Plessy vs. Ferguson one year later. Washington was a prominent black leader, considered the voice of black America, replete with political power and financial backing. And with such a powerful black voice lowering the veil over his own people, the prospects for justice appeared bleak.

In the face of white racist oppression, Dubois claimed that Washington asked blacks to give up at least three important things: political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of “Negro” youth (44) in order to concentrate on industry and making money. This was a lowering of the veil, as it conformed to a white, racist comfort level. Dubois claims that the result of this concession resulted in; the disenfranchisement of the Negro, the legal creation of a distinct status of black inferiority, and the steady withdrawal of financial support from black institutions of higher learning (44). Washington’s propaganda was nothing short of lethal for black folk. He claimed “that the South is justified in its present (1906) attitude towards the Negro…that the prime reason for the Negro’s failure to rise was due to his poor early education (no doubt a responsibility of an inferior black community), thirdly, that the future rise of black folk depends primarily on the efforts of black folk. This last nugget is indicative of a “bootstrap” mentality that Dubois found particularly loathsome. For, unless the strivings of Negro’s was met with equal vigor from the sources of social and economic power, Dubois argued, Washington was doing nothing more than blaming the victim (49). And by doing so, Washington forced the veil over black America.

Dubois sought to lift it. Indeed, he moved within and without the veil discussing Negro’s as a “problem” in Democratic America, the struggle of the freedman’s association in the post-bellum south, his own struggles with the irony of black “progress” as he sought to educate poor oppressed blacks. In another direct rebuttal of Booker T. Washington, Dubois argued that leadership in the black community is not a push from behind, but a pull from the front by the leadership of educated blacks. Washington did not favor black higher learning, but instead argued that blacks should be taught trades, learning to work with their hands, and make money prior to any education. Any sort of higher education they would receive should follow the accumulation of wealth. Dubois claimed that colleges and institutions of higher learning provide black schools with black teachers and the dissemination of culture within black society.

Yet, beyond the conversation about cultural uplift, Souls is a conversation that is meant to challenge the a priori assumptions of black inferiority by appealing to rational white folk. Even the most racist white Christian, if he/she were rational, could agree that black folk had a soul. Does that soul conform to the typical dominant, racist perspective that is validated by the rhetoric of Booker T. Washington, or is there something more that rational-minded whites should know? Dubois raised the veil, that was his intent, in order to expose the souls of black folk and challenge the white racist a priori of blackness.

Theology of Hope (by Jürgen Moltmann)

Theology of Hope (By Jürgen Moltmann)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)

In Theology of Hope, Jurgen Moltmann claims that hope is foundational for the mission of the church. Faith depends on hope for its life, and the outlook of faith-in-Christ guides the mission of the church. Eschatology, in particular the coming of Christ, is the anatomy of Christian hope. But it must be distinguished from the modern concept of hope. We do not march progressively towards a fuller realization of a better world, all the while becoming smarter, faster, kinder people in a better way of being human. That is a utopian vision based on Enlightenment assumptions of human potential. Even progressive revelation of God, which corresponds with modernity’s utopian dream, is based on the utopian vision of historical progression. But Moltmann argues that hope in Christ is different. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and its meaning for history and human life forms the structure of Christian hope. It is an eschatological hope that starts from a definite, historical reality, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and announces the future of that reality (17). It is not a progress-of-human-history hope; it is a hope in the ex-nihilo of God, an all-or-nothing recreation that confronts us in history, and starts fresh with the resurrection.
We have this hope in the context of death and decay. The reality of the present, with its stories of sin, suffering, death and decay, stands in contradiction to hope. But hope does not overstep these realities. “Death is real, and decay is putrefying decay. Guilt remains guilt and suffering remains even for the believer…[faith] can overstep the bounds of life, with their closed wall of suffering, guilt and death, only at the point where they have in actual fact been broken through” (19). The crucifixion and resurrection together form that break point. There God breaks into history—the story of sin, suffering, evil and decay—to form a new reality ex-nihilo, with consolation in suffering, and promise of the end of suffering (21). Faith as a resurrection hope is not hope in the progress of history, but is directed towards the present reality as contradictions; righteousness opposed to sin, life opposed to death, glory opposed to suffering, peace opposed to dissension (18). We live in the midst of this present reality as a people of hope, a people of the future kingdom, opposed to the present ways, enlivened by the reality of the resurrection of Christ.
But, if faith depends on hope for its life, then unbelief is grounded in hopelessness. Moltmann argues that the original sin is described as humanity seeking to be like God. But the other sin that was and remains present , is hopelessness, and it can take two forms; presumption and despair. “Presumption is a premature, selfwilled anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope” (22). But Christian hope is neither the utopian dream of a better tomorrow built on the would-be promethean vision of humanity, nor is it a different way of seeing the present, such that redefining “reality” would deflect despair. Christian hope alone is “realistic” for it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which it is fraught (25).
Christian hope is life based on reality of the resurrection of Christ. It cannot be contained in the reality that consists of sciences, history, and the modern comprehension of possibilities. It is the self revelation of God that obliterates history, and forms a new reality ex-nihilo. This new reality is the Kingdom of God come to us from the future, and making claims upon us now. Moltmann claims that the horizon of expectation within which a Christian doctrine of conduct must be developed is the eschatological horizon of expectation of the new creation…This horizon and expectation frees Christians to practice what Moltmann calls “creative discipleship” in which hope inspired love challenges, and sets about transforming the present based on anticipation of the future of God’s kingdom.
This is a long and condensed book that deserves much more attention, including some analysis of his claims to universal salvation based on the OT and resurrection hope. But it is clear, from his singularly detailed analysis, that God is a God of promises, and the resurrection correlates with the creation ex-nihilo, and God’s encounter with Abraham. All of which speak of new from nothing, and call for a type of moral life and outlook based on hope that God will do what God has demonstrated and promised.

The Politics of Jesus (By Obery Hendricks)

The Politics of Jesus (By Obery Hendricks)

(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)


Politics and religion have a contentious relationship in our secular, liberal democracy; even though many politicians claim to live according to personal Christian convictions. But what shapes their convictions? What sort of Jesus do they follow? Obery Hendricks Politics of Jesus gives a thick description of the way of Jesus, and analyzes the faith of Ronald Regan and George W. Bush accordingly. In the end he claims that neither conservatism nor liberalism work for a model of Christ-likeness, but something more is needed. A richer understanding of Jesus is called for.

He begins the book by describing the passive, docile Jesus of his religious childhood as a sad parody of the Jesus that the gospels describe. The (conservative) blue-eyed, gentle Jesus depicted in Warner Salman’s famous paintings was in no way political, and was primarily guilty of claiming to be the son of God. He was too mild-mannered to otherwise offend anyone. Hendricks calls this description “political docetism.” Accordingly, gentle Jesus made claims only upon the personal morality of individuals, not social systems or political orders (77-85). But, as Hendricks argues, political docetism denies important realities of the life of Jesus; it denies Christ’s compassion and concern for the victims of oppression whom Jesus described as “the least of these”, and it ultimately winds up serving the very forces Christ opposed by giving oppressed people a Jesus who is devoid of any social witness (79-80). Instead of a politically docetic Jesus, Hendricks argues that Jesus was among us as a model of obedience to God, seeking to liberate whole people—body and spirit—from the tyranny of principalities and powers, and unjust rulers in high places (10). Jesus was indeed political. His message was primarily about the kingdom of God, or malkuth shamayim, which was a traditional Jewish recognition of the sole sovereignty of God, dating as far back as the Exodus. This tradition understood God as: king of the universe, sole king of Israel, and future (eschatological) ruler. Malkuth Shamayim was both religious and political (19-20). It was John the Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus continued “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven—Malkuth Shamayim—is at hand.”

The expectation of the messiah began as a term to describe the anointed Jewish monarch who ruled Israel as God’s representative. Malkuth Shamayim later evolved into a heavenly destination, and messiah became an expectation of a divine liberator of Israel (24-26). The role of the prophet corresponded with the Jewish kingdom experience in a confrontational manner involving forth-telling matters of moral and political judgment, and fore-telling God’s actions in response to obedience/disobedience (28). The prophets, Hendricks argues, never uncritically gave support to the status-quo. Rather, their role was to challenge it, in favor of the sole sovereignty of God. That is, prophets were the voice of the will of God for society, challenging systems of social inequality and disobedience to God’s commandments including God’s concern for the oppressed. Thus, Hendricks argues that there has never been a conservative prophet (28). They never argued to maintain the status-quo, but to change it so that it resembles the way of the God of the Exodus who saw oppression and showed up to side with the oppressed.  

Jesus was born into a nation that was familiar with oppression. Roman colonization was brutal, but not all Jews suffered from it. The Jewish priestly class was an extension of the oppressive Roman government, within the religious life and political maintenance of the Jewish society. They were Jewish agents of Roman interests (60). This presented a problem for the common, oppressed Israelite; submission to Roman domination by adherence to Israeli assimilated priests, or incurring God’s wrath by turning against the priests who were the facilitators of their faith (60). In this climate and environment, Jesus, the calculating political strategist, taught his followers to pray. That is, he taught them what it was they were to be devoting themselves to as his followers. His prayer betrayed his first of seven strategies, treat the people’s needs as holy by striving to fulfill their needs as if serving God (103). Secondly, he sought to give a voice to the voiceless by intentionally protesting against exploitation at the Temple Mount. Thirdly, Jesus told parables in order to expose the workings of oppression (132). Fourth, Hendricks claims that Jesus’ exorcism of the demon-possessed man by casting “legion” into pigs was Jesus’ way of “Calling a demon by name” (145). That is, the Roman occupation was bad for Israel, and Jesus had the demon say his name, and illustrate that there were many of them present. Thus, the action was a narrative of social protest. In his publish admonishment of the religious leaders, Jesus illustrated that we must save our anger for the mistreatment of others. That is, we should be angered at social systems, like the Jewish ruling-class collaboration with the colonizing oppressors. Sixth, Jesus advocated turning the other cheek and taking blows without returning them. But that was no mere submission in the face of evil; Jesus advocated non-violently encouraging oppressors to see their victims as equals, and to give the victims a voice in the face of abuse. This is the same argument in Stassen’s transforming initiatives (168). Seventh, Jesus not only explained the alternative kingdom, he demonstrated it. That is, when he redefined God’s kingdom as one based on gift instead of debt, he also demonstrated it by feeding thousands of people in one setting; after which, the populace sought to make him king (178).

In the midst of this argument is an understanding of God’s justice as relational; Mishpat and sadiqah are both definitions and uses of justice that correspond with relationships. At the heart of God’s kingdom proclamation in Christ, is relational, social interaction based on concern that all community members would be considered within the scope of moral responsibility. That is justice, and God’s way as demonstrated in the Exodus, and revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus, the political messiah.

Theology in a Postmodern Age (By Nancey Murphy)

Theology in a Postmodern Age

By Nancey Murphy

(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)


            Theology in a Postmodern Age is the written collection of Nancey Murphy’s Nordenhaug Lectures given in 2003.  Murphy’s project is to elucidate the problems that modern philosophy created for the Christian faith and to point out the promise of questioning these modern philosophical assumptions for the future of theology.

            Murphy questions five philosophical assumptions that characterized the modern era (1650-1950): (1) foundationalism, (2) scientific reductionism, (3) representationalism, (4) reductionism in human nature and (5) epistemological internalism.  Her first lecture focuses on (1,2,3), lecture two focuses on (4) and lecture three focuses on (5).  Let’s take them in order.

            Murphy argues that three metaphors dominated modern understandings of knowledge, science and language.  For knowledge, the metaphor of a building, with solid foundations dominated the epistemological landscape.  In theology, this meant searching for a foundation for religious knowledge.  Murphy argues that there were only two options: first, the conservative option relied on Scripture as their foundation, and second, the liberal option relied on religious experience as their foundation.  She argues that this focus on foundations produced a chasm between the liberal and conservative branches of Christianity.  This chasm only increased as a reductionist view of science developed during the modern period.  The scientific metaphor of the modern era was that the universe is like a giant machine.  For theology, the question became how God works in such a mechanistic world. The conservative option was interventionist—God intervenes in the natural order—and the liberal option was immanence—God works through the natural processes.  Finally, the modern metaphor for language was a mirror—our language reflects and presents reality.  Theological conservatives tended to focus on the facts, truth, and precise representation of religious language, theological liberals tended to focus on language as an expression of a person’s experience.  Again, this only increased the chasm between liberals and conservatives.

            Murphy also contends that modernity produced an unnecessary chasm between liberals and conservatives in their understanding of human nature.  Accounting for the unique aspects of human existence required an explanation.  The conservatives posited a substance other than the body—a soul—to explain those unique capacities.  Liberals were uncomfortable with something like an immaterial substance, and posited that human nature was only physical.  In both cases (dualism and physicalism respectively) Murphy contends we find an inadequate and reductionistic account of human beings.

            Finally Murphy contends that modernity produced a picture of human beings as trapped within themselves—their true selves are located within in the mind or soul.  This inside-out approach trapped people behind their minds and caused skepticism about a mind-independent reality.

            After outlining the problems created by modern philosophical reflection, Murphy contends that the postmodern shift (1950-present) holds out more hope for theological reflection in the future.  Postmodernity questions all five philosophical assumptions: (1) eschewing foundations for knowledge, (2) rejecting scientific reductionism, (3) focusing on the instrumental use of language, (4) rejecting dualism and physicalism as adequate pictures of human nature, and (5) escaping from the Cartesian theater of the mind to get to the concrete realities of human existence.

Doctrine (By James Wm. McClendon)


By James Wm McClendon Jr.

(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)


            Doctrine is the second installment of James McClendon’s trilogy on Christian living.  The first volume, Ethics, was written to articulate how the church is to live in order to an authentic community of God.  The third volume, Witness, was written to articulate how the church is to be in the world.  This middle volume, then, is written to articulate what the church needs to teach in order to live out its practices in the world.  Doctrine is the broad and often overlapping categories of thought developed out of the Christian tradition that inform our living, the display the substance of our faith and that move into the world (21).

            McClendon argues that the forming of doctrine happens best (and really only happens) in the context of communal participation in the life of God that is grounded in the Scriptures—“if we think of the Bible as a single, great story, united by characters, setting, and plot we may describe the church’s Bible-reading task as the identification of its characters, the discovery of its plot and the exploration of its setting. (40) To this end McClendon offers an account of three of the major doctrines of the Christian tradition–the rule of God, the identity of Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit—that are faithful to what he sees as the main story represented in the Scriptures:


Jesus came preaching the gospel of God’s coming reign; into that reign he summoned followers, who enrolled as students in his school, his open air, learn-by-doing, movable, life-changing dialogue.  It was surely exhilarating, yet the school of Christ was not an end in itself.  Followers were summoned to a transforming discipleship, a fellowship of studies, not with a view to a rustic life-style, but for training as witnesses, messengers, apostles, and teachers under the direction of a Master whose ‘good news’ for the world was evidently bad news for the principalities and powers of his day.  It was this purposeful program—clearer in his mind than in theirs—that required their costly apprenticeship to the radical Teacher. (32)


            The reign of God is God’s rule over all of life—his accomplishing of his ultimate purposes in the world by establishing a new counter-cultural political reality with Jesus Christ at the center.  The coming of Christ inaugurated this new political reality that moves toward ultimate redemption through the quiet working of God in the world which is accompanied by “historical signs.”  These historical signs are the validation of God’s activity and are represented by events like the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This new reality is grounded in the formation of the alternative community—a people of peoples—who live in the world under God’s rule with Christ at the center of their lives.

            McClendon then argues for the identity of Jesus.  He sums up his view of the nature of Jesus through his notion of two-narratives:  God initiating through the person of Jesus and Jesus fulfilling all of human longing toward God.  In Jesus Christ, validated by the resurrection—God’s story and humanity’s story are at last indivisibly one.  The people of God live with Jesus at the center of their life through “remembering signs.”  Remembering signs are baptism, eucharist and prophetic preaching—practices that the church incorporates in their communal life to remember the real presence of the resurrected Christ in their midst.

            Finally McClendon argues for the powerful work of the Spirit in the community of faith.  The Holy Spirit empowers the people of God for their mission and communicates God’s nearness to his people.  This work of the Spirit is marked by  “providential signs;” signs that point to the intimate relationship between God and his people.

Much more needs to be said about this book, it is thought provoking and this is such a cursory treatment of the grander themes of the book.

The Moral Vision of the New Testament (By Richard Hays)

The Moral Vision of the New Testament

By Richard B. Hays

(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)


            In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays argues for a coherent account of the methods necessary to pursue New Testament ethics as a normative theological discipline.  In short, he is arguing for a way to approach Christian ethics that is faithful to the diversity of the New Testament.

            He begins by offering a four-fold task for developing ethics out of the New Testament: (1) The Descriptive Task—reading the individual texts carefully. (2) The Synthetic Task—bringing the whole canon of Scripture to bear on a particular issue. (3) The Hermeneutical Task—relating the text to our contemporary situation. (4) The Pragmatic Task—living the text.  Hays then sets out to take on these tasks in interpreting the individual texts of the New Testament. 

He begins with the Pauline texts (the earliest known written documents of the New Testament canon), moves through the synoptic gospels, and finishes with Johannine writings.  Hays doesn’t exegete each particular text in detail, but demonstrates the descriptive task through examples.  In each case, he pays particular attention to the text’s Christology, picture of the church and the ethical implications of its eschatology.

After explicating the moral vision of each of the texts he exegetes in the descriptive task, Hays turns to synthesizing the diverse documents.  He argues that finding coherence in the diversity of the New Testament documents requires three focal images: (1) community—the countercultural community of discipleship, (2) cross—the paradigm for sacrifice and faithfulness to God in the world, and (3) new creation—demonstrating the power of the resurrection in the midst of a not-yet-redeemed world (Ch. 10).  He contends that these three focal images thread through the different canonical tellings of the Jesus story and anchor any formation of Christian ethics.

Thirdly, Hays moves from the task of synthesis to the hermeneutical task.  He lists four modes of appeal to scripture that Christian ethicists have used in the past: (1) rules—direct commands, (2) principles—general frameworks of moral consideration, (3) paradigms—stories or summaries of model (or inappropriate) conduct, and (4) symbols—the perceptual categories through which we interpret reality.  He also lists three other influences (outside of scripture) that shape our ethics: tradition, reason and experience.  He then applies these modes and influences to five Christian ethicists as a frame for diagnosing their ethics.  Those he pays particularly close attention to are, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, John H. Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza.

Finally, Hays moves to the fourth task—the pragmatic task.  He applies his method to the issues of violence, divorce, homosexuality, anti-Judaism and abortion.  He applies his three foci of community, cross and new creation to each of these issues.  He also uses what he calls “analogical imagination,” to make application from the ancient texts to our contemporary context.

There has been so much that I haven’t said, so far I hope to have whetted your appetite for the descriptive task if your interest is in studying the scriptures; in the synthetic task if your interest lies in the broader themes of the narrative of the New Testament; in the normative task if you want some criteria for evaluating and prioritizing your ethical decisions; and in the pragmatic task if you want to see how Hays moves through particular issues.  His chapter on abortion is quite interesting.

Black Theology and Black Power (By James Cone)

Black Power and Black Theology (By James Cone)
(Reviewed by Reggie Williams)

Black Theology and Black Power is written in the tone of an angry black man. That was no coincidence. James Cone was indeed angry when he penned this classic work of black theology. In its pages, Cone argues for the theological legitimacy of the Black Power movement. It appears that his intent was twofold; to demonstrate that the radical movement for black empowerment in the face of white oppression has theological support, and to help demonstrate to the movements participants that Christianity as a religion is not for and from white’s only. Indeed, Christianity in that form, is in fact not Christian at all. If Christianity is to proclaim the message of Christ, and the church of Christ is to be a conduit of Christ’s spirit and work in the world, it must affirm the existence and value of the contemporary oppressed, just as God in Christ did in the first century. Here in America, the oppressed people have historically been black people. Consequently, black people correspond with the oppressed Israelites whom God elected as God’s own, and also with Christ who was rejected. Blacks are Christ’s people because they represent who he is (118). That is not to say that black power is a particularly Christian movement, but it does correspond with the will of God today. Cone argues that racism is an alien force that enslaves black people, at one time literally, and today it does so psychologically. That same alien force has constructed demonic systems of oppression and dehumanization, forces that force fully invade a person’s total being gaining control to such a degree that the victim cannot distinguish themselves from the alien power (41). Into this construct black power intercedes with a voice of empowerment, seeking to enable the oppressed to struggle for freedom. Here, freedom is defined as liberation from alien loyalties, allowing black people to be who they are intended to be, not what white racists tell them. Put differently, the voice of black power in black theology seeks to enable blacks to hear God, not white racists, define their being. This is freedom, and the work of Christ is essentially a liberating directed towards the oppressed (this is a Black Power task as well). In the effort to liberate the oppressed, the oppressor’s humanity is also liberated. Since the forces of oppression are demonic, all of humanity—both oppressed and oppressor— exposed to it are in need of liberation. Third, mature freedom is burdensome, risky and conflict-laden for both free and oppressed, as well as the structures they oppose. Black power inspires black theology to shoulder the “shoulder the burden of liberty in Christ, risking everything to live not as slaves but as free [humanity]” (43). These elements of the work of God in Christ are accomplished through preaching, service, and fellowship (66). Preaching is the task of proclaiming to the world the good news of Christ’s victory over alien hostile forces; service is the task of joining Christ in his salvific effort in the world. God is particularly concerned with the plight of the oppressed; a point he demonstrated in Egypt and in Israel. Blackness thus becomes for Cone a “symbol of God’s presence in history on behalf of [oppressed peoples]” and Christ becomes black. Finally the church is a fellowship where Christ has broken down walls that divide (70). Christian communities that practice race-based discrimination are in fact, outside of the community of faith. Thus, with blackness as the symbol of oppression, anyone can be identified as black, regardless of skin-color. For blackness is less a condition of the epidermis than it is of one’s heart-level disposition towards the oppressed and dispossessed (151). White people can become black in this regard, and link arms with black power, black theologians thus joining God in God’s work of liberating the oppressed.

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