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At the altar and in the secular world

10 June 2016

Martyn Percy admires a festschrift rooted in its subject’s thought



A Man of Many Parts: Essays in honour of John Bowker on the occasion of his eightieth birthday

Eugene E. Lemcio, editor

James Clarke & Co £20



THIS book is an inspired homage to a theological polymath. John Bowker is a cleric, lecturer, writer, broadcaster, and scholar. He has also served as a consultant to UNESCO. Bowker’s span of theological writing has been wide-ranging and rich, rightly garnering awards and critical praise for books such as The Meanings of Death (1991), The Sense of God (1995), and The Sacred Neuron (2005).

In 1974, Bowker was appointed Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster — a bold move from his position as Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, but, none the less, a sign of how the study of religion was changing in Britain. Lancaster was a pioneering department that taught religion with refreshing originality, choosing to organise the study of faith by common themes and practices rather than through its distinctive historical theologies.

In 1984, he moved back to Cambridge to be Dean of Chapel at Trinity, and from 1992 to 1997 he was Gresham Professor of Divinity in London. His work continued to develop, and in his research this was a productive and rich period.

Bowker has always been a profoundly independent and original thinker, and this collection of essays, skilfully compiled and edited by Eugene E. Lemcio from Seattle Pacific University, bears handsome testimony to a theologian who has always been a true searcher for meaning — and often at the forefront of debates on religious violence, science and religion, the new atheism, interfaith dialogue, and ecology. Bowker’s theology is marked by a critical-empathetic approach — a form of engagement that took root in his training at Ripon Hall, and has never left him.

The book is divided into five main parts: biblical studies; theology; neuroscience and theology; comparative religion; and culture. Readers will not be surprised to find contributors such as Sarah Coakley (reflecting on “who or where is Christ at the altar?”), Jane Shaw (on moral imagination and the sense of God), Gavin Flood (on the idea of constraint in Hinduism), Christopher Rowland (on Judaism in the New Testament), William Abraham (on theology and neuroscience), and David Craig (commenting on Bowker’s work as a religious broadcaster for the BBC).

Coakley’s essay on “In Persona Christi” is worth the entry price alone. For many scholars in religious studies, questions around theological truth, or of the reality of religious experience, are ones that are either relativised or perhaps best avoided. Bowker never chose this path; and Coakley’s magisterial essay complements Bowker’s instincts perfectly, leading us in a discussion of where we might find Christ at the altar. Neither Bowker nor Coakley, reassuringly, think that this is the place where God is minded to jilt us, so to speak.

Shaw’s deft essay explores how God meets us in our minds and moral sensitivities — paying due attention to one of Bowker’s main preoccupations, namely, where we actually get “the sense of God” from, and what this leads to in terms of moral reasoning and practice.

Bowker’s range and rigour, with his depth and creativity, have inspired countless students and scholars over several decades. He represents something of a golden age in late-20th-century Anglican theological thinking — creative, critical engagement that holds its own within the humanities and social sciences.

Bowker’s theology continues to shape thinking and inspire in the 21st century, and Lemcio is to be congratulated on this important volume with its excellent selection of topics and authors. This is an expansive and creative book, rooted in the scholarship, wisdom, and writings of one of the most imaginative, capacious, and innovative Anglican minds of our time.

The Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He is the Professor of Theological Education at King’s College, London.

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