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God Unbound: Theology in the wild, by Brian McLaren

by
18 September 2020

Did Brian McLaren have to go so far, James Currall wonders

THIS book is the first in a series, part-travel guide, part-spiritual memoir, and part-ethical/theological reflection.

It’s a series that starts with a trip to the Galapagos Islands. The first eight chapters are travel guide — detailing eight days on (and off) a boat, snorkelling, and visiting several Islands in the archipelago.

The remaining chapters deal with the rest of the brief. Chapters on Darwin, theology and angling, theology and reptiles, theology and birds, and on how the terms “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” have been adapted in contexts far removed from that in which they were coined — sociology, economics, and commerce. There’s also a chapter about the author’s spiritual and theological journey, in which he receives spiritual insights from a Pufferfish in his imagination.

In the preface, we learn: “The post-modern turn challenges us to see . . . that all theology and spirituality are situated, with all the limitations and benefits that being situated brings”; that most of the theology of recent centuries is “civilised indoor theology”, constrained by many things including walls, plumbing, politics, prisons, wars, racism, greed and fear”; and that we need to throw off these constraints and do theology “in conversation with the wild world that flourishes beyond our walls”.

The author sees this distinction very clearly, though there’s a paradox that someone who lives in a fairly rural part of the southern US, surrounded by wildlife, needs an excursion to the Galapagos for him to throw off this constraint.

For me, this book is full of paradoxes. McLaren writes: “If you engage in theology and spiritual practice from a situation of power and privilege at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, you’ll see what’s visible from that lofty perspective, but you’ll miss a lot, too” — while indulging in a form of high-cost recreational tourism not accessible to many and writing a book that’s so culturally bounded that, at times, I struggled with it. Then there is the paradox of burning fossil fuels in air travel to get to an environmentally sensitive area and at the same time trying to expound an environmentally sensitive philosophy.

Chapter 11 describes how, through his Galapagos trip and subsequent reflection, the author ditched his imaginary suitcase of “conservative, white, American Christianity and its legacy of pressure”, and recognised a God of love who can be experienced through his creation. I really felt for someone who’d struggled with that pressure, while at the same time wanting to study and appreciate the natural world.

Finally, we’re provided with an outline of how to respond to this spiritual “evolution”. The author recasts Matthew 6.25-34 as an address by Jesus to the “dominant and anxious economic empires of our day”, and urges us to gaze with human benevolence and a deeper human awareness on the natural world around us.

 

The Revd Dr James Currall is a scientist, and Priest-in-Charge of the East Sutherland and Tain congregations in the diocese of Moray, Ross & Caithness.

 

God Unbound: Theology in the wild
Brian McLaren
Canterbury Press £14.99
(978 1-78622-201-5)
Church Times Bookshop £11.99

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