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God Unbound: Theology in the wild, by Brian McLaren

23 April 2021

James Currall on one writer’s finding of God in Nature far from home

THIS book is the first in a series, part travel guide, part spiritual memoir, and part ethical/theological reflection — a series that starts with a trip to the Galapagos Islands.

The first eight chapters are travel guide — describing eight days on (and off) a boat snorkelling and visiting several Islands in the archipelago. The remaining chapters deal with the remainder of the brief. There are 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 from that in which they were coined — sociology, economics, and commerce. There is 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 that “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 it is a paradox that someone who lives in a fairly rural part of the southern United States, surrounded by wildlife, should need an excursion to the Galapagos for him to throw off this constraint.

For me, this book is full of paradoxes. One is recognising the post-modern turn and that “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 is 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 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 could be experienced through his creation. I really felt for someone who had struggled with that pressure while at the same time wanting to study and appreciate the natural world.

Finally, we have 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.

Canon James Currall, a scientist, is Priest-in-Charge in Dornoch, Lairg, Brora, Tain and Tongue, in the diocese of Moray, Ross & Caithness.


God Unbound: Theology in the wild
Brian McLaren
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.99

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