On Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Review

Hallelujah! After two years — full of reading and writing and reading and thinking and writing some more — I am officially a graduate of Duke University Divinity School. I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to study with many great folks and to have fallen in love with the city of Durham. Jessie and I have some serious thinking and praying to do concerning whether or not a PhD is in the cards; for now, we plan to travel. To fill the time between wrapping things up here in Durham and beginning our season of travel (in Nashville, TN!), I requested a few books to review for the blog.

W.m. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. was kind enough to send along On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Cultivating a Contemporary Theology of Creation, edited by David Vincent Meconi,
SJ. This book is a collection of essays written by prominent Catholic Meconi_On Earth as it is in Heaven_wrk01.inddscholars and guided by a shared concern to theologically “resist the contemporary dangers of mindless acquisition and the consequent squandering of the earth’s rich resources” (p. 1). Each essay resists these contemporary dangers in a slightly different way. Some of the writing is quite dense, requiring a high level of attention and, for readers not trained in theology, perhaps a theological dictionary. The writers are masters of the theological craft. Agrarian writers, however, such as Wendell Berry, encourage interdisciplinary work, even at the risk of getting things wrong the first time around. I do not mention this to say that the writers of these essays have gotten things wrong. Rather, I mention it to note that many of these theologians are purposefully pushing themselves to think in new and exciting ways and that their thinking will only be refined as they become more comfortable writing at the intersection of Catholic theology and environmental matters.

What one will find in the 15 essays that comprise On Earth as It Is in Heaven are deeply Catholic, deeply theological reflections on why and how Christians might think about Creation and how that ought to effect the way we live. They are deeply Catholic thanks to the writers’ creative attempts at reading Church documents (encyclicals, social teachings, etc…) and Catholic thinkers (from Augustine and Aquinas to von Balthasar) to engage meaningfully with matters related to our current ecological crisis. They are deeply theological in that, unlike some ecotheology writing today, they consistently allow theological commitments to shape how they speak about things like global warming and population concerns. For instance, whereas some ecotheological writers tend to stretch Scripture to mean something it almost certainly does not mean, Marie George’s essay, for example, is willing to hold the tension of speaking about the human role within Creation as “kingship” and “kinship.” This differs significantly from, say, The Earth Bible Series which expects theological commitments and biblical texts to bend according to the desired understanding of Creation.

The essays are not, however, mere repetition of ancient Catholic thought. As I mentioned above, the essays are innovative and interdisciplinary. One will find references to Catholic Social Teaching alongside quotes from Wendell Berry. One will read Aquinas and Bill McKibben hand in hand! There are, of course, many other philosophers, Protestant theologians, environmental writers, politicians, and so forth drawn from throughout the book. This wide array of sources shows the level of creativity (as well as academic seriousness) with which this project was approached. The wide array of sources also embodies a gracious ecumenism, one that evangelicals would do well to engage with. Catholicism and evangelicalism already cross paths in a variety of social issues; perhaps thinking together with these Catholic theologians will enable us to see more clearly the theological nature of our environmental crisis. (I should say that evangelicals are, more and more, finding their voice in the environmental conversation. You can see my review of a book released last year by a small community of evangelicals by clicking here. By and large, however, many evangelicals are still hesitant to consider the seriousness of our environmental state.)

creation_iconOne way that we might learn from the theologians in On Earth as It Is in Heaven is to note how they reflect deeply with their own tradition. They ask questions like, Who are the key thinkers in our faith and how might their wisdom guide us in environmental matters? Evangelical theologians have done some of this — especially along biblical lines. But we might have even more to gain by thinking deeply with folks like Luther, Calvin, Edwards, or Wesley. One thing we might come to find is that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are, in fact, rather important for most of the reformers and that our shallow practice of them (among many but not all evangelical churches) makes our understanding of food, water, and creation anemic. This connection is, of course, made quite simply by the Catholic theologians in On Earth as It Is in Heaven: they commonly refer to the created order’s “sacramental nature”; what else could it be if God literally performs sanctification through baptism, eucharist, and other rites? For us evangelicals, we might be able to see that too, were we to read again ancestors like Luther or Calvin on the significance of the Lord’s Supper or Baptism with questions about processed foods and polluted rivers in mind. We may also find, to the contrary, that in our tradition there is very little wisdom to guide us in times of ecological crisis. That must raise the question Why? Why is it that our tradition, unlike Catholics and many other Protestants, struggles to see environmental issues as theological issues? Perhaps we will need to rethink what we think the Bible says about the earth, the animals, and the people that make up God’s creation.

In all, On Earth as It Is in Heaven is a great addition to the growing field of ecotheology. Catholic readers will benefit a great deal from reading and thinking with this book. As evangelicals accept the dire state of our planet and people, we would do well to learn from the examples set for us in this book — and to look into our own tradition for guidance in thinking well about God’s good creation.


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