Review of Dianne Bergant, A New Heaven, a New Earth: The Bible and Catholicity

bookBy Wes Howard-Brook

Readers here of the “Wild Lectionary” series hardly need to be convinced of the Bible’s deep concern for all of God’s good creation. Our shared journey through the Scriptures from the perspective of Earth and her creatures has brought forth beautiful, poignant and powerful reflections on our own broken relationship with creation and the path to mutual healing.

But as we also know, humanity as a whole continues to run roughshod over the planet as if the constant alarm bells of record-breaking heat, storms and drought were not audible over the din of commerce and headphoned distractions. People who identity as “Christians” often lead the charge of climate denial and rejection of God’s love for creation. For such people, Dianne Bergant’s solid, steady, gentle overview of the Bible’s message of ecojustice may be just what is needed to shift perspective enough to join the movement to transform and to heal our relationship with creation.

I admit that I missed this book when it was published in 2016. The subtitle misled me into imagining the book to be about Catholicism rather than creation. A reference to it by someone I respect led me to take up the slim volume. In the first pages, Bergant explains what she means by “catholicity”: “a retrieval of the realization that a form of wholeness is already present, though often overlooked or forgotten” (p. 4). The volume is part of an Orbis Books series on “catholicity” that takes up the Vatican II challenge to reconsider the relationships between the Bible, the Church and the world. As an Orbis author for a quarter century, I am predisposed to trust that Orbis books will offer valuable and practical insights toward justice and peace. Bergant’s book fits will within this strong tradition.

Bergant is motivated by the recent scientific work that reshapes the human place in the universe, from quantum mechanics to evolution. She asks programmatically, “How are we to understand the claims of Christology and soteriology in the face of such discoveries?” Her method is to follow the ecojustice principles laid out by Norman Habel and colleagues in the “Earth Bible” series and Habel’s own volume, Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics (Atlanta, Society of Biblical Literature, 2008). These principles are:

  1. The principle of intrinsic worth
  2. The principle of interconnectedness
  3. The principle of voice
  4. The principle of purpose
  5. The principle of mutual custodianship
  6. The principle of resistance (laid out on p. 7)

Through this lens, Bergant proceeds through the Bible. She begins fittingly with the Garden of Eden and related water stories in Genesis and Exodus, weaving together reflections that gently challenge literalist interpretations in favor of those that see God working with rather than against the order of creation. That is, a “miracle” is ordinarily understood as “violating the laws of nature” as an expression of God’s sovereignty. Bergant juxtaposes this against a view that sees God working through natural processes, such as the “plagues” of Egypt as expressions of earth-response to human exploitation and violence.

For many readers—although again, not likely for readers here—such an interpretative lens could be deeply threatening. This is where Bergant’s steady, gentle prose is so helpful. She doesn’t scream or shout; she simply points out options and explains why the “natural process” perspective fits both the text and the presuppositions of the ancient world better than the “supernatural miracle” approach.

A bit more problematic is her engagement of the Conquest traditions in the book of Joshua. She confesses that “these passages present God as extraordinarily violent” and that seeing land as a possession to be taken from the indigenous residents “violates all of the ecojustice principles” (p. 48). But she ends up not knowing what to do with such passages, simply noting that they “persist in being troublesome” (p. 49). This is where, perhaps, my own “religion of creation vs. religion of empire”[1] approach might offer help, by rejecting such texts completely as contrary to the religion of creation embraced by Jesus.

She continues with the prophets Amos and Hosea as representatives of the tradition that arose in holy protest of the exploitation of the poor and of Earth by the powerful elite. This is followed by an exploration of the Wisdom tradition—especially Woman Wisdom (as presented in Proverbs 8 and Sirach 1)— of God’s creative power and presence within the created world. I wish she had explored more the social location of such texts as productions of the elite that stood against the then-emerging, radical apocalyptic tradition found in 1 Enoch and Daniel. But perhaps that is simply to impose my own concerns on Bergant’s vision.

She then concludes with an overview of how each of the canonical Gospels, the authentic letters of Paul and the book of Revelation continue to express God’s deep love of and concern for creation. As I read this well-written and easily-absorbed discussion, I felt within me something missing. On reflection, what I sensed was a lack of passionate and “earthy” expression, as we have grown used to expecting in the pages of radicaldiscipleship.net. For example, for Matthew’s Gospel, Bergant focuses on the role of the star that leads the magi to Bethlehem. But a star remains above and beyond, a symbol of God’s power over the sky/heaven and its relationship with the ground/earth, but not a symbol with which one can get one’s hands or feet wet or dirty. I longed for engagement with fleshiness, with the often messy reality of bodily illness, physical suffering, or erotic joy. Bergant’s writing offers good food for thought, but I yearn also for bodily stimulation: prose that gets the gut churning and feet moving. Jesus was controversial for many reasons, but one was his insistence on embracing the tears of a repentant women poured out on his bare feet at table (Luke 7.36-50), touching lepers and bleeding women, and being present in the daily, earthy sustenance of bread and wine.

But for people just starting to consider the relationship between God’s love “of the world” and our lives as “inspired earth” creatures (Gen 2.7), Bergant’s book is a graceful and hopeful introduction. I expect that many of us here have family and friends for whom this little volume would be a perfect way to take the first steps toward participation in the movement of radical discipleship as members, rather than observers, of God’s good creation.

[1] In “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010).

One thought on “Review of Dianne Bergant, A New Heaven, a New Earth: The Bible and Catholicity

  1. Pingback: Lisa’s Pieces:  Creation Care Tips from the Synod Lutherans Restoring Creation Team – Connections

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