Stephen Bede Scharper

"The world is on the verge of new and great changes, Mr. Scrooge. You agree?"

--Jacob Marley, upon meeting Ebenezer Scrooge in George Minter’s 1951 film, A Christmas Carol.

The above epigraph, alluding to the social, economic, cultural and political upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, could easily be uttered with equal verity in our own time.

As in Charles Dickens’s day, our world has recently sidled up to an all-you-can-eat buffeteria of great changes, from the computer revolution, genetic engineering and scientific discoveries about an emergent universe lined with mystery, to ascendant corporate power, massive poverty, ecological deterioration and globalized free trade heralding the kerygma of consumerism.

David Toolan, S.J., an associate editor of America magazine and author of Facing West from California’s Shores: A Jesuit’s Journey into New Age Consciousness, proves himself in this volume to be a skilled and sensitive chronicler of grand shifts. Carefully demarcating the provenance and scope of our current ecological crisis, and fertilely linking the post-Einsteinian universe with the sacramental heritage of the Judeo-Christian legacy, he offers a creative response to the question of an appropriate role of the human in light of such arresting developments.

Like his late Jesuit confrere Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)in memory of whom the book is writtenToolan engages, instead of dismissing, the scientific tradition, and turns a critical eye toward the scientific materialism emerging in the 17th century. He focuses his critical lens on the mechanistic understanding of nature formulated by René Descartes and that energetic P.R. man for the scientific revolution, Sir Francis Bacon, arguing that it is this desacralization of nature in Western science and philosophy, not the biblical tradition, that has led to our present ecological morass.

Toolan suasively counters those who claim the Judeo-Christian tradition is fundamentally anthropocentric and thus anathema to the eco-cause, arguing instead that the biblical tradition taken in its entirety provides a much firmer ground upon which to build an environmental ethic than previously suspected. He also takes a solid look at those, like Gregg Easterbrook, who claim that the state of ecocrisis has been exaggerated by environmental Hotspurs and thus does not demand immediate and drastic remediation. Sadly, the overwhelming evidence Toolan marshals concerning eco-loss, e.g., species extinction3 an hour, 74 a day, 30,000 a yearmakes us yearn for the fact-denying logic of Easterbrook and other eco-assuagers.

After confirming that the environment is indeed threatened, Toolan turns to the new cosmology presented by 20th-century physicsthe notion of an expanding universe emanating from a single moment of creation, and the import of this insight for the Christian faith.

How does one pray and act in a post-Einsteinian universe? Toolan wonders. The answer is an emergent one. It involves taking both the scientific discovery of an unfolding cosmos and the biblical call to justice seriously. We are thus called not only to awe-struck wonder at the beauty and mystery of a star-strewn sky, but also to action on behalf of those crushed by blistering economic systems that cause destitution. Toolan intimates helpfully that the Christian tradition must not only embrace the scientific insights of evolution of life on earth and the expansion of the universe, but ground this new insight in the soil of justice and social compassion.

This calls for a profoundly mature faith that embraces both change and stasis, radical ambiguity and rock-ribbed belief. This is an unprecedentedly murky yet exciting time to be a Christian.

This contemporary scientific understanding prompts for Toolan a rejection the Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover in favor of a biblical God, read by the lamp of Alfred North Whitehead and subsequent process thinkers. Such a God is one who, according to Toolan:

...lets creation develop in relative autonomy, who lets the world be, who renounces power and empties himself, who hears the cry of the poor and suffers with us.... After Darwin, that is to say, we can once again understand, as St. Paul did (Rom. 8:22), that cosmic destiny and human destiny belong inseparably together.

It is this overarching notion of mutual destiny, coupled with the diverse sources and at times luminous writing, that gives this book a powerful and welcome luster, allowing it to sparkle amid other attempts to address these admittedly colossal themes.

To paraphrase another expansive Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, from The Windhover:

Oh air, earth, cosmos, justice here Buckle,
AND the fire that breaks forth from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier.

For those new to these fires, Toolan unveils a lively and cogent introduction to the contemporary intersection of science, ecology, Christianity and cosmology. For those already baptized by these flames, he will certainly serve as midwife to new thoughts about how to be at home, and be ourselves, in this brave new cosmos.

Stephen Scharper is an assistant professor of religion and environmental studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Redeeming the Time: A Political Theology of the Environment (Continuum, 1997).