Pastor Pat Bailey in front his church


Editor’s note: In his doctoral dissertation, Pastor Pat Bailey of Telluride’s Christ Presbyterian Church is claiming the need for a re-visioning of the Christian church’s theology and its understanding of mission, the need for a more natural, integrative theology and for an earth-focused, contextual approach to mission. To that end, he is reviewing the theology of three contemporary theologians whose thought is very integrative of Nature and Spirit from three very different approaches. Below Pastor Pat presents the thought of Sigurd Bergmann, who provides a view of the Spirit that is deeply integrative with Nature, expressed in classical categories of trinity and incarnation and informed by Liberation Theology.

Sigurd Bergmann’s theology certainly pushes the limits of classical and revealed theology toward a highly integrative and inclusive perspective of God and Nature.  However, by insisting on a literalized worldview that wholly distinguishes God and Nature and explaining the interaction of the two entirely in terms of trinity, incarnation, and salvation history, he has removed the mystery of God and Nature’s co-inhabitation, and so, God is present in the world through modes that are distinctly human: revelation, incarnation, and praxis.  The material world for the most part remains strange and alien to God.

A concept of salvation that focuses solely on socially enacted liberation limits the experiencing of God and God’s transforming influence to the poor and the victims.  As a way of asserting a higher authority in issues of social justice, some advocates of Liberation Theology tie themselves to literal and foundationalist presentations of the Christian tradition.  I believe that puts the church in an overly moralizing stance with a far too-narrow prophetic proclamation.  While situations of injustice are important for the church’s attention and action, without the themes of the tradition that speak more broadly and more deeply to the human experience, the church’s response to injustice becomes a hollow moralistic proclamation that is easily ignored in late-modern contexts, no matter how much one insists upon a higher authority.  Furthermore, it is literalism and conservatism that is now being manipulated in support of new forms of political imperialism, racism, and environmental exploitation.

By contrast, the subjective turn that I identified as present within my own context and that of much of late-modern culture emphasizes the inner and relational subjective experience over the external authority of church and doctrine.  I do not think that Bergmann would approve of the reflective framework, the holistic milieu, and the ethic of authenticity lived out in present life, all so prevalent in the late-modern context.  He might justifiably question the attendant power interests of such constructs, but as he asserts, the church must always be prepared to analyze the relationships of power necessarily adhering within every understanding of tradition.  The church might also question whether an appeal to divine authority, not to mention absolute omnipotence, does not justify ecclesiastical and cultural overreaches of authority while at the same time failing to inspire broadly the compassion needed to enact liberation.

As I said earlier, I believe that the self-awareness and self-transformation emphasis of the subjective turn with its relational, environmental, and universal concerns is capable of effecting a transformation of culture and society toward peace and justice.  It will do so, however, by persons recognizing themselves in one another and in a shared reality rather than setting themselves over against one another.  I believe that this is a very different approach from that of, broadly speaking, Neo-orthodoxy, Liberation Theology, or even traditional Liberalism, all of which still function under assumptions of the authority and superiority of the Christian tradition rather than emphasizing personal and relational subjectivism and a spirituality effecting balance, wholeness, and health for the entirety of creation.

Next Sunday I will begin a review of David Ray Griffin who approaches the relationship of God and Nature through the Process Theology of Alfred North Whitehead.

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