One of the perennial concerns in Practical Theology is how to relate the Sacred Sciences and the Human Sciences to each other. There is a gap between the sacred sciences of scripture study, systematic theology and spirituality as understood in an ecclesial context, and the human sciences of psychology and sociology, established and developed in a context that explicitly excludes faith and religion. One of the tasks of practical theology is to identify and understand the forces of decline and progress in culture, community and individuals so as to provide resources to assist in reversing decline, and prompting progress, consistent with a methodologically tutored reflection on the historically emergent supernatural self-communication of God in grace, to humankind, a self-communication that reaches its irreversible climax in Jesus Christ. The use of insights gained from, and methods employed by, the human and social sciences are vital in doing this task. Drawing on the work of N.T. Wright, particularly the third of his 2018 Gifford Lectures, “The Shifting Sand: The Meaning of History”, this paper examines whether the discipline of history might serve in closing the gap between the sacred and human sciences in the service of doing practical theology.
The problems Humanity now faces have evolved from a general weakening of spiritual insight in the world and demonstrate the need for an overall shift in awareness, a rediscovery of our innate spiritual nature through training our religious and ecological faculties. It is crucial that we cooperate in returning Earth’s ecosphere to a state of equilibrium. We need to make available within communities a simpler, more nature-oriented lifestyle, as we learn to make shifts in our lives to help heal our relations with one another, our biosphere and our immediate ecosystems. By re-learning the significance of the Human/Nature and Nature/Divine interconnectedness, we can move into addressing the need for spiritual guidance by applying sensible practices in support of our children’s future world. An Eco-Askesis Framework will address issues of separation between humans and the Divine, humans and ‘other’ humans, and humans and nature, while increasing ecological literacy. This Framework can be taught through churches, in partnership with community groups. It can bring the Church into a role of immense relevance in the global warming crisis, as modern society faces increasing uncertainty about how best to meet the future. More attention on healing the Human/Nature relationship might also lead to a redirection of energy toward rediscovering the spiritual. Beginning with Mystical Theology in the context of reconnecting with God and Nature through the writings of Saints Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas, with Evagrius, Meister Eckhart, John Tauler, Henry Suso, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Thomas Berry and Paul Collins, we consider how elements from each approach may be combined into an eco-askesis praxis for sharing in community contexts. Of note are the profound religious experiences recorded by these illumined figures, and their training in prayer, contemplation, attention, self-examination, relinquishment, and serenity. Combining these askesis with eco-theological and scriptural study will allow people opportunities to develop their religious/spiritual faculties in a Nature-oriented context. Such a praxis would help position the Church to minister to those involved in negotiating changing conditions brought about by ecological uncertainty due to ecosystem/ecosphere imbalance, offering fresh roles of teacher/trainer and Eco-chaplain. As custodians of ancient practical spirituality designed to train our religious faculties, the Church would serve the world from its own fount of traditional mystical and ecological knowledge.
The devastating impact of largely human-induced global warming, evidenced by the recent “bushfire apocalypse” throughout Eastern Australia, calls for a response at every human level. We also know this to be a challenge for Christian churches and Practical Theology. Prophetic ecclesial voices – such as the World Council of Churches Statement on Climate Justice, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ and pronouncements of Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – are beginning to unlock dualistic thinking which divorces Christian spirituality from love, care and protection of the environment. Oceania is blessed with equally prophetic-mystical voices alerting us to the wisdom of Indigenous cultures whose non-dualistic appreciation of the sacredness of the earth is expressed in such terms as Fijian vanua or Aboriginal dadirri (and equivalent expressions in other Oceanic-Aboriginal languages). We now realise that an effective response to climate change requires a revolution in human thinking and behaviour captured by Raimon Panikkar’s notion of ecosophy – the earth’s wisdom – or Pope Francis’ call for an “ecological conversion”. Focus on the necessity of a Trinitarian vision at the heart of a Christian response to global warming may seem unnecessarily theological and insufficiently practical! My argument is that it is the very lack of a Trinitarian vision and spirituality which gives rise to the dualistic thinking that has brought humanity to its amnesia of the sacredness of the earth. Scripture scholars have long unearthed the false reading of human ‘dominion’ over creation (Genesis) leading to domineering, exploitative and destructive approaches to nature. Certainly, we are now facing the urgent challenge of realigning Christian thought and praxis with its Trinitarian foundations: Father, Origin and Source of all creation; Son, Word of life through whom every created reality comes into being; Spirit, Sustainer, present in wind, fire and water, hovering over all creation bringing it to completion. Wind, fire and (lack of) water describes recent Australian bushfire traumas. Equally, an excess of water in floods, cyclones, tsunamis and the rising of sea-levels is increasingly devastating for many countries in the Pacific and beyond. This leads us to question how the Trinitarian God acts not only in creation but also in its destruction and possible rebirth? Resources in the Eastern Patristic and Medieval Mystical traditions provide for a dynamic understanding of the Trinity present throughout an ever-changing universe with its creative, destructive and regenerative forces. If, as argued, a trinitarian reading of the universe is required to combat today’s environmental crisis, there is need to bring this Christian vision into dialogue with what Panikkar calls the “almost universal trinitarian insight of humanity”. While we may rightly search for a new theory of environmental ethics acceptable to diverse traditions – theistic, non-theistic and atheistic – arguably, the more urgent task is to challenge all dualistic approaches to God and the world, or humanity and the environment, that threaten our human and planetary future. In this light, Panikkar’s suggestion of an “emerging global myth” is examined for its cogency and practical implications.