Creation and the environment are the subjects of two recent books, both suitable for high school students in search of book report material — or simply a greater understanding of their faith.Human origins for the nonscholarlyFrom Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, by Brendan Purcell. New City Press (Hyde Park, N.Y., 2012). 365 pp., $34.95.Throughout the ages, scholars have pondered the "what" and "why" of human origin. In his book "From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution" Father Brendan Purcell, an adjunct professor in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia, attempts to provide answers to these questions, with a great deal of success.Father Purcell has delivered a scholarly work (with 625 footnotes and a 22-page bibliography) that is, at the same time, accessible to the nonscholarly reader. Because the work deals primarily in philosophy and science, the book requires effort to read and understand, yet Father Purcell makes it an interesting and enjoyable read throughout.The author, ordained in 1967 for the Dublin Archdiocese, intends this book as a quest for understanding, an exploration of "that exclusively inner dimension that characterizes us as human being." He is guided (and highly influenced) on this quest by the thought of the late Eric Voegelin, a philosopher of history. Discovering Voegelin's work while in graduate school in psychology, Father Purcell has pursued this study throughout his life, opening himself to human thought from throughout the ages and from all cultures.The late Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the best known of all American evolutionary biologists, argued for the theory of nonoverlapping magisteria. Gould believed that science could not be used to prove a philosophical or theological matter, and that philosophy and theology could not be used to prove a scientific one because they existed in two different realms: science in the realm of fact and theory, theology and philosophy in the realm of ultimate meaning and moral value.One could, however, look at science through the philosophical and theological lens, and use science to help us understand philosophy and theology. And that is exactly what Father Purcell accomplishes here. He does not try to prove his philosophical points with science or his scientific points with philosophy. Instead, he uses the philosophical viewpoints of Voegelin and the late Jesuit Father Bernard Lonergan to help us move through the evolutionary development of human beings.Although much of the book explores the biological differences that sets humans apart from all other humanoids (e.g. Neanderthals), Father Purcell's purpose here is to make "philosophical sense of the mystery of human origins."He begins by seeking to provide a "clear understanding of what we mean by 'human.'" He explores this notion by exploring primarily the literature of the Bible and that of ancient Greece. Father Purcell then looks at the natural sciences, focusing on creation and the beginning of time (thus, the Big Bang of his title) and the developments that led to the formation of the human race.Part Three examines how humans belong to but are different from the rest of the "humanoid sequence," what makes us human. Father Purcell argues persuasively here that it was the biological changes that made human speech possible that is the tipping point between humans and other hominids. Having established biologically what makes us human, Father Purcell finishes the book with arguments from theology and philosophy about human nature.As noted above, Father Purcell's work requires effort on the part of the reader, both to understand the multitudes of concepts presented and to follow his reasoning throughout. That said, the reader is amply rewarded for the effort.Perhaps the greatest drawback of the book is Father Purcell's wordy asides. In the introduction he takes several pages to describe how he came to know Voegelin and his works. Elsewhere he quotes long passages from texts when a sentence or two would have been enough. A judicious editing would have helped throughout.This work would stimulate wonderful discussions in high school and college theology classes, as well as in adult book clubs and discussion groups. It deserves serious attention and discussion.—Daniel S. MulhallHow religious ethics can help honor the earthEarth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, by Larry L. Rasmussen. Oxford University Press (New York, 2012). 368 pp., $45.Our age of speeded-up climate change, extinction of various species, wholesale destruction of ecosystems such as coral reefs and rainforests, and unjust economic and political realities calls for radical changes in how we think about human society. "Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key" is Larry L. Rasmussen's deeply reflective and eloquent response.Rasmussen, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor emeritus of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, writes from the perspective of a leading scholar of religion and ethics — also drawing from science, history and even poetry as he passionately asserts that we must care not only for human life but for the health of the entire planet.Rasmussen makes a compelling case that we need to develop a new spiritual and ecological ethic that will preserve our planet's well-being for present and future generations.In a fascinating section, he discusses the Great Chain of Being, which he calls "arguably the most influential of all Christian cosmologies." This long-dominant perspective "pictured life as an outflowing of the divine in an endless array of diverse and interdependent lives." God reigned supreme, followed by angels and then human beings (with men ranked higher than women). Peoples and cultures deemed "inferior" "were the unconsulted beneficiaries of a salvific gospel and way of life."This view ultimately justified the conquest and colonization of non-Christian nations around the globe, forced slaves to undergo the middle passage "with great loss of life and centuries of ensuing coercion and fear" and led to the near-extermination of native peoples.In place of the Great Chain of Being, Rasmussen looks to a web-of-life sacramentalism that values every creature, but "consciously shifts the common good as the long-standing Catholic ethical norm for human society to a common good inclusive of the planet, a good that includes global 'commons' such as the atmosphere and the oceans."Such a view makes the planet earth itself a sacrament; it is "a disclosure of God's presence by visible and tangible signs, like the waters of baptism and the waters of the Columbia River and its salmon."This perspective shares much with the teachings of other religions, including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. For example, Rasmussen quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk: "If we're capable of recognizing the flowing river, the blue sky, the blossoming tree, the singing bird, the majestic mountains, the countless animals, the sunlight, the fog, the snow, the innumerable wonders of life as miracles that belong to the kingdom of God, we'll do our best to preserve them and not allow them to be destroyed."Rasmussen considers at length the element of water, using it as a case-study opportunity "to think morally about and with a primal element of earth." All religious traditions, he writes, understand water as a source and sustainer of life and accordingly create sacred water rites such as the mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, or the Christian rite of baptism. He believes that to use water resources justly requires developing moral systems that consider not only the good of human beings, but of the planet earth itself. "A sacramental sense and web-of-life morality are more conducive to that than either chain-of-being sacramentalism or the commodity morality of industrialism."But, Rasmussen adds, "All water engineers need not become Franciscans. But there would be sound ecological water management, not command-and-control management, if they adopted (St.) Francis' adjectives: 'Praised be you my Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious, and pure' (Canticle of the Sun)."As he crafts this new ethic of spirituality and ecology, Rasmussen draws not only from official church documents and teachings but also from sources as varied as Thoreau, Gandhi, Maya Angelou, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The result is a deeply insightful analysis of our planetary crisis that offers inspiration about how we might change ours to a more earth-honoring faith. Also of interest: "The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution and Faith" by John Feehan. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2012). 219 pp., $26; "Faith and Struggle on Smokey Mountain: Hope for a Planet in Peril" by Benigno P. Beltran. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2012). 203 pp., $25.—Nancy L. RobertsThe Reviewers:—Daniel S. Mulhall is a catechetical writer and consultant. He lives in Laurel, Md.—Nancy L. Roberts, the author of "Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker" and other books, directs the journalism program at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
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