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Conversations on the natural world

Opinion

Adelaide priest and theologian Denis Edwards was a leading scholar internationally in the fields of ecological theology and theology’s dialogue with the natural sciences.

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Following his unexpected death in March 2019, Adelaide biblical scholar Marie Turner and US theologian Ted Peters invited Denis’ international colleagues and other scholars to contribute essays in his honour. God in the Natural World is the very fine result. You get the sense that some of the authors are furthering conversations about questions they’d already ‘kicked around’ with Denis and wanted to take a step further. The major limitation of the collection is that there’s no response from Denis, but there’s little the editors could do about that! Having worked with Denis for two decades, I could almost feel him wanting to respond to many of the 21 chapters, such would be his joy.

A heartening aspect of many of the chapters is their reference to the authors’ personal relationships with Denis. As British theologian Christopher Southgate puts it: Denis’ ‘infallible courtesy and quiet kindness left a deep impression on me, as did his ever-humble, ever-searching enquiry into the things of God and the world’.

Conscious of the Catholic tradition’s deep regard for the sacraments, Danish Lutheran theo-logian Niels Henrik Gregersen asks whether it makes sense to speak of nature as a sacrament, particularly since nature often contains competition and violence. Gregersen contends that it makes more sense to speak of ‘sacramental encounters with nature’ rather than nature as a sacrament, and enlists the sacramental theology of Denis and Karl Rahner. Denis would, no doubt, have more to say about his own stance on Rahner’s sacramental theology.

In the chapter, ‘From Deep Incarnation to Deep Divinisation?’ South African theologian Ernst Conradie asks whether St Athanasius’ (297-373) theology of God’s presence as divinising (which was foundational for Denis) is tenable in an evolutionary world. Denis’ colleague and old friend from Washington DC, John Haught, turns to a thinker who inspired Denis, Jesuit palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Haught argues that Teilhard’s whole approach to the natural world (his methodology) raises questions about Rahner’s and Denis’ approaches. Denis would have lots to talk about here, and very respectfully!

God in the Natural World opens with Denis’ own account of his intellectual journey, ‘A Story of a Theologian of the Natural World’, written for the journal Theology & Science. He starts from his childhood love of the Flinders Ranges and charts his theological journey from the 1970s. The book contains fine essays by Adelaide theologians Michael Trainor, Stephen Downs, Julie Trinidad, Mark Worthing and Vicky Balabanski.

ATF has also published Denis Edwards in his Own Words, edited by Hilary Regan and Anthony Kain. The early essays address a range of topics from the state of Australian society to the nature of the church. The latter mainly explore questions in the fields of ecological theology and theology’s dialogue with science – essays which Denis developed into book-length studies in an extraordinarily productive life.

God in the Natural World Theological Explorations in Appreciation of Denis Edwards

Denis Edwards in His Own Words (A Selection of Writings from 1976 to 2019)

Published by: ATF Theology, Adelaide 2020

Reviewed by: James McEvoy, who is an Adelaide priest and lecturer at the Australian Catholic University

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