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Christopher Southgate, Theology in a Suffering World: Glory and Longing, 2018

Theology has always acknowledged as a paramount challenge the question of unjust suffering. To some extent, we can state that one of theology’s main tasks has been to explain the persistence of great pain and distress in a world related to God and his loving will. Many answers and reflections have been developed down the centuries; however, a general perception is that something new and different has entered the frame recently, adding new considerations we cannot ignore. This novelty is the scientific knowledge of natural processes, many among them resulting in great pain and sorrow. Such an addition permits several readings. Some writers consider that the scientific view renders the theological representation simply redundant, since we do not need any longer to make sense of all that negativity, now self-explained (John Dupré, Darwin’s Legacy, 2005). Others regard evolutionism and scientific views as a ‘gift’ to religious faith, helping us to better address that challenge; a prominent example being Francisco Ayala and his Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion (2007).
Southgate is not new in that field and in attempting to provide an answer to that conundrum. His previous essay The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolu-tion, and the Problem of Evil (2008) – reviewed in this Bulletin – offered an excellent and balanced account on how evolutionary theory can fit into Christian theology to become a good ally. The new book now reviewed can be seen as in continuity with the earlier one. The new one is clearly more theological, but nevertheless keeping a strong connection with scientific developments.
The book is divided into five chapters, all of them starting with the word ‘Glory’. Indeed, it is basically a theological essay on how that category can help us better understand the relationship between God and a suffering world. That point can appear quite counterintuitive: divine glory should be perceived rather in its great achievements and positive outcomes – after all, the concept of ‘glory’ is more associated with triumph and success. A deeper reading of that central idea in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the liturgy and the Great Tradition helps us to change our minds and to discover ‘Glory’ in a much more subtle and accurate way, as a closeness of God to the suffering world, and a promise of redemption. This semantic displacement requires an in-depth reading of the Biblical texts, together with an exercise in semiotics, or the ability to discern signs and their meaning, and to reconnect the natural and the divine reality, after the apparent divorce that could result from so much unjustified and scandalous suffering.
Some notes in the introductory chapter are very helpful to our grasping the book’s right tone, as the proposal to distinguish three ways to understand divine glory: as direct physical appearance; as a Platonic reference from the material towards the spiritual realm; and as the “semiotic scheme, in which the material world carries signs of the divine reality” (7). This third version is favoured, and clearly points to divine glory as a sign that invites one to discover its meaning and to give a personal answer. The book is an exercise in that hermeneutic, applying ‘triple lenses’ to assist in finding the meaning of the worldwide sorrow: as Gloria mundi, or its concrete manifestation in the natural world; as Gloria crucis, or the redeeming quality of Christ’s work; and as Gloria in excelsis, or the eschatological projection of everything.
Chapters one to five present such an exercise in detail. The first chapter is principally methodological, makes good use of traditional Peircean signs theory, and suggests the building blocks for a theology of glory based on authors who have engaged in a similar task, like Barth and Von Balthasar. That exercise points to connections between glory and the related concepts of beauty and wonder, clearly involved in the contemplation of divine glory.
Chapter two offers an extensive biblical analysis of glory, to support the triple model already mentioned. Chapter three is possibly the most engaging; its title is significant, “Glory in the Natural World”. After reviewing and vindicating the academic endeavour traditionally known as ‘natural theology’, Southgate undertakes the hard task of showing that theism is compatible with the harsh facts we observe in our world. The scientific evolutionist view delivers a very realistic comprehension of natural process that develop in the frenzy of competition, self-interest and constructive destruction. Since that process is so fruitful, we need to recognize its positive character, despite the odds. The difficulty consists in being able to read all this as a sign revealing divine glory. Theology needs both the scientific analysis and poetic creativity to render plausible a divine manifestation where it could appear to be absent, at least for a reductive and one-sided idea of glory. When we are able to amplify that concept to include the three dimensions related to the world, the cross and the eschatological promise, then things appear more convincing. Of course, the natural world retains a deep ambiguity, and faith needs to discern signs otherwise unrelated to divine presence and glory. Indeed, theological reflection and poetry help to save that distance and to perceive how God is revealed even in apparently negative natural processes.
The same chapter adds an engaging excursus that discourages the traditional theological move to separate from God what is considered ‘natural disvalue’, as a fall or the result of sin. After recognizing some ‘opacity’ in the natural world, Southgate insists that a model, able to link suffering in the evolutionary process to divine glory and redemptive activity, is far better than one resorting to a fall version and a detachment of a big part of natural process from divine plan. Then he engages again with Von Balthasar, and with the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, to make his case, pointing to an active engagement of the believer who is able to recognize glory and to praise the Creator. As a result, believers can associate suffering in the world with Christ’s redeeming work and the liberating hope that at the same time drives us to compassion and helping to remedy and improve things.
Chapter four reflects on glory in the arts and mysticism; and chapter five on “Glory in the Christian Journey”, or in the life process. The point is that we need a special pedagogy to learn to connect worldly suffering and divine glory, a step that is available for all those who are open to such mystery; indeed, Southgate claims that “the contemplation of divine glory is part of every human vocation” (201).
This is a very engaging book, and a very theological one. The effort is placed in showing how we can contemplate the natural world as explained by physical cosmology and biology as revealing – and not hiding or disabling – the divine presence and glory. My impression is that the proposed schema suggests a sort of ‘theological voluntarism’ and confers a great role to a believing system able to connect the natural realm with the divine as a special human ability or skill. Such an approach suggests the work of another American pragmatist contemporary of Peirce (and Hopkins): William James and his The Will to Believe. Perhaps we could also connect it with a later Christian philosopher: Paul Ricoeur and his The Conflict of Interpretations. Indeed what Southgate proposes with extraordinary talent and erudition can be well merged into both models: a will to believe in divine love despite our witnessing so much destruction and suffering; or the choice of an hermeneutic clue that nevertheless will conflict with others available and equally plausible.
I just hope that such a schema succeeds and convinces most people to see an incomplete and sorrowful reality as revealing divine glory, however this may be understood.
Lluis Oviedo
Antonianum University, Roma
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 29:2 (June 2019), pp. 36-38.