The divine world


Praising the “grandeur” and “power” of her colleague William Schweiker’s 2004 book on theological ethics, Divinity School professor Kathryn Tanner couldn’t help chuckling at the “movie review” he’d slipped into a chapter comparing the Cain and Abel story with Natural Born Killers. While listeners polished off carrot cake and coffee during a Swift Hall lunchtime forum last Wednesday, Tanner—critiquing the book before the author took the podium—said Schweiker, PhD’85, put “religious stories to the test” of “the moral demands of the day” in his “analysis of the global cultural scene and the moral challenges it poses.”

With chapter titles like “Reconsidering Greed,” “Love in the End Times,” and “On Moral Madness,” Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers) argues for a realignment of ethical principles. It hails environmentalism on theological grounds and finds benefit in religious pluralism. As myriad cultures homogenize humanity—often to good effect but sometimes wreaking violence— “one can no longer make God, humankind, or nature the center of reflection from which to see everything else,” Schweiker said. Instead, he urged, “think toward the ‘integrity of life,’” which he defined as the union of “natural, sentient, social, human, and I would even say divine life.” Theological ethics has a duty to help preserve that union. “Christian stories and texts help us perceive and understand the world in a way that might transform,” he said. “They pay a debt to enhance and respect that integrity of life.” A “massive problem in Christian teaching,” he said, is its focus on sin, redemption, and heaven—all human-centered concerns that offer little guidance on “how to relate to the natural world.”

Jewish-studies professor Michael Fishbane, who also took part in the forum, compared Schweiker’s conclusions to those of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who thought of technology, Fishbane said, as a “Promethean and violent assault on nature,” and physicist Werner Heisenberg, who denounced “exploitative technology but [didn’t] see technology itself as a danger.” Schweiker, Fishbane emphasized, asks his readers to “think beyond our specific life to the world as a divine realm and to preserve its resources for all life.”


Photos: Kathryn Tanner looks on while William Schweiker answers questions about his book (top); Michael Fishbane also takes part in the forum. (bottom).

November 13, 2006