Diarmuid O’MURCHU. God in the Midst of Change: Wisdom for Confusing Times. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013. pp. 195. $20.00. ISBN: 978-1-62698-041-9. (pbk.) Reviewed by Jane RUSSELL, Belmont Abbey College, Belmont, NC 28012.
This book has an attractive title. Who doesn't want wisdom for confusing times, especially wisdom from the evolutionary process itself? This reviewer struggled, however, to discern the wisdom in the confusing barrage of information presented.
O'Murchu starts by arguing that civilization went astray early, when it subverted humanity's native spirituality—grounded in nature—into patriarchal rule, dualistic religion, and scarcity economics. Using evidence from assorted social sciences, Part One identifies nine cultural “distortions” to be overcome, from assumptions about the superiority of “civilization” to the image of a God ruling “from the top downward” over disobedient children in a flawed creation, etc.
After Part One indicts the prevailing worldview as dysfunctional, Part Two points to recent crises as cracking the conventional wisdom, inviting transitions to a healthier future. Contending that only those who recognize problems can help catalyze change, O’Murchu catalogues breakdowns and signs of emerging newness. For instance, he paints the economic crash of 2008 as a portent of capitalism’s failure, the “collapse of a foundation we thought was impenetrable” (72). He predicts damage to the poor, the middle classes, and even the rich, with resulting turmoil, until we negotiate a transition to a more sustainable system.
In another example, facing planetary stresses like global warming, he invites us to abandon the “otherworld escapist spirituality” of most major religions and return to humans’ indigenous sense of connectedness to the earth. Such deep connections resonate with James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory—earth as a single living, self-regulating system—and with the earthiness of the human body (84-87)
Although this part contains hints of hope, it also raises the possibility of humanity’s “extinction” before, in Part Three, outlining aspects of the better future to which we are being called.
After the woes of the first two parts, the reader approaches Part Three impatiently, seeking the promised "wisdom for confusing times." Unfortunately O’Murchu’s overall point(s) fail to stand out from the floods of information here. The common thread seems to be a vision of deep interconnectedness to which quantum theory points the way.
In Part Three, O’Murchu argues that evolution is “luring” us to be (1) interconnected, like entities at the quantum level; (2) newly appreciative of the value of consciousness; (3) embracing the paradox of new-life-out-of-death (as Jesus did—a welcome positive mention of a Christian theme); (4) relational and cooperative; ( 5) empowered in bioregions; (6) reconnected to nature and thereby to our better, nonviolent selves; (7) living by sustainable, participatory economics; (8) reconnected with the empowering Spirit who lives in the world, not in a far-off heaven; and (9), as Catholics, embracing “the lure of the future” in our globalized church.
The book is hard to summarize because O’Murchu both crams it with information and keeps revisiting themes. We hear of Western religion’s patriarchal, otherworldly ideology in Part One with sections on God “ruling from the skyline” and religion “subverting spirituality”; in Part Two he affirms that “after religion, spirituality endures” and discusses “Christian salvation in an earthly paradise.” In Part Three he expounds on “Spirituality: reconnecting with the empowering Spirit.” O’Murchu is clearly promoting a new/old spirituality to “ground us in our earthly home while empowering us to rediscover its inherent sacredness”; but I would prefer to read about it in one sustained presentation rather than five overlapping pieces.
A strength of the book lies in the information the seasoned spirituality-and-science writer has gathered from disparate fields, from anthropology to psychology, sociology, economics, etc. One interesting tidbit was a 2005 study, Man the Hunted, disputing the paradigm of the prehistoric male hunter. The authors argue that "for much of our evolutionary history we were vegetarians rather than meat eaters" and continued to rely heavily on "roots, berries, and vegetables" even after we began to hunt animals.
If true, this fact might alter our assumption of a natural human tilt toward violence. But the interdisciplinary approach makes it hard for a lay reader to know how well established the thesis is. Has O’Murchu chosen astutely or poorly from the available anthropological literature?
Besides requiring readers to evaluate information from all over the scholarly map, O’Murchu’s writing also leans to rhetorical overkill, as when he calls “the entire economic system […] essentially corrupt and dysfunctional” (40). He dismisses the classic understanding of original sin as “primitive, preposterous myth” (102). Such peremptory judgments would not endear the book to many of my students.
In the quest for needed wisdom, O’Murchu gives us many interesting bits to chew on; I would enjoy discussing them in a book group with colleagues. For teaching, I will keep looking for a gentler articulation that, without writing off the dominant cultures of the last few millennia, positively allures us toward a more conscious, connected and sustainable evolving future.