Dianne BERGANT, C.S.A. A New Heaven, A New Ezarth: The Bible and Catholicity. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2016 pp. 200. $25.00 pub. ISBN 978-1-62698-180-5. Reviewed by Kathleen BORRES, Saint Vincent Seminary, Latrobe, PA. 15650.
Sr. Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. makes a significant contribution to the field and study of theology and Sacred Scripture in her most recent book A New Heaven, A New Earth: The Bible and Catholicity. While there is a common thread running through the introduction and the seven chapters of the book, each chapter is unique and offers readers a lens through which to read Sacred Scripture with freshness. The hermeneutical lens she offers her readers is one that is both ancient and new and is a catholicity whose range is cosmological. In the process, Sr. Bergant shines a light on the harm an anthropomorphic view of catholicity and an approach to the cosmos that assumes humanity's ownership of, and right of mastery over, the cosmos. She shows how such a limited view compromises God's intentions, as did the first sin and every other sin since. The consequences of original sin, which resulted in different forms of alienation, theological, sociological, psychological, and physical/cosmological, is realized whenever anyone maintains such a limited view of the created order and God's design.
Sr. Bergant approaches her writing both historically and systematically and the book itself is presented in a way that includes, in chronological order, key periods and writings in the Judeo-Christian story. Many people are already familiar with the Judeo-Christian story as presented in Sacred Scripture. However, with Sr. Bergant's eye to the historicity of Sacred Scripture, and with her sensitivity to the broader designs of God's creation and application of six eco-justice principles "fashioned from . . . the Australian ecotheologian Norman Habel and several of his associates," she offers a fresh reading. Those who are already familiar with the biblical story and the different genres in Sacred Scripture will be all the better for it. Abbreviated, these principles are: the intrinsic worth of the earth and each of its elements; the interconnectedness and interdependence of all earth's members ("the community of Earth)"; the unique voice and purpose of each member of earth's community "in the dynamic cosmic design"; the responsibility for maintaining the integrity of God's design that is shared by all members of the community (there is a "mutual custodianship"); and, finally, the earth's natural resistance to manipulation and exploitation.
Maintaining the historicity of the texts and attending to these principles, Sr. Bergant also draws out the revelatory dimension of the text "for all times," and, for the most part, finds there is such a dimension in all the texts she explores. There is one exception, however, which gave this reader some pause. Sr. Bergant does not admit of any meaning for all time in the text, other than the historical/literal, in the case of those texts that appear as if to divinely encourage the seizing of Canaanite lands. Such texts are "historically conditioned by the cultural practices and understandings rather than [are] revelatory for all times." The caricature of a violent God who justifies the seizure of lands and all this entails - his gift to one people at others' expense - has to be set aside. The stories are not "revelatory for all times" and are not capable of rehabilitation. Sr. Bergant refers to this as a negative finding in her pursuit to discover if one can rightly attribute the six eco-justice principles and a cosmic sense of catholicity to Sacred Scripture.
This negative finding poses certain problems for those who hold that all Scripture is inspired and revelatory. While they may very well agree with Sr. Bergant that the stories as presented are problematic, they may be uncomfortable with the way Sr. Bergant handled the problem, hoping to encounter a revelatory text for all times. Perhaps she could have applied the principle she used with her other negative finding, one that involved the Book of Revelation. In that case, the seemingly anti-Earth texts (anti-Earth community) could be read as birth pangs in the messianic age, as "Earth moving through the painful process toward transformation."
One would have to be careful with such an application, of course, for the seizure of land is certainly destructive and is hard to legitimate for any time, as if seizure of the land, interpreted as God's gift to a particular people, is justified in "the painful process toward [Earth's] transformation." At the same time, one would not want to diminish the historicity of the text or deny the theological interpretation of that history as part of the Sacred Scripture handed down to us, which Sr. Bergant seems hesitant to do and which leaves exegetes and theologians few options.
Rather than denying the revelatory nature of these problematic texts for all times, however, why not read the revelation as something other than a violent God apparently justified in his gift-giving at the expense of others, even though people have often read it (and God) in this way? In other words, is it divine revelation that God seizes land - or permits seizure - or is the revelation more fundamental than that? That God has to work with people in their conditionings and sin, all the while moving all nations, together with the whole of the community of Earth in "the painful process toward transformation"? Sr. Bergant seems to imply this, but she opted instead to deny any possible rehabilitation of these texts "for all times."
The book is definitely worth reading and using in the classroom. I highly recommend it for foundational theology courses, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. I believe it would also be valuable for adult education classes in the Church, as Sr. Bergant has given her readers a successful and refreshing presentation of the possibilities for A New Heaven, A New Earth, one that we all need to hear today.