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Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation.

Mark I. Wallace. New York: Continuum, 1996. xii+237pp. $29.95 (cloth).

This is a courageous and important book. Courageous because the author, eschewing any pretense of detached academic objectivity, engages in a theologically risky and ethically demanding investigation of the cosmic significance of the Holy Spirit. Its importance lies in its capacity to balance the deconstructive and constructive dimensions of this theological project. On the one hand, he deconstructs, with admirable philosophical precision, a tradition of thinking about the Holy Spirit that, within the current intellectual and cultural climate, is no longer tenable. On the other hand, he employs a hermeneutically sophisticated reading of the Bible and a variety of other sources, to construct a vision of the Holy Spirit not as a disembodied spiritual force, detached, even aloof from the living world, but rather as the very life of the world as we know it. The result is a creative and constructive theological retrieval of the Holy Spirit in terms that are intelligible within the context of contemporary postmodern discourse and which holds out the promise of helping us address our most troubling ecological and social crises. Wallace describes his orienting thesis in these terms: "that the Spirit is the power of life-giving breath (ruah) within the cosmos who continually works to transform and renew all forms of life - both human and non-human." Noting that the Nicene Creed named the spirit as "the Lord, the Giver of Life," he sets out to "contemporize this ancient appellation by reenvisioning the Holy Spirit as God's invigorating presence within the society of all living beings." In articulating what he calls a "life-centered model of the Spirit," he aims to expand our understanding of the Spirit beyond its intratrinitarian role, and in the life of the individual believer, and to retrieve a sense of the Spirit's cosmic role - as the power of healing and renewal within creation.

In pursuing this "ecological pneumatology," Wallace avoids the language and tradition of metaphysical philosophy which, he argues, has bequeathed to us intellectually untenable and ethically and spiritually unhelpful notions of the Spirit as a metaphysical entity or principle of consciousness. Instead, he pursues a postmetaphysical, rhetorical approach to the Spirit, where the focus is not on articulating apparently timeless and stable philosophical formulations but on "recovering and constructing imaginative discourses about the Spirit that are transformative for earth-identified communities who have risked following the Spirit's inner promptings." Drawing primarily on the Bible (which he reads, under the influence of Paul Ricoeur, as a polyphonous, rhetorically diverse and symbolically suggestive text) rather than philosophical discourse for his understanding of the Spirit, Wallace arrives at a notion of Spirit as "a healing and subversive life-form." In this view, Spirit is understood as participating in and enabling the very life of the world; the earth's waters and winds and birds and fires are seen "not merely as symbols of the Spirit, but rather as sharing in her very being as the Spirit is enfleshed and embodied through natural organisms and processes."

Ironically, but not inconsistently, Wallace arrives at his polyphonous, rhetorically diverse and biblically rooted understanding of Spirit only by way of a long philosophical investigation. Indeed, the first half of the book, which he labels "methodological overtures," is comprised of a series of searching analyses of contemporary philosophy and philosophical theology. Drawing upon and interacting with figures such as Rorty, Levinas, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and Kierkegaard, Wallace asks whether, in the face of increasingly formidable challenges to the very intelligibility of theological discourse, we can still argue for a coherent and compelling understanding of the Holy Spirit. He thinks we can, but only by addressing ourselves seriously to three interrelated tasks. First, we need to locate theology in general and the theology of the Holy Spirit in particular within the context of postmodern discourse. Second, we need to pry theology loose from its longstanding affinity with metaphysics and instead embrace an antifoundational, rhetorical approach. Third, we need to eschew an essentialist understanding of truth (rooted in the old metaphysics) and instead develop what he calls a "performative" notion of truth.

The second half of the book, "Toward a Life-Centered Theology of the Spirit," builds upon these methodological overtures to construct an exciting, theologically coherent and ecologically significant understanding of Spirit. Here, Wallace engages three main questions. First, drawing on Rene Girard's understanding of mimetic desire and violence, he asks whether the Holy Spirit can be understood as the power that unmasks and defangs our tendency toward mimetic desire (and therefore toward destructive violence against the other) and leads those who listen to her to instead enter into relationship with and take responsibility for the welfare of the other (which, implicitly at least, includes nature). Second, he asks whether we are prepared "to shift the weight of theological emphasis away from understanding the Spirit either theocentrically or anthropocentrically" and move toward an "explicitly biocentric model of the Spirit in nature?" Third, Wallace asks whether we can arrive at a coherent and credible understanding of Spirit without confronting the reality of evil which seems to call into question the notion of the Spirit as cosmic healer and sustainer of all life forms on the planet. His honest and probing attention to these difficult questions results in a vision of the Spirit that is both convincing and encouraging.

It is intriguing to note how often this unabashedly theological study intersects with the language and concerns of spirituality. This is perhaps not surprising, given the subject matter of the book. Still, the extent to which the author makes use of the language of spirituality reflects the growing sense among systematic theologians that the theological enterprise must be rooted in the life of the Spirit. In the present case, this means not only striving toward a heartfelt appropriation of the Spirit in one's personal life, nor merely cultivating a deeper awareness of the Spirit's presence within the life of the triune God. It means waking up to the Spirit who is the very life of the world and committing oneself to participate in the Spirit's healing and renewing work.

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Author:Burton-Christie, Douglas
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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