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Veli-Matti Karkkainen: Hope and Community

Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Hope and Community: A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World, Vol. 5. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Press, 2017), x-574 pages with indices.

Hope and Community constitutes the fifth and final of the planned volumes for Kärkkäinen’s opus, A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World. Constructive theology is different from traditional systematic and dogmatic theologies in that constructive theologies are purposely interconfessional, interdisciplinary and interreligious and intercultural (cf. p. xvii). Less attention is paid to biblical and exegetical issues and more to engaging with the “truths” and perspectives of those outside one’s group. Kärkkäinen believes that truth can be found outside of Christianity and that external perspectives are useful in helping us understand our own beliefs more fully. For readers, accustomed to foundationalist approaches to theology, Kärkkäinen’s coherentist approach can be quite disorienting. Nevertheless, those, willing to be led on this journey with no defined destination will find the path full of thought-provoking insights both for Christian theology and their understanding of the great religions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Like other volumes, Kärkkäinen disrupts the typical sequence of topics by discussing eschatology (i.e., hope) before the church (i.e., community). How much that disruption helps reorient readers, I will let readers decide for themselves. Part 1 delves into the topic of hope or eschatology. He discusses eschatology regarding three spheres, personal and communal, human and cosmic, and present and future (p.17). As is characteristic of constructive theologies, Kärkkäinen investigates how science understands the end. He accepts Science’s negative predictions based on a Neo-Malthusian understanding of humanity’s impact on creation. But Kärkkäinen should be commended for reminding scientists that they often make non-scientific statements as they move to metaphysical ones. He then reviews, in a non-critical manner, how eschatological themes are taken up by Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Kärkkäinen should be commended for reminding scientists that they often make non-scientific statements as they move to metaphysical ones.

Understandably, Kärkkäinen spends a whole chapter on the significance of the resurrection. He connects the resurrection of the body with the restoration of the cosmos. For those interested in philosophical theology, his discussion of the nature of space and time will stimulate reflection, but I am not convinced that his redefinition of eternity is sufficient.

In chapter 7, Kärkkäinen addresses the ecofeminist criticism that Christianity’s focus on the afterlife allowed her members to ignore/degrade the present condition of the planet. He correctly rejects the notion that belief in the afterlife requires a rejection of the present but grants too much weight to the socialist’s critique of capitalism and biocentrism’s critique of anthropocentrism as sources of environmental degradation. Though Kärkkäinen’s reading list is enormous, he neglected to read works sufficiently critical of the so-called environmental movement such as my own, Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (2009) or by E. Calvin Beisner to name two. The fact is many of the nations who have degraded their environments have anti-Christian cultures allowing rampant corruption along with the lack of economic freedom required by capitalism.

On the thorny subject of heaven and hell, Kärkkäinen offers what he calls “hopeful universalism”. He is hopeful that God will provide a way for all to accept Christ without violating the personal choice of those who persist in rejecting him. Those of a Calvinistic persuasion will find much to critique in this chapter.

All of us should be working for the unity of the faith.

In part 2, Community, Kärkkäinen addresses the church, particularly ecumenicalism. After defining various branches of Christianity, Kärkkäinen reviews how other religions understand the community of faith. From there he proceeds to ground his understanding of the church in the nature of the trinity. Chapters 14 & 19 are his most provocative in that he outlines a path for substantive ecumenicalism. I expected a rather watered-down approach but was surprised that he rebuked both high and low church communities for illegitimate roadblocks to mutual recognition. I should note that Kärkkäinen does not demand institutional unity, not that he would oppose such events should they happen. Rather he is looking for affirmation of communion, in that one church organization would accept as legitimate, one’s membership in another church organization such that both churches should share the Lord’s Supper. Although Kärkkäinen appeared to diminish some of the major differences between churches, I do grant that too often denominations have failed to at least endeavor to break down barriers between them, particularly when those barriers were not about Gospel essentials. His call and helpful insights on why churches are separate (It’s not always over theology) should be a reminder that all of us should be working for the unity of the faith.

Kärkkäinen addresses other topics such as the church’s nature (i.e. triumphant vs militant) and her offices. Surprisingly, he does not even believe that the Bible mandates any particular offices in the first place. But if there are to be offices, women should have equal access to hold them. Sadly, the lack of exegetical discussion diminished the force of his views for this reader.

In this final volume, Kärkkäinen does take a few pages to revisit his methodology (pp. 1-4). He reiterates his commitment to a post-foundationalist (i.e. coherentist) theory of truth. He affirms the necessity of integrating insights from outside one’s faith to help reduce, but not eliminate, the inherent biases of our cultural-historical conditionedness. Kärkkäinen is certainly a careful thinker, who seeks to avoid the traps and naivete of arbitrary dogmatisms. But he made a couple of comments that were troubling to me. On page 2 he writes, “… we hasten to add that we humans never have a direct, uncontested access to the infinitely incomprehensible God.” I appreciate where he is probably coming from, that there is a distinction between how we perceive something versus the nature of the thing itself, but can a Christian affirm that? Did Paul when he was taken to the third heaven have direct access to God? What about Paul’s Damascus Road encounter? Perhaps more troubling is the statement from page 3 which says, “That tradition, however, is neither a straitjacket that limits creative pursuit of knowledge nor a basis for mere repetition and defense.” I would agree that tradition is not a straitjacket as that is too restrictive. But tradition does act as a guard rail on the road that tells us the absolute limits of orthodoxy. Jude 3 assumes that there is a tradition, a body of faith that is fixed. Accept it or deny it but don’t tweak it. I would simply ask, “Are Christians called to be creative or faithful?” I wonder if academics, under pressure to always say something new, are too often motivated to be creative at the expense of faithfulness. We can be creative but in our presentation, not the substance. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves, “What is the substance of the faith that empowers us to evangelize like the Apostles did?” If we make that faith too uncertain, too squishy, too historicized, what is there left to care about let alone share with the world?

To conclude, I thought I would highlight several benefits that readers can glean from this series.

  1. Categories. Kärkkäinen provides readers with lots of helpful categories and distinctions on a range of topics. These alone are worth the price of the series.
  2. Engagement with world religions. Kärkkäinen has done some heavy lifting by outlining the beliefs of various religions and how they relate to similar areas within Christianity. If you are interested in inter-religious dialogue or apologetics, you would do well to get started here.
  3. Science and Christianity. Though the series is not focused on science and religion, Kärkkäinen’s engagement of cutting-edge scientific theories/speculations are helpful introductions to some very arcane, but important, topics. His analysis of time/space, and mind/brain are particularly noteworthy.
  4. Lack of Evangelical shibboleths. If you wish to learn how to write about Christian theology while avoiding Evangelical buzzwords or fighting words, then Kärkkäinen’s volumes will lead the way.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Vantassel

 

Preview Hope and Community: https://books.google.com/books/about/Hope_and_Community.html?id=eCxbDwAAQBAJ

Publisher’s page: https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/6857/hope-and-community.aspx

 

Read Stephen M. Vantassel’s reviews of all five books in Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s series A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World:

Volume 1: Christ and Reconciliation

Volume 2: Trinity and Revelation

Volume 3: Creation and Humanity

Volume 4: Spirit and Salvation

Volume 5: Hope and Community

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2020

About the Author: Stephen M. Vantassel, Ph.D. theology (Trinity Theological Seminary), M.A.T.S. Old Testament (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), B.S. Biblical Studies (Gordon College), is a Tutor of Theology at King’s Evangelical Divinity School in Broadstairs, U.K. and Assistant Editor for the Evangelical Review of Theology and Politics. His dissertation was published in expanded form in Dominion over Wildlife? An Environmental-Theology of Human-Wildlife Relations (Wipf and Stock, 2009), explains how biblical teaching on the use of animals provides a rubric for how God wants humanity to use the earth. He lives in Montana with his wife Donna. He regularly posts articles at kingsdivinity.academia.edu/StephenMVantassel.

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