Brief Book Review: Church as Dynamic Life-System

Church as Dynamic Life-System:
Shared Ministries and Common Responsibilities
Joseph A. Bracken, SJ

Who’s it for? All those who see (or should see) the need to view Church communities, structures, and practices in relation to our human and planetary evolutionary ecology, especially ministers, theologians, and college and graduate-level students.

What’s the main point? Bracken would like the reader to take a fresh look at the Church, one that situates its current (post-Vatican II, yet still somewhat static) self-understanding within a systems view of life on planet Earth. An alternative subtitle could be: “An Ecclesial Ecology from a Relational/Process Perspective.”

Why is this book useful?  It explores connections among evolutionary and process thought, ecological/ethical concerns, and ministerial structures, with close attention to and explanations of such thinkers as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Holmes Rolston III, Pope Francis (in Laudato si’), and Edward Hahnenberg.

Suggestions for the reader. I recommend two things to those who would take up Bracken’s very worthwhile text. First, after reading the helpful “Foreword” by series editor Ilia Delio, jump to the end of the book to read Bracken’s “Epilogue: My Intellectual Odyssey.” It helps to situate why he tackles the thinkers and topics he does, in the order that he does, as he then outlines in the book’s introduction and details in the ensuing five chapters. Second, while Bracken endorses and, on the basis of his systems thought, argues persuasively for a “bottom-up” approach to ecclesial ministry and ecological consciousness, the reader should not expect anything like a “how to” manual on these concerns.  He deals principally in the theoretical, but in a way that should stimulate our practical imaginations and creativity regarding our ecclesial life-systems, at varying organizational levels, precisely because of the inherent dynamism of his systems perspective.

Kudos. Professor Bracken offers a predictably masterful overview of the evolutionary thought of Teilhard and the process thought of Whitehead, and very helpful analyses of Hahnenberg’s Trinitatarian-based theology of ministry, the environmental ethics of Rolston, and the pertinent theo-ecological recommendations that flow from Pope Francis’ Laudato si’. One would hardly expect to find in one relatively short text such an ambitious and persuasive interweaving of all these topics. But Bracken manages it successfully because he draws on his broad expertise in process thought and the history of philosophy. He also brings them into coherence with his own life-systems synthesis of theology and science, a description of which he offers, with great care, in Chapter Three. Readers with little or no familiarity with any one of the topics mentioned will have learned a lot in a little time, while those even with considerable knowledge of them will come away with deepened understanding.

Bracken, Joseph A. Church as Dynamic Life-System: Shared Ministries and Common Responsibilities. Catholicity in an Evolving Universe Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019. 176 pages. ISBN: 978-1-62698-315-1

REVIEWER: David Stosur

David Stosur is Professor of Religious Studies at Cardinal Stritch University, specializing in liturgical theology. He recently published ““Rahner’s ‘Liturgy of the World’ as Hermeneutics of Another World That Is Possible,” in Philosophy and Theology 31 (2020).

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