by Robert P. Vande Kappelle
Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Ore. 264 pages
“If you want to look at the stars … darkness is required.” With these paradoxical words from Annie Dillard, Robert Vande Kappelle sets the tone for this interesting book. He is clear about his intended audience: (1) those who feel compelled to “choose between” their faith and the claims of science and reason; and (2) “progressive Christians” seeking an intellectual framework for their spiritual journey. If you do not find yourself fitting into either category, then this book may not be helpful. For the rest of us, we have a companion on our journey toward a post-critical faith.
Vande Kappelle provides an “autobiographical sketch” which helps the reader understand the passion and direction of the journey. He grew up in an evangelical tradition with missionary parents. Following college and graduate school, he pursued studies at Princeton Seminary and found a spiritual home in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). After five years of teaching at Grove City College, Robert moved to Washington & Jefferson College, and experienced a transformation in his worldview, which is now based in evolutionary biology and cosmology. His previous writings include three volumes on “Adventures in Spirituality.” This book, he informs us, “represents another stage in my spiritual journey.”
The guides on this spiritual journey give us some clues as to the conversations we will have along the way. The most frequent references are to Bishop Spong, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, John Haught and Robert J. Schneider. The appendices point to the influences of process theology and the epistemology of Deepak Chopra. Given the prominence of “the apophatic tradition” as the way of unknowing, more engagement with medieval Neoplatonists and modern Eastern Orthodox theologians would have been appreciated.
The title “Beyond Belief” arises out of a concern that belief requires exclusive either/or thinking. The comparison is made between a circle with one center and an ellipse with two focal points. “Faith” is dialectical, welcoming reason in the search for understanding that is not reductionistic. In this “post-critical paradigm,” faith is understood elliptically, as both God-affirming and world-affirming. Our focus is to be on the experience of faith, “heart knowledge,” rather than on assent to particular doctrines, “head knowledge.”
This journey “beyond belief” is framed by an old, familiar question: what is the “chief end” of life? The question comes from the 17th century Shorter Catechism from Westminster, yet it still is powerful today: what is the purpose of life? In an evolutionary universe, the “chief end” of women and men is to “carry forward in whatever way possible the general creative aim of the universe toward deeper and wider beauty.” Vande Kappelle does not make the connection, but we have learned from theologians as diverse as the early American Jonathan Edwards and the South African John De Gruchy that holy beauty cannot be separated from justice and virtue.
JAY WILKINS is the transitional presbyter for the Presbytery of Sacramento.