Diarmuid O’MURCHU, INCARNATION: A New Evolutionary Threshold.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017,  pp.viii, 240. 184. $25.00. ISBN 9781626982352 (paperback)  Reviewed by Joseph A. BRACKEN, S.J. , Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207.


Diarmuid O’Murchu, MSC (Missionary of the Sacred Heart) is the author of many books on contemporary Christian spirituality.  In this book he identifies the ongoing creation of the world with the progressive incarnation of God in this world. This is not a totally new theme in Christian systematic theology.  Niels Henrik Gregersen, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, I myself in a recent book The World in the Trinity (Fortress, 2014) and several others have published works on the progressive incarnation or embodiment  of God in creation as a historical process. But O’Murchu’s book is still a welcome addition to the growing literature on a better understanding of the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation in contemporary evolutionary terms. Yet, at least in my view, O’Murchu also uses this new approach to the Incarnation to onesidedly critique much of  what he regards as the outdated world view embodied in the traditional beliefs and practices both of  the institutional Church and of Western civilization in comparison with the beliefs and practices of First Nations or indigenous peoples to this day (16-18). To allow the reader to make his or her own judgment on  this point, however, I  first offer a quick overview of the eleven chapters of the book and only then add  some personal comments.

In Chapter One, he notes that he is writing for a specific audience, namely, “wise elders” (Christians over 55) and “spiritual seekers” (those with no institutional church affiliation).  In Chapter Two he proposes a new Christian spirituality from an evolutionary perspective.  In Chapters Three and Four he envisions God as the Great Spirit that empowers  the creative process from within the world and thus acts as  equivalently the soul of the world.  In Chapter Five he  positively reviews the gradual evolution of humankind from homo habilis to homo sapiens but then especially  praises the egalitarian character of human community life before the Agricultural Revolution after which time patriarchy and the desire for private property emerged to corrupt human progress in living together peacefully. In  Chapter Six he  praises the new emphasis on cooperation rather than competition among human beings as a result of increased contemporary awareness of the interdependence of human beings with one another and the rest of creation.  In Chapter Seven he critiques traditional approaches to gender and sexuality since these beliefs and practices in his mind show little awareness of the socially grounded character of human morality.  In Chapter Eight,  in my judgment one of the most insightful chapters in the book, he focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus rather than simply on his painful death and miraculous resurrection as the source of our redemption from sin and suffering  and hence as our ultimate Salvation.  In Chapter Nine he questions, however, whether this approach to redemption from sin and salvation is necessarily limited to belief in Jesus as the Divine Word Incarnate since it smacks of Christian imperialism.  In Chapter Ten he critiques the strong focus in Advent on the Second Coming of Jesus as Judge of human history and the entire cosmic process since it too is patriarchal in intent.  Finally, in Chapter Eleven he offers guidelines for better adult education within the faith-life of the Church.

To his credit O’Murchu takes note of a wide range of philosophers of religion, theologians, and both natural and social scientists in setting forth his argument for a new understanding of the doctrine of Incarnation in evolutionary terms. I, however, have two misgivings about his governing methodology.  First of all, he does not analyze in detail the work of many of the authors whom he chooses to cite in defense of his own beliefs.  This leads me to the suspicion that he might be guilty of some “cherry-picking” in his references to the work of other scholars. Secondly, he does not provide an antecedent  philosophical understanding of the God-world relationship within which his own proposal of progressive divine incarnation into the world of creation could be logically defended.  For example, in referring to God as the Great Spirit who empowers the evolution of the cosmic process, is he talking about a transcendent entity or an immanent activity?  Much of what he says about the Great Spirit could likewise be said of the notion of creativity in the process-oriented cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead.  But, where Whitehead specifies that creativity is  an activity, the principle of process and self-organization within the cosmic process, O’Murchu is quite vague, sometimes referring to the Great Spirit as the Holy Ghost within the context of the Christian understanding of the Trinity and sometimes claiming that the Great Spirit is  the purely immanent “soul” of the World.  But, to be fair, I concede that O’Murchu is writing for a popular, not an academically trained, readership.  Furthermore, written in that more popular style, his books on Christian belief and practice have sold far more widely than any of mine.