Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year

Edited by Anne Snyder and Susannah Black. Plough Publishing House, 2022. 400 pages. $35/hardcover; $20/eBook.

We live in a disorderly, liminal time. An old order is breaking down, as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than one million Americans and more than six million people worldwide; the enduring but increasingly unacceptable racial and other social injustices in the United States; the rise of political tribalism in how Americans, including our public officials, communicate with one another; the emergence of ethnonationalistic, regressive, autocratic leaders, some of whom are in control of nuclear weapons; and the growing dangers of climate change and mass extinction of species. If humans are to survive this turbulent time, we need to reorder how we live with each other and with nature. And we need spiritual wisdom to help reorder human behavior and preserve our hope for the future.

Breaking Ground: Charting Our Future in a Pandemic Year is a book linked to a collaborative web commons created by Comment magazine and to a network of Christian organizations and individuals who are engaged in public policy analysis and advocacy. The book provides essays by more than 50 authors—academicians, journalists, social activists, and writers—who explain and apply principles of Christian humanism as a source of guidance for reordering our collective lives. Some authors seem conservative in their political leanings, others liberal; none expresses partisan preferences. The authors focus their attention primarily on the pandemic, social injustices, and dysfunctional political communications.

Some Christian groups have become part of political machines that contribute to the current disorder. Christian humanism, however, stands in contrast to Christianity as a political machine, which began with the emperor Constantine I (306 C.E.). By their witness and scholarship, Paul of Tarsus, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Pope Francis, and many others helped develop the humanistic dimension of Christianity. At the individual level, Christian humanism regards Jesus as the model to be followed and persons as complex temples of the Divine. At the social level, coeditor Anne Snyder says:

Christian humanism insists that we understand one another in a layered and complex civic context: the institutions that form us, the cultural context that we exist within, the polity in which we find friendship and negotiate conflict, and the arts that educate our moral sentiments.

Among the essays in Breaking Ground, I was particularly attracted to three:

  1. In “Political Wisdom and the Limits of Expertise,” Jennifer Frey makes a case that the critical need to manage the pandemic is political prudence in pursuit of the common good.
  2. In “Is God Anti-Racist?” Amy Julia Becker argues that faith communities should apply passages of Scripture to “both personal and social concerns” (emphasis added).
  3. In “Recovering Democratic Politics,” Luke Bretherton, drawing on Thomas Aquinas, notes the connections between democracy and Christian virtues: the commitment to listen to each other, the assembly of people to form a polity, and shared action to conserve what is good and shine the light on “deeds of darkness.”

In providing spiritual knowledge to reorder human behavior and preserve hope in our turbulent time, Breaking Ground offers a slice of faith-based wisdom; almost all the authors in the book are Americans of the Protestant tradition. Other possible Christian contributors that could address this issue include mystics, evolutionists, and pantheists from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, in addition to the United States. The expanded knowledge base could draw, for example, on the writings and traditions of Francis of Assisi, George Fox, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, Paulo Freire, Thomas Berry, John Polkinghorne, Kenneth Boulding, and Desmond Tutu, along with contemporary authors such as Cynthia Bourgeault, Joan Chittister, Mary Conrow Coelho, Ilia Delio, Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. And then there is the wisdom of other faith traditions to consider: for example, Buddhist, Confucian, Indigenous, Jewish, and Muslim. These suggestions for broadening the knowledge base to help shape our future imply the need for other publications. As it stands, Breaking Ground, though narrow in some sense, will nonetheless appeal to Quakers as a source of Christian humanist knowledge about how to honor in the public square that of the Divine in every person.

Philip Favero, a member of Agate Passage Meeting in Kingston, Wash. (North Pacific Yearly Meeting), is a retired natural resource economist who aspires to become an ecological economist, climate activist, peacemaker, and poet.

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