Anna from Creekside Press asked me to review this book a while back. Since I am always happy to hear from a Christian who cares for Creation I jumped at the chance to read a new book!

This book is part two of a series on Environmental Theology published in the late 1980’s by John Knox Press (Creekside Press now handles Richard Austin’s material). Dick Austin has completed a forty year ministry with the Presbyterian Church, as well as taken part in environmental activism against coal strip mining. He has spent time as an organic farmer as well (here). On the subject of environmental theology I can think of no qualifications which he does not possess.

In this book, Austin seeks “to help readers explore the Christian experience of nature” and “to help integrate our experience of God with our self-understanding and our experience of nature” (3 and 4). He accomplishes this by exploring five main themes: Beauty, Landscapes of the Mind, Awakening, Identity, and Nature. Austin defines beauty as something that must be engaged by the senses, and which can be recognized by experiencing the subject. In Landscapes of the Mind, he describes some wonderful experiences with beauty in nature that he has experienced, as well as the basic tendencies of the human psyche when engaging beauty. In Awakening, he appeals to the Second Great Awakening in America as an example of how Christians should allow their emotions and ‘affections’ to be engaged in experiencing God. The section ‘Identity’ he remarks that, “The natural world expresses God because it has emerged, creatively and deliberately, from the character of the Lord. The beauties of the earth are truly expressions of the beauty of God” (133). In Nature, he applies the image of the suffering Christ to the suffering of nature. Though he does not say it, he seems to think that ‘nature is the new poor’.

Austin’s methodology is unique. He takes what seems to be a philosophical approach to caring for the environment as opposed to a biblical theology approach like what I take (as described here). Because of this he works from the philosophical idea that God’s creation is beautiful therefore valuable. Then, because of this beauty it should be valued by humanity. I understand his argument and admit that it likely has broader appeal than my own foundational argument that God’s creation is valuable because he called it ‘good’ and set humanity to take care of in the first chapters of Genesis. As a Christian, I am sure that Austin’s understanding of creation being beautiful is informed by scripture, but he does not choose to point this out in the present book (perhaps it has been done in another book in the series), though he does make extensive use of scripture in the later sections of the book. It may be that there are more people in the broader western culture who would agree that nature is beautiful and therefore valuable, as opposed to agreeing that nature is valuable because God created it – as claimed by the Bible. Yet, beginning with an ascetic philosophical basis seems to leave the door open for one to reject the premise just as much as one may reject the authority of scripture. Perhaps for those outside of the church, his argument may be the more attractive one.

The second section, Landscapes of the Mind, seemed to be the weakest section. It was interesting though. I too enjoyed my time backpacking through the Grand Canyon. But, he does not do as good of a job as he could have of showing how these subjects relate to his main idea. I think it does relate, but he does not make the relationship explicit enough for me.

I especially enjoyed the chapter ‘Ecology Fulfilled’. He says, “When we respect nature within our identity, as part of what gives our life meaning, we will be more likely to contribute to its life, less likely simply to exploit it” (187). This statement shows an interesting distinction between his view and what Jim Ball has called the ‘Wise Use’ type of stewardship (in his article ‘Evangelicals, Population, and the Ecological Crisis’). I think that Austin falls into what Ball would call ‘Caring Management’ or between that category and ‘Servanthood Stewardship’. Austin never says explicitly that humanity is the servant of creation, so I don’t think he fully fits the ‘Servanthood Stewardship’ type. I also fit the ‘Caring Management’ type.

All things considered, I think that Richard Austin’s book has value in calling Christians to experience God’s creation – his imagery will make the reader want to take a walk outside in a beautiful forest. I benefitted from this book by learning that there are other legitimate starting points for Christians to engage the environment. I also think that this book’s value is in it’s philosophical approach to environmental care. In the books on ethical treatment of the environment which I read for my thesis, none seemed to give the philosophical underpinnings the attention that Austin does in this book.

2 comments on “Review of Beauty of the Lord by Richard Austin

  • Hey Justin,

    I subscribe to your blog and was reading some posts today and I found a typo you may want to know about. In your post on the book you let me borrow, “Beauty of the Lord,” you say,

    “Yet, beginning with an ***ascetic*** philosophical basis seems to leave the door open for one to reject the premise just as much as one may reject the authority of scripture.”

    I believe you mean to say “aesthetic” philosophical basis. Thought you might want to know.

    Hope you are enjoying your break from school.

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