Book Review: Theology of the Built Environment

Gorringe, Timothy J. 2002. Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.


Timothy Gorringe is St Luke’s Professor of Theological Studies in the University of Exeter, UK.  He holds degrees from Oxford and Sarum Theological College.  Gorringe is an ordained priest in the Anglican Church.  He has taught Theology at Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, St John’s College, Oxford, University of St Andrews, and the University of Exeter.  Gorringes’ academic interests and writings include connections between theology, culture, art, sociology, criminal justice, economics, and politics, as well as the theology of Karl Barth.  A member of the Iona Community, he has authored several books including God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation and Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture.

The thesis of this book is that the built environment relates to every area of Christian ethics, and only a Trinitarian ethic, an ethic of creation, reconciliation, and redemption, is adequate to explore it (:5).

Gorringe argues his thesis by connecting our experience of space with theology, or our thinking about God.  He does this through a Trinitarian lens.  Gorringe then addresses several major themes critical to our understanding of the “built environment” and how we see these themes in light of the reality of a Trinitarian God.  The first theme is ownership of land, the biblical presentation of this theme, and its significance in an unjust world.  This leads to a look at human dwelling, followed by a theological reflection on the ancient themes of town and countryside and a search for the meaning of city in the Scriptures.  Gorringe then examines the built environment and its influence in art as a shaper of community, and finally finishes his argument by reflecting on our responsibilities as builders, planners, and members of society.

Gorringe has written an intriguing account that takes a deep look at the reality of life that we find at the beginning of this twenty-first century.  His insight, gained from a breath of sources, hold significant seeds of wisdom for the church as we experience discontinuous change and the anxiety that such change initiates.  Gorringe makes a strong argument in this book that our God is a God of relevance, intimacy, and community and that such a God requires an understanding of God…a theology, which embraces every aspect of life so that the people of God can in turn embrace every aspect of life. 

Gorringe points out the influence of Plato on theology, “…theology has often been drawn to abstraction, nourished by Platonic conviction of the superiority of the spiritual to the material” (:27).  This influence is critical because it allows us to discount the reality of our physical life and presence on earth as not being import or intrinsically connected to spiritual reconciliation and redemption.  This dualism can be seen manifest in the rejection of ministries focused on physical/material causes or needs.  We place the Spirit on a pedestal of critical importance while we ignore the everyday realities of life in a physical body, sickness, work, death, isolation, as secondary.  Worse when we tie spiritual health to physical heath and prosperity. 

Yet, the power of the gospel is the fact that God is Triune, the creator of all there is, the reconciler of all created, and the redeemer of all created.  God created us in this Triune image, and we are therefore bound to each other in community apart from which we are not whole as intended.  Such an understanding of God requires us to reexamine the dualism that many Christians teach.  Gorringe reminds us that it also requires a critical look at the space that we have created to teach our theology and live out our lives in community.  Space (physical, relational, communal) matters and a look at our configurations of “space” can help us determine our biases and assumptions.  We can begin to answer questions such as, “Do we have a Christian ideology, or do we have a dynamic relationship with a living God who is at core, community?

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