Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Expanding Our Theology
distributed 7/30/04 - ©2004

This is a revision of the Eco-Justice Notes circulated on July 27, 2001.

What does the Church need to learn from Albert Einstein?

There are many insights that we in the religious community can gain from that frizzy-haired scientific genius. One lesson is found in the birth of his theory of relativity.

For those of you who may be a bit rusty in your knowledge of modern physics, relativity deals with the remarkable things that happen to objects travelling at velocities close to the speed of light. The effects include changes in mass and energy, and shifting perceptions of time. His theory is at the heart of current scientific study ranging from astronomy to sub-atomic physics.

For several hundred years, Newtonian physics (named after Sir Isaac) provided an accurate picture of the world, and its formulae yielded precise predictions. But as the realm of scientific study expanded in the late 1800s, Newton's theories fell apart. Einstein's mathematical insights of 100 years ago were needed to provided shape and order for the vastly more complex universe that was being discovered.

The physical rules of the universe did not change between 1685 and 1905. Indeed, Newton's simple equations still work quite well for dealing with everyday events. What did change were the experiences and the questions of scientists. New theories were needed to explain whole new types of experiences.

So what does Einstein have to do with the Church?

I think the Christian Church today is in a bind similar to the physical sciences around 1900 -- just before Einstein proposed the first parts of his theory. We in the Church have had a meaningful and effective set of answers for human experience and problems. The Church's proclamation of Jesus Christ has helped people find order and meaning, and has answered the most profound questions raised by people of faith. Often, Christian theology has supported the moral and ethical perspectives, and related social and economic systems, that have become dominant around the world.

But our experience and our questions have grown. Changes in the last 50 years -- the doubling of Earth's human population, astounding advances in medicine and technology, new concentrations of power in corporations, expanding knowledge about complex environmental relationships -- have pushed the human experience into new realms where our old answers don't hold up. The theology and ethics that we have depended on still work at the level of many personal relationships, but they are inadequate for understanding how we fit into the complex relationships of a new and larger whole.

Just as the sciences needed Einstein's insights to understand a vastly enlarged view of the universe, the Church today needs new theological insights that will enable us to make sense of a world that we experience in new ways.

Einstein's community had a pressing need to deal with the new problems raised by the speed of light. Today's church has a pressing need to deal with new problems that cluster together within the notion of eco-justice. Our theology and ethics must be able to speak meaningfully to a crowded, stressed world with a myriad of relationships. We must find a faithful message that makes sense in the midst of contemporary science, sociology and politics.

When Einstein discerned the theory of relativity, the physical sciences burst to life with new discoveries and applications. As the Church discerns expanded theological understandings, we, too, will find new life, energy and relevance in our ministry.

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Pastor Michael Dowd wrote in the book "Earthspirit":

The term 'gospel' literally means 'good news.' But good news is truly good only if it is understood as a saving response to specific bad news. The gospel has contemporary relevance only when it inspires faith, hope and love in the face of the actual bad news of our current situation. [A] growing number of theologians, historians and others are suggesting that one reason for the church's decline in numbers and cultural influence over the past hundred years or more in the West may be that it has been offering 'good news' that has been perceived as irrelevant news by the wider culture.

There has been no shortage of bad news in the three years since I circulated the first version of these comments. The US has encountered terrorism, and launched two wars. Economic globalization has become ever more pervasive -- displacing workers, increasing the global gap between rich and poor, and spreading pollution and resource depletion. There is new and stronger evidence of the collapse of global fisheries, and of accelerating global climate change.

Some of the theologies that brought good news to a localized agrarian world are incapable of speaking to these new issues. Personalized and pietistic perspectives cannot address modern military might, immense corporate and political power, or the complexity of global economic and ecological systems. A human-centered faith can't provide good answers to the great surge in species extinctions, or to the limited resources of this Earth.

And yet, our Christian faith is not obsolete. There are deep themes and principles within our tradition that can speak to global empire, poverty and wealth, and harmony with all of creation. By God's grace, there are new insights and revelations which build on and add to our faith which expand our proclamation.

For the sake of faithfulness, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of the Earth, may we pursue and proclaim the challenging new faith that is needed for this age.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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