Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Repent and Invent
distributed 6/5/09 - ©2009

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by the Lynn-Palevsky Family of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

One of the delights of my role in Eco-Justice Ministries is that I am in touch with a wonderful variety of leaders in the environmental movement -- in churches and non-profits, education and the arts, business and government. I have the opportunity to talk with them, and to read about their motivations and strategies in the cause of justice and sustainability. I am able to get a sense of "what we want to accomplish" that is deeper than the functional goals of passing legislation or reducing greenhouse emissions.

In this vast and diverse movement, creative and effective work is being done on countless issues. Change is being effected through education and regulation, profit motives and moral persuasion. Broad generalizations about the movement are dangerous -- so of course I'm going to make one.

It seems to me that there are two distinctive perspectives that run very deep within the environmental cause. I characterize them by the words "repent" and "invent". Some of my colleagues -- especially within the faith-based part of the movement -- root their commitment and action in the need for a personal and collective change of heart. Others place great confidence in human ingenuity to solve the great problems that we face.

There is a danger that calls to confession and creativity might divide our movement, splitting us into two camps with different goals. Repent and invent might be seen as conflicting agendas, arising from incompatible notions of what it means to be human.

Theology comes to the rescue in resolving that danger. A Christian understanding of what it means to be human reminds us that both of those perspectives are accurate. Both need to be honored and affirmed. An overly strong emphasis on either side of our human nature, without a balancing and informing from the other side, will lead to poor solutions and a conflicted movement.

A Christian doctrine of humanity -- which has much in common with other faiths -- can resolve the apparent conflict. The church can make a contribution to the cause by helping us understand how the two must be held together.

  • Invent: The creative potential of humans is a divine gift. Our species is artistic, tool-making, and culture shaping. We are thinkers and problem solvers. One of the defining characteristics of humans is that we are inventive. It is a blessing, not a flaw.

    The first stanza of a hymn by Catherine Cameron includes this affirmation: "God, who stretched the spangled heavens, ... we, your children, in your likeness, share inventive powers with you." If our inclination to creativity is an expression of the divine within us, then it is a quality to be strengthened and utilized.

  • Repent: Our faith recognizes that we have an inclination toward sin and evil. Our species is prone to alienation from God and from the rest of creation. Over and over again, we are called to change our ways, and to "turn around" toward different goals and values. Even as we are blessed with creativity, we are flawed in our use of it.

    The biblical story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) wraps it all up in nine verses. The fledgling human race invents bricks and mortar, and uses those new tools to build a monument to their own power. God scatters and divides them, because they had misused the gift of creativity.

A Christian understanding of human nature affirms both our inventiveness and our need for repentance. We are complex creatures, with both strengths and weaknesses. To deal honestly and effectively with our situation, especially in this time of ecological crisis, we need to connect both sides of our human experience.

Process theology has given us the stimulating notion that humans are "co-creators" with God. We are called to use our gifts to further God's purposes. We are to create with God, and that connection with God's intention makes all the difference.

When we align ourselves with God's purposes, then our inventiveness will be directed toward the health and renewal of all of God's creation. We will seek justice and compassion in our relationships, sufficiency and sustainability in the use of Earth's finite resources.

Being co-creators with God is a form of repentance, because it turns us away from the short-sighted, human-centered, exploitative way of life that characterizes modern society. Committing ourselves to God's purposes redirects our creative gifts toward the embodiment of shalom.

Inventiveness and repentance are not opposites. They are both blessings, and both are needed if we are to live faithfully in this time.

Invention without repentance does not work. It just shifts or delays the crises we face. Renewable energy without a reduction in our consumptive expectations will give us a world covered in solar panels and windmills. Looking to biofuels without acknowledging the limits to available soil and water takes food from the poor, and exhausts the planet for our comfort.

Repenting without invention does not work, either. It takes us to a bleak world of scarcity and conflict. Shutting down the power plants without developing alternative energy would lead to social and economic collapse. Reducing consumption without a creative restructuring of our society would yield deprivation and isolation.

Catherine Cameron's hymn was composed in 1967, and addresses fears about humanity's "inventive power" which has unleashed the secrets of the atom, and opened the possibilities of "life's destruction or our most triumphant hour." The final line pulls together the human gift of invention and the need to repent in using that gift for appropriate ends: "Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one."

As people of faith, we have a gift to offer to the diverse environmental movement. Our ancient understandings about human nature affirm the boundless creativity of our species, but also counsels that we must always be cautious about the goals of that inventiveness. What's more, our faith tells us that we find the greatest joy and do the greatest good when we hold those two qualities in proper balance.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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