Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Variations on a Theme
distributed 4/9/10, 2/6/15 - ©2010, 2015

"We don't believe we are going to reverse the environmental crisis by simply passing laws. We have to change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation. Unless you have that fundamental change in values, many of us believe environmental degradation will be irreversible."

I often come back to those words by Paul Gorman -- the founder of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment -- when I'm talking about the importance of faith communities in the environmental cause. Rethinking our "place and purpose in creation" is a deeply religious task.

Within Christian communities, an important part of that rethinking has involved a critique of two of the traditional expressions of our distinctive human role, dominion and stewardship.

If the two most widespread Christian notions of our place and purpose in creation are deeply flawed, where do we turn? What new description can we adopt?

One positive option comes out of process theologies, but I have to confess that I was very uncomfortable with it for quite a while. The new expression is that we are to be "co-creators with God." That struck me as incredibly arrogant, a claim of even greater power than we find in dominion or stewardship. To see ourselves as co-anything with God seemed like a dangerous extension of our role, our authority, and our wisdom.

My perception of the "co-creator" term was completely turned around, though, when I flipped through a volume on the new-book shelves of a seminary library. I only had a chance to glance at God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation, by Anne Pederson, but I caught her sense that co-creation is like the way an improvisational musician builds on a musical theme.

Process theologian Jay McDaniel wrote with a similar image in an article, God, Sustainability, and Beauty. Wholeness, in the spirit of improvisational jazz:

involves trusting in the availability of fresh possibilities, so that we do not become stuck in the past or immobilized by the tragedies of the present. In this trust there is a harmony with the wider horizon in which we live and move and have our being: a harmony with God which some call faith.
He emphasizes that jazz is a metaphor: "Of course this way does not require an ability to play an instrument. But it does require an ability to listen deeply to the voices of other people and the natural world, responding to them with wisdom and compassion." (The two quotes above are not found in the version of the article that is now on-line, but the two references below are found there.)

The lovely metaphor of improvisational music erased my fears about the arrogance of co-creation. That role does not give us god-like power and authority to do whatever we want. Rather, we can be creative and inventive as we build off of the framework that God has set out. (In process thought, God is still setting out new and creative themes.) I now see "co-creator" as a very fruitful term that can inform and guide us as we rethink our place and purpose in creation.

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Our son played saxophone and clarinet in his High School jazz band. At every concert, the ensemble would play standard and well-rehearsed arrangements of familiar pieces. Many times in each concert, the group would back off, and a student would stand to perform a solo improvisation on the theme.

Some of the kids did simple variations, and others did brilliant elaborations that embellished or modified the original composition. And then there were others who wandered off into sections that seemed to have no connection to the tempo, key or melody line of the piece being performed. Those were painful moments in the quarterly concerts.

Co-creation is not a license to make up our own stuff. We may build on a core motif, but we need to stay connected to it. If we are called toward improvisational creativity as co-creators with God, what are the divine themes that should be foundational for us?

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of Eco-Justice Notes that I see shalom as one of God's great compositions. The general theme of peace with justice through all creation sets out an essential and underlying framework. In each age and setting, we are called to find the right variations and harmonies from that theme to entice us back from the sins of violence, exploitation and alienation. The church should always be working to polish a fresh interpretation of "Variations on Shalom."

Another grounding motif for our improvisational work is the shape of creation itself. The laws of nature and the deep processes of the universe provide a melody line that must always be honored in our variations. As McDaniel notes, this creativity, this co-creation, flows through all parts of the universe. "The laws of nature were like jazz standards; and every event in the universe plays one or another of these standards", each its own unique voice.

Humans do have a distinctive freedom and creativity as we improvise on God's themes. When we do it well, it is an act of praise. McDaniel wrote, "The practical outcome of praise is the development of a constructive vision of a new and better kind of community. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the beloved community. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God." McDaniel -- descriptively, but not very poetically -- calls it "inclusively sustainable community."

"Co-creators with God" provides us with a wonderful way to "change the human understanding of its place and purpose in creation." By identifying primary melodies in natural laws and in the vision of shalom, we are rooted and constrained in our expressions of power and creativity. The call to improvisation requires that we deal fully and responsibly with the crises and opportunities of our own time and place.

I invite you -- individually, and in your faith communities -- to explore the fresh insights of being co-creators with God. Through that new metaphor, may we find faithful, joyous and healing ways of living within Earth community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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