Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Across the Theological Spectrum
distributed 1/18/19 - ©2019

A month ago -- when Advent was wrapping up, and churches were starting to sing about Christmas angels -- I reflected on a question from ethicist Larry Rasmussen: "Does peace on Earth include peace with the Earth?"

Larry's answer, of course, is yes. He points toward a theology and ethics where "planetary health is primary, and human well-being derivative." That ethical position takes us into "a moral universe different from that of modernity" -- which is precisely why it is such good news.

Dr. Rasmussen is not the only one calling for a fresh take on Christian theology. Thankfully, there are now a goodly number of thoughtful voices from across the theological spectrum who are offering a fresh take on the Gospel. From many sides, there's a realization that Christian good news, to be relevant in this age, must speak beyond purely human concerns.

The church, with its great diversity, is strengthened and blessed by the wide range of eco-theologies that are now being voiced. Larry Rasmussen brings a challenging academic perspective which may be a big step for many pastors and church members. So it is a good thing that there also are writers who can introduce us to fresh moral territory in more familiar terms.

Today, I lift up a pair of voices from a more conservative side of the church. I invite you to celebrate the growing movement that brings ecology and Earth justice into the full spectrum of Christian thinking.

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I was browsing the theology section of my bookshelves recently -- six feet of books which cover a wonderful range of views. I was enticed to flip through a volume that I hadn't looked at for about a year.

"Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation", by Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, is an intriguing book, both is style and substance. The two authors alternate chapters, with each drawing on their very different fields of expertise, and finding creative insights from the areas of overlap. Bahnson is a permaculture gardener, and a pioneer in church-supported agriculture. Wirzba is a professor of theology, ecology and rural life.

The book comes from a publisher that may not be familiar to many folk in the mainline and progressive branches of US Christianity. "InterVarsity Press serves those in the university, the church, and the world by publishing resources that equip and encourage people to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord in all of life." How wonderful that InterVarsity is among those printing Earth-aware materials.

Bahnson, the gardener, helps open the conversation with an invitation to see what we had not noticed before. The disciples of Jesus, he reminds us, discerned the risen Christ in the breaking of bread. Fred calls us to have our eyes opened, too. He wants us to see truth in a careful and honest look at God's world, drawing on familiar headlines and major reports. The world that he calls us to see is disrupted and depleted. He quotes the UN's Millennium Ecosystem Assessment:

Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.

He points us to a "little-heeded" 2008 report which calls for a complete overhaul of the world's food and farming systems, with a turn "to organic, ecologically sound farming practices as soon as possible." He tells us that "the lifestyle we have adopted for the past fifty years or so is one we can't sustain."

In the next chapter, Wirzba puts the possibility of such a vast transformation into a decisively Christian theological context.

To understand Jesus properly, we have to appreciate how his living makes possible the transformation of our own. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to show us and welcome us into what creaturely life is ultimately about and for. This means that salvation is not about being plucked out of creaturely life to some immaterial heaven beyond the world of creation. Salvation is about reconciling this creation so that it can know, taste and intimately experience God's heavenly life that is constantly making its way toward us. Looking to Jesus, we see heaven's earthly life realized. ... The goal is not our soul's escape from this world but the transformation of all creatures in their relationships with each other.

He continues:

If Jesus is the divine, creating Word unleashing creation into its full potential, then insofar as we are in Christ or have the mind of Christ, we participate in God's renewing of creation. ... Beholding Jesus, we not only see God; we see creation in an entirely new way.

I give thanks that wise folk like Wirzba and Bahnson, from the evangelical side of Christianity, are among those who call us to a richly ecological and deeply spiritual expression of the faith.

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Bahnson and Wirzba use a different religious language than Rasmussen. Their books speak to different parts of the Christian church. But from both sides, there is a strong and clear affirmation that ecological perspectives must be part of our core theology. I'm struck by their almost identical warnings about churches that don't take creation seriously enough.

Bahnson wrote:

I worry that the church still thinks of these disparate problems as isolated incidents rather than manifestations of the same underlying malady. At some fundamental level, the church views the current ecological crisis as yet another Christian special-interest area. It's just one more side dish on an already groaning potluck table, no more in need of sampling than the other offerings at the Christian smorgasbord: your tastes might lead you to ecological issues, but I'm more interested in Reformation history, say, or Wesleyan studies or liturgical dance.

Rasmussen, in an earlier book, Earth Habitat, also worried about faith that doesn't have the whole of creation at the very center.

Until matters of eco-justice are seen to rest somewhere near the heart of the Christian faith, the environment will be relegated to the long list of important 'issues' clamoring for people's attention. The proper subject of justice is not the environment. It is inclusive creation as Earth -- the other-than-human and human, together.

Eco-Justice Ministries concentrates our work on Christian churches. We focus on pastors and church leaders, and seek to engage congregations and denominations. We do so, because we know that it isn't enough to hang matters of climate justice and ecological health on the fringes of church teachings or practice. It isn't enough to tack an occasional Earth Day service or a push for energy efficiency onto a church which otherwise ignores the planet. If churches are going to make a difference, eco-justice has to be brought into the heart of the Christian faith.

If you're part of a Christian church, I urge you to push hard to develop that Earth-aware theological and spiritual center. Whether you're a pastor or layperson, you can help your church to expand and deepen its vision. Wherever you are on the theological spectrum, there are folk within your tradition who are able to speak, write and lead toward this essential meeting of ecology and faith.

I give thanks for the diverse voices within the Christian church, all speaking of a fresh and relevant faith for this era of eco-justice need. I pray that the church will be renewed, strengthened and empowered by the range of theological leaders who, together, call us into a better relationship with God and God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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