What is ecotheology? It is a form of theology that focuses on the relationship between religion and nature with a particular emphasis on the ecological destruction underway. It started as a religious response to the degradation of nature but is also concerned with potential solutions including ecosystem management and environmental justice.
In the last Sightings blog, “Thomas Berry’s Universe,” early Christian interest in nature is explored along with the divide that later formed between religion and nature, primarily as a result of the Black Plague. In the 20th century Thomas Berry was a key force in the growth of the ecotheology movement. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a major inspiration for Thomas Berry. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest and paleontologist whose work was banned by the Catholic Church as late as 1963. His book, the Phenomenon of Man, laid out the evolution of the universe and life. Although his work was contrary to Catholic theology during his life, several Catholic theologians came to his defense during the 1960s including Pope Benedict XVI. Thomas Berry leaned heavily on Teilhard’s thinking as the basis for his many books and teachings on the new cosmology and creation story. Since that time, the interest in ecotheology has mushroomed, particularly among academics and religious scholars.
Although the current interest in ecotheology began in the 70’s and 80’s as a response to the devastation of nature and influencers such as Thomas Berry, it was also driven by criticism of Christianity’s role in the devastation through the Bible’s teachings about dominion and domination of nature. This was espoused by Lynn White’s 1967 article in Science, The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis.
Pope Francis is a potent force bringing attention to ecotheology through his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home. Most religions also have prepared public statements and policies aimed at climate change and environmental destruction. Today, universities and seminaries are teaching ecotheology courses to prepare the next generation of clergy to lead their congregations with new blood and ideas appropriate for a world in ecological crisis.
In their 2016 Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) publication, Report on Faith and Ecology Courses in North American Seminaries, a broad diversity of faiths and denominations at over 250 seminaries and divinity schools were surveyed. The research found ecotheology courses being offered at 58 seminaries across the United States and Canada. Among those 58 seminaries, 28 offered multiple courses on faith and ecology. Over 190 courses were identified that focused on ecotheology. Despite this array of courses, the number of religious schools offering one or more courses on faith and ecology is small (22% of those surveyed). One of the goals of the report was to encourage the expansion of ecotheology courses taught through the ICSD Green Seminaries Initiative. They have developed an online database to help identify the schools and the courses available. Two local schools were mentioned in the report, Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Columbia Theological Seminary. In fact, CTS offers a specialty in Creation Care in its Master of Divinity program, which will soon be available as an online degree. They also found that a number of seminaries are promoting green campuses, including the two Atlanta schools.
An indicator of the growth of ecotheology is the number of conferences on the topic. Many conferences on ecotheology and creation care are being held globally this year. In fact, Columbia Theological Seminary hosted the Southeast Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education in early 2018.
Another measure of the ecotheology trend is the proliferation of nonprofit organizations that offer support to the faith community on a wide range of environmental stewardship topics. The most well-known is Interfaith Power & Light and its 38 state affiliates, of which GIPL is one. Their assistance to local churches, synagogues, masjids and others is instrumental in promoting energy efficiency, water conservation and creation care action.
GIPL is leading the way in supporting faith-based organizations developing long-term commitments to creation care through its green team registry and development. Staff support the teams by providing resources and training to a core group of congregants that will be responsible for guiding the congregation and leadership on their creation care programs.
A critical piece of green team development is to include congregational leadership and clergy on the teams to insure the message is delivered to the congregants through green sermons. A great local example is Central Presbyterian Church of Atlanta which regularly preaches on creation care and environmental issues. One powerful sermon example was delivered by Wisconsin IPL Coordinator, Dr. Peter Bakken. The Greensboro Downtown Unitarian Universalist Congregation in North Carolina is offering a unique year-long series entitled, Our Common Journey by Reverend F. Nelson Stover, which delves into the teaching of Thomas Berry’s new creation story. GIPL offers abundant resources on green sermons and prayers.
The next Sightings blog will explore the “Ecology of Creation” by examining the commonalities of all life on the planet. Everything is interconnected and derived from the basic elements released in the first moments of the birth of the universe, the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.