Welcome to our second “Members Mailbag!” I am grateful for those who have commented on our most recent series - “7 Shifts We Need to Make,” or emailed me thoughts and questions about ecological discipleship in general. I love hearing from you.
Reading the "Book of Creation"
Elaine sent in the following thoughts on Shift #2 - A Bigger Story:
In my tradition as an Episcopalian, we have three sources of authority: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The Bigger Story includes tradition. One of my favorite Celtic theologians is Eurigena. Writing in the 9th century, he said that Christ comes to us wearing two shoes, the Scriptures and Creation. We need to be alert to the divine reaching out to us through Creation with the same attentiveness we use to read scripture. In my theology, God’s revelation continues and is not limited to the Bible. Indeed, God is using scientists these days to teach and warn us about global climate change.
Thanks, Elaine! I have often thought that scientists who are warning us about climate change are like biblical prophets – there is the same pattern of telling people uncomfortable truths about their behavior, laying out the consequences, calling them to a different way of life, and describing the hope that can come if people change their ways. A few people sent me a link this week to an article in Christianity Today about how the latest UN Climate Report is dedicated to John Houghton, a scientist and a Christian - clearly someone who met Christ in the two shoes Elaine mentions above.
If you want to learn about other early Christian theologians who encourage us to read the “Book of Nature" alongide the Scriptures, you can go HERE.
A Reader Wonders What Might Change...
Julie found shift #7 – A Different Destination – particularly helpful and thought provoking:
I never really thought of heaven as being on earth but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. It really concerns me that we are treating the earth so badly. I wonder how many people would change their treatment of the earth if the knew/believed that this is the future heaven. The fact that the animals, trees, plants, etc will be part of heaven makes me very happy. Thank you for opening my mind to other thoughts.
Thanks, Julie! Your wondering is right on. It makes me think of Jesus’ parable about the Tenants, sometimes called the Parable of the Absent Landowner (see Matthew 25:14-30). It's clearly about those who have been entrusted with the leadership of Israel - often referred to as "God's Vineyard" - but if we read it with the understanding that the whole earth is the Lord's (Psalm 24:1), we might take our particular "tenancy" more seriously.
I love that Julie finds great joy in thinking of animals, trees, and plants as part of a future "heavenly earth." We are rightly focused on motivating people by pointing out the harm that is being done. What if we focused at least as much on the joy that comes from a deep connection with God and creation?
Other Questions from Readers
What does collective/community discipleship look like? We/I tend to slip into reading scripture from an individualistic perspective, when often the words are addressed to whole groups of people. Might more community-based responses to earth care ultimately prove more impactful?
My short answer is yes. Western culture is very individualistic, which means it tends to address problems that are essentially communal/cultural with an individualistic framework. So we are often told, for example, that the solution to the earth’s problems is for individuals to change their habits and make better choices. This ignores the social, economic, politcial, moral, and theological systems that create and perpetuate the harm we are trying to fix. For example, getting individuals to drive less or purchase more fuel efficient cars is great, but if we don’t address the complex issues that come with a car-loving culture (asphalt paving and pollution runoff, habitat destruction, neighborhood design, lack of public transportation, political investment in maintaining the status quo, waste from retired vehicles), we will not make the changes we need.
One way that followers of Jesus can help shift this perspective is, as Forrest point outs, to read Scripture from a more communal perspective. We tend to read the English word "you" as a singular pronoun when it appears in the Bible - I remember learning in seminary the most uses of "you" is plural in biblical Greek, addressing the community. The Bible is a book that is meant to be read in community.
So here’s an idea that pulls together Forrest's insight with Elaine's – what if we gathered in small groups/communities to learn how to read the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature together? What would that look like? Maybe that’s what the Church needs to be in this age of ecological and ecclesial decline. One example of communities doing this right now is the Wild Church movement – I'd love to hear if you know of others, and what you think of this idea (you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
How do those of us who embrace ecological discipleship reach across the chasm to those who have no interest?
This is a great question. My first response is to focus first on those who are already interested in this way of discipleship, who want to model God’s love for creation, who understand that care for others is connected to care for the earth, and who are seeking a “greener” faith and life. Movements gain momentum when interested people who are sitting on the sidelines become passionately involved.
That said, engaging with fellow followers of Jesus who seem to have no place in their faith for anything non-human can lead to helpful conversations in which we understand where their objections come from and where they might be open to seeing things in a different light. I often ask people about their favorite places and what it is about those places that speaks to them. Most people have at least one place that they love, often a place of their childhood – finding common ground in love for particular places is a gateway to talking about God’s love for all places in creation.
If the objections stem from biblical or theological commitments, then it is important to be able to articulate a vision of ecological discipleship that draws on Scripture and theological language. There are lots of books that can help someone do that – here are a few examples:
Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology offers a comprehensive introduction from a conservative perspective. A wonderful book from a mainline Protestant perspective is Grounded: Finding God in the World by Diana Butler Bass. For Catholic friends, reading Pope Francis’ work Laudato Si’ is essential. If you are looking for something that seeks to apply this vision of discipleship in real communities you can read Watershed Discipleship, an excellent collection of essays edited by Ched Meyers. And if you are looking for something that critically revisits traditional theologies, you can pick up Original Blessing by the theologian Matthew Fox. There is a growing body of excellent work on these topics, ranging from academic scholarship to popular writing, and finding one good book will lead you to others, and enable you to deepen your discipleship while equipping you to share it winsomely with others. I am always on the look out for such books - feel free to email me recommendations (email@example.com).
Thanks again to those who have commented on posts or sent me an email. Keep them coming!
Up Next: Guest Authors on How Their Faith Has Shifted
Starting next week, we will hand over this column for a few weeks to guest writers who will share the pivotal moments in their lives that helped them shift their life and faith towards ecological discipleship. I'm excited!
With you on the Way,
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