Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Taking On the Big Questions
distributed 1/17/14 - ©2014

It has been more than a decade since Larry and I fought it out in front of a church audience. But that Sunday evening class sticks with me vividly, and the lesson I learned back in 2003 is shaping Eco-Justice Ministries' new worship initiative, Not Ordinary Times.

In November 2003, Larry and I were the speakers for a program at a Presbyterian church, part of their occasional series on "Issues that Divide Christians." The question that centered our debate was, "Are Christians called to be stewards for the rest of Creation?"

Larry was a member of the church, and taught economics, including environmental economics, at an area university. I was invited as one who could be expected to bring a decidedly "liberal" perspective. We were supposed to be representatives of divided factions within the ecumenical church, and we did -- eventually -- reveal sharp differences in our sense of environmental responsibility.

At the start of our the evening 90 minute conversation, though, we may have lulled the audience into the idea that we shared a lot of common ground. We began with places where we were in pretty close agreement on some of the basics:

  • We agreed that "dominion" does not mean "domination." (Apparently, that point needs to be clarified fairly often!)

  • We were in the same ballpark about our general notions of "stewardship," although some clear tendencies toward right and left field could be seen.

  • We had remarkably similar statements about the different roles of science and religion in dealing with environmental ethics. We agreed that science provides factual information on what is, and describes likely options for what might happen, while religion provides the basis for deciding whether those options are good or bad.

The sharp divisions in our positions only became evident as we progressed through our scripted questions -- and the unscripted questions from the audience.

  • What's the nature of the good life that God calls us to? Larry pointed toward a life that celebrates abundance and freedom. I described one where our sense of worth and identity is grounded more in relationships than in possessions, and where servanthood, sustainability and sufficiency moderate freedom.

  • The then-popular question about "what would Jesus drive?" didn't say much about cars, but it revealed glaring differences in our stances about global climate change, about the trust that we place in the scientific community, about the appropriate response to situations of uncertainty, and about the weighting that should be given to personal choice and government regulation.

The series on "Issues that Divide Christians" was designed to show that, while people of faith and conscience may disagree on important issues, we can still love each other, and engage in civil relationships. Larry and I helped achieve that goal by engaging in a polite and respectful conversation about a controversial topic. By the end of the evening, though, there was no doubt that Larry and I hold to substantially different beliefs and opinions about the most faithful approach to today's environmental issues.

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That long-ago church program has been important to me because it shows why churches are often ineffective in their eco-justice programs. On the positive side, the debate that Larry and I had shows the sort of questions that really can make a difference as our congregations try to address the most pressing issues of our day. The important questions are the hard ones, the ones that go much deeper than simple affirmations.

Churches are not helping their communities when they stick with the non-controversial stuff where we generally agree. Most churches, in an occasional sermon or class on the environment, deal with the topics that Larry and I started with. Yes, we're to be good stewards. No, "dominion" does not allow "domination." It is important to remind our congregations about those generally-accepted starting points at times, but it is nowhere near enough.

We're called to be good stewards, but the conservatives of the Cornwall Alliance say that stewardship means using all of Earth's resources to increase human wealth. Those of us with a liberal bent look at conservation and preservation as hallmarks of stewardship. If we don't push into the follow-up question about the quality of stewardship, we're not providing any helpful guidance at all.

Who do we trust as we try to understand our society and our world? Is the Bible the only reliable source (as some Christians insist, leading to a young-Earth, non-evolutionary, human-centered worldview that is rare in the churches I visit), or do we honor the findings of natural sciences and sociology, or do we look primarily to economics? Do we place our primary trust our own personal or national experience, or are we also open to the experience and opinions of others with very different life situations?

Generic and superficial levels of environmental theology are not terribly controversial, and as a result they're not terribly enlightening, either. It is when we push deeper, when we open up the controversial aspects, when we start to get specific, that faith and ethics can become meaningful and relevant.

Our Not Ordinary Times project says that we're now living in a world with situations and crises that humanity has never faced before. Climate change and species extinction and persistent chemicals and depleted resources and "nature deficit disorder" show that we're living in a world that our ancestors never knew. Bill McKibben makes that point by writing about "Eaarth" -- "a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different."

In these "not ordinary times", it is not enough for churches to do an occasional and isolated sermon on "caring for God's creation." A responsible and relevant church must face up to the distressing condition of Earth -- damaged, depleted and destabilized -- and be intentional about probing the hard, and eventually hope-filled, questions that must be addressed about how to live in such a world.

Not Ordinary Times is proposing that churches spend 6 months, the liturgical season from Pentecost to Advent, working carefully through the deep questions that will guide and inform a faith that is rooted in God's shalom. We want to be clear that Not Ordinary Times is a season of theological exploration and Christian proclamation. It is not intended to be a weekly harangue about hot-button political issues. Rather, it is a structured opportunity for churches to engage in the sort of respectful, thoughtful conversation that Larry and I had a decade ago. It is an opportunity for churches to ask old religious questions in our frighteningly new context.

I invite you to help us develop the materials for Not Ordinary Times. In 2014, we'll be trying out themes and resources, and getting ready for a broader implementation in following years. As we gear up for this summer and fall, you can help us refine the questions, locate the most relevant readings, identify the essential scripture texts, discover the songs and pictures and poems that touch our spirits. Please let me know if you'd like to be involved.

That Sunday night in the fall of 2003, I learned that the important questions of environmental ethics are far bigger and broader than the ones we usually name. If the church is to be relevant in this time of eco-justice crisis, we need to take the time and energy to work through those big questions carefully and prayerfully. I hope you'll join with us as we call churches into that exciting project.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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