The Common Good
March 2004

Eco-Theology Gems

by Tanya Marcovna Barnett | March 2004

The best reading on Christianity and the environment.

In her book Super, Natural Christians, theologian Sallie McFague writes: "It is not just that other life forms are becoming scarce or extinct, but our experience of and with them is, too. The results are deep and disturbing. We not only learn less about these earth others, but disaffection sets in, and hence we care less for their well-being. We do not care about what we do not know."

When it comes to gaining or rekindling such knowing, we need encounters with "earth others" - our sisters and brothers (as St. Francis of Assisi called them) in the broader family of creation. These encounters can be both direct and indirect. Soaking in the beauty of the setting sun, working with other people to mitigate the ravages of an oil spill, gardening - such direct encounters awaken our knowing and, hopefully, our caring. Indirectly, we can learn a great deal from authors, poets, theologians, scientists, and others who have taken the time to cultivate awareness of and care for creation. A growing number of these "creation mediators" invite us into deeper knowing not only by stirring our intellects but also by awakening our emotions and senses. In doing so, they help remind us that we too are embodied members of creation, not just distant, intellectual observers. The following are several of my favorite creation mediators and some of the fruits of their work.

Roger Gottlieb offers a feast for our minds and spirits in his comprehensive anthology This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. Its 75 selections introduce a wide array of creation mediators from around the world and across religious traditions, races, genders, and economic realities. It includes key writings in Christian ecological theology and ethics, including those from Lynn White, Thomas Berry, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sallie McFague, and Pope John Paul II. It also includes selections from writers who link "nature and spirit" (Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams), environmental-justice advocates (Vandana Shiva, The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit), and creation liturgists and poets (Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy).

Sallie McFague has crafted three primers that seriously examine Christian theology in light of current Earth crises and Earth's ongoing magnificence: The Body of God: An Ecological Theology; Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, and Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. In The Body of God, McFague reminds us that the notion of God as incarnate and embodied, not only transcendent, is central to the Christian tradition. She then explores the implications of Christian "radical immanence" on how we relate with God, one another, and all creation. Building on this core theology, McFague presents creative tools (nature writing, concrete actions) for nurturing an incarnational faith and the work of justice in Super, Natural Christians. McFague's most recent book, Life Abundant, is perhaps her most personal and passionate work. In it, she helps North American Christians authentically examine our worldviews, faith stories, and the social/ecological impacts of our lifestyles in order to better live out a vision of the abundant life that includes all creation.

In his book Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen writes, "Not just knowledge (scientia) but wisdom (sapientia) and the psalmist's contrite heart and humble spirit are requirements of sustainable community itself." Rasmussen gives us an impressive dose of Earth scientia in the first section of his book ("Earth Scan") - a section that bravely examines ecological (and related social) realities of our time. But he doesn't stop here. Throughout this exquisitely crafted book, he calls upon the sapientia of religious (Martin Luther, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice) and secular (David Korten, Alice Walker) voices to help us better hear the sapientia of creation. Through Earth-evoking symbols (his wonderful sections on trees and darkness, for example), poetry, story, and deep reflection, Rasmussen invites us to a change of heart and actions that bespeak this "conversion to Earth."

POETRY TOO CAN be a direct-to-the-heart mediator for our "knowing of" and "caring for" creation. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, I have a particular fondness for the writings of Denise Levertov, a Catholic peace activist and, yes, a Pacific Northwesterner. In her poetry, she expresses a deep and enduring compassion for creation and a vigilance for seeking the holy at work within it. Some other favorite Earth-honoring poets include Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet with a passion for justice and beauty; Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who eloquently voices his love of land, family, community, and Creator; Mary Oliver, an award-winning poet whose works sing of a grace that pervades all creation; and Pattiann Rogers, who combines her deep knowledge of the natural sciences with profound spirituality. For samples of these and other creation-caring poets, I recommend John Daniel's collection Wild Song: Poems of the Natural World. For more poetry and other complementary prayers and meditations, check out Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Roberts' Earth Prayers from Around the World: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations for Honoring the Earth, a true treasure for personal devotions and group worship.

Just as poetry can open us to new ways of "knowing," so too can children's books. Two are Douglas Wood and Cheng-Khee Chee's Old Turtle and Caitlin Matthews and Alison Dexter's The Blessing Seed: A Creation Myth for the New Millennium. Both of these beautifully illustrated books provide pathways for envisioning creation's beginning times and how members of creation related to one another during those times. In Old Turtle, we enter a world in which all parts of creation communicate with one another and God. In this world, we have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of what it might mean for humans to be "a message of love from God to the earth, and a prayer of the earth back to God." The Blessing Seed revisits the Garden of Eden and looks at what the world would look like if we lived out our "original blessing" as fellow members of God's good creation. While ostensibly children's books, they also speak volumes to adults.

Finally, here are a few periodicals that provide ongoing conversation on the intersection between faith and creation-care. EarthLight (www.earthlight.org) is a quarterly journal of interfaith spirituality and ecology that features excellent articles, poems, prayers, and resources appropriate for individual and group study. Earth Letter (www.earthministry.org), produced by Earth Ministry, is a bimonthly mini-journal of Christian ecological spirituality and regularly features many of those mentioned above. Orion (www.orionsociety.org), published bimonthly by the Orion Society, "is a forum for thoughtful and creative ideas and practical examples of how we might live justly, wisely, and artfully on Earth."

May you find meaningful direct encounters and mediators that help you to halt what naturalist Robert Pyle calls "the extinction of experience." Halting this form of extinction will be a blessing to creation, and hopefully a blessing to you.

Tanya Marcovna Barnett is a program associate with Earth Ministry in Seattle and is the editor/compiler of The Greening Congregations Handbook. Earth Ministry works with individuals and congregations to help connect Christian faith with care and justice for all creation. For more resources, search the annotated bibliography at www.earthministry.org.

Noteworthy New Books On the Environment

Former military salesman "Jet-set Jim" Merkel transformed himself into "Eco-Jim," and one happy result is Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth. His compelling arguments, friendly writing style, and practical worksheets can help us measure and shrink our "ecological footprint." F. Marina Schauffler also aims us toward transformation in Turning to Earth: Stories of Ecological Conversion by gently illustrating how our inner views shape our commitment to the Earth. Writings from ecological converts Edward Abbey, Alice Walker, Scott Russell Sanders, and others provide inspiration and direction. Also new on the shelves are contributions from philosophy professor Norman Wirzba. In The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, he returns to the Genesis story of creation to argue against the persistent belief that humans are the masters of the Earth. Wirzba also edited The Essential Agrarian Reader: The Future of Culture, Community, and the Land, a collection of essays - many by authors mentioned above - on why a reassessment of our relation to land and its sustenance is critical to our health and security.

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