When you hear the words “Evangelical” and “climate change” in the same sentence, you might think of a theological perspective like that encapsulated in this quote by Seattle former pastor Mark Driscoll: “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” In contrast, Cascadian authors Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A.J. Swoboda are attempting to change the discussion in Evangelical circles through their collaborative book, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis (Baker Academic, 2014). In addition to sharing their theoretical viewpoints, these professors at George Fox Evangelical Seminary (GFES) in Portland, OR also work to live their beliefs out in their communities. A.J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus Church in southeast Portland, a Pentecostal church with an emphasis on community and compassionate service. In Corvallis, OR, Jen Butler serves as Associate Minister at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, with an emphasis on intentional community and social justice. A full time faculty member at GFES, Dan Brunner lives in an intentional community in north Portland, working to incorporate the love of Christ into their neighborhood.
Working alongside Brunner, Butler, and Swoboda in the Christian Earthkeeping Program at GFES for the last couple of years, I witnessed the process of bringing this book into existence, so I was excited to read the fruits of their labor. The book did not disappoint. This ambitious text does what it promises in its subtitle: provides a biblical basis for ecotheology, threads its way through the history of the church and its theology as it pertains to stewardship of creation, describes the ecological crisis we currently face, and invites readers to participate more fully in actively caring for the land, all in language palatable to an Evangelical audience. Peppered with stories from the lives of the authors and their students and acquaintances, this text allows the reader in to the hearts of the authors through revealing their struggles and joys as they wrestle with these topics.
The stated purpose of this book is to introduce readers to the need and theological basis for ecotheology rather than to present a novel ecotheology, but it draws together ecotheologies in a novel way that fits alongside an already-formed Evangelical theology. The book walks us through each theological doctrine of importance to Evangelicals, pointing out entry points in each doctrine into a biblically- and historically-based ecotheology. Brunner, Butler, & Swoboda recognize that looking for ecotheology in, for example, the church fathers and mothers is anachronistic and yields many texts that go against their persuasion, but they also point us to Christian writers across time who cared about the land in which they dwell and saw care for God’s creation as part of their Christian vocation.
As collaborators from three different branches of the Evangelical family tree (Evangelical Lutheran, Pentecostal, and Baptist-turned-United-Church-of-Christ), the authors did not always see eye to eye theologically. They could have chosen not to disclose this struggle to the reader, and simply have private conversations about their disagreements, but instead they are honest about the “Tension Points” they faced as they worked on the text. Without the naming of these points of tension, the reader would not know there is disagreement between the authors, because the text flows well and has a consistent voice throughout, but by openly including these disagreements, the authors invite the reader in, acknowledging that we do not all agree with one another in the Body of Christ, and modeling love for one another despite differences. I appreciate their honesty about their struggle to articulate ecotheology in a way that rings true for each of them, all the while recognizing that although they do not agree, they respect one another and see God at work in one another’s lives and ministries.
“Tension Points” are set apart in text boxes in each chapter, denoting places where they do not agree or where they recognize that various groups of Christians do not agree on certain topics.
As they lay out in the Introduction, they attempt to model a theology of “hospitality, honesty, and bridge building,” virtues that are often lacking in the Evangelical conversation around creation care. “Tension Points” are set apart in text boxes in each chapter, denoting places where they do not agree or where they recognize that various groups of Christians do not agree on certain topics. For example, they discuss tension points based on connotations of the word “stewardship,” differing eschatological interpretations, the difficulty of referring to God in a way that feels inclusive and relational, and the difficulty of speaking about oppression and injustice from a position of relative privilege.
At the heart of this work is the authors’ invitation to “An Expanded Vision: Holistic Relational Model” (p. 124). They work through the doctrine of creation, revitalizing the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 from hierarchical dominion to a theological anthropology recognizing the goodness of creation. With humility as well as honor and gratitude they speak of humanity’s location within the structure of creation: the paradox of humanity’s goodness and God-likeness as the holders of the image of God alongside the humble recognition that we are dust. Building on various image-of-God theologies, Brunner, Butler, and Swoboda invite us into a more holistic understanding of the relational model of theological anthropology we receive from Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, and John Zizioulas. This holistic relational model calls for rejection of the destructive, dualistic paradigm that implies dominion over creation based on humanity’s God-likeness and the rest of the creation’s not-God-likeness, and invites us to instead recognize that “the divine image uniquely endows humans with responsibility….” (p. 124).
Theologies and philosophies of the Other help us see that it is in the encounter with the true Other that we most clearly see the face of God. In order to see God, we must be in relationship with those we would deem other. “Thinking about being human in a relational way provides a paradigm that focuses on persons in community, held responsible and accountable by other humans and by the Earth itself” (p. 125). This creates the space for an incarnational theology that recognizes the importance of Jesus’ enfleshment, the responsibility we hold for living in solidarity with those experiencing environmental injustice, and an inclusion of the whole creation in the salvific work of God that includes not just our spiritual nature, but also our bodies and the systemic forces of oppression at work in our world (Ro 8:19-23).
If you are an Evangelical wondering whether environmental care has a place in the living out of your faith, I highly recommend this text. This book is a good read if you are interested in ecotheology and want an introduction to the topic. For professors, this book could be used with undergraduates if you are lucky enough to work at a Christian institution with a course in ecotheology, and it is more likely useful in seminaries. I look forward to using it in my own courses in the future, walking students through the current need for a theology that encompasses the environment, where we find that in scripture, what it looks like in everyday life, and the excellent stories that model the struggle to put ecotheology into practice.