A theology of ecology

During the most recent Earth Day April 22, Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection ran high-profile TV ads in which Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, and then Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson, sat together on couches telling the world of their shared concern about climate change.

To those who continue to take the “climate change is a dirty lie” line, you might want to reconsider whether you really want to find yourself to the right of Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson on this issue.

The climate-change debate may be over, but the deeper theological problems that helped to get us here are definitely not resolved. It may be that the most important work that Christian ministers, scholars and other leaders can do on behalf of the climate and the creation is theological rather than activist. Many people can lobby for a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. I have. I hope you will. But few have the authority and role to teach our nation's majority Christian population to think differently about God's creation. Theology matters. We neglect it at our peril.

The working theology of most Southern Baptist churches has been privatistic, other-worldly, and soteriological. Church is where you went to find out how you as an individual can find personal happiness and eternal life through a saving relationship with Christ. This goes back before the denominational split in the SBC. I remember being taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1980s that every sermon must take the hearer to the cross and to a personal decision in relation to the cross. Another way it was said is that we must preach the gospel in every message through whatever text or issue happens to be before us.

This gospel had little or nothing to do with this world in itself. At most, the world was an inert backdrop against which the drama of individual salvation or damnation played itself out. Many of our most controversial theological debates, such as the Arminianism/Calvinism conflict that still afflicts so many Baptists, assume the same basic paradigm. Does God give us free will in choosing salvation or it is predetermined by God's choice? At this very moment all over the nation you can find earnest young theologians engaged in coffee-shop arguments over this question -- a question that once again leaves everything other than soteriology out of the picture altogether.

Somehow a theological paradigm got into our Protestant/ Baptist/evangelical bloodstream in which the drama of personal salvation is all that really matters. Modern forms of that paradigm might jazz up the storytelling or extend the emphasis to lifestyle salvation and not just eternal salvation, but the basic paradigm remains the same.

We need a robust and contextually sensitive theology of creation that actually plays a working role in our daily practical theology. We need an updated theological anthropology that goes with that theology of creation. And, yes, we also need a theology of salvation that is congruent with this theology of creation and this anthropology.

When we have turned to creation, many Christians have embraced a fundamental God/world/humanity triple split. The transcendent God creates the “world” or “creation” or “nature.” This “world” contains many magnificent creatures and abundant beauty. Human beings are fundamentally distinct from both “world” and “Creator,” but have been declared by their Creator to stand in a relationship of dominion or rule over the “world” and its creatures. Meanwhile, what really matters theologically is the action between God and humanity, which is played out in the drama of sin, judgment and salvation.

This kind of theology separates human beings from the rest of the created order. We are perceived as “other” to the rivers and the otters and they are “other” to us. Moreover, we are seen as superior to the rivers and the otters and can freely exploit the “resources” they offer as we see fit.

Climate change is just one reminder that human beings are part of creation. So are the many toxins that turn out to be transmitted by every breastfeeding mother in the world to every nursing infant in the world. If we warm up the atmosphere, trigger more intense weather events, and alter rain patterns, we do it to ourselves. If we release toxins into our groundwater, soil and air, we do it to our nursing mothers and their babies.

Remember the bumper sticker “Save the babies, not the whales”? What a nice “pro-life” slam against those lefty environmentalists. But what if it turns out that you can't save the Creation theology babies unless you are also saving the whales? What if it turns out that we must save the health of the planetary ecosystems that sustain life for all creatures if we want to save our own lives?

This means more than the obvious but important reminder that caring for God's creation is an aspect of a consistent pro-life ethic. The more fundamental point is theological. Human beings are unique in our status as imago dei and we are fellow-creatures with the millions of other species on this planet. And all creatures depend for their life and health on the well being of the air, land, sea, forests, climate and so on.

The interconnectedness of all living things can no longer be seen as an airy slogan of a few dreamers. It is a fact established by hard experience. When China belches dirty coal, Los Angeles gets asthma, and all of us live on a planet a little bit hotter than the year before. It is time that our theology caught up with both scripture and the facts on the ground.

David Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.. He may be contacted at www. davidpgushee.com. This article is distributed by ABP.