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Cutting Edges: Remember You are Dust, and to Dust You Shall Return

By Dr. Timothy R. Eberhart, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ecology and Director of the Course of Study School at Garrett-Evangelical

With sobering words and ashen smudges on our foreheads, Christians worldwide were ushered this month into the Lenten season.  In an age marked by increasingly dire signs that the earth itself is suffering from multiple afflictions, even unto death, we are challenged this Lent to consider the meaning of Jesus’ passion and resurrection for a stricken planet.   

Remember that to dust you shall return.  The wages of human sin is death (Rom. 6:23), as Paul declares, and not only our own degeneration, but the unnatural decay of the whole groaning creation (8:21-22).  Today, this unwelcome message comes to us from the scientific community, as we hear reports almost daily that the earth and every form of life it sustains is in grave peril and that the great ecological crises of our time are “anthropogenic” (i.e. caused by human activity).

Among these crises, climate change is perhaps the most foreboding.  Climatologist James Hansen notes that over the last ten thousand years, the number of parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere has hovered around 275.  275 ppm has produced temperatures warm enough to melt the ice sheets from the centers of our continents, allowing us to grow grain, but cold enough for mountain glaciers to provide yearly drinking water.  Every aspect of our creaturely life and the human civilizations that have developed over this time have adapted to those climatic conditions.  Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that CO2 number has risen an average of 2 parts per million a year.  Hansen has said that 350 is the number we can reach before we do irreparable harm to the biosphere.  We are now at 395 ppm, and growing.  If individuals, communities, and governments begin immediately to reduce carbon emissions worldwide, we may eventually reduce that number to below 350.  Even so, enormous damage will have already occurred.  As climate change author Bill McKibben says, “we’re like the guy who smoked for forty years and then he had a stroke.  He doesn’t smoke anymore [we hope], but the left side of his body doesn’t work anymore either.”[1]

In the face of such hard truths, we are being forced to confess that our own greed, sloth, and prideful ignorance – manifest in unsustaining ways of life – are directly responsible for a sickly, impaired planet.  Nothing could be more appropriate this Lenten season, therefore, than for us honestly and humbly to lament, both to our Lord and to the beloved Creation: “Oh sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down…Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain” (B. Clairvaux).            

Remember that you are dust.  We human beings, like all living creatures, originate from the earth.  As we read in the second creation story, we are clay/soil enlivened by the breath of God (Gen. 2:7).  In and though our earthly bodies, we share in the great community of creation with all other forms of life, sentient and non-sentient, that are fashioned by our common Creator.  As ecologists have affirmed for years, what happens to the earth and its creatures, happens to us.

It was in and through an earthly body, of course, that God became human and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14).  God’s own life is intimately wedded to our own, not only as enlivening spirit, but also as terrestrial flesh.  And what we will proclaim on Easter morning with shouts of hallelujah is that what has happened in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is what will happen for us and for the entire creation!  “For behold, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” so “be glad and rejoice” (Is. 65:17-18).  To be clear, the hope of Easter is not an opiate for inaction.  For the church is an earthly body of people called to be a tangible witness amidst this present age to the glory of the new creation that is to come.  In fact, no call could be more urgent this Lenten season, and in the seasons and years to come, than for Christians to participate in the great work of healing the earth through personal lifestyle changes, the conversion of others to ways that lead to life, and the transformation of our common public life.  It is in so doing that we will “practice resurrection” (W. Berry). 

Repent, and believe the Gospel.  Garrett-Evangelical is committed to this gospel work.  Last April, we joined with eleven other seminaries and divinity schools in a Seminary Stewardship Alliance (  The inauguration of the SSA took place at the Earth Day service at the National Cathedral, where Dean Lallene Rector and other seminary deans and presidents signed a covenant to integrate “creation care” into the heart of theological education.  I was honored to attend as a seminary co-representative and excited to end up seated by three of today’s great environmental leaders: Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, and Wes Jackson.  Prior to the service, I asked McKibben why, of all the places he could be on Earth Day, he chose to attend this event.  McKibben, a committed Christian active in his local United Methodist church, said this: “Our churches represent one of the best hopes we have of making a difference on the environment, and it is our seminaries and divinity schools that will shape the church to come.” 

Spurred by this sense of urgency, President Amerson has charged that a new Stewardship Committee be formed to promote the just and wise care of God’s creation in all areas of our seminary life together.  As the committee description affirms:    

Garrett-Evangelical is committed to integrating ecological perspectives and sustainable practices throughout the curriculum, worship and spiritual life, programming, buildings and grounds, and administrative operations of the seminary.  This commitment also includes empowering students, faculty, and staff to be good stewards of the earth and its resources in their daily lives, while seeking out institutional collaboration with environmental groups in the Northwestern, Evanston, and Chicago communities.  Because the ecological crises we face are interconnected with matters of human justice, and since the poor and marginalized are often hardest hit by realities like climate change, toxic waste, and resource depletion, the Stewardship Committee encourages efforts to tie our commitments to creation care with the seminary’s longstanding commitments to racial, gender, and socio-economic justice.     

This spring, the Stewardship Committee is inviting the seminary’s many constituents to share ideas and visions for how we might fulfill our institutional calling to care for God’s creation.  You can participate by completing this online survey:   

Perhaps more than ever we need to be reminded that it is the earth from which we have come and the earth to which we will return.  For in truth, the redemption of our bodies and the saving of our planet are joined together.  And both the earth and we belong to God.  In full confidence of the resurrection, may we live as bold disciples whose hope is in the coming of the glory of the Lord.

[1] Bill McKibben, “A New World,” in Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds., The Post Carbon Reader: Managing The 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises (Healdsbury, CA: Watershed Media, 2010).