The Seminary, Communities of Faith, and Ecological Regeneration
April 9, 2019
Interview with Rev. Dr. Timothy Eberhart
There seems to be a lot happening at the seminary around ecological sustainability and justice. Why has Garrett-Evangelical made a commitment to the environment a priority?
At the most basic level, I’d say that a commitment to caring for creation is intimately connected to the central mark of Christian discipleship, which is loving God with one’s whole life and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. I don’t believe you can say you truly love God while neglecting God’s creation, while ignoring the mystery, beauty, and rich diversity of creaturely life and all that sustains life. To affirm with the scriptures that God is Creator necessarily calls for a basic reverence and respect for all that God has brought into being and called good. Similarly, we know that human life is sustained in and through intricate webs of soil, water, air, minerals, plants, animals, and more, and that to do harm to these interconnected webs is to do harm to human beings as well. And so, it also doesn’t make sense to say you love your neighbor, near or far, while undermining the very conditions upon which your neighbor’s life depends.
Of course, the hard truth is that we are living in an age of immense ecological degradation and injustice. Whether one looks at the realities of climate change, biodiversity loss, or environmental pollution in any number of forms, it’s clear that the capacity of the good earth to sustain life, human or otherwise, is profoundly threatened. And at the moment, it is those already suffering under the burdens of injustice and inequity who have been and are suffering the worst effects — the world’s poor from so-called under-developed nations and rural communities and those whose skin colors are darker hued, including indigenous peoples, women, children, and the elderly.
All of this has enormous implications for the shape of religious education and formation. What does it look like to lead worship and preach about divine will in communities impacted by unprecedented flooding, wildfires, or other disasters? How do you offer pastoral care and counseling to climate refugees? What is the meaning of hope, of repentance, of conversion, of doing justice amidst what some scientists are calling the sixth great extinction event? We think it would be irresponsible as a seminary not to be wrestling with such questions and not to be responding faithfully with resources from the Christian tradition.
Could you say more about the role of religious communities in relation to the broader environmental movement?
What’s interesting here is the growing number of those in the scientific community who are looking to the world’s religious traditions for moral leadership on issues of global environmental concern. It’s one thing to gather and interpret information about the state of the biosphere. It’s another to inspire people around a vision of the common good, to tap into deep motivations for personal and social change, and to mobilize communities for widespread collective action. And just to be clear — that is what we need to do, as quickly and effectively and on as large a scale as possible.
At the same time, those of us who are stewards of a particular religious tradition bear the responsibility of examining how we’ve contributed to the ecological crises we’re facing. For Christians, that means interrogating our most basic beliefs about God’s relationship to the world, about the meaning of salvation, about what it means to be created in the image of God, and about the nature of following Jesus and walking in the Spirit. There are many ways in which Christian beliefs have led people to turn away from the earth and to disregard the sacredness of this earthly life. But we’re also responsible for helping to emphasize the earth- affirming nature of the scriptures and Christian faith — for example, the divine pronouncement of the goodness of creation, the incarnation of God with us in the earthly body of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus as the first fruits of a new creation. This is the kind of theological work we’re doing in our new concentration in ecological regeneration.
Tell me about the concentration. What’s involved?
The concentration in ecological regeneration is available to students in several of our degree programs, including the new master of arts in public ministry. The curriculum is organized around a set of core courses in theology, ethics, and the practice of ministry. These courses include everything from engaging in the critical and constructive doctrinal work I was just describing to learning about regenerative practices like permaculture design to practicing methods of community organizing for environmental justice. Throughout the concentration, students are also making connections between addressing ecological degradation and confronting other forms of injustice like racism, poverty, and sexism. I believe this intersectional and integrative approach makes what we’re doing in the concentration unique in theological education today.
I also want to say something about the word “regeneration,” which is a term growing in significance in the environmental movement to describe concepts like regenerative agriculture, regenerative cultures, or regenerative economics. What’s being affirmed here is the need to move beyond the category of sustainability, and even resilience, to claim the importance of actively participating in the restorative healing of landscapes and watersheds and natural systems. Regeneration is also a theological term. In fact, it’s central to the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition and communicates the assurance that God is capable of bringing about new life and new possibilities even amidst the very worst of our sins that lead to death. We very much need that kind of radical hope today.
Finally, tell me about the Hope for Creation Fund.
The aim of the Hope for Creation Fund is to support the institutional structures needed to amplify the work we’ve begun in doing our part to heal God’s threatened creation, to raise up wise and effective leaders for regenerative ministry, and to ensure that Garrett- Evangelical continues to be a leader in the Chicago area, Midwest region, and around the world in faithfully responding to the fullness of the Gospel. We believe in the importance of this work, but we’re going to need everyone’s support. I would encourage everyone to go the seminary’s website — Garrett.edu/GoGreen — to learn more about the Hope for Creation Fund. In addition, I would welcome the opportunity to engage further with our readers about the seminary’s commitment to ecological sustainability and justice.