Will God Save Us from this Ecological Mess?

Ecotheology Professors Use Current “Ecological Mess” to Promote Constructive Dialogue

Portland Seminary hosted “Will God Save Us from this Ecological Mess?,” an interactive discussion following a communal dinner, on February 19, 2015, at Lucky Labrador Public House in Portland. This event, part of the seminary's Symposia Series, offered the general public as well as the seminary community the opportunity engage questions surrounding ecotheology. Professors Daniel Brunner, Jennifer Butler, and A.J. Swoboda facilitated, and shared from their recent release:  Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology.  

Butler and Swoboda are Portland Seminary alumni and Brunner’s former students. Today, the three are colleagues, teaching Creation Care courses. While all three believe in living into Genesis 2:15 and “keeping the earth,” they come from different places on the theological spectrum. Swoboda labels himself the “token conservative” among the three, while Butler’s theology is liberal, and Brunner’s is moderate.

Brunner opened the discussion with a series of questions for attendees, including “How much harm, if any, do you think climate change will cause people in the United States, and in poorer, developing countries?” Attendees selected from multiple-choice responses and submitted their answers via text message or online form. Each anonymous response appeared on the onstage screen, with instantaneous result tabulation.

Forty-five of 70 survey participants labeled climate change “a crisis.” But how do evangelicals classify this purported crisis? Is it exclusively a science issue, or also a theology issue? Citing findings from the PRRI/AAR Religion,Values, and Climate Change Survey , Brunner reported that roughly half of white evangelicals feel science and religion are generally in conflict. According to the same source, 77% of white evangelicals believe the severity of recent natural disasters is evidence that we are in “the end times.”

Differences in eschatological perspectives often fuel debate among Christians, and pondering the ecological impact of the “it’s-all-going-to-burn” mindset can create tension. Even the professors’ own work on Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology was not without conflict.

Reflecting on the oftentimes-messy collaborative process, Butler expressed gratitude that at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, she is “part of a teaching team where love of neighbor trumps everything.” “Having this dialogue is hopeful,” she expressed.

Swoboda also spoke of hope—specifically, hope that his young son will be able to enjoy the “unencumbered gorgeous beauty” Swoboda experienced during childhood fishing trips. Swoboda did not grow up a Christian, but gazing at Montana’s starry summer skies fostered “deep knowledge…that there is something that is beyond us.”

After the panelists offered an overview of their book, Brunner presented one final set of questions, this time with no easy multiple-choice answers: “Is God going to rescue us? Can God? Will God? If God does or doesn’t do it, what does that say about our belief system? Historically, God has intervened at critical moments in history, such as parting the Red Sea. So if we create this mess, will God fix it?” Immediately, the room buzzed with conversation.

Attendees demonstrated that numerous perspectives weighing in on this issue magnifies its nuance and complexity. But despite the challenges, this difference-honoring dialogue is at the heart of these theologians’ passion and GFES’s vision. “Love…is how we will be changed,” Swoboda emphasized in his closing remarks. “We believe that is what has happened, can happen, and will happen at our seminary….Seek out relationships with people who disagree with you…out of that we will be changed.”

Article by Sierra S. Neiman, 3/2/15