In my first year of seminary, I learned about an idea in ministry studies called “thinking theologically.” When I first heard my instructor refer to it (in the context of a ministry formation course), I thought that maybe it was a phrase she herself had coined to describe what it means to embrace a theological orientation toward experience that recognizes the sacred/theological not only in traditional religious spaces (i.e. churches, seminaries) or in theological writing but, rather, in all areas of life. Her point, it seemed to me at the time, was that Christians can tend to view theology as a discreet activity or isolated practice—but places, history, events, ideas, and books explicitly marked as “theological” is just the beginning of what it means to embrace the theological perspective as an all-encompassing worldview.
As it turns out, “thinking theologically” is an established (and apparently trendy) concept. Currently, there’s a course called Thinking Theologically being offered at the University of Waterloo. In 1999, Fritz Guy wrote Thinking Theologically: Adventist Christianity and the Interpretation of Faith (whether this was the first time someone had used the phrase, I’m not sure—but many books on the topic of theological thinking are similarly titled). More recently, in 2015, Eric Barreto edited a book called Thinking Theologically that explores the holistic nature of a thoroughly theological perspective. In the University of Waterloo course, theology is defined as “not simply the sum of what Christians believe, but the dynamic interactions among actual beliefs, the foundational sources of Christian faith, and ever-changing contemporary circumstances.” The summarizing description of Barreto’s book illuminates even more about this project, I think:
We are constantly engaged in processing data and sensory inputs all around us, even when we are not conscious of the many neural pathways our minds are traveling. So taking a step back to ponder the dimensions and practices of a particular way of thinking is a challenge. Even more important, however, is cultivating the habits of mind necessary in a life of ministry. This book, therefore, will grapple with the particular ways that the theological disciplines invite students to think but also the ways in which thinking theologically shapes a student’s sense of self and his or her role in a wider community of belief and thought. Thinking theologically is not just a cerebral matter; thinking theologically invokes an embodied set of practices and values that shape individuals and communities alike. Thinking theologically demands both intellect and emotion, logic and compassion, mind and body.
I’ve been wondering if, as Christians, it might be useful to apply the concept of “thinking theologically” to our way of thinking about the environment and other ecological issues more generally. Arguably thinking—rather than action—is the last thing the ecological effort needs, but I can’t help see the value of notions like “an embodied set of practices” that “shape individuals and communities” when it comes to remedying our posture toward the Creation. It must be said, of course, that the Christian posture is in need of remedying precisely because it has been responsible for the logic of anthropocentrism, a logic which positions human beings as superior vis-à-vis the natural world. And our internal re/sources are limited, so much so that white Christians, and even non-Christians from historically Christian cultures, look to other cultures’ spiritual traditions to cultivate their own ecological imagination, often lifting rituals and practices (I am thinking of Indigenous spiritualities specifically) and appropriating them within the context of a Western, consumer-driven lifestyle.
So perhaps we might want to start “thinking ecologically” while we’re at work trying to think more theologically. Even if we don’t agree that ecological thinking should be separate from theological thinking, and should ultimately be included within a theological perspective, it is, evidently, still necessary to stress that thinking theologically will also include thinking about the environment in spiritually-inflected ways. Regrettably, Barreto’s volume does not include a chapter dedicated to “Thinking Ecologically,” although “Thinking Mindfully,” “Thinking Bodily,” “Thinking Socially,” and other types of thinking make their appearances. But as environmental concerns increasingly come to the fore of public life and debate, the Church might discover the need to give ecology, and the earth itself, the priority it deserves.