It’s mid-July. Summer is beginning. Summer is ending. We are somewhere in the middle of summer in the Northern hemisphere.
For what it’s worth, there are seven weeks until Labor Day weekend, if you’re in the U.S.; nine weeks until the Autumn equinox. In other words, there is still plenty of time to pack in some summer eco reading–particularly while the Western U.S. cracks and burns and torrential rains flood other regions on either side of the Atlantic. (Too dire?)
I’m not going to lie, it is very difficult at this time to be working in the fields of ecology and theology. In my home state of Washington, the governor issued a near total burn ban through September, and declared a drought emergency within two weeks of the state finally opening back up in the wake of the pandemic. That’s right, we can go out and socialize now (hooray), but only as long as the air quality holds (uff da).
So, where to begin?
Before diving in, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that, for most writers, the #1 motivating/underlying question is simply, What resources can we draw from Christian theology, scripture and tradition in order to effectively respond to contemporary environmental crises? Secondly, there are varying emphases depending upon the tradition and perspective of the writer. Catholic theologians can lean into Catholic Social Teaching, as well as revisit ancient notions of cosmic christology and the sacredness of creation. Lutherans have been writing about creation in the face of ecological disasters for a while now, and can point to the ‘Book of Nature’ motif in Martin Luther’s writings. And those writing from more Reformed traditions and backgrounds may talk about God’s covenant with creation and humanity’s responsibility therein. Such diversity is critical if the conversation is to continue and gain traction. Finally, read with care: care for yourself (there’s only so much doomscrolling we can do before all hope is lost), care for those most impacted (we must listen with humility), and care for future generations as well as past generations. The dichotomy of victim and perpetrator ultimately does not serve us well in this realm and it can even undermine or obscure the work of the Holy Spirit in, through, and around the world.
So, while I am tempted to give you a full list of authors and texts, here let me simply highlight a few of my favorites. This is incomplete, namely because it is not ecumenically representative of the field of ecotheology. The other lacuna you may notice is a lack of attention to environmental racism; you would be correct. We need to work on that.
Denis Edwards; Ecology at the Heart of Faith (Orbis, 2006). Australian Catholic theologian Denis Edwards spent much of his career thinking through ecological concerns and Christian faith, and this text is a culminating point. For those who have not read much in ecotheology, his work is an especially good place to start because he brings together Christian tradition and contemporary conversations so well. His stated intent here is, in fact, to delve into the center of the faith tradition to see what resonates strongest with our current concerns. I have found him to be a trustworthy interpreter of writers such as Athanasius, Karl Rahner, and Elizabeth Johnson. And he conscientiously addresses all three Persons of the Trinity in relation to creation and cosmos, rather than emphasizing one over the others. His writing might not be as technical as other theologians, but that means it is approachable and clear in its presentation.
Mary C. Grey, Sacred Longings: the Ecological Spirit and Global Culture (SCM, 2003/Fortress, 2004). The now classic format of any ecotheology or text on environmental ethics begins with a litany of woes, rehearsing the latest dire scientific finding about the planet. What I love about Mary Grey’s work is that she plays off that by structuring her text into three parts: losing heart, restless heart, and taking heart. Her writing weaves together parable and myth, contemporary concerns, and theological questions and yearnings. Following Liberation theology and, to be more specific, ecofeminist commitments, she centers the lived experience of a community suffering from water scarcity, linking their longings to the suffering of the earth groaning under an increasingly globalized political economy. More than a critique on consumer culture (also a trademark of ecotheologies), she moves us through the challenge of shifting our perceptions to be more aware of vulnerability, and toward an integration of earthiness and courage with longing for that which truly sustains us—body, mind, and spirit.
Elizabeth Johnson; Creation and the Cross: the Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril (Orbis, 2018). Just about any one of Johnson’s texts, including Quest for the Living God (2007), Ask the Beasts (2014), and her recent contributions to other volumes, will provide a glimpse into how she describes God as one who suffers with suffering creation. In many ways her writing on creation is simply a continuation of her Wisdom/Sophia Christology, catalyzed here by an encounter and discussion with the work of Danish theologian, Neils Gregersen, who writes about “deep incarnation.” In Creation and the Cross, she offers a creative, Anselm-style question and answer summa about who is God that explores this notion further while drawing it into conversation with other traditional theological loci.
Ched Myers, editor; Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Wipf & Stock, 2016). Ched Myers’ commentary on the gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man (1988), has been my go-to during this lectionary cycle when I’m preaching; but it is his notion of Watershed Discipleship that is paradigm-shifting. In this volume, he collected essays from ‘faith-rooted activists, educators, and practitioners’—individuals all involved with doing the work of ecotheology within their own watersheds and contexts. It includes stories of sustainable farming, ecological restoration, and even a subversive carnival celebration. Contributors share their struggles of providing water to neighbors in the face of municipal water shut-offs, of protesting pipelines, and of their attempts at creating renewed imaginations that offer life-nourishing alternatives to our existing built environments. It is ecotheology with a much needed political edge, and substantive creative energy.
Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation); Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2014). I include this one, even thought it is already well known and loved, simply because I have not yet read her book, Gathering Moss. But, I will, because I love moss. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she describes the gift economy of berries, the sacred intimacy of sweetgrass, and grammars of animacy. As a trained botanist, she discusses scientific knowledge of plants apposite to generationally accrued indigenous wisdom, as well as her own experiential observations of the plant world. One of the many tales Braiding Sweetgrass offers is her own quest for knowledge which, at first, led to a university science department. Once that proves insufficient, she then recounts the journey of returning home, and her work becomes a narration of decolonizing knowledge. Plant life, its many voices, relations, dependencies and needs becomes the focus of the text, the “teachers,” reading and being read against the scientific tradition.
Next on my bookshelf are two titles I am especially looking forward to reading: An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology, by Daniel Castillo (Orbis, 2019); and Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church, edited by Hannah Malcom (SCM Press, 2020). For the second, I will be posting a review here on WIT.
And, because I cannot resist throwing in some more titles, below are a few recommended collections:
Grounding Religion: a Field Guide to the Study of Religion and Ecology; edited by W. Bauman, R. Bohannon, and K. O’Brien (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2017).
Full of Your Glory: Liturgy, Cosmos, Creation; edited by Teresa Berger (Liturgical Press, 2019); Papers from the 5th Yale ISM Liturgy Conference, June 18-21, 2018.
Eco-Reformation: Grace and Hope for a Planet in Peril; edited by Lisa Dahill and James Martin-Schramm (Wipf & Stock, 2016).
Incarnation: on the Scope and Depth of Christology; edited by Neils Gregersen (Fortress, 2015).
Women Healing Earth: third world women on ecology, feminism and religion; edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether (Orbis, 1996).
The world is on fire. And it’s drowning. We can hide in the church, or we can grab some gear and maybe learn how to use a pail—either to be part of the bucket brigade or for bailing water. But don’t try to do this work alone. Listen to what the Creator Spirit is saying and heed her call to love and serve the Lord in, through, for the whole cosmos.