Christian Faith | Response Magazine

Natural theology

A conversation between a professor and an alumna about how nature should inform our thoughts on God and the Bible.

Illustration of a whimsical meadow by Margaret Kimball.

Several scholars with SPU connections study the way nature intersects with faith and Christian practices.

One is Assistant Professor of Christian Scripture J.J. Johnson Leese, whose research focuses on how Paul’s theology of creation should inform the Church’s approach to ecological challenges today.

Another is Mary Plate DeJong ’99, who has a master’s degree in ecotheology and received the 2013 Denny Award for Conservation and Environmental Stewardship for her work to reclaim and restore green spaces near her home in Seattle. Response got the chance to listen in on their conversation about why nature is so important to Christian theology.

Leese: Christianity today tends to overemphasize the divide between the spiritual realm and the earthly realm. But the incarnation is a powerful example of how God honors our natural environment and desires us to be connected with it.

DeJong: Yes. The incarnation, the idea of God made flesh, honors and celebrates the natural world, because our flesh, this tree, this earth — we’re all made of the same elements. Our flesh contains carbon. Our flesh contains all of the molecules of the stars, as does this tree, as does this earth.

I feel like the incarnation invites us into an embodiment of our flesh, but also the embodiment of this world. It is an invitation to seeing how this is all holy.

Leese: What I love so much about ecotheology is that we’re putting on our “eco” lenses. We’re going back to the very same texts that have been read anthropocentrically and we’re saying, oh, Adam is from the Ha’Adam, from the earth.

I teach my students that the relationship portrayed in Genesis 3 is symbiotic. The earth is cursed because of human disobedience of going beyond the boundaries that God set for them in the midst of all this freedom. Is there ever a more relevant example of what has happened in our modern context? We have gone beyond our boundaries. We have broken the world. Now, the world is moaning as in labor pains, as Paul calls it.

DeJong: Jesus as a wisdom teacher used the natural world — the lilies and the birds and all of these natural connections — as teaching points. That is a great invitation to us to see that this is within our tradition, as well, and as much as Scripture is revelatory, so is the natural world. The Celtic tradition would say that Christ walks with two shoes — Scripture and the natural world — and without one, he will limp.

Leese: Powerful, isn’t it?

DeJong: Yes, and that image applies to us as well. We’re limping along because we have primarily been using one shoe. It is time for people of faith to put on the other shoe, the natural world — to really do that one up fast and pull it on tight.

Leese: That’s where your language is so important, the symbiotic relationship, the interrelationship, and where we view the elements of creation more as a subject.

The stewardship model has received some critique because it uses the language of subject and object. The human is still the one who is taking care of the creation and all that there is. But at least that language has moved us away from a purely anthropocentric view where creation is here to do whatever I want.

DeJong: We really are in an era that demands a revolution in how we think and see.

Leese: One place ecotheology helps us see differently is in thinking about time. I’m always reminding my students that time is a part of our creation. There is a connection between the theology of space, the theology of time, and the theology of worship. An ecotheology lens helps us think of time differently.

DeJong: When I think of time, I see a calendar and seasons and the wheel of time. Time actually invites us into winter and spring and autumn and summer.

Leese: We need to explore time and seasons. The ancients were in tune with this, and Sabbath was such a part of the cycle of their workweek. Their time became sacred and holy. Sabbath is not necessarily one moment in time in our week, although I certainly feel that’s so critical, but it’s setting aside the regularity of our responsibilities.

DeJong: We in America have sold ourselves on this false notion of perpetual summer, that there’s always something to harvest. There is always something growing and harvesting, always, always. But Sabbath is the fallow time, is the resting time, is the wintertime — for all of creation.

Here we have the natural world that teaches us of time. There is a time to be in full leaf. There is a time for the leaves to begin to get quiet and die, and then there is dormancy. The theology of time teaches that the Sabbath, I think, which coincides in my mind with the season of winter, that there has to be stillness. There has to be quiet, but it’s not that it’s just quiet because there is something underground that is just waiting to burst out in spring, so that yes, it can be harvested in summer. Time demands that quiet, not our ever-present false sense of summer.

Leese: My task as a biblical scholar is to help people put on their “eco” lens and see through it. There are so many texts that have been a mystery. For example, I’m getting ready to teach Numbers. This puzzling text, you remember when Moses and Aaron, the people are grumbling and they want water and so Moses and Aaron go to God and they beseech God and God says, “OK, I want you to go to the rock and to speak to the rock, and the rock will bring forth water for the people.” The text goes on and tells us that Moses and Aaron went to the rock and they struck the rock twice and it brought forth water. It was because of that that God said you were disobedient and because of this, you cannot enter the land. Scholars have been puzzled about this, but even in my telling of the story, did you notice their disobedience?

DeJong: No. I’m thinking they’re thirsty and they’re frustrated.

Leese: God commanded them to speak to the rock, and the rock will bring forth water.

DeJong: They hit it instead. Oh, that is so profound. I just got goosebumps.

Leese: We never see it that way, because we’ve never thought about it from the perspective of the rock.

DeJong: That’s the “eco” lens.

Leese: Not only that, but to ancient Jewish authors, the rock was a central character. Philo, who was a philosopher at the same time as Paul, said the rock was wisdom. The rock was wisdom and the rock played a key role in this narrative. Josephus, a Jewish historian, said the rock is the law, the law, the covenant of God. Then Paul, in the New Testament, what does he say the rock is? The rock is Christ. The rock followed the Israelites around the wilderness.

Why is the rock so important? Because the rock was a source of water. The water is life-giving. That’s where ecotheologians come to the text and find things that we missed. All these scholars, forever, they missed the rock.

DeJong: I love that so much because it highlights the value of ecotheology — it’s seeing our story embedded within the natural world. We are not just a character acting upon the stage of the world, but the world is a character. The natural features are characters.

The theologian Thomas Berry says this — “the universe is a collection of subjects, rather than a collection of objects.” We’re supposed to be speaking with the rock, not hitting it.

Leese: Then it becomes because, of course, the text doesn’t commentate on it, but see, in what ways are we hitting, striking our earth today? Look at it. It’s powerful. If we see that in the text and say, “Oh, my gosh. How am I hitting the earth? How am I not serving?” which is what we’re told to do in Genesis 2. We’re called to serve the earth. That is your task — to till the earth, to take care of it.

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