How are faith and nature interwoven? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Debra Rienstra joins Pete and Jared to discuss the value of the created world in scripture and what it looks like to care for the earth properly. Together, they explore the following questions:
- What in the heck is eco-theology?
- What is meant by the phrase “more than human creation?”
- Why are so many theological systems human-centered?
- How can we make the shift past human-centered theology and begin to explore the theological implications of things that are more than human?
- Where can we find instances in Scripture of the created world being valued by God?
- What is the significance of the Symphony of Creation in Psalm 104?
- Is nature more than just a backdrop for the story of human redemption?
- What is the distinction between pantheism and panentheism?
- What are some problems that arise with the use of the stewardship metaphor in Genesis 1-2?
- What does the term “refugia” mean?
- How can we be people of refugia? What does that even look like?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Debra Rienstra you can share:
- “I love [Psalm 104] because people are in there, but it’s not all about the people. It’s humbling to see the sweep of creation from that kind of divine perspective. We’re definitely there and we’re beloved, but we’re part of this big picture.” @debrakrienstra
- “We are biological creatures. We can’t exist without the microbial life that lives within us and on us. We think we’re separate but we’re not at all. We’re so dependent on the rest of creation.” @debrakrienstra
- “We have to remember that we’re not in Eden anymore. We are now living on a damaged Earth after a long period of un-creation. Our task now is to be healers in partnership with God, and also with the creatures themselves, with the rest of creation.” @debrakrienstra
- “Science, indigenous knowledge, and eco-theology are all converging with the same wisdom: that we have to move from this alienation and this domination mindset to a kinship mindset.” @debrakrienstra
- “There’s 7.8 billion of us. We are a huge disturbance in nature and we’re not doing it mindfully. So, that’s really the transition that has to happen. We have to live on this planet mindful of our kinship and our dependence on everything else.” @debrakrienstra
- “Science, indigenous ecological knowledge, new movements in eco-theology…this convergence of wisdoms is very humbling for Christians. We have to recognize that other people have been smarter about this than then Christians have been, at least Western Christians in the last few centuries.” @debrakrienstra
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Class: Seeing Gender Diversity in Scripture
- Book: Refugia Faith
- Book: Christian Imagination
- Book: Great Tide Rising
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
Pete: Before we begin, folks, we just have, Jared, we have an exciting announcement, about a great opportunity for our listeners.
Jared: Yep, we have an upcoming one-night live class with Q&A, and it is with Austen Hartke. If you remember, if you’ve been listening since the beginning, as you should be, you will remember that Austen was a guest on the podcast, and he is going to be teaching a one-night class for us, “Seeing Gender Diversity in Scripture.” And that’s Thursday, April 14th, put it on your calendar. Of course, if you miss it, you’ll be able to get it later. But if you want to do the Q&A, then join live Thursday, April 14th, 8:00 – 9:30 PM Eastern Time. And of course, it’s always pay-what-you-can.
Pete: And we can’t stress enough, Eastern Time.
Jared: Eastern time.
Jared: Eastern Time. Eastern Time.
Jared: I think I said Easter time-
Pete: But you know what, that’s okay.
Jared: It’s probably close, probably close to us here.
Pete: It’s probably close to Easter time, but it’s both. It’s Easter time and it’s Eastern time.
Jared: Right. So, it’s pay-what-you-can, just go to thebiblefornormalpeople.com/diversity. We’ll talk about gender diversity, talk about Bible stories, and gender and how those go together. And all again, led by Austen Hartke, Thursday, April 14th 8:00-9:30 PM ET, thebiblefornormalpeople.com/diversity.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode of the podcast. Our topic today is “Eco-theology: Beyond Stewardship” and our guest is Debra Rienstra.
Jared: She is a professor at Calvin University and we talked about this topic, and I kept thinking of parallels from our episode with Chris Hoklotubbe and Native American spirituality, and it did bring more to the table for me in conversation with Chris and helped me to see some of these connection points on our faith and nature and how it all plays together.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, she wove in a little bit of indigenous theology, but also the importance of science and Christian theology broadly considered, but also the biblical themes that might help with this. And you sort of put the package together and you talk about what does it mean to care for the earth properly? She has a nice metaphor, we’ll leave it for her to say that, but it was very, very helpful for thinking about, you know, things like the climate crisis and I think of treatment of animals. You know? Jared, I need to say this, because this is really weird, but we have stinkbugs in our house.
Jared: Um hmm.
Pete: Do you have stink bugs?
Jared: We have historically.
Jared: I know where you’re going.
Pete: When I see one, when I see one, I pick it up, and I gently put it outside. I can’t kill those little bugs. I don’t know what it is.
Jared: It’s a lot of growth, Pete.
Pete: It is. I’m growing so much, because I used to like, beat neighborhood dogs not too long ago.
Pete: Yeah, no. I love animals. But anyways, so this is about the environment, but it’s also how we treat other creatures-
Jared: Let’s just be clear, Pete. You have a lot of animals. You love animals.
Pete: I do love animals.
Jared: You have never kicked dogs, neighbors or otherwise.
Pete: I have wanted to kick them.
Jared: Everyone has wanted to, but very few have, and you are not one of them.
Pete: And Marmalade is sort of an internet star.
Pete: I’m very proud of her, my cat. So anyway, but the thing is, it reminds me of just the bigger picture of we are living, you know, the metaphor, we’re not living on the land, we’re living with the land. And that, whether you’re living in a high rise in New York or whether you’re living just in the suburbs or on a farm someplace, and I think about that a lot, and it was really helpful to hear Debra just talk about things from her perspective and how she puts the pieces together.
Jared: Alright, enjoy.
Debra: We are biological creatures, we can’t exist without the microbial life that lives within us and on us. We think we’re separate, but we’re not at all. We’re so dependent on the rest of creation. So, I think if you start to look at it that way, the Scripture comes to life. And you suddenly realize that the role of the more than human creation is crucial in God’s redemptive vision for all creation.
Pete: Well, Debra, welcome to our podcast. Great to have you here.
Debra: It’s great to be here. Thanks for asking me.
Pete: Absolutely. And this is an exciting topic, and a timely topic, obviously. So, let’s start with this. Just what in the heck is eco-theology? It sounds sort of weird, right? What’s eco-theology? And how did you get interested in this?
Debra: Well, I didn’t know what it was either for a long time and I’ve lived my whole life in spaces where we live and love the Bible and I’ve loved theology all my life. And I really hadn’t even heard of it. And I actually got into it from a backdoor, I suppose you could say, through the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University. I was involved in the planning committee for the Festival of Faith and Writing and for a while there, I was sort of responsible for getting nature writers. So, I started to learn about people doing literary writing, with some connection to faith about nature.
And I started reading Kathleen Dean Moore and then eventually we had Bill McKibben, come, who’s not really a nature writer, he’s more a journalist. But I started reading about the climate crisis and just got really convicted that this is happening. And somehow, I have to respond. I can’t just watch this float by and I can’t just ignore it. So, I started reading more about that. And then I also got involved with an interdisciplinary group at Calvin University, called the Beyond Stewardship Project. And through that, I started meeting religion professors and science people. And that’s really how I got introduced to this field of theology about the “more than human creation.”
So, all the classical theological categories, you know, soteriology or the nature of God and so on, I was familiar with all of those. But this seemed to me this kind of missing piece that I’d never studied or thought about. And it turned out it was a whole field. So, the summer that I was working on that Beyond Stewardship Group, that interdisciplinary group, I just went to the library and started reading this stuff and loved it, because I think it felt to me like this missing piece, I just had thought about theology all my life, but I hadn’t really thought about the significance of moths or watersheds or the trees in the Bible. And suddenly, the Bible sort of came into full color for me and I felt like I had this new category of exploration, and it was very invigorating and thrilling even.
Jared: And I think, you use this phrase, “a missing piece.” And I wonder, a little bit of background here, if maybe you could speak on, I liked your phrase to of “more than human creation,” because a lot of theology when you talked about soteriology, in these other categories, it is very human-centered. It is the assumption- there’s an assumption that the most important thing, really the only thing worth considering in theology is humanity and people and that’s like our area of focus. That’s the only thing that matters. And so, can you talk about maybe that historically? And then, for you, what was that shift like to start to explore the theological implications of things that are more than human?
Debra: Sure. So, the phrase “more than human creation” is really a way to get around the difficulty of the term nature. Because if we think about nature as everything that’s not human or human built, that’s kind of inaccurate because we are also biological creatures. And so, in a way, there is nothing but nature. So, it’s just a kind of awkward thing.
Debra: So, then you can say, “Okay, well, the nonhuman creation,” and that makes everything else sound othered. So more than human creation is kind of the way people are talking about it right now. It’s a super awkward phrase. But the idea is, let’s just be careful not to be so anthropocentric, you know? With human beings at the center. And what you describe is exactly the tradition in theology, generally speaking, is that theology is the drama of human redemption. And so, everything else is kind of the stage set on which the drama of human redemption gets played out. And so presumably, there’s this kind of tacit assumption, then, that once the drama of human redemption is played out, we sort of clear the stage and none of it matters.
But I don’t think that’s the scriptural witness and just intuitively to me that never really made sense. And I think that might be partly because my spiritual and theological formation is in the reformed tradition. And so, we always had this sense of “Okay, well, there’s the book of Scripture and then there’s the book of creation.” And this comes straight out of John Calvin, the idea of general and special revelation. So even as a kid, I was sort of taught that nature is this place of plenitude that reveals, there I am using the word nature again, the more than human creation. I didn’t know that phrase as a kid, right? The more than human creation is this place of plenitude, through which God is revealed and in which God is present. So, I’ve always been taught that I just never really thought about it. I didn’t necessarily have the kind of struggle that some Christians have, where their theological formation is very individualistic, very spiritualized and there’s really not a lot of thought given to the created world and how God may or may not value it. If anything, it’s sort of expendable.
And that never made any intuitive sense to me and it’s never really what I thought. But I also hadn’t really gone deeply into Scripture and thought about it or sort of explored this area of theology.
Jared: So, can we jump into that a little bit? I like that you rooted in Calvin so that, you know, this isn’t a new idea that all of creation matters to God and it’s rooted in the Bible in places. But what were- are there passages that really helped open your eyes to that as you started thinking about these things?
Debra: Sure. Well, you know, what’s kind of funny is once you start reading eco-theology, you realize there are these greatest hits. And so eco-theologians are sort of always hitting the greatest hits, you know? But I could start with a couple things, even apart from Scripture, probably should start with Scripture, though, right? I mean-
Pete: You can start anywhere you want to Debra.
Jared: As long as you get back to Scripture.
Debra: We’ll get to Scripture, don’t worry. But if you just think about the Creed, we believe in the resurrection of the body. Well, do we or don’t we? If the end point of human redemption is a bodily resurrection, where does that exist? So, you can’t over-spiritualize if you’re going to say that line in the Creed. The other thing I would point to is the incarnation, the incarnate- the principle of the incarnation, that Christ took on flesh, and it’s not like that was a costume that Christ took on and then doffed, you know, later? God takes materiality into the divine self in the incarnation. So, it can’t- this created world can’t be expendable. Materiality can’t be expendable, nor does this beloved creation become expendable.
So as far as the scripture’s greatest hits, you know, you go back to Genesis, of course, and this exquisite hymn of creation and God’s declaration that this creation is very good. I know you had Lisa Sharon Harper on recently and she’s so good on this point. And she focuses on the creation of human beings and the image of God. But the whole creation is very good and beloved and delighted in by God. So you got to hit Genesis one and two, of course.
And then often there’s kind of a skip ahead, skip ahead to Psalm 104, the Symphony of Creation sometimes that’s called, and just the rejoicing of the divine person of God in the hills and the trees clapping their hands and the wild creatures. I mean, clearly, this is not merely a stage set for God. And I love that, that Psalm too because people are in there, but it’s not all about the people. People have like four verses, and they’re busy like, “Oh, look, there they are doing their little agriculture things.” And “Oh, look, there they are making bread and God is giving them wine so they can rejoice.” It’s sort of humbling to see the sweep of creation from that kind of divine perspective. And we’re definitely there. We’re beloved, but we’re part of this big picture.
So, from Psalm 104, you can take a little detour into the Prophets, which I think is profitable. Oh my gosh, I did not plan on that. And then you get to John 1. And that beautiful hymn of the incarnation, that harks back, of course, to Genesis 1 and 2 and the idea of Christ coming to pitch a tent among us, right? To camp among us, to dwell with us. And then, of course, you go to Romans 8, and all creation groaning, waiting for the revelation of the children of God. And Colossians 1, Christ, reconciling all things, you know? That passage, the word, the Greek word for all things, pánta, is just hammered in that passage, all things, all things, all things. And the idea of redemption being given to all creatures in Colossians 1. I mean, these are little things you don’t notice unless you’re sort of looking for them.
And then, of course, you wind up with Revelation and the beautiful scene in Revelation 21 of the renewed, new or renewed creation descending and God dwelling on Earth and you have this beautiful vision of the Garden City.
So, all of these things, I think, mitigate against a kind of indifference to the more than human creation and certainly a sense that it’s expendable or disposable. It’s clearly beloved by God. We are created as people of Earth, Adam from Adamah. That’s, you know, you see that everywhere you go if you’re looking at eco-theological texts, this idea of us being connected to the soil and of course, science bears this out.
We are biological creatures. We can’t exist without the microbial life that lives within us and on us. We think we’re separate but we’re not at all. We’re so dependent on the rest of creation. So, I think if you start to look at it that way, the Scripture, as I say, you know, kind of comes to life. And suddenly you realize that the role of the more than human creation is crucial in God’s redemptive vision for all creation.
Pete: Yeah and throwing into too, just because, you know, I think about it a little bit myself, Psalm 19, the beginning of Psalm 19, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Now, that’s a different kind of more than human creation. That’s up there, the stars, but it’s still part of it. Right?
Pete: It’s in other words, you know, the “nature” – can I just say nature? Because I’m not as sophisticated as you are.
Debra: Yeah. We’re going to have to.
Pete: Nature tends-
Jared: Cancel. Cancel.
Debra: Once you’ve made the caveat, you can get away with it.
Pete: Yeah. Right, exactly. Right. So, but, the cosmos is part of nature as well. And it’s all these things that are, it’s creation for heaven’s sake, isn’t it?
Pete: So that’s got to be more than just a backdrop for a drama of redemption? You know, that just doesn’t make sense to me, at least, you know, so-
Jared: Okay. So, you know, Pete, you mentioned up there in the stars that made me think of this, something that you said, Debra, I thought it would be really good to maybe dive into a little bit more, you mentioned this bodily resurrection. And the idea, again, I grew up in my tradition, thinking that the real goal is our job is to get up there someday. And can you just talk a little bit more, because I grew up with what I, you know, an eschatology or a belief in the end times or what’s going to happen at the end of the world that really did fuel me growing up to not caring about nature or climate change or anything like that, because the goal is really to escape Earth. And that’s a whole different way of seeing how God is interacting with the world than what I’m hearing you present, so-
Pete: Don’t polish the brass of a sinking ship kind of thing.
Jared: Right. Yeah. So, can you maybe just set it up in a way that you see theology differently? Because I think that reframes how we think about the Earth.
Debra: Yeah, so a couple really helpful things on that. My friend, Steve Bouma-Prediger, who’s an Old Testament professor at Hope College, sorry to mention Calvin’s rival, but there you go, he’s a great guy, they do great work, it’s a great school. He has some really good, kind of original language studies of some of the texts that have led to that kind of eschatology. There’s a text in Peter, that seems to imply in English translations that the world will be burned up. And that has really influenced this kind of theology of the disposable Earth. And Steve makes a really good case that that’s actually a mistranslation, it’s really more like the world will be revealed. So, it’s more like the burning off of the bad parts, right? And the renewal or the kind of return to the originary goodness of creation. And the same is actually true of Revelation 21, this idea of the new heaven and the New Earth, it’s actually more correctly, a renewed heaven in a renewed earth. So, I think that is really helpful too, to kind of correct the tacit assumptions there.
But one of the things that is useful about being a literature professor here, and not to dismiss professional theology, which I deeply respect and use all the time, I’m grateful for it. But one of the advantages of being a literature person is you are able to kind of see these metaphor systems for what they are, that is to, say, metaphor systems. So, it turns out, it’s sort of across the board common in literature in the records that we have of human imagination, to imagine the divine as up, the Earth as middle, and then there’s usually some kind of horrifying, lower place.
Pete: Mm hmm. That’s New Jersey, by the way.
Debra: [Laughter] Right. Sorry, New Jersey people. Not true. It’s the Garden State.
Jared: Pete’s from New Jersey. So, he can say it.
Pete: I’m from New Jersey, it’s okay.
Debra: I know. [Laughter]
There’s always this sense, across cultures, which is really fascinating, that the direction of spirituality is up. And so, as we think about heavens or the ethereal, we always associate that with up. But that’s not really the Hebrew mindset, necessarily. The Hebrew mindset is much more this world focused. And in any case, if we recognize that as a metaphor, we can question that and you know, is bad down?
Well, I don’t know what’s down. So, these are actually metaphor systems. And if we break them up, we can actually look at the scriptures again differently. And I know that our worship songs, it’s really great to rhyme, love and above. So, worship songs and our prayers and so on kind of reify that metaphor system and it’s not bad in itself. It’s just that we have to question that as a metaphor system. And we always associate up with a kind of attenuation of physicality. But I don’t think that’s the Scriptural witness either, that the deepening of spiritual harmony or union with the Divine is not a loss of physicality in the Christian way of thinking because of the Incarnation. And because of the way the world was created. So, a deepening of spiritual harmony or union with God is not a loss of physicality. And it is in certain other traditions, and we tend to think of it that way. And that’s not because Christianity demands that, it’s just that such a common metaphorical association.
So, I hear what you’re saying, too. I mean, I think there are places in Scripture and the Epistles of John are just terrible about this, because they’re always talking about how the world needs to be put aside, you know? We have to leave in some way or set aside the world or turn away from the world. But I think it’s not really fair to equate that with materiality or the physical creation.
Pete: So, the more than human creation. That’s actually, if I’m hearing- I’m trying to summarize what I think you’re saying. That is actually the space, the location for spirituality.
Pete: Okay. I mean, am I dumbing that down too much? That’s what I’m hearing.
Debra: Right. Where else is there?
Pete: What else is there other than all that stuff, right? And, but the thing is… Tell me what you think about this. I’m not leading you into a direction here. I’m just sort of curious if it’s helpful to expand, I don’t think this is very reformed, but I’ll say it anyway, to expand the notion of incarnation to include creation itself where creation is God giving it to God Self.
Debra: Interesting that you would say that.
Pete: And then Christ is a particular instantiation of that. It’s an instantiation of a larger principle.
Pete: I don’t know if that, I’ve been kicking that idea around in my own mind, I don’t know how helpful it is. I think it’s potentially very helpful but it’s sort of you know, God’s in and with us all over the place, you know? Not up there making cameo appearances, but is sort of embedded in woven into everything because everything is an extension. This is probably heresy, from what century, but I don’t really care.
Pete: I don’t care. Alright. This is the 21st century.
Debra: At least it’s not Gnosticism.
Jared: It was a long time ago, we’ve forgotten about it.
Pete: Well, yeah, it’s not God as apart from material things, but God is deeply committed to the creation, however you want to parse that out, I guess-
Debra: And in covenant relationship with the creation.
Pete: Yeah, sure. That’s a covenant relationship with the creation. That’s one way of putting it, but it’s sort of, to me that gives again, however, that’s fleshed out pardon the pun, but that is a way of saying, okay, listen eco-theology. Let’s think about what we’re doing here with this world and this cosmos around us and how do we act Christianly towards that? What does that even mean?
Debra: Sure. So, the traditional way of thinking about this, and I think this is Calvin, but not only Calvin, is that the fullness of God is poured out in the creation, God is present in the creation through the Spirit. But God is also beyond creation.
Pete: Right, right.
Debra: So that’s the distinction between pantheism which is God is equivalent to the material world, and panentheism, which means that God is present through the Spirit in all of the material world but exceeds it. And I think that’s a fairly convincing way to think about it. The incarnation, you know, I’d want to reserve that as a distinctive inbreaking of the presence of God into this world.
But there is an author, his name is Mark Wallace, who has been thinking about a kind of expanded incarnation by looking at the baptism stories of Christ and thinking of the dove, the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove, as a kind of second incarnation, I don’t know if I buy this or how I feel about this.
Debra: But it’s a fascinating proposition and I think it’s a way of reclaiming this presence of God thoroughly in creation. And actually, you know, this is you wanted to talk about stewardship a little bit.
Debra: And this is one of the problems with that term stewardship is, you know, once again, I’m thinking in terms of metaphor. As a metaphor, it implies that God is away. That this is God’s property, the creation is God’s property, and for some reason, God is away or busy or not paying attention. And so, God needs a steward to take care of it and that would be us.
Debra: So yes, I mean, you can make good cases for stewardship and that’s kind of the way that Genesis 1 and 2 are often blended. So, Genesis 1, you know, I’ve given you dominion, okay? We don’t want that to be like domination. So, you look at Genesis 2, and then you have Genesis 2:15, serving and protecting are the sort of best English translations of the two Hebrew words there. So, you combine ruling with serving and protecting and you add those up, and the result is stewardship. Okay, that’s great. But the metaphor there assumes that God is sort of distant. That’s one problem with it.
Another problem with stewardship is it assumes too much agency on the part of human beings, it’s still really relentlessly anthropocentric, as if the earth is going to stop spinning or something if we don’t have our hands on the helm. And biologically speaking, that’s just not true. The Earth went along for many, many centuries before humans came along. So, what does God want us to do? Well, I think the Genesis passages suggest, yes, it’s a caring, it’s to be the image of God within the creation, we can talk about what that means maybe.
But I think for now, we have to remember that we’re not in Eden anymore. We’re not in that Eden position. So that vocation given to the human beings in the story in the Genesis stories, that’s originary, but it’s not where we are. We are now living on a damaged Earth. So, we have we are living after a long period of uncreation, as it were. And so, our task now is actually to be healers. Stewards is almost too easy. It assumes we have too much knowledge and assumes we are too much the agents. And in fact, our job is to be healers, and to be healers in partnership with God, of course, and also with the creatures themselves, with the rest of creation with the plants and the creatures.
I mean, the more than human creation has amazing powers of resiliency, and self-healing. And so often our job is just to create space for that, to back off and get out of the way or to somehow urge that along. And that’s actually really difficult. And it requires a great deal of knowledge, scientific knowledge, and a great deal of humility. So, I think the word stewardship is just a little bit too easy, in that it allows us to remain anthropocentric and it allows us to assume that God is somehow not right here in the midst of this exquisite creation with us.
Jared: You know, something that you were saying they may think that there is- I’m trying to formulate how to think about that, but there’s this, these concepts that ended up I think, being pretty harmful in this space. One of those you when you talk about stewardship, it’s like that we’re in charge. It gives, again, this outsized place of privilege to humanity and the reality is biologically we’re a part of this thing. And so, it puts us in charge. And then it just is so interesting to me that you know, what we’re talking about where flesh is bad, physical things are bad, this spiritual world that we don’t actually know what we’re talking about is more important, is a very Greek idea, much more than it’d be pretty foreign to the Hebrew Bible, this idea of immateriality. And so, we combine, it’s almost like we were given charge over something and then we got this philosophy that said it’s trash.
Jared: It’s like that’s a terrible combination of things that we’re putting together. And it just makes me think of, again, you know, my tradition being Choctaw, this, what you’re talking about is just such a part of how you think about the world, that we are a part of this thing, and we’re not better. And that instills this humility, rather than the sense that you’re in charge. When we recognize that we are a part of it, it almost forces us to be not in a place of pride, but in a place of humility. And just thinking about those historical things that kind of came together at not a great time.
Debra: Yeah, absolutely. You can see it happening in the 17th century, you can see it happening in the West in the philosophical and literary traditions of the 17th century. And ultimately, it’s about power. It’s about creating a kind of theological groundwork that allows people with power to get more power. It’s basically a theological justification for the Industrial Revolution. And Willie James Jennings makes this amazing case, in his book, Christian Imagination, for the way that same kind of theology was used in colonization of the Americas to create race and to separate people from land. Because if they’re separated from land, then the land can actually be controlled by a different race. So, a lot of that development was really about power, not to take away from the fact that for, of course, all of human history, we have struggled to survive in the natural world. I mean, it has been a struggle to assure our survival, we have to perform agriculture, we have to eat, we have to find ways to live together and survive cold and different temperatures, and so on. So, I don’t want to diminish the fact that, yeah, we have to figure out a way to live in this natural world, which is not always beautiful and forgiving, and Edenic. But in the 18th century, you can actually see that happening.
So, what we’re seeing now, and I’m glad you mentioned Choctaw ways of thinking, is a kind of convergence of wisdoms, where Christian thinkers are looking to indigenous ways of thinking, and saying, you know, actually, the Bible is more in keeping with that view of the world than in a post-18th Century view of the world. And so, we’re trying to recover this indigenous sense of kinship that is so much better supported by biological studies as well. So science, indigenous knowledge, and a kind of new form of eco-theology are all converging with the same wisdom, that we have to move from alienation, this alienation and this domination mindset, to a kinship mindset. And that has implications for the way we live on the earth for our economic arrangements. It’s quite profound. And it is a difficult transformation because we are so formed in this idea of separation from nature, and nature as our kind of storehouse and also our sewer. And that is clearly unsustainable. And we are really running into that right now.
Jared: Well yeah, as you start talking about the unsustainability part of it, it just also strikes me that even if you don’t have the love of natural things in your heart and you still privilege humanity over all things, I feel like those audiences are starting to overlap in a world of climate change, because these things are starting to affect human beings as well.
Jared: So, even if you don’t have that indigenous understanding of kinship and connectedness and you still are privileging what happens to humans above all else, we’re coming to a place, it seems, and I appreciate your perspective on that, where those things are starting to converge on some level.
Debra: Yeah, if you want us to survive, we have to have a perspective of kinship and of systems.
So, just a couple weeks ago, the IPCC report, the newest one came out, this is the report of Working Group Two, so of the Sixth Assessment. So, the IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; it’s this amazing assembly of scientists from around the world, hundreds of scientists reading thousands of scientific articles and sort of assimilating and coordinating all the research into a single report. The first report of the Sixth Assessment, which came out last summer, was about the scientific basis for climate change. So, what is the science? What is the science showing us is happening? Could happen? And this last one is about human impacts, what is happening right now to agriculture, in terms of pollution, in terms of ocean rise, and people who are living on the coasts? And it’s pretty grim to see what’s already happening.
As always, this is a justice issue because the people who have contributed the least to climate change in terms of carbon footprint, they are the ones who are affected most, first. So, what we’re seeing is already the need for people to start migrating away from coastal areas which they’ve farmed and lived on for generations, if not thousands of years. We’re already seeing huge impacts from pollution primarily from fossil fuel refinement and products of fossil fuel burning. And we’re seeing species extinction and that affects human beings too. We can’t live on this earth, unless we care for the earth. It’s just not possible. And we’re realizing that now because there’s 7.8 billion of us. We are a huge disturbance in nature and we’re not doing it mindfully. So, that’s really the transition that has to happen. We have to live on this planet mindfully, mindful of our kinship and our dependence on everything else.
Pete: Yeah, and what I really like, one thing I’m gonna take with me here is, the healer metaphor rather than stewardship metaphor. And what struck me it’s not so much, okay, our attention to the ecosystem of our planet, paying attention to that. It’s not so much- it’s not against what the Bible says, which I think is how a lot of people understand this. They build up an antagonism. It’s more of the Bible has, let’s say trajectories for thinking about this. But in our day and age, you mentioned the importance of scientific knowledge, learning things from other religious systems that are more kinship-based and systems-based. So, to me it’s a very broad conversation that can be rooted in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but it’s not limited to that.
Debra: Absolutely. There is a motif in the Bible, that we have been, I think, suppressing, but it’s definitely there. It’s in the prophetic literature. It’s in the Psalms, it’s in the end of Job. Oh, I forgot the end of Job. Yes, you have to hit that one, that’s one of the greatest hits. And that motif is really this idea that redemption includes the whole of creation. And we’ve sort of suppressed that in a lot of Christian spaces that that’s part of creation, but it’s definitely there in the Bible, if you look for it and see it. And so this convergence of wisdoms is very humbling for Christians, I think, we have to recognize that other people have been smarter about this than then Christians have been, at least Western Christians in the last few centuries.
Pete: Yeah, not smarter than say, Paul, not smarter than Christianity as sort of this abstract thing. But the way it’s been played out in parts of the world-
Pete: When it’s combined with power, like you were saying before, and all that sort of stuff.
Debra: Yeah. And so what I see happening now, I mean, this is just my own way of thinking about this is that the Spirit of God is moving in so many ways within the church but outside the church too. And moving in different forms of wisdom that are converging: science, indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge that sometimes is called TEK, and in new movements in eco-theology, to actually create a way of thinking about the world or to form a way of thinking about the world that will enable us to survive, that is healing and correcting some of the distortions that have led us to this unsustainable place and to this climate crisis.
So, I think we have to go back to God’s rejoicing in creation and the relationship that God has with the more than human creation, even apart from God’s redemptive plan for human beings. We are all in this together, we’re all in this together in terms of life and in terms of redemption. And we need to go back to that and to do that we have to be sort of corrected, I think, by other kinds of wisdom. And even the Pope in Laudato si’ actually makes that very same point. Like, it has to be like all hands on deck in terms of wisdom here. And Christianity has enormous important crucial gifts to give, but we also have some things to repent of. And that’s okay, we know how to do that. It’s okay. We can’t be afraid of that.
Pete: Do we?
Debra: Yeah. Well, we should, right? It’s Lent, we should be practicing. So that’s okay and from a reformed point of view, the idea of common grace is that the Spirit of God works among all people in all things you know? If that’s what the Spirit wants to do, fine. If the Spirit wants to work through science, great.
It’s not as if the Spirit of God is only revealed through the most perfect-est Christians, because that wouldn’t leave much would it?
So that idea of common grace to me is very powerful in this situation because it enables us to admit that other people might be righter about certain things than Christians have been. And that’s okay.
Jared: One thing that I was just thinking about too, that I hadn’t actually drawn the connections to in relation to eco-theology, but just remembering that in the Hebrew Bible even, this idea of redemption, we can often over-spiritualize that, to think about what happens when we die, do we go to heaven? That sort of thing. But there’s very clear indications that for a large part of the Hebrew Bible, that wasn’t an otherworldly thing. And so, redemption can have a very earthly impact. It can be, you know, often from enemies that are right at your back door, but I don’t think- I think it’s actually an easier jump to talk about creation being redeemed and us redeeming, you know, being redeemed from this kind of the climate crisis and the real threats, the very earthly threats that we face. That seems just as biblically applicable as it would be to talk about, you know, what happens after you die. And so, I think there’s this sense where redemption is at play here, even in that sense.
Debra: Yeah, that is certainly my hope. The Lutheran theologian Paul Santmire is really good on Old Testament ecological motifs and he traces through this motif of redemption as migration to a good land, which makes a lot of sense if you think about the Israelites and the Hebrew way of thinking in the Old Testament. But I think the New Testament too has this really strong motif of all creation being caught up in this beautiful work of God’s redemption. You see it once again, in Romans 8, you see it in Colossians 1, you definitely see it in Revelation. And I think we need to take that seriously. And you know, I think our job here right now, and I hope you’re right about God’s redemption, you know, being part of saving us from climate change. One hopes, right? That is definitely our fervent hope. But how does God do that? God does that through Christ. Yes. And we are little Christs. We are the witnesses to God’s work.
So, this is why I think the metaphor of refugia is really helpful. Because refugia are spaces, places where life endures in a crisis, they are places out of which life is renewed. So, if we are the people of refugia, that is our witness, we are finding and creating these refugia spaces, both in the actual more than human creation and in our spiritual lives, in our churches and our cultural lives. That is our witness to what God is doing. Those are the pictures, the beginnings of what we hope God is doing. And God is doing it through us. We’re not just sitting back on our sofas and waiting for God to act. God can do anything, of course, but God works through people. Jesus had disciples and said to them, “You people are my friends, I want you to be my friends.” And by that, you know, this is John 15, before the crucifixion, he says to his disciples in the upper room, you know, “You call me master, but I am making you my friends.” Friends know what the master is doing, right?
So, we are called to be agents of that work. And so, we can’t be passive, we have to be citizens. That’s, I think, another kind of transformation that we have to think about and dwell in and take really seriously is that we’re not passive recipients, we have to be citizens of this resurrection community. And that’s scary. It’s a difficult calling, but the only way we can do that is by the work of the Spirit. And that’s what we have to trust in.
Pete: Now, just before we come to an end, very, very quickly, you used the term refugia. That’s your new book, right?
Pete: Okay. Define that again. What does that word mean?
Debra: Right. So, it’s a biological term. And I found this in four pages of Kathleen Dean Moore’s book, Great Tide Rising, which is this beautiful book of moral philosophy and nature writing about our moral responsibility to take care of the earth to heal from the climate crisis as best we can, to actually act in this context. And she describes the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and how that eruption was just devastating to the land around Mount St. Helens. It was just covered with ash it looked completely dead. But lo and behold, twenty-five years later, the mountain had greened up against everybody’s predictions.
And the reason that happened is that there were these tiny, tiny spaces that were hidden and sheltered from that hot ash, where little wildflowers survived, little moss survived, and those little places are called refugia. And so, I started learning about this immediately, I thought that’s a fascinating fact of nature, but it’s also a really good potential metaphor.
So, I started learning about refugia. And it’s a whole category, a whole understanding in biology. And they’re defined as habitats, that components of biodiversity retreat to, persist in, and can potentially expand from under changing environmental conditions. So, they’re basically little places where life endures when there’s some terrible crisis or disturbance in nature. And so immediately, I was just struck with the idea of, wait, isn’t that the church? Shouldn’t that be what we are? Aren’t we, the creators, you know, by the Spirits power, by grace, of places where biodiversity, metaphorically speaking, can persist in and expand from in a crisis? I mean, the whole world is always in crisis. So, aren’t we the people that create these life-giving spaces? Shouldn’t that be our vocation?
And so, the whole book is really a kind of exploration of what that means. How can we be people of refugia? What does that even look like? And so, I mapped it out in terms of seven transformations. So, from alienation to kinship is one of those transformations, from passivity to citizenship. And each of those chapters is mapped onto a part of the liturgical year. So that Advent is one chapter, Christmas season is another chapter, Epiphany. And it actually maps out pretty well. But that was just a way to kind of organize theological themes. And it turned out to be a really good way to think about these faith themes and how they would map out to different areas of becoming people of refugia by going through these transformations.
And only to say, you know, the church really often does operate as the church of refugia. We do, as Christians often operate as the people of refugia, but often we don’t. So, what if, what would it mean to kind of say, “Okay, this is our governing metaphor, we don’t want to be the church of empire.” You know, I think Kristin Du Mez’s book is such a great explanation of what does the church look like when it becomes the church of empire? When dominance is our primary motivator? Or what if we consider the other impulse that Christian people often turn to in a crisis, which is, you know, kind of the bunker church? We’re gonna go hide with people who are just like us and we’re just gonna be safe. We’re gonna not deal with society at all. I don’t think either of those, the bunker church or the church of empire, are really what God has in mind for our witness in this world and in culture. So, I’m not saying you know, refugia is the ultimate metaphor, or the perfect one or that there aren’t other ones, but it’s just really generative, especially in a time of climate crisis, when one of our big tasks I think as Christians is to return to this concern for our place in the creation in humility and as healers.
Jared: Excellent. So, I think that’s a wonderful picture for us to end our time with as we go out into the world and figure out how to be that. Thank you so much, Debra, for coming on and for talking to us about eco-theology and all of the ways that maybe we’ve missed some of these pieces as we’ve read our Bibles.
Pete: And teaching us a new word.
Jared: Refugia. Yeah. I mean, I already knew it.
Pete: No, you didn’t. Liar. LIAR! You’re the problem.
Jared: Well, thank you so much, Debra.
Debra: Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Stephanie: You’ve just made it through another entire episode of the Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show.
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Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marking Director, Savannah Locke; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.
Pete: Because, I used to like, beat neighborhood dogs not too long ago.
[Producer’s note: Pete was just kidding. He does not beat dogs. Pete loves all animals and even escorts stink bugs safely back outside when they wind up in his house.]
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