Cracks in the Ice I

From the mid-1990's to around 2004, I had the opportunity to continue my work in conservation biology while studying religion and theology at Emory's Candler School of Theology and Columbia Theological Seminary,two fine schools in the Atlanta area.  I also spent quite a bit of time flyinjg back and forth to the San Francisco Bay area to pursue studies in the Wisdom Traditions at Wisdom University.  These studies, combined with my fellowship at the Green Institute led to a series of articles on environment, religion, theology, and eschatology. For a fully referenced papers on this subject please access, scroll down the left side of the page to the note on the Interdisciplinary Initiative and click.

As a child, in an American blue collar family I was exposed to the frequent use of common, often colorful sayings. Two that I remember establish the dimensions of the impact of the response of religions and theologies to Earth in crisis. Someone was either ‘a day late and a dollar short,’ or ‘better late than never’ (it seems that both frequently applied to me, especially during my teens). These two sayings appear to set the boundaries of the response of religions and theologies to environmental crisis and establish the polar tensions acting on those responses.

In 1967 historian Lynn White published a much acclaimed and much abused article stating, essentially, that the roots of our ‘ecologic crisis’ were found in the fundamentally exploitive nature of Judeo-Christian theology. I did a project listing the number of titles dealing with what we might now call ‘ecological theology’ or ‘ecotheology.’ I used White’s article as a starting point in time. Regardless of what position one may take to White’s claim, and the fact is that many took positions, the dialogue on this subject became rich, and the citations rapidly grew in number. The dialogue spawned a number of manuscripts and articles ranging from stern disavowal to reluctant acceptance of White’s thesis, including a number of acquiescent mea culpa’s.

‘A Day Late and a Dollar Short’

The academic speculation gave way to praxis, the doing of things, as church after church launched Earth-friendly projects to reduce energy consumption, replace Styrofoam cups with pottery, xeriscape the church grounds, and dozens of other well-intended eco-friendly actions. Stiffly resistant denominational hierarchies slowly began, in the light of new information about Earth in crisis and pressure from the pews, to develop and publish denominational positions on environmental issues. Even the usually resistant Roman Curia weighed-in to tell the world that pollution is a sin. Religious groups now study ‘God’s Gift of Water’ and ‘Protecting and Healing Rivers,’ under the guidance of Psalm 24:1 (KJV) and other guidance from religious teachings.

Academics, even less likely to change than the Roman Curia began, sometimes painfully, to develop theological foundations from ancient texts. These newly discovered threads were sometimes woven together with newly discovered ‘truths’ into social and cultural fabrics such as ecofeminism. Everybody (except the most conservative Christians) seemed to buy-in and stake out turf and conservative religionists have also lately started to come around. As I have said in a previous posting, “The growing interest in the relationship between religion and ecology is nowhere more apparent than the recent efforts of Harvard University's Center for the Study of World Religions to codify these relationships.” The project has produced a number of books on the subject in what is called the ‘Religion and Ecology’ series. Educational institutions offer study in the field of religion and nature. The American Academy of Religion’s biannual meetings have very well-attended sections that deal with papers in ecological theology. The religious focus on the environment appears to be an irreversible theme of theological inquiry and religious life.

All of this time, however, Earth has been warming and people are talking of ‘tipping points.’ The ice is cracking and melting. Even the most optimistic scientific prognosticator is less and less optimistic with each day that passes without significant action from the governments of the world. An increasingly strong case can now be made for catastrophes of such magnitude that the collapse of societies may be anticipated. It is increasingly apparent that for all that we have hoped, for all the new paradigms and the carefully (and sometimes carelessly) woven theologies, it may be too late.

I explored this concern in a note titled ‘Creation Spirituality as a Post-Apocalyptic Paradigm’ available online at In the article I pointed out that we live in possibly fatally challenging times in which:

“Three factors have come together to fashion, in our time, a crisis with potentially staggering dimensions. For the first time in history our weapons have grown in number and capacity so that humanity is now capable of near total destruction. The second factor of grave concern is the rapidly changing environmental condition of Earth. Humanity has so severely damaged natural systems that recovery is most likely impossible. We are now only on the outer edge of an ecocaust of staggering proportions. The Ecozoic Era had a relatively gentle birth as a concept in the latter part of the last century but it will have a very difficult adolescence in the coming Dark Age. The third factor in this tragic trinity is religion.”

(Continued in the next post.)



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