Magazine article The Christian Century

In Jeopardy: Sustaining the Earth

Magazine article The Christian Century

In Jeopardy: Sustaining the Earth

Article excerpt

A GENTLE RAIN falls on a high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Below, huge waves crash against the beach and then recede. The sight of that vast ocean evokes a sense of the majesty of creation. But what is even more important to me in this moment is the sound of the rain, a gentle reminder of rains of the past, soothing in its regularity and reassuring as a sign that another southern California rainy season has begun. Soon I drive along a crowded freeway. Ordinarily I would be concentrating so tensely on the road that I would hardly notice either the ocean or the rain, but now I am touched by a sense of calm. It is related, I begin to realize, to the sound of the rain. Perhaps, having just spent three days among people who care passionately for the earth, I've had a conversion.

This network of scholars is warning us that the earth is in danger. As Oberlin College professor David Orr puts it, "Many things on which our future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity." Theologian John Cobb stresses that we are living on borrowed time on this planet, which is being overheated by global warming and seriously depleted by our focus on economic development rather than sustainability.

Cobb suggested I sit in on a conference on "pedagogy in a just and sustainable world" that met at Claremont School of Theology in November. It was also Cobb who started me thinking about conversion. He has written of his own conversion experience: "In the summer of 1969, my son Cliff helped open my eyes to what human beings are doing to our shared natural environment. For the first time I saw the meaning of the finitude of the world and began to understand the pressure of human activity upon its capacities.... I saw that the ways I had previously envisaged that human problems were to be progressively alleviated would not work, that they only hastened catastrophe" (Sustaining the Common Good).

Talk of conversion comes naturally to Cobb, a product of Georgia Methodism who at the University of Chicago latched on to process philosophy as a way of interpreting classic Christian doctrine in the context of scientific modernism. Now retired from Claremont School of Theology, Cobb devotes his energies to the struggle to reorient modern thought away from "economism"--his term for an exclusive focus on the gross national product-toward a concern for the earth, which some environmental activists refer to as the "body of God."

Our culture continues to have only passing interest in sustainable development. One writer has noted that we start our children down the path toward exploiting nature rather than caring for it when we confine them to classrooms for their schooling and release them only briefly to go outside and play--on asphalt. This leaves little room for an awareness or appreciation of the natural world. The conference e at Claremont focused on how teachers from kindergarten to graduate school can offset this bias against the environment.

After listening to these folks for three days, I realized that, like Paul's hearers at the Areopagus, I was already committed to the redemptive word they were preaching but have my own terms for it: I call it an awareness of mystery and a reverence for life. What I learned at the conference was the magnitude of the problem and the urgent need to reshape our thinking. …

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