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Creating the Ecological Community of Faith

by Rev. Dr. Robert E. Shore-Goss (1)

“If we cannot conspire to heal our planet, our reason for being is called into  question.”  Rev. John Dorhauer, President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ (2)

Bob-Shore-Goss_ThumbI start with Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer’s quotation as it expresses the critical challenge of this century to the United Church of Christ and other faith communities.  All the issues that we face in our church now will be compounded with the developing climate change:  Black Lives Matter, ONA, feeding the poor, denominational union, healthcare, undocumented immigrants, sex trade, transgendered rights, the lack of sex positivity of our churches, peace and nonviolence, unfinished gender issues, and so many more concerns.  Climate change renders all of these less significant with the comparable projects of climate refugees numbering in the billions, sea level rise conservatively at the end of the century of five to six feet, loss of biodiversity, ever increasing severe weather events, storms and fires, drought, increased population and fewer resources. Humanity has impacted climate change over the last century in its industrialization and hunger for energy, mainly derived from heavy fossil fuel usage, the release of methane into the atmosphere from factory farming production of  food animals, and    This situation of climate change is the consequence of several factors: The Judeo-Christian misreading of scriptural texts to justify human exceptionalism and separation from nature and the overconsumption of the Earth’s finite resources.  Such reckless greed has led to dramatic changes of climate, threatening loss of biodiversity and extinction. (3)

We have to follow the lead of liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff and Sallie McFague and Pope Francis I in his climate encyclical to construct a narrative analysis that connects the “cries of the poor and the cries of the Earth.” (4)  The issues of social justice and ecojustice are integrally intertwined.

I spent a semester at the University of Redlands recently, filling in for faculty in Religious Studies. The students were all anxious about the future, with climate change a primary issue.  Also expressed was a widespread disconnect with religion:  church and worship are “uninteresting.”

More than 25% of Americans, among them many millennials and young people, identify as “Nones”  –  religiously non-affiliated.  This number will grow, I expect.  Although these “Nones” do not connect with religious institutions, they identify as spiritual. Typically the student mantra is “I am not religious but spiritual,”  an attitude  Diana Butler Bass addresses in her latest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution” (5)  It focuses on  adults, who are no longer finding our elevator theologies with a distant God credible but shift to finding God in our everyday experience and the world.  For me this was not a major discovery as I grew up with Ignatian spirituality with its stress on “finding God in all things.” Ignatius of Loyola proposes a thoroughly incarnational experience, which Butler-Bass also proposes in her book. It is worth reading. It points two issues confronting the UCC: a disaffiliated but spiritual population  and climate change. These are interconnected as well.

I believe that if the UCC is to survive in some form in this century shaped by climate change and attract disaffiliated folks, it needs to undergo revolutionary change. Our churches need to become ecological.  For myself, the greening of churches means that our churches become more incarnational if we hope to address our youth and NONES.  It will not be the modern church of the 20th century, but a postmodern, ecological community.

To become “green” we need to compost our spiritualities, our churches, and the UCC as a denomination. Here is a quotation from my forthcoming  book, God is Green (out in 2016):

The process of composting creates a nutrient-rich humus mix for the soil for plants. Compost consists of organic waste recycled for fertilizing and introducing microscopic beneficial organism for life. In many ways, the Holy Spirit composts our lives, recycles what is beneficial in our lives and spirit, connects us with the Earth to become a fertile garden.  Anthropologist Mary Douglas writes about open-minded religions and spiritualities practice a type of composting:  “The special kind of treatment which some religions accord to anomalies and abominations to make them powerful for good is like turning weeds and lawn cuttings into compost.” (6)  She continues later on that this mixing of pollution and sacred (in our discussion: Earth and the sacred) allows us “to continue the gardening metaphor, a composting religion, that which is rejected is ploughed back for a renewal of life.”

Composting is a metaphor taken from gardening:  the process of composting simply uses and recycles a heap of organic matter or waste (leaves, plant trimmings, food waste) and waiting for the materials to break down into humus after a period of weeks or months. The humus is used to fertilize plants in a garden. What I am suggesting by composting?  Two elements need to be composted:  God’s Incarnation in Christ and our connection with the soil community of the Earth (Earth, the interconnected web of life).(7)

Recent ecumenical theological writings have developed a notion of “deep incarnation.” (8)  Deep incarnation is God’s Incarnation in Christ that roots itself “into the very tissue of biological existence, and system of nature.” (9) Christ takes on flesh (sarx), which in Greek includes all animate flesh. God enters into a gracious solidarity with all life, human and other life, as well as the biophysical world. Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Deep Incarnation alerts Christians to the presence of Christ throughout the natural world. How tragic it is when human action shatters and destroys the flesh that the Word became.’ (10)  This widens our focus on the cosmic and Earth-connections of Christ.

The second aspect of composting is to re-envision ourselves as part of the Earth community.  Human exceptionalism has separated us from nature, or what Sallie McFague describes as an “ecological illiteracy,” failing to realize that we are interdependent or interrelated with all life and the Earth processes.  We have disvalued the earthly for the heavenly. The Christian scriptures envision that salvation not only includes humanity but the world (cosmos in John 3:16). We have discarded the material as impure, transient, and not spiritually valuable.  This is apparent in some forms of American Christianity who deny climate change because of the anticipated rapture and second coming of Christ. N.T. Wright, the evangelical Anglican biblical scholar and bishop, responds to this form of Christian short-sightedness with the comment:

Jesus is coming, so plant a tree.” The reason that this statement is counterintuitive to the point of being funny is that for many Christians who devoutly believe in the second coming of Jesus is the point. The whole world is done away with, and Jesus snatches his own people up to heaven to live with him there forever. And if that what’s going to happen, why would you plant a tree? Why oil the wheels of a car that is about to be driven over a cliff? (11)

The earth is considered unsaved, and this seems to counter the Jewish tradition of the original blessing of creation.

Yet everything in creation is interrelated with everything else. Environmental theologians attempt to recover a sense of humanity as part of the web of life:  Leonardo Boff employs a metaphor from an indigenous poet describing “humans as Earth walking,” or McFague who claims to be a citizen of the Earth and shares space with other life.  Pope Francis I makes a similar claim of being part of the Earth.  These two elements are necessary to compost in our spiritualities for revitalizing our spiritualities and churches.  Only if ourselves, our churches, our denominations are composted  – connected with the Earth – can we experience renewal.

For myself, eco-conversion is the direction to start to become an ecological church. The ecological community will take numerous forms. Conversion to the Earth is a turning to the Earth and the community of life, but it is simultaneously a conversion to the Incarnate Christ, who is interwoven with all life and material reality. Australian theologian Denis Edwards writes, “Resisting ecological conversion is, theologically, resistance to the Incarnation. To be ecologically converted to Earth in a fully theological sense will involve a conversion to the Incarnation.”(12)   Eco-conversion is to realize that we are interrelated and interconnected with all life, past, present, and future.  If you love your children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, it is time for to care for the Earth and fight climate change. My church tries to live by the principles articulated by Sallie McFague as house rules. These are principles for living responsibly and ecologically with the Earth: “1) Take only your share, 2) Clean up after yourselves, 3) Keep the house in good repair for others.”(13)

So how I do start the path to ecological conversion. Here are some of my thoughts:

1) Join California Interfaith Power & Light.  Contact Southern California Coordinator, Allis Druffel, (310-752-3426, allis@interaithpower.org). Allis has worked with a number of UCC churches, and I have enjoyed a good working relationship. We both presented last year at the Southern California/Nevada Annual Gathering. I provides a number of resources to start the process of greening our campuses.

2) Preach on climate change or our relationship to the Earth – at least six times a year:  Earth Day Sunday, during the Season of Creation (4 Sundays in the month of September), and at least two more times. If you are not doing this annually, you will be preaching once or twice a month as we experience severe weather events in the coming decade and disaster relief burnout has set into churches..

3) Green your spirituality and the spirituality of the church. If you want to attract millennials and “Nones,” begin to learn how to meditate with the Earth and nature.  Traditionally, Christianity has held two sources of revelation: the Bible and the Book of Nature. Just as lectio divina (meditative mindfulness) of the scriptural text, you can practice a lectio natura to experience God/the risen Christ/the Spirit within nature. The Reformers during the Reformation were reluctant to look at the value of meditation practices in the monastic traditions.  My Redlands college students found meditation helpful for their lives and learned the tools to approach nature. Learn to meditate from meditation centers. Stillpoint Center for Christian Meditation (http://stillpointca.org/ Pasadena) is a good resource for learning how to meditate and become a spiritual mentor for others. Local Buddhist meditation groups or Catholic Centering Prayer provide the basics of mindful awareness. Clergy and lay leaders need to equip themselves with these practices for the ecological church and climate change. Teaching meditation is a key for Nones and millennials.

4) Restore nature and Incarnation focus to your sacraments.   Baptism has the natural elements of water and Eucharist bread and grape juice. It signifies that the incarnated Christ can be discovered in the natural elements. Whenever possible, celebrate outdoors or bring nature into the sanctuary.

5)  Have forums, study groups on climate change.  A UCC church in North Carolina has formed a Contemplative Practice and Ecojustice Team. They are moving, I believe, in the right direction to prepare for the challenges of the future. Subscribe to various environmental and local conservationist groups to keep up with the latest development in climate change and responses: Subscribe to Interfaith Power & Light, Environmental Defense Fund,   Greenpeace, and watch the national UCC newsletter for resources and events on climate issues.

6) Insist on ecological speakers and workshops at Annual Gatherings to help equip individuals and inspire action for the Earth. The UCC Conference of Rhode Island held a forum on “interdependent living.”  This is about eco-conversion in practice.  Other inspiring speakers might include Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall, or retired professor John Cobb from Claremont.

7) Create a generation of naturalists or nature lovers – as suggested by the Harvard naturalist and biologist E. O. Wilson in his book, Creation.  Send your children to camps, bring your grandchildren or groups of children to botanical gardens or nature walk. Help them to fall in love with God’s creation. They are future activists to care for the earth.

8) Build interfaith responses to climate change and include environmental activists.  Many congregations have fewer than 100 members. Many churches are struggling to preserve their buildings, and this has become the church mission.  We will have to make painful decisions between the building and the mission.  Can we find alternative spaces less expensive, allowing our tithes be more devoted to the mission of Earthcare? Perhaps we should think of composting ourselves with another UCC congregation or be bold in composting ourselves with a Buddhist organization, Muslim mosque, or Jewish Synagogue. A UCC Church in Omaha embarked upon a Tri-Faith initiative to share space with Muslim and a Jewish congregation.(14)  The UCC envisions its mission as “uniting and united” and let’s stretch the inclusion beyond Christianity, for the incarnate compassion exists in these traditions.

This semester a student asked me if we can change the course of the severity of climate change. I took a couple of days before I answered.  I quoted this from to the student several days later:

“When small things are done with love, it’s not a flawed you or me who does them in love. I have no faith in any political party, left, right, or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. In keeping with this faith, the only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist in these strange times is by giving little or no though to ‘great things’ such as saving the planet, achieving world peace, or stopping neocon greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Whereas small things lovingly done are always within our reach. ”(15)

If we fall in love with the Earth, we will fight for the Earth and all life. Then we start to become an ecological church.  Use this reflection in your prayer and in conversations. We are facing the most critical challenge our lifetime. Will your congregation step forward to care for the web life?


1) Rev. Dr. Bob Shore-Goss is Senior Pastor of MCC United Church of Christ, a green church, in the North Hollywood. His tenth book God is Green: An Eco-Spirituality of Incarnate Compassion will be published by Cascade Book in 2016. See Shore-Goss’ website: www.mischievousspiritandtheology.com/
3)Two documentaries are good but dated as the research on climate change, especially, the time tables change nearly every several months: Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and James Balrog’s Chasing Ice. The ABC graphic novel Earth 2100 (fully on youtube) explore the changes of climate this century.
4)Sallie McFague and Leonardo Boff  argue for a strong linkage between the suffering of the poor and the suffering of the Earth. See: Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1997; Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2008;  Super, Natural Christians, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1997,  Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and The Practice of Restraint, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2013.
5)Butler-Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution, Harper One Publication, 2015.
6)Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, New York, Routledge, 1966, 163.
7)Ibid. 167.
8)Niels Henrik Gregersen (ed), Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015. The book includes a stellar collection of ecumenical theologians.
9)Niels Henrik Gregersen, “The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 40, 2001, 205.
10)Elizabeth Johnson, “Jesus and the Cosmos: Soundings of Deep Christology,” In Incarnation, ed. by Niels Henrik Gregersen, 140.
11)N. T. Wright, “Jesus is Coming,” in NRSV The Green Bible, the Bible’s Powerful Message for the Earth, San Francisco, 2008.  I -79-80.
12)Denis Edwards, “Foreword,” in Ilia Delio, Keith Douglass Warner, & Pamela Wood, Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth, Cincinnati, St. Anthony’s Messenger Press, 2007, 3.
13)McFague, A New Climate for Theology, 53.
14)See: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/17/460149212/in-americas-heartland-building-one-home-for-three-faiths
15)Ibid, 188. David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays, Great Barrington, MA, Triad, 2006, 118.


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