Towards a contemporary eco-theology

By Marcelo Schneider
2 Apr 2011

The accepted axiom is, as the climate changes so the world, too, will change in dramatic and sometimes undesirable ways. What does this often rapid change mean to Christians whose faith is intertwined with the glory and beauty of God’s creation, but challenged when that creation is corrupted and irreversibly altered?

Is the churches’ current theological reflection on stewardship and climate change ready for the rapid shifting of winds, weather, and life on earth as we know it and our grandparents knew it?

These questions were enough to prompt a variety of churches in Argentina to explore the "Christian faith and ecology: towards an eco-ecumenical theology" in a recent seminar held 28 - 29 March at the Protestant theological school Instituto Universitario ISEDET in Buenos Aires.

The event was sponsored by ISEDET, the non-governmental Argentina-based Rural Reflection Group and the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) Latin America and Caribbean region, and was supported by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the United Church of Canada.

An imperative concern for nature

"Climate changes occur very rapidly and have astonishing consequences,” said Dr Alfredo Salibian, an Argentinian biologist in an address to the group. “We are witnessing changes in our own lives, not only in relation to the context in which our parents or grandparents lived, but in relation to twenty, ten or five years ago."

Salibian proposed the addition of the prefix "eco" to theology, reflecting an imperative, urgent concern for nature.

"We have to recall that the redemption offered by Jesus Christ is bidirectional,” he said.

“On one side it is vertical because it allows for the restoration of relations of human beings with the Creator. But we tend to neglect the other part of this relationship, which is horizontal, which aims to heal the damaged relations between human beings and the rest of God's creation.”

Therefore Salibian said it is time to update Latin American theology, incorporating the prefix "eco" to redefine the meaning of "creation", "Christ", “human being” and "ecumenism" in light of stewardship for creation.

But it goes even further than that, says the father of the Kyoto Protocol, Raul Estrada Oyuela, who spoke on the international diplomatic framework linked to the theme of climate change at the event.

Theology and politics

Oyuela warned that the lack of mutual understanding between theology and politics could be damaging.

"If we do not understand what happens in politics, it will be very difficult to interfere in the construction of policies," he said.

Oyuela chaired the group created by the First Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to negotiate a legally binding instrument on climate change today known as the Kyoto Protocol.

"There are many people from the member churches of the World Council of Churches in international diplomatic circles that deal with environmental issues,” he said, pressing the issue that the church can influence power. “If theologically, the WCC proposes ethical reference points, why not strengthen the process of awareness raising and advocacy among these actors, so that the agenda has a more significant impact on the final results of the negotiations?"

"We, Christians, warned, some years ago, about the urgent need to promote an ethic of social responsibility on the management of natural resources and care for creation, something we called 'stewardship for creation'”, Salibian reminded the audience.

“This concept still is in opposition to the current dominant school of thought asserting the supremacy of economy over nature, which becomes oppressive to many humans, and breaks the relationships of people with nature."

Reinforcing the need for a review of the Latin American theology, the WCC programme executive on climate change, Dr Guillermo Kerber, from Uruguay, added that one of the main impacts of climate change on theology is the emerging need to reform the theological understanding of creation.

"What is the place of the human being in creation and in relation to it? We need an epistemological change of our theology in relation to ecology," Kerber said.

“Peace with the earth”

One of the methodological efforts made during the event has been the attempt to explain the links between violence, peace-building and care for creation. This reflects one of the main themes, “peace with the earth”, of the upcoming International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) being held 17-25 May in Kingston, Jamaica and sponsored by the WCC, the Caribbean Conference of Churches and the Jamaica Council of Churches.

Emerging from the seminar in Argentina is a holistic view trying to build on the acknowledgement that the environmental crisis resulting from climate change has economic, political and spiritual components.

The impact of climate change, particularly on migration, is leading to an ethically-based debate on the issue of justice involving the testimony of the most vulnerable groups such as women, impoverished and indigenous people.

"We must recognise that justice is a central theme in the Bible. The God of the Bible is a God of justice who does justice. Therefore, we include in our theology the issue of 'eco-justice'", said Kerber.

This is not the first time that the WCC and its member churches have been supporting dialogue and reflection on ecology and theology in Argentina.

In addition to an event under the theme 'Man and His Environment' (sic) in 1974, there was also a seminar in 1990 on 'Crisis, Ecology and Social Justice'. The seminar, hosted by ISEDET, was held in preparation of the Call for Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), held that year in Seoul, South Korea.

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(c) Marcelo Schneider has been working as assistant to the World Council of Churches' Central Committee moderator since 2006. He lives in Porto Alegre, Brazil and writes for several Latin American ecumenical and church-related news agencies.

More on WCC climate change advocacy: www.oikoumene.org/climatechange

International Ecumenical Peace Convocation website: www.overcomingviolence.org

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