Faith and the Crisis of Creation: What Are We Going to Do About It?

by Rev. Dr. Heather Entrekinheather_e

This outstanding presentation was given at SSC’s Clergy Workshop on October 24, 2013. Heather Entrekin is Des Peres Associate Professor of Congregational Health at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Shawnee, KS.



Around 1989, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep stirred up a lot of controversy when they spoke out against Alar, a chemical used to enhance growth and color in apples.  Scientists, academics, politicians, the FDA, agri-business, celebrities, and the media jumped in and it captured the world’s attention, upset the stock market and disrupted life for a lot of apple farmers for a while.  If I had just seen it in the news, I would probably have taken Jane’s side  and agreed that no chemical is better than any chemical in the growing and processing of food.  And by now, I would have forgotten all about it.

I have not forgotten about it, however, because my brother-in-law is a farmer in western New York State; his primary crop is apples.   So I learned about a farmer’s perspective and feelings and my understanding of the issue went deeper than the headlines, and my position was not black or white.

I had another experience with the complexity of ecological issues.  A few years ago, Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition established a governing board and committees and I was asked to join.  I was honored to be part of this group of people of faith committed to the spiritual and religious aspects of creation care, of working out and living into an ecotheology.   I gladly took an assignment on the advocacy committee, eager to have a voice and perhaps some influence in reducing or eliminating carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants, which was one of the priorities.

But then someone added to our list opposition to hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” and again, the issue for me was not so straightforward.   That’s because I have a husband, an environmental engineer who works for a consulting company who counts among its clients companies who drill for natural gas through hydraulic fracking.

If I were just reading accounts in the news, or watching Gasland with water coming out of a faucet in flames or reading tracts from protestors standing on street corners, I would likely be 100 percent opposed to fracking.  But it is more complicated than that; as always there are significant economic, political, and other implications as a sign in the yard of a New York State resident illustrated.

Fracking is a huge industry in Pennsylvania, bringing jobs and money into local economies, but prohibited in New York State next door.  Driving from Pennsylvania into New York last year, we saw a big hand-lettered sign in front of a house that said:  “We support fracking.  Start here!”

Peter, in an effort to help facilitate communication, perhaps bring some nuance to this highly emotional, polarized debate, volunteered to represent the shale gas industry on a couple of panels put together by church groups in Pennsylvania.  He took a lot of hits while attempting to inject some civility and perspective to the conversation.  At the conclusion of one of those meetings, an organizer followed him out of the room and said, “I can’t believe somebody as nice as you would work for a company like this.”

The truth is, there are a lot of nice people who are passionate about protecting the environment in agriculture, in energy, in manufacturing, who are working hard on the inside to be ecologically responsible and to do better than has been done before.  We do not help the cause by presenting false choices, demonizing persons and institutions, or painting complex issues in black or white.  As an expert on terrorism, another polarizing, volatile subject, said recently in an NPR interview, “All I’m asking is for a little nuance in the conversation.”

When we have an issue as important as this, with livelihoods, a way of life, and, potentially, life itself threatened, and strong feelings and deeply held values on all sides, simplistic, bombastic, either/or argument put communication and community at risk.  Yet these are essential if we are to accomplish the profound change that is required of us.


The crisis before us is real.  Pesticides and fracking are two of countless indicators of the ecological challenges at hand calling for reorientation of human life including economic, political, industrial, agricultural, educational, and religious.

Research always comes with caveats but there is scientific consensus that we are experiencing unprecedented climate change caused and/or exacerbated by human behavior.  Prophecies are grim.   Ominous though nuclear threat may be, Thomas Berry, a leading environmental thinker, warns that the real danger humanity faces is not the possibility of nuclear war but the actuality of industrial plundering (1998, 72).

What some call our “habit of rapacious living”puts stress, with consequences we cannot fully know, upon the ecosystem upon which our lives, and life itself, depend.   Bulging population inflames the situation.  By UN estimates, our current population of about 7 billion will more than double by the next millennium, a frightening prediction in light of calculations that earth cannot sustain more than 1.5 billion at a first world level of consumption (Rich 2013,18).

Economics professor, Lisi Krall, believes that we are already in ecological collapse with addiction to growth currently surpassing earth’s limits (Bontz 2013, 10).

Concerning greenhouse emissions, University of Hawaii scientists predict that if they continue their relentless rise, we are likely to reach temperatures with no recorded precedent by 2050.  It is not unimaginable that a day is coming when, for a given geographical area, the coldest year in the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past (Revkin 2013).

Nobody can say exactly what is coming, but likely possibilities include,

1.  increased sea levels and flooding

2.  more frequent and violent storms and floods

3.  depletion or extinction of plant and animal species

4.  loss of arable land by temperature and moisture changes

5.  wet countries becoming wetter and dry places dryer

6.  diseases becoming more prevalent, especially as environments grow more hospitable to mosquitoes (Maslin 2007, 39-55)

What is certain, and has already occurred, is the magnitude of suffering borne by the poorest of the world’s people as the climate changes.

Since Rachel Carson raised the alarm in the 1960s, the question has gradually moved from whether human activity is changing climate to how human activity might stop or undo damage we have caused , or at least, mitigate potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Many causes:  over-population, over-consumption by too many, earth-damaging technologies that serve them, economic and political systems that encourage degradation, informed by an anthropocentric worldview.  (Martin-Schramm and Stivers 2003, 10).  Any one of these causes could serve as a viable entry point or priority for a faith community but one that certainly falls in our realm and affects all the rest is an anthropocentric world view.



When we ask how people faith can respond we might begin with the criticism that religion has made no sustained protest against violence being done to the planet (T. Berry 1988, 77).  Creation care has not been a priority for faith communities include stewardship, respect, appreciation, love and service for creation.

In fact, religion, at least the western, fundamentalist Christian branch, has contributed to the ecological crisis we face through a theologically formed, anthropocentric world view.  The Bible has been used to justify the unrestricted human right to own, use, and exploit everything else in all creation (Bauckham 2010, 37).

One critic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, paralleling the Earth Bible Project’s ecojustice principles1, lays out fundamentalist Christian values this way:

1.  Principle of imminent cataclysm – Earth is headed for disaster sooner rather than later

2.  Principle of disconnectedness – humans don’t have to share or feel responsible for earth’s fate

3.  Principle of inevitability – nothing we can do about it

4.  Principle of transcendence – what really matters is the next world

5.  Principle of sovereignty – God’s in charge of it all

6.  Principle of self-interest – God will save me in the nick of time.  (Keith Dyer in Horrell 2010, 18)

The principles may be exaggerated, but to the extent that they contribute to incompetence or inability to recognize and respond to the consequences of our anthropomorphic disregard for creation, western spiritualities bear responsibility.

The Bible’s lack of consistent “green” message is one of the challenges.  Scriptural ambiguity, inconsistency, and even challenges to ecotheology can be used to justify an addictive, consumptive way of life.

A priority, then, for people of Judeo-Christian tradition, could be to address biblical texts with an ecological hermeneutic, a willingness to reorient our understanding of the Bible demanded by the reality of the crisis we face.   It could include strategies of recovery or resistance, asking, Is the text consistent or in conflict with eco-justice principles?   (Horrell 2010, 11,13.)

Richard Bauckham’s exegesis of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis challenges a sense of human entitlement.  Although there is a sequential order to creation – sky, water, land need to be created before birds, fish and creatures, just because they are last does not make humans the grand climax .  “Creeping things,” created on the sixth day are not somehow of a higher order than birds, created on the fifth.  This is not a plan of increasing complexity and intelligence culminating in a human being.

The true culmination comes in the seventh day, the Sabbath, but not as the ending of something everything else has been moving toward, but rather, this day, radically different from all the rest, relates directly to each day of creation.  It forms the vantage point from which all the work of creation may be seen, not as a sequence, but as a whole.

And God’s repeated love note for each aspect of creation, “God saw that it was good,” suggests that each part has its own value and does not have to serve another part in order to have worth.  Plants provide food for animals but God appreciates them for their own sake as well.  The final refrain on day six speaks to interconnection and interdependence:  God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Bauckham helps to recover an ecological grounding in Genesis texts that have been commonly used to establish a hierarchical, utilitarian worldview that has contributed to degradation of earth (2010, 12-15).

On the other hand, scholars argue that Genesis cannot be easily rescued for ecotheological purposes.  Reference to human dominion, even framed as stewardship, is susceptible to interpretation that at least supports humanity’s unique value and right to use the planet for its benefit.  (Horrell 2010, 35)

The Bible does not always provide a positive environmental message if we only study hard enough but neither can it be claimed as a source for opposition to the environmental movement.  Some insist that scripture presenting obstacles to ecotheology need to be marginalized and resisted.

Again, we have a conversation that deserves and calls for nuance, openness to diverse perspectives, as well as other sources of truth – science, economics, literature, and art among them.

If religion is crucial in shaping our view of the world and our actions, then we must engage the Bible with attention to the context and concerns we face.  We are challenged, as Horrell argues, to go beyond the claim that we are simply presenting what the Bible says, on one hand, or measuring it against pre-set modern values, on the other (2010, 128).

Just as biblical interpreters of other eras focused on liberation powering movements for civil rights, women’s rights and abolition, we have the responsibility to approach our texts with an ecological lens, trusting that the Bible’s deep, persistent ideas concerning creation and our part in it will inform and empower the ecological movement now needed.  Horrell identifies the main themes that may serve theological reorientation:

The goodness of all creation,

Humanity as part of the community of creation,

Interconnectedness of failure and flourishing,

The covenant with all creation,

Creation’s calling to praise God (2010,129-132).

Along with an ecological hermeneutic, the language we use has significance.  For example, whether we speak in terms of environment – referring to that which surrounds us and is apart from us, or ecology – the relation of physical organisms to one another and their physical surrounding – affects our perspective.  Awareness and respect for the goodness of God’s diversity may be manifested in vocabulary that does not limit reference to God to male nouns and pronouns, nor humankind.


Vital though a solid ecotheology may be, it must be lived or it doesn’t matter.   In my own ministry, I have been better at teaching and preaching theological convictions than embodying them.  Fear of failure and the massive scale of our ecological challenges can stall or stop us.  Daily onslaught of responsibilities, distractions, and information take their toll.  So it might help to think of the words of Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, who has dedicated almost four decades to its mission to “develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring.”  He said, “We are not called to success but to obedience to our vision” (Bontz 2012, 25).

What might such obedience look like for us?  Each congregation must answer its own call to respond, with its own unique gifts, insights and abilities, and within its own sphere of influence.  But one beginning place could be the radical act of Sabbath-keeping.

Sabbath, from the Hebrew Shabbat – meaning “cease” or “desist,” is given in the book of Exodus as a commandment:  “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy….”  Not a suggestion, not an option if you have time, not just a good idea – a commandment, a way of life that is at the heart of creation and, in God’s wisdom, an ongoing source of life and covenant with God and creation.  Just as Sabbath may be understood as the center point of creation, so may it continue to ground and nourish ongoing creation in which we now take part.

A life, individual and communal, that honors and learns from Sabbath rest may be the seed for the spiritual conviction, courage, and steadfastness needed for the profound change the Earth requires of us.

Last week, I took a seminary class to Congregation B’Nai Jehuda for Shabbat worship.  The  lighting of candles, eating of bread, wine, meatballs, and cookies around tables and singing of blessings to welcome Sabbath, made stark the absence of this rhythm in the lives of my Christian students, and my own.

Sabbath-keeping is a way to engender a practice of love and humility before creation including members of creation who may hold different points of view.  It is further a way of living, and thus teaching, and spreading, sustainable life.  Might Sabbath living be the way the interfaith religious community could call city, nation, and earth away from worship of doing, making, and consuming ourselves to death to life for all in loving relationship with God and God’s creation?

I am not a fan of some aspects of Chik-Fil-A theology, but I do notice and respect this successful fast food company’s Sabbath practice of closing on Sundays.  If Chik-Fil-A can do it….


“To rest,” in the words of Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, “is to acknowledge our limitations….” (Tending to our Cosmic Oasis).  This is hard to do.  My family took a week of vacation on Lake Michigan this summer in a big, beautiful rented home.  Every morning, most of us checked email, and throughout the day kept in touch, kept at work through a text here, a phone call there.

When I have led workshops for clergy on Sabbath-keeping and ask them to turn off cell phones for an hour or 2, the tension in the room is palpable.  The problem is, when I practice Sabbath, put aside the phone, don’t check email, I find out whether or not the world will go one without me.  It will.

And so I have an opportunity to learn an important lesson about my place in creation.  The world is not mine to run.   In the book of Job, God puts that kind of human hubris in its place:   “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding, who determined its measurements – surely you know (38:4).

A psalmist does the same, though more gently (104:24):  O Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

This critique, frankly, may also apply to the idea of humans as stewards of earth, which is a widely embraced interpretation of the “dominion over” text.  To have stewardship still means that humans are in charge of the earth and its destiny, even though, in this case, they are agents of responsibility and care.  But do we really mean to suggest that we can know and control the destiny of creation?  We cannot know that a tornado will erase the center of the city of Joplin much less “steward” it.

I learned this lesson in my own back yard where we have a little pond with some 30 fat and friendly goldfish who learned to come splashing to the surface every morning when I came out with fish food for breakfast.  The other day though, the dogs were barking frantically and I looked outside to see a giant blue heron standing there.  Now, there is only one tiny goldfish in that pond and somewhere there is a very well-fed heron.  I cannot even control the destiny of the goldfish pond in my back yard.

Taking our hands off the controls may remind us that we do not alone determine our future course.  This depends upon the entire earth and all of its geological and biological as well as human members functioning together (T. Berry 1988, 23) not to mention the possibility of God’s continuing activity in the world.

Sabbath could help us to become more aware of our creatureliness, our solidarity with all creation, as the Torah teaches (Bauckham 2010, 37).  We must remember and live as if we were a species among species, not the various ethnic, cultural, language or economic groups by whom we label ourselves and others (T. Berry 1988, 21).  Photos taken from space illuminate the reality that earth was not created with national boundary lines drawn.  Colony collapse disorder has warned us that a humble bee has much to do with the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat.  Even the beef on our plates requires bees who pollinate alfalfa.

Stopping work makes space in our lives to see and feel what unremitting activity drowns out:  gratitude, adoration, generosity, awareness, beauty.  At Congregation Beth Torah, the sanctuary has a wall of windows looking out across lawn and into woods.  I asked Rabbi Mark Levin how he kept the attention of a congregation with a view like that and he said, “When there is a hawk out there, nobody here’s what I’m saying.”

But maybe this is what the earth needs from us in this day – ability and time to listen, to notice and respect other voices, especially the ones that do not use words.

Creation of the world is not just for us, but for itself and for God.  Rabbis understood that God’s purpose for every creature was beyond human knowing so we should not treat any living creature as dispensable.

All have rights –

insect rights,

bird rights,

tree rights,

prairie rights,

river rights.

Sabbath-keeping might realign our improper relationship with God and God’s creation, in which we live in a vertical relationship to nature with no regard to our horizontal and embedded relationship to creation (Bauckham 2012,36).  The Midwestern prairie, with its interdependent, interconnected, drought- and disease-resistant ecosystem provides a compelling metaphor.2

Humility nourished in Sabbath-keeping might also enable us to find wisdom in traditions and experiences of others, especially teachings of St. Francis and Catholic contemplative spirituality, Celtic spirituality, African tradition and Jewish wisdom.

Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition is one admirable expression of faith leaders investing themselves in the work of communication and community on behalf of creation care.  Through SSC we are connected to one another locally as well as to national and international educational and advocacy organizations such as Greenfaith, National Council of Churches EcoJustice, and various denominational resources.


The Sabbath experience of not producing, radical in itself, may give insight and courage for another radical act that may be necessary response to a human economy living beyond its means and that is – to make the economy smaller.  Christian congregations, where I spend most of my time, do not promote values of small.  We aspire to mega-churchness, even the tiniest of our congregations.  Or at least to the size and perceived influence of the old days, against which we constantly measure budgets and members.  Along with the rest of our culture, churches embrace like orthodoxy the belief that more is better and growth is necessary.

Economist Stan Cox argues, however, that a long-term, sustainable society will require rationing and life will require thrift in a lifestyle akin to what countries experience during wartime.  Since the environmental crisis is often likened to war, e.g. We are in “a war of aggressive conquest that modern humanity has waged against God’s other creatures….”  (Bauckham 2010, 30), Cox’s analogy seems apt.  If human assault on the environment is the moral equivalent of war, is it too much to ask patriotic Americans to give up “motoring as usual?”   Can the faith community lead in teaching, advocating for, and even modeling the contracting of the economy in a fair and orderly way, not forgetting marginalized ones who already suffer political, economic and environmental injustice and may be most vulnerable in the face of such change? (Bontz 2013, 15)

Economics professor, Lisi Krall, declares our economic system “untenable.”  Capitalism’s requirement of growth faces biophysical limits and creates problems it cannot solve requiring a radically different system, not just reformation but revolution (Bontz 2013, 8,10).  Cox and Krall are among leading thinkers who warn that westerners, at least, must work and produce less.

The idea of consuming less is about as foreign and unwelcome as Sabbath-keeping.  I don’t know a church that doesn’t turn to Costco for bulk hamburgers for the cook-out and paper plates for the coffee hour.  Life in an un-Costco world is a radical idea.  Who considers slowing down with the Joneses?

Where will we find the courage to engage this conversation across our many lines of difference and disagreement, to trust the Bible to challenge, form, inspire, and teach us, and to live an ecotheology that honors and praises God with all the voices of creation?

My hope lies in the promise of Sabbath, for which poet, farmer, and lover of creation, Wendell Berry, offers these words:

“The mind that comes to rest is tended

In ways that it did not intend:

Is borne, preserved and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend” (W. Berry 1998, 7).



1 Earth Bible Project Eco-justice Principles:

1.  Principle of intrinsic worth:  The universe, earth and all its components have intrinsic worth/value

2.  Principle of interconnectedness:  Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on one another for life ad survival

3.  Principle of voice:  Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice

4.  Principle of purpose:  Universe, Earth and all its components, are part of a dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place in the overall goal of that design

5.  Principle of mutual custodianship:  Earth is a balanced and diverse domain where responsible custodians can function as partners, rather than rulers, to sustain a balanced and diverse Earth community

6.  Principle of resistance:  Earth and its components not only suffer from injustices at the hands of humans, but actively resist them in the struggle for justice.  (Habel 2000c:24, in Horrell, 13,14).

In Mark Bittman’s The New York Times (October 22, 2013) article, “Now this is natural food,” he interviews Wes Jackson at the Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas.  Jackson describes prairies as self-sustaining perennial polysystems without soil erosion and not fossil-fuel dependent.  “[P]lants may fertilize one another, physically support one another, ward off pests and diseases together, resist drought and flood and survive even when one member suffers.”


Reference list

Bauckham, Richard.  2010.  The Bible and ecology:  Rediscovering the community of creation. Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press.

Bauckham, Richard.  2012.  Living with other creatures:  Green exegesis and theology. London:  Paternoster.

Berry, Thomas.  1988.  The dream of the earth.  San Francisco:  Sierra Club Books.

Berry, Wendell. 1998.  A timbered choir:  The Sabbath poems 1979-1997.  New York: Counterpoint.

Bontz, Scott.  Summer 201.  “On board from the beginning,” The Land Report.

Bontz, Scott.  Summer 2013.  “Capital error:  An economist says our system needs radical, foundational change,” The Land Report, 8-10.

Bontz, Scott.  Summer 2013.  “Food, clothing, shelter:  A prescription for right living includes esthetic sense and sensibility,” The Land Report, 16-17.

Bontz, Scott.  Summer 2013.  “Rationing:  Not whether but how,” The Land Report, 12-15.

Horrell, David G.  2010. The Bible and the environment:  Towards a critical ecological biblical theology.  London:  Equinox.

Martin-Schramm, James B., and Stivers, Robert L. 2003.  Christian environmental ethics:  A case study approach.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis.

Maslin, Mark. 2007.  Global warming (rev. ed.).  Grantown-on-Spey, Scotland:  Worldlife Library.

O’Hagan, Andrew.  October 6, 2013.  “The virtues of fine in the age of awesome,” The New York Times Style Magazine, 19,20.

Revkin, Andrew C.  “Countdown to a hotter climate – tropics first” in

Rich, Nathaniel.  October 13, 2013. “Earth control:  We need to slow our rate of procreation if we want to survive, Alan Weisman argues,” The New York Times Book Review.