Monday, April 23, 2012

Climate Change and Christian Faith

By Kwok Pui Lan

Today, the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care is convening a conference on “Scientific, Religious, and Cultural Implications of Global Warming” at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC. 

 Blessing of the Watertown Community Garden
on June 12, 2011.
This climate summit will bring together activists, scholars, scientists, and religious leaders to explore strategies to prevent the impacts of global warming. Renowned climatologist Dr. James Hansen, environmentalist Bill McKibben, Fr. Michael Oleksa of Alaska, and Brigadier General Steven Anderson, US Army (ret.) will be among the speakers.

The Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, MDiv, EDS ’88, has been invited to speak about the Episcopal Church’s response to climate change. She is a long-time environmental activist and was the principal author of the Pastoral Letter, “To Serve Christ in All Creation,” issued by the Episcopal Bishops of New England in 2003. She has been a leader in Religious Witness for the Earth and is priest associate at Grace Church in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

Christian theologians have increasingly paid attention to the challenges of climate change. Sallie McFague, an Episcopalian, is a leading figure in ecological theology. She has published A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. In his review of the book, John B. Cobb, Jr. said, “[McFague] calls Christians to new feeling, new acting, and new thinking. Perhaps as the threat to our world that she describes so well presses more obviously upon us, the church will begin to listen.”

Anne Primavesi, an Irish theologian, has been in conversations with scientists such as James Lovelock for many years. She has introduced Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to the study of the Bible and theology. In her book Gaia and Climate Change, she challenges Christian communities to change their theological climate. Instead of subscribing to over-powering and imperialistic images of God, Primavesi offers a nonviolent theological model to understand our relations with human beings, with sacred earth, and with God. 

Here at Episcopal Divinity School, I have taught the course “God and Creation” for many years and have introduced students to the works of these theologians who have written poignantly on climate change and environmental issues. My teaching and pedagogy have emphasized putting into practice what we have learned in embodied ways supporting African American cultural critic and theorist bell hooks’s views on education as practice of freedom. 

In conjunction with my courses, I have brought students to an organic farm to learn about the close relation between the soil, water, climate, and plant cycles. After the visit, three people, including myself, started a vegetable garden in our backyards. In the past two summers, I have grown tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, onions, and different herbs. This new practice has deepened my understanding of the symbiotic relationship between human beings and our environment. 

Last fall, I brought students to a community garden in Watertown, Massachusetts, started by the Rev. Louise Forrest, MDiv EDS ’80. The community garden enables children in the housing project to plant vegetables and tend to the garden. It provides fresh produce for several families. Some of the students who visited the garden want to introduce the idea of setting up a community garden at EDS and in their future ministries. 

I am increasingly convinced that we cannot just talk about global warming and other environmental problems without changing how we live and practice our spirituality. In my spirituality of healing class, I introduce healthy eating and healthy living as important spiritual disciplines. I am very impressed by Primavesi’s concept that human beings and the environment are co-evolutionary. Without collective metanoia (repentance) and deep solidarity with the earth, we cannot avert the disasters that global warming will bring. (Last winter was the second warmest winter in Boston since records began in 1872.)

EDS has received a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation of New York to help the school and faith communities learn about religious pluralism and engage in interreligious dialogue. Throughout the academic year, Professor Christopher Duraisingh has organized a series of interfaith table-talks. He has invited Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist practitioners to come to share with us their spiritual paths. The EDS community has also visited the Ramakrishna Vedanta Center in Boston. Swami Tyaganada of the Center has come to speak in the World Religions and the Search for Comminity course. 

Many Asian religious traditions emphasize the close relation between human beings and nature. Conversations with people of other faiths allow the EDS community to learn from and network with other faith communities to address common concerns, such as environmental issues and climate change.

The Sustainability Task Force of the American Academy of Religion has invited me to serve on a panel to talk about creative pedagogies in teaching religion and environmental issues at the annual meeting in November. I will be able to share some of my insights in teaching environmental racism, climate change, and ecological debt with the academic community and share what EDS has done in changing the climate of theology and theological education.

Kwok Pui Lan is the William F. Cole Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School and her most recent book is Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding: The Future of Interfaith Dialogue

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Your Handy Hermeneutic

By The Rev. Thomas Eoyang, Jr. '03

I scowl every time I hear someone say that what we learned in seminary—and especially those of us from EDS—is irrelevant to practical ministry. Nothing I learned at EDS—whether in the classroom or outside of it—has gone to waste. Everything has turned out to have an application: Scripture, of course, but also church history, pastoral theology, ethical reasoning, liturgical planning, all of it—and most especially what we learned about resisting oppression.

Even building issues. It only took a passing comment from the Rev. Canon Fred Williams, as we passed the scaffolding surrounding the chapel, to clue me in.  

Pointing up to the roof he said, “Pay attention to that. That’s what you’ll be doing.” And so I immediately knew that part of my job as a parish priest would be to oversee the maintenance and stewardship of a queer, beautiful, and antiquated building that was built for another time, another economy, and another understanding of church.

Well, perhaps one little thing has proved less than useful: not once since graduation have I said the word “hermeneutic” to any parishioner.  

In seminary we learned to use this word frequently and properly and to say “the hermeneutic of suspicion” with that knowing tone that marked us if not as one of Christ’s own forever, at least as a provisional member of the fellowship of the theologically learned. (For those without a seminary or literature degree, or who have blissfully forgotten, hermeneutics is the study of the theory and practice of interpretation.)  

It’s a difficult word to work into a conversation or a sermon unless one’s parish happens to be across the street from a major university. To most people in the “real world” the word hermeneutic must sound, as it did to one of my classmates, like a household appliance.

Yet, though I don’t use the word, I use the concept many times a day. In the Episcopal Church, and in many other branches of God’s church, good Christian folk have been engaged in a remarkably uncivil conversation claiming to be about Scripture—its sanctity, inerrancy, truth, accuracy, whatever word you wish to use. Of course what we’ve mainly been discussing are a few verses of Scripture, the ones that have to do with sexual expression between two men or two women. Our conversation drones on about what authority those few verses should have when two men or two women develop deep bonds of love and faithfulness, bonds of joyful, life-giving mutual flourishing.

The question of Scripture’s inerrancy seems only to apply to those few verses. We are certainly not discussing the plain sense much less the present-day applicability of, for instance, this verse from Leviticus: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Who’s arguing about taking this divine commandment “literally?” 

How we choose which fragments of Scripture are binding and authoritative and which ones are not is a principal result of our chosen (ahem) hermeneutic.  

As lay and ordained ministers, our membership in the fellowship of the theologically learned means that part of our job is to explain how we read Scripture, how we come to understand the word of God through it, how we hear what we hear and know what we know. We are called to model for others how faith—based on a deep, serious and nuanced dialogue with Scripture—is a viable way of knowing in an age where scientific understanding can be trivialized into materialistic reductionism. In short, we are all called to explain to others our choice of hermeneutic as it informs our life of faith.

And just as important is our responsibility to lead others to understand that they themselves are using a particular hermeneutic when they make choices about which Scripture verses to take seriously and which to ignore. We must remind people (without using the word, of course) that there is such a thing as a hermeneutic of oppression, and that Scripture has often been misused as an instrument of oppression.

These conversations are not, of course, primarily exegetical, but rather pastoral. Discussing thorny passages of Scripture with other people, we hear behind their concerns and opinions the struggle of another wayfarer on the journey of faith, another follower of Christ trying to know God in the best way he or she can.  

In listening to that faith narrative, just as in our reading of Scripture, we are called by our baptism and by our superb training at EDS to avoid using a hermeneutic of oppression ourselves and to choose instead to model and to teach a hermeneutic of grace, a hermeneutic of compassion, a hermeneutic of justice, a hermeneutic of love. I can’t think of anything I could have been taught that is more important, more relevant, or more empowering.

Thomas Eoyang, Jr. is the third rector of Grace Epiphany Church, in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his MDiv from Episcopal Divinity School and holds an AB from Harvard College in history and literature, as well as an MA in comparative literature from Stanford University. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What I Don’t Know About Brittney Griner, NCAA Women’s Basketball Champion

By Joan M. Martin

I admit it. Although I have been a pretty good amateur athlete all my life, I am a lifetime wanna-be collegiate and WNBA basketball player! I am also a die-hard UConn Women Huskies fan. Yet, hats off to the Baylor University Bears who won the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship last night, under the leadership of Baylor post player, Brittney Griner. You can read all the game stats and those for Griner in your favorite sports media as I did on

For the entire NCAA basketball season, we have been learning tons about Griner. Yet I realize I really don’t know much about the woman. For example, I don't know 
  • which cereal she eats for breakfast (maybe it ought to be Wheaties, The Breakfast of Champions);
  • which sports movie she watches over and over again, (since Hollywood hasn’t made a women’s basketball version of A League of Their Own);
  • what her all time favorite song is, (it ought to be, “We Are The Champions”);
  • which athlete is her role model, (but she may have just looked in the mirror last night and marveled at the woman returning her gaze, after all, this year she won the Wade Trophy, the Naismith Player of the Year and the WBCA’s defensive player of the year awards); 
  • what her religion is, (but I am absolutely positive that God was watching the game and yelling Her head off saying, “Go on, with your bad self,” (all due props to Skyler Diggings)); and
  • which WNBA team she dreams of playing for one day in the not-so-distant future!
The WNBA? Women's basketball? Oh, it seems I haven’t been reading all the nasty taunts about Brittney Griner’s height and shoe size, all the openly misogynist hatred, all the lesbian baiting, and the vitriolic jealousy of her ability to dunk a b-ball as well as the best.

What I do know is that once again, a woman of outstanding athletic talent has come under attack for excellence. Needless to say, Brittney Griner is an outstanding African American woman athlete of excellence.  All too often, the Brittney Griners, Venus and Serena Williams, or Sheryl Swoopes of the sports world cannot be gifted and at the top echelon of their sport without being besmirched in regard to their race and gender, and often their sexuality in the case of homophobia.  

We need only recall the comment by sportscaster Sid Rosenberg, reported in the November 20, 2001, Newsday article, “Rosenberg [allegedly] said on the air: One time, a friend, he says to me, ‘Listen, one of these days you’re gonna see Venus and Serena Williams in Playboy.’ I said, ‘You’ve got a better shot at National Geographic.’  Rosenberg also referred to Venus Williams as an ‘animal.’” If you cannot remember that long ago, just think back to April 2007 when, after the Rutgers Lady Knights met the Lady Tennessee Vols in the NCAA Women’s Championship Game, MSNBC talk-radio host Imus in the Morning called the Rutgers team, “nappy-headed hos.”[1]

Those who maintain that racism is passé do not understand, in the face of the murder of Trayvon Martin, the all-too familiar and common belief that African American life is “cheap” in America. And many believe that discrimination against women is no longer an issue in nearly all walks of life in the United States until one looks closely at the statistical reports of the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. Recently, one of the students I advise wrote that marriage equality is rapidly increasing in the United States. With marriage equality striking at the heart of patriarchal heteronormativity, I am waiting for the next round of redoubled backlash that inevitably comes whenever civil rights in the United States are expanded to include those considered “second-class” citizens.

We could become cynical in light of such analysis.  That, however, is not my point. 

Just as we resist complacency and instead demand justice for Trayvon Martin, we must not let the verbal abuse and violence against the Brittney Griners of any day continue, especially at the end of the collegiate basketball season when “out-of-sight” means “out-of-mind,” that is social amnesia in America.  What happened to Brittney Griner and to Trayvon Martin are two ends of a dehumanizing, pernicious continuum that has been repeated much too often and too long in our nation. Just as we must fight for growth in meaningful employment opportunity for all in this presidential election season and not just ‘jobs,’ we must speak the truth and vote our consciences about the continuing redistribution of US wealth and resources from the working and middle classes and from women and children to the obscenely rich in our country. The wealth continuum is grossly imbalanced and out of whack, jeopardizing our economic future as well as our moral compass.  Just as we must continue to press for the full human rights for persons of every sexual and gender orientation, we, too, along with Coach Kim Mulkey, can proudly carry Brittney Griner on our shoulders as the best of the best in women’s collegiate basketball this year. In this respect, it does not take masterminds to see the continuum of bullying to hate speech and crimes.

What does all this mean? I didn’t even root for Baylor last night, but I will root for the Brittney Griners of the world every day of every season, and then some!

[1] Source for the information on African American women athletes as quoted:; accessed 4/04/2012.

The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Martin is William W. Rankin Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School.