Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/29 2015

Climate Change and the Church

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climate-changeI attended the Henderson Summer Leadership Conference that took place earlier this month at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I have to confess that I was more intrigued by the opportunity to see Chef Tom strut his stuff than I was by the opportunity to examine issues of food justice. But as I listened to the presenters describe what is and craft a vision for what might be, I found myself becoming introspective and meditating on a couple of passages from God’s Word.

The first passage that came to mind was 2 Peter 3.7: “… the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment…” If my memory serves, this has usually been interpreted to mean that the day of God’s judgment will come in an apocalyptic conflagration of cosmic proportions. But now I wonder.

The second passage that came to mind is from the Apocalypse of John:

Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Rev 6:1-8).

These fanciful words read like a fantasy novel. Yet here they are in God’s Word. Are they the ravings of a first century acid head? Are they objective truth or etiological narrative? How are we to interpret them? Regardless, they, and the whole of the Apocalypse, trace a vision of horror too profound to contemplate. Since the Henderson Summer Leadership Conference, I have been wondering about them.

Two facts from the conference stood out for me. First, the earth’s climate is going to increase about two degrees Celsius over the next 25-30 years unless dramatic steps are taken now. Second, unless humanity begins to live in a way fundamentally different from the way we now live, the earth’s climate will increase about four degrees Celsius over the next hundred years or so. The most visibly dramatic effect of such an increase will be the flooding of all the coastal regions of the world, rendering them unlivable. But the deeper, more long lasting effect will be the beginning of an irreversible process of temperature increase in the world’s climate.

I don’t believe that the will exists among the political and economic elite of the world to address these coming shifts in any substantial way at the present time. When the world’s coastal regions flood—and I assume they will at some point in the future—it will be the poor and disenfranchised of the world who will suffer, and not the elites. It is easy to imagine that this will provoke a worldwide exodus of proportions unheard of and lead to shanty towns on an unimagined scale. Yet this would only be a blip compared to what would come. If the climate increases by four degrees, as scientists suggest will happen, in time this world will become a barren desert unable to grow food of virtually any sort.

Do you hear the neighing of horses?

Following the passage I quoted above, Peter enjoins the Church to pray to hasten the coming judgment. I can’t do that. In fact, if I had a cat, I would probably crawl into a box with it. But there is an enormous opportunity for the Church here. What if the Church were to take her endowments and nearly empty buildings and sell them and buy farmland and begin to farm in a sustainable fashion and worked to make the אֲדָמָה (adamah) – the soil – more productive and better able to nourish? What if the Church got out ahead of the curve and moved to position herself for meaningful service before the σχύβαλον hits the fan, rather than waiting to react to injustice after it happens? What might happen if the Church were to begin to live her life in true κοινωνία in farming communities instead of 60 minutes at a time on Sunday mornings? Now I don’t think this is something that every present congregation ought to do, but what if all the churches in Pittsburgh (or any other city) got together and decided that some, or even many, were going to move in this direction? If there are 150 years before climate change begins to impact the earth’s ability to produce food, could the church leverage that time and be prepared to minister to a world in crisis? What if . . .

Now I take God at God’s Word. I don’t know what the Apocalypse means, but it is God’s Word to humankind, and is (capital T) Truth in some way, and I trust the Spirit to make that Word clear at the right time. The Henderson Summer Leadership Conference has caused me to wonder . . . Maybe there isn’t a cosmic firestorm in our future. Maybe it’s just four degrees. A mere four degrees brought about by the hubris of humanity.

Jake Horner graduated from Pittsburgh Seminary’s MDiv program in 2015.

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6/23 2015

Climate Change: Pope Francis Exposes the Myth

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Pope Francis Climate ChangeWhen presidential candidate Jeb Bush wanted to criticize Pope Francis for writing an encyclical on climate change, Bush is reported to have said that religion “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” In other words, religion should stay clear of economics and politics, and the Pope is getting too close.

If I may quote one of my children’s favorite exclamations to summarize the Pope’s much more lengthy and eloquent response in the encyclical Laudato Si’: That’s ridiculous!

But the majority of American Christians don’t see it that way. The distinction between religion and politics/economics makes total sense to us. We’ve been schooled to believe the myth that religion has to do with our private, inner lives—our souls—and not the wider world of public matters like politics, economics, and science. The reality of climate change and how to respond belongs, according to this myth, to the latter.

This religious myth is just another form of the heresy of Gnosticism which Christianity has been fighting from its beginning. Gnosticism taught that our souls are connected to God, and the rest of the world can be rejected or enjoyed, whichever you like. None of the rest matters. “Gnosticism,” scholar Harold Bloom has said, “is the American religion proper.”

Which is precisely why many American Christians have such a hard time relating our faith to anything other than our souls. Like race, for instance. Or the environment. Pope Francis is teaching us why we should learn.

The Pope’s argument hinges theologically on the distinction between God and creation.

It feels almost silly to need to be reminded of this: Christians believe in one God who is “Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen,” as we say in the Creed. “All that is, seen and unseen”—creation, in other words—is oriented toward God as its source and purpose for existence. And “all that is” includes human culture, politics, and economics as well, however disordered. Everything belongs. Getting this distinction straight is critical.

Because, Francis says, we humans have long failed to do just that. We have imagined that we are on the God-side of the distinction. We have allowed our politics and economics to treat the rest of creation as if it were oriented toward us as its source, useful for our purposes alone. And the “our” here are those with wealth and power. The rest have been left out.

We have created what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” We “use” creation for our purposes. Along the way we have damaged it. And the world’s poor suffer from that damage disproportionately.

The discussion of these things may not belong within the sphere of gnostic American religion, but it does within the sphere of the Christian religion—for everything does. For Christians, there is no realm—politics, culture, economics, science—outside of the scope of God’s creation and free from consideration of how it should be ordered toward God and the common good of all—including the non-human creation.

This is Christianity 101—basic stuff. But the myth of the distinction between the religious sphere and these others is endemic, it seems. Among the other reasons we need this encyclical—and there are many—we need it for the Pope’s eloquent “No!” to this myth. This “No!” is particularly important as we enter a presidential race in which religious people who want to speak about politics will too often be told, from both sides of the political line, to get back where they belong.

I know a pastor talking with a church’s search committee about whether she should become that church’s next pastor. A member of the committee told her, “We don’t want sermons about politics.”

My advice to this pastor: Give the search committee a copy of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, and say, “Read this, then let’s talk.”

Of course, friend, don’t hold your breath waiting to be hired.

The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.

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6/12 2015

Getting a Global Perspective

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World-Mission“We need to become global Christians with a global vision, for we have a global God.” John R. W. Stott

In seasons of discernment students might ask, “What is God’s will for my life?” Not a bad question. I asked this question myself at one point in my journey. But at some point in my discernment process I discovered that while God does have plans for me, I am only one person in a much larger plan that God has for the world. I don’t just worship and pray to a personal God. I worship and pray to a global God, who created it all, loves it all, and plans to redeem every bit of it. A better question that I have learned to ask is, “What is God doing in the world, and how can I be a part of it?”

Discovering what God is doing in the world is a life-long pursuit, a pursuit that keeps me seeking out how to be faithful in a way that expands my vision far beyond my own small corner of the world and into the larger world that God loves. I discovered that God is bringing hope and a future through Christian community and reforestation in Haiti. I witnessed the power of the gospel to fill the persecuted church in Southeast Asia with so much joy that they have an abundance to share. I have heard the message of profound grace found in Jesus shared by a sister from a Muslim background. In all of these discoveries, I am moved to make different choices about how I use natural resources, how I come near to the persecuted in my prayers, and how I can also share the abundance of joy and grace found in Jesus. My growing global perspective shapes my sense of vocation every day.

Looking for ways to pursue what God is doing in the world? Here are three ways you can explore.

The Rev. Jen Haddox ‘06, associate director of  the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, has lead groups of students around the world to see first hand what God is doing at the far corners of the earth.

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