Southwest Symposium on Theological Education: a Review

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On March 13 and 14, Brite Divinity School, the Methodist Theological Seminary in Ohio (MTSO), the Green Seminary Initiative (GSI), and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development hosted the Southwest Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education at Brite Divinity School.

Our time together began with words of welcome and introduction, including from Brite’s president Newell Williams. Everyone in the symposium stood and shared a little about who they are and what work they do to prepare students and institutions to respond to the pressing environmental needs of our time. The diverse group included students, faculty, administration, alumi, and staff from around the Southwest.

Sessions on March 13 included words and wisdom from Tim Van Meter (associate professor of Practical Theology at MTSO and executive committee member of GSI) about how to find and have hope in the current reality of climate change. He shared stories from the farm at MTSO, as well as from his experience teaching about climate change and justice. Then Laurel Kearns (professor of Sociology and Religion at Drew Theological School and co-founder of GSI) and Chris Doran (associate professor of Religion at Pepperdine University) shared about strategies and obstacles for talking about climate change in a variety of institutional realities. In the evening, abby mohaupt (director of GSI) walked participants through an exercise on how to think critically and imaginatively on teaching about climate change. These sessions worked together to help participants grapple with talking about and responding to climate change and other environmental issues from places of faith and theological education.

Sessions on March 14 dug into some of the practical concerns of ecologically informed theological education. The day began with interfaith worship and a homily by David Miron-Wapner from the Interfaith Center on Sustainable Development. This time of prayer, music, and reflection reminded the group that we come to this work as people of head, heart and soul.

Just weeks before the symposium, GSI and CreatureKind announced our formal partnership. In light of that partnership, Sarah Withrow King co-presented at the symposium with former GSI Co-Director Sarah Wells Macias. Their presentation on farming highlighted the need for individuals and institutions to consider the treatment of animals, land, and people in choosing what food to consume.

The first step in becoming a CreatureKind institution is to recognize faith-based reasons for caring about the wellbeing of fellow animal creatures used for food. There's great power in the step of naming animals as beings who matter even just including them in lists of things we care about as institutions. At the symposium, it was really encouraging to see so many professors and program directors include nonhuman animals in their presentations. This kind of public engagement with theology and praxis of animal welfare is particularly good news for students for whom this is a priority issue. David Aftandilian, associate professor of Anthropology at Texas Christian University, spoke about animals and food policy earlier in the day.

Elaine Nogueira-Godsey (assistant professor of Theology, Ecology, and Race at MTSO) and Anthony Baker (professor of Systematic Theology at Seminary of the Southwest) shared stories and practical tips about teaching theology and ecology. Elaine reminded participants that students need to be given space to make both mistakes as well as huge shifts in thinking. She particularly lifted up the intersections between gender, race, and ecology in talking about climate change in theological education. Steven Chase from the Oblate School of Theology ended the morning talking about the “Ecological Soul-Care” and how to pay attention to the need to heal in a world that is not just human.

The afternoon began with a presentation from John Everett (director of Physical Plant) and Heather Zdancewicz (Vice President of Finance and Administration) from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The school is part of GSI’s seminary environmental certification program, so John and Heather shared about changes they have made at their institution to use less energy and water and to create less waste. Danielle Ayers from Friendship West Baptist Church shared about how she mobilizes her congregation to respond to eco and social justice issues as their minister of justice. The afternoon ended with teach-ins from Pankaj Jain (associate professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North Texas) and Aryeh Bernstein from the Jewish Initiative for Animals. Pankaj led participants through an overview of Jainism, focusing on beliefs and practices around animals. Aryeh brought the group together in a final circle, teaching from the Torah and leading the group in singing together.

As a whole, the symposium was a reminder that to respond to environmental issues and to love the land we need to work together. We can and must learn from a multitude of faith traditions and engage a variety of modalities. In doing so, we learn to teach, read, pray, organize, and lead in theological education in ways that seek life, sustainability, and justice.

Finally, a note of thanks to Tim Robinson, associate professor of Spiritual Disciplines and Resources, and Eilene Theilig (both from Brite Divinity School) and Kelsey Ryan-Simpkins for their tireless work in preparing this symposium.

image: Danielle Ayers -- Minister of Justice at Friendship-West Baptist Church, author, and current Brite MDiv student -- pictured with Brite's Dr. Tim Robinson and Dr. Eilene Theilig, who helped to plan the event.