By Beth Norcross and Laurel Kearns, Green Seminary Initiative Co-Founders
In 2007, at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting, the Green Seminary Initiative (GSI) was launched before a large standing room only crowd of over 300. Six distinguished scholars – John Cobb, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Norman Habel, Sallie McFague, Larry Rasmussen and Cal DeWitt– passionately urged religious educators to take seriously their unique role in confronting the environmental challenge.
They encouraged scholars to transform theological education and equip students with the tools they need to lead their congregations, organizations, institutions and communities in understanding and responding to the ecological crisis. From that august beginning, the Green Seminary Initiative has worked to assist theological education to teach religious leaders for tomorrow’s environmental realities so that they take a significant role in turning back human-caused environmental destruction and participate in bringing all of creation into health and wholeness. Working to bring together an awareness of ecological realities with justice concerns, the GSI has provided resources and syllabi, and supported and profiled the efforts at dozens of schools. Building on the work of the Web of Creation website fostered by the vision of David Rhoads, joined by Beth Norcross of Wesley Theological Seminary and Laurel Kearns of Drew Theological School, and advised by many of the leading voices in biblical eco-hermeneutics, theology, ethics, education and spirituality, the Green Seminary Initiative is now well-known, supported by significant grants.
Ten years later, the landscape has indeed changed – for both the earth and for theological education. Environmental threats are more imminent and more complex.
Species extirpation continues at an alarming rate. Devastating weather-related events are now common occurrences. Temperatures are soaring. And through it all, those with the least, or on the front lines, are suffering first and foremost.
The academic landscape has changed as well. Where only a few seminaries were engaged in environmental activities ten years ago, many many more have responded to the call. In 2014, the theme of entire AAR/SBL meeting was climate change and the environment. In 2017, over 43 sessions/events at AAR/SBL contained relevant presentations. Fourteen seminaries are currently going through our rigorous Environmental Certification process with dozens more using our website resources. Far more seminaries are offering eco-related courses, and several have explicit eco tracks in various degree programs. Others are putting up LEED certified buildings, conducting energy audits and embracing renewable energy sources, growing gardens and paying attention to the food served, greening grounds, creating carpool and shared car programs, and taking students and religious services outdoors.
Something else is changing too. Theological education itself is going through a large shift. In many places, student enrollments are down. Finances are tight. Seminaries are merging, moving and, too often, closing. As theological education responds to changed social, political and economic realities, taking ecological challenges seriously can be revitalizing. As the seriousness of the crisis evolves, people will be looking for spiritual and religious leadership. Theological education is poised to help explore what it means to be faithful and how to work together, across divisions, to respond to pressing issues.
There is much work to be done. The next ten years will be a critical time for our planet and for theological education. As the title of Naomi Klein’s recent book suggests: our climate crisis changes everything. It affects how we think about faith and the way we act out our faith. It intersects with social justice and civil rights concerns, gender and race issues, economic inequality and poverty. At the Green Seminary Initiative, we are looking forward to the next decade, poised to provide more support and an enriched vision in partnership with many schools, both in the U.S. and internationally. We work in faith and trust that theological education will do its significant part in bringing about a reconciled and restored creation.