Thursday, January 26, 2017

From the Land and for the Land

EARTH Keeper: Dennis Testerman
by Mary Beene

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated: we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Did you know that there are over a billion species of organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil?  With both of his parents involved in public health fields, Dennis Testerman has always made the earth-health connections that are now becoming de rigueur in scientific circles.

Dennis, in blue, with friends from the Soil and Water Conservation District

Working on the task force that prepared the PC(U.S.A.) policy statement Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice, adopted by the 202nd General Assembly in 1990 “energized me about as much as anything I had done,” Dennis enthuses.  Which is a little hard to believe given everything he has done before and since. His work on that document even meant that he was involved in the earliest PEC conferences, when we were known as Presbyterians for Restoring Creation.

Dennis’ great-great-great grandfather was a Presbyterian minister on the frontier in Virginia.  He is the first generation in his family born off the Southern Appalachian mountain cove farm that has been in his mother’s family since 1789, and he spent a lot of time on that farm as he grew up. The connection between faith and environment for him was not a theoretical proposition, but a lived experience.

“An old growth forest on our farm inspired me to major in forestry in college,” he shares.  He then made the connection between conservation and world hunger first in college and then during a two-year agricultural assignment in Nigeria with Church World Services.  Going to Nigeria was his first trip overseas and his first trip on a plane; the experience was so formative that he and his wife took another agricultural assignment in Pakistan after seminary.  He was specifically ordained as a public servant in environmental stewardship.  Dennis’ global mission work was what brought him to the table for the drafting ofRestoring Creation for Ecology and Justice.

Dennis does not share some peoples’ view that science and religion are mutually exclusive: “Science is a God-given way of understanding the Creation and ways for everyone to be the best stewards possible.”  He lives that out in his work in North Carolina with both the Cabarrus County Soil & Water Conservation District and as Stewardship of Creation Enabler for the Presbytery of Charlotte.  His work with the conservation district brings him in contact with farmers, homeowners, businesses, students, planners, developers – often all in the same day.  The district “encourages the informed and responsible stewardship of the land and all its natural resources: soil, water, animals, plants, air and energy.  He encourages us to be aware of and work with the over 3000 conservation districts across the country.

When asked about how congregations can be more involved in environmental issues, he goes to Deuteronomy: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  He suggests doing things that put you out in nature: birding, gardening, hiking, photographing.  People involved in our natural world see “the ability of the Lord to meet human needs, not human greed.”  We are encouraged to enjoy the beauty of creation, but not destroy it.

Rev. Mary Beene serves on the EARTH team and coordinates the M.K. Pentecost Ecology Fund for the Savannah Presbytery.


An evolutionary understanding of reality with faith

Science and Religion
by John Monroe

At a plenary session of the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the summer of 2016, an overture came to floor endorsing a reconciliation between current scientific cosmology and our biblical faith. I was stunned that many spoke against it and nearly half of our commissioners voted against it. The perception, it appeared, was that faith was on the run against the advances of science, and that we needed to make a stand against encroachment.

In the words of Integral theorist, Ken Wilber, religion and science differentiated at the birth of modern consciousness—probably a necessary move, and one which has brought great advancement to human life. As we move out of the modern era into something new, however, human and planetary wellbeing are crying out for a reintegration of these two ways of knowing. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin created a vision for such a reintegration and some impressive thinkers from the fields of theology and science are beginning to develop his map or create their own.

We still have a long way to go. James Loder and Wentzel Van Huyssteen at Princeton Theological Seminary made some in-roads, and also Wolfhart Pannenberg explored a theological methodology in interaction with the natural sciences. Twentieth century Reformed giant, Karl Barth, however, had no use for Natural Theology. As a pastor who has been attempting to integrate an evolutionary understanding of reality with biblical faith, it is not always easy going. The “We’ve never done it this way before,” syndrome shows up.

It’s worth the effort, I believe. As Cynthia Bourgeault observes, the Christian plant is sick and dying. It has outgrown the container of an ancient, flat-earth cosmology. Its roots need space to grow. Imagine what might happen if we put the Christian plant into a new container—one as expansive as today’s 13.8 billion year cosmology. As Teilhard and others are showing, the result is exhilarating. I could say more about the exhilaration, but space does not allow.  Maybe another time. The irony is that the pursuit of an evolutionary understanding of Christian faith is turning many, including me, toward an exploration of ancient Christian contemplative wisdom. Who would have guessed? Jesus has never seemed more relevant or more promising a guide.

John Monroe is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Rumson, NJ.  He believes that what the evolutionary process is up to today is the transformation of human consciousness—thus his interest in Christian mystics.  Along with his wife, Rosanne, he has four grown children and is mesmerized by interactions with their 2 year old granddaughter. 

An Affirmation in Four Parts

Affirmation? So What!
James B. Miller

This past summer the PCUSA General Assembly adopted (after four votes) an Affirmation of Creation. The Affirmation has roughly four parts:  affirmations of the time over which God has been calling our universe into being; affirmations of the diversity of creatures, material and living, that God has called into being over that time; an affirmation of the nexus of all living creatures on Earth, including human beings, by bonds of historical developmental kinship; an affirmation of the distinctive place of and thereby responsibilities of Homo sapiens in the historically dynamic global ecosystem.

Why is such an Affirmation necessary?  Primarily, because one cannot in good faith affirm that God is creator without affirming the particulars of the creation as best we know them that God is calling into being.  The authors of the Old and New Testaments in their time drew upon their understandings of the particulars of creation when they wrote of God.  Their perspective was understandably a geocentric, homocentric, and shallow timed cosmic one given the knowledge available to them.  Unfortunately, too many contemporary Christians still think theologically within that ancient cosmic perspective.  Such thinking impedes an appropriate cosmic humility on our part.

For example, though it has become theologically fashionable to speak of stewardship rather than regency in terms of humanity’s relationship with the rest of Earthly creatures, the shift from a regal to a bureaucratic metaphor does not do justice to what has been discovered to be the family relationship of all of life on Earth nor the complex dynamics of pathology and symbiotics that characterize the relationships of Earthly creatures.

Cosmology precedes theology.  We are in the world before we are in the world in a theological way.  As science provides an effective foundation for technological development, so theology provides the foundation for ethics.  If one’s science is faulty or inadequate, then one’s technology will at best be ineffective.  If ones theology is misplaced due to reliance upon an inadequate cosmology, then one’s ethics will at best be incongruous with the actual created context within which we live.

Rev. James B. Miller, MDiv, PhD, Society of Ordained Scientists, is the President of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith.

Science, influenced by faith

The Rising Tides of Science and Faith
by Gregory I. Simpson

I have spent the last 5 days visiting family in the Caribbean and reflecting on the challenges small countries face in the injustices of climate change and the Church’s response. There are very few words to describe the lush and vibrant colors of nature that I have been reminded of as I travel around the island of Jamaica. It is in effect an island of contradictions.

Beauty exudes from the flora and fauna as well as from the people themselves. At the same time there are also visible signs of environmental and ecological damage to the most pristine of beaches. This, in some measure caused by rising tides, shifting sands and unpredictable weather patterns. And while the country is in the midst of massive infrastructure development, there is a loss of the lush produce that I had come to so enjoy.

In the midst of these observations, Revelation 21:1 which speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth” one in which “the sea was no more,” jumps to mind. How important a role does a scripture such as this play in the life of a Christian as the threat of sea level rise becomes real, in the gulf coast of America and Jamaica? How can science, influenced by faith become accessible to congregations?

These are not easy questions to answer, as Union Theological Seminary graduate Lynn White pointed out in a 1967 Science Journal paper entitled “The historical roots of our ecological crisis.” There are failings on both sides of the science religion debate, but there are also wonderful opportunities that can correct some of these ecological imbalances. The question is, do we as a faith community have the will to help find them?
Gregory Simpson holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of the West Indies, completed a Master of Divinity in Bible and Ethics from Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in the City of New York and is now completing a Master in Sacred Theology in Ethics at UTS with a focus on ecological ethics. Under care of First Presbyterian in the ordination process, Dr. Simpson served as a seminary intern at Broadway Presbyterian and The Riverside Church. At UTS he was founder and Co-Chair of the Theology, Science and Religion Caucus and served as Co-Chair of the Student Senate at UTS. He is currently a volunteer at the Center for Earth Ethics, focusing on biblical ethics, intellectual property rights and climate change. 

Science is a way to understand the world that God created

"Is not God in the heights of heaven? And see how lofty are the highest stars!" Job 22:12 (NIV)
by Katie Preston

Growing up, I had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to be “when I grow up.” I had an active imagination so my mind wandered through all the possible career options. When I first got to college I wanted to be a teacher, because I’d had a pretty awesome one in high school. However going into my sophomore year of college, I decided to change tracks. My grandfather had worked with NASA from its humble beginnings in Ohio as the NACA, and been part of the development of the space shuttle program. We had multiple opportunities to go out on the Cape and watch shuttle launches. I was in awe of the magnitude of sending humans into space. So I changed my major to physics, with the intention of getting a dual degree with aerospace engineering.

Katie's grandfather escorting John F. Kennedy
around the Cape Canaveral space center

Along the way, 9/11 happened and I made a major shift in my life focus. I felt called to ministry, but was far enough along in my physics studies that it didn’t make sense to change my major yet again just to complete my undergraduate studies. So I graduated with a BS in Physics and headed off to seminary. Originally I felt called to youth ministry, but over the course of my studies, my focus shifted again and I moved to non-profit ministry, connecting our faith-based principles of caring for Creation to environmental justice. In my mind it was a natural connection – but many others question the thread between faith and science.

As a child, playing in nature and gazing up at the stars, I felt more connected to God than I did in church. Seeing the beauty of the world that God had created was awe-some. My high school youth trips to Montreat felt like an escape to heaven on earth. For me, there was never any dichotomy between faith and science. For me, they always went hand in hand.

Science is a way to understand the world that God created. Unlocking the mysteries of science doesn’t eliminate God, or push God to the background. Delving deeper into science for me is a way to experience God in a new way, both through the natural world and through our own human understanding of the world.

As a runner nowadays, I use my runs as a time to reconnect with God. It is a time for my own mind to shut down, and a chance to let the Spirit move in my life in a way that cannot happen during the business of life outside the run. When I enjoy a beautiful sunset, or see the freshly fallen snow in the morning, I give thanks to God for sharing this beauty with us. It’s an opportunity once again for me to connect with God and get a glimpse of heaven. I hope you can find a way to see the connection and experience God in this marvelous light.

Katie Preston has her BS in Physics from Furman University and M.Div from Columbia Theological Seminary. She is passionate about environmental justice and caring for Creation. As a runner, she is regularly outside experiencing the beauty of God's Creation. She lives in Boston, MA