April 1, 2016

Creation reconsidered

Courtesy of Nate Inglis

An interview with Nate Inglis

Nate Inglis began last summer as assistant professor of theological studies at Bethany Theological Seminary. Previously, he worked in Union Victoria, a village in Guatemala, serving through Brethren Volunteer Service. Nate has been active at Olympic View Community Church in Seattle, Wash., and First Church of the Brethren in Brooklyn, N.Y. He currently attends the Richmond (Ind.) congregation.

Q: How do you describe the discipline of theology?

A: Theology is often described as “faith seeking understanding.” In this sense I’d call theology a spiritual practice rather than a discipline. Essentially we’re doing theology whenever we try to articulate our faith. Why do Brethren practice the love feast? What does Jesus’ commandment to love my neighbor mean in the world we live in today? By putting what we believe and why we act the way we do into words, theology helps us live our faith in Christ more consistently.

Q: Last fall you taught a course called “ecological theology and Christian responsibility.” Can you summarize ecological theology for us?

A: In ecological theology the focus is on understanding the purpose of the created world from a faith perspective. In the history of Christian theology, at least since the Protestant Reformation, the human drama of sin and salvation held central focus and the rest of the world just served as a stage. However, several references in the Bible indicate God’s concern for the earth and its role in supporting life. So in ecological theology theologians are rethinking the significance of God’s relationship to creation and our Christian responsibility to live faithfully within it.

Q: In your class, you mentioned a kinship model for Christians. How do we relate to God and the earth through this perspective of creation care?

A: Sometimes people talk about stewardship in terms of managing resources. The rest of creation is thought of as God’s property that we’ve been charged to protect. But as I read the creation stories in the Bible, I see God entering into a loving relationship with the created world. And if God relates to the world this way, I think seeing ourselves as part of a community with other creatures is a better starting point for thinking about creation care, because it extends the boundaries of our responsibilities to the rest of the world as well.

Q: What does the Bible have to say about stewardship and kinship with the earth?

A: The Bible actually has a lot to say about stewardship and kinship, but many people usually stop looking after the first three chapters of Genesis. For example, I think Psalm 104 and Job 38-41 offer some really interesting accounts emphasizing God’s profound concern for other life forms that surpasses human perspectives and interests.

Q: In the Gospels we read that Jesus held concern for the sick and poor. Do you see poverty and health connected to environmental issues?

A: Sometimes people think that if you care about protecting the earth, then you must not care about the well-being of people. But in so many ways the opposite is the case. We don’t always see the consequences of environmental destruction that affect poor and marginal communities in the United States and in the global south.

One of the worst consequences of industrial pollution, for instance, is the health toll it takes on poor communities of color. In Louisiana there’s an area called “cancer alley,” and it’s called that because the people who live there are disproportionately diagnosed with cancers related to their exposure from chemical plants surrounding their towns. The fact is that in many cases concern for the environment and concern for basic human needs go hand in hand.

Q: Before coming to Bethany, you and your spouse served in Guatemala through Brethren Volunteer Service. How has your experience in Guatemala shaped your faith and practice?

A: Living in a rural, indigenous village in Central America taught me so much about what it means to live simply, based on what you truly need, and to come up with creative solutions to meet those needs. When you don’t have trash service to whisk away any garbage you create, when you have to purify all of the water you drink, and when you are involved in planting, harvesting, drying, grinding, and cooking the corn that you use for your daily food, you become very aware of your ecological footprint.

During our time there, a group of high school students from our home congregation came down on a learning tour. They, along with high school students from the village, attended a workshop from the nearby Institute for Mesoamerican Permaculture to learn about building school gardens. The Guatemalan students came back and spent the rest of the school year creating a beautiful, organic school garden without spending a cent on any materials. They harvested seeds from plants that were already growing in the village and gathered materials that were already there. These students really inspired me to think creatively about doing more with less and using what you already have in new ways.

Q: What are some gifts you see the Church of the Brethren offering towards the care of God’s creation?

A: I think the Brethren have much to offer in the conversation about environmental stewardship and creation care. One of the many things I love about the Brethren is their commitment to service and to meeting the needs of others. I remember hearing a story once about Dan West. He refused to own more shoes than he really needed, and wouldn’t even eat cake since so many people in the world were starving. The best way we can care for the earth is by refusing to consume things we don’t need. Our ideal of simple living is a revolutionary idea that a lot of people espouse in environmental circles, but few practice it as consistently.

,Q: What are some good ways for congregations to become involved in creation care?

A: There are lots of things congregations can do, but I would suggest volunteering with a local organization already doing environmental advocacy work that your church is excited about. Too often we try to reinvent the wheel when there’s someone else already doing the same thing. By helping another organization you can also build friendships with others in your community who share your ethical commitments even if they are not part of the church.

Jonathan Stauffer is a second-year student at Bethany Theological Seminary in the master of arts program. In 2011-2013 he was advocacy assistant in the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness, serving through Brethren Volunteer Service.