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The Greening of Theology

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. This lecture was delivered at Drew University in 1990. Published by permission of the author.


"The greening of theology" is itself an attractively "green" phrase. It means something to all of us, and there will be a family resemblance among these meanings. Beyond that it leaves us with a lot of freedom to give it what meaning we want.

I traced in my panel with Tom Regan what might be called the "greening of the WCC." But one might ask, at what point was it greened? Was it enough that it said human societies should be sustainable? Or was it green only when it spoke of the integrity of creation. Or is it not yet green when it refuses to discuss animals and how we should relate to them?

I think it is better not to identify the greening of theology only with particular positions taken. The question is also whether a green sensibility affects the whole. In this sense the Vancouver assembly was not as green as the Nairobi one, even though there was an advance in doctrine.

Since I have shifted to a green sensibility, I need to say what I mean by that. I mean a sense of embeddedness in the entirety of the world and especially a sense of relatedness to living things. Today a green sensibility can hardly be dissociated from keen concern about the decay of the biosphere. But that is not built into the meaning of the term. In earlier days there was a green sensibility without this concern, and today there can be great anxiety about calamities that await us without any green sensibility.

Most of us urban Westerners, especially us males, have little of the green sensibility. Certainly this was true in my case, and my condition has changed only partially. This lack of sensibility showed itself in the fact that although the teacher from whom I learned Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, did have green sensibility, and although this affected his lectures, I paid very little attention to this aspect of what he said. Further, when I wrote A Christian Natural Theology, although all the materials for expressing a green sensibility were there, nothing came through. The lack shows up again in that even after I had been awakened to the environmental crisis, as I pursued my writings in anthropology and Christology, the natural world was hardly present. In short, when I dealt with issues other than the condition of nature, the sense of being part of that nature, whatever my explicit doctrines, had little affect on what I said.

Nevertheless, I was not completely lacking in a green sensibility. When I finally exposed myself to the literature that dealt with the ecological crisis, its emotional impact did not have to do only with my concern for the future of human beings. Even more intense was a sense of participating in the dying of the trees and the birds. I had not realized how much I loved the woods until I began to notice that they were in decline, realizing that each time I came to them they had died a little. I felt that dying as my dying too. And I have realized that ever since there is a kind of innocent happiness that has become impossible for me, that could be possible again only if I supposed that the dying of the biosphere had been reversed. There is a deep level of my being at which I feel my oneness with the whole system of living things.

I am very sure that those feelings have played a role in my persistent return to the topic of what we industrialized Westerners are doing to our planet. But my male, academic conditioning has kept these feelings at the extreme periphery of my writing and even of my awareness. Only a paragraph here and there expresses them with any force. And this omission is not even a conscious choice to keep the argument on a rational plane. It is the habit that shapes character. And it is that character that limits the greening of my theology.

There is a place for the greening of theology that is the correcting of long-held wrong doctrines, the call for changes in action, and reflection on all sorts of issues in light of the crisis we face. Greening in that sense can have desirable results and even affect the sensibility as well. I am proud of what I have contributed to this kind of greening of theology.

As might be expected, the greening of theology has proceeded somewhat further in some feminist theological writing. I think especially of Elizabeth Dodson-Gray and to a lesser extent of Sallie McFague. But for theological argument that is at the same time truly green, I choose Jay McDaniel. His two recent books, On God and Pelicans and Earth, Sky, Gods and Mortals unite green sensibility with green thought in a way that constitutes a fine model for the future.

Much of the best writing is outside the boundaries of theology but yet pervaded by religious feeling. Loren Eisely is perhaps the best known writer. He not only expresses a green sensitivity but he evokes it in his readers through both his style and content. The writings of Lewis Thomas, such as The Lives of a Cell, accomplish something of the same thing in a quite differnt style. Annie Dillard and Doris McClintock make similar contributions.

The dominant positive sensibility encouraged by Christianity has focused on interpersonal relations -- real respect for each person in her or his uniqueness. That sensibility, almost unconsciously, pervades most theological writing. One reason for resistance to the greening of theology is a fear that this deep-seated humanism will be weakened. If that happened, it would not be a true greening. For us as Christians to feel our deep connectedness with all living things cannot mean that we reduce our respect for other human beings or lose our sense of kinship with them. This is not a zero sum game. When we really allow ourselves to feel the relations that constitute our being, we will be closer both to other people and to the rest of the living world. This comes to expression in all the theologians I have mentioned.

But when we look at matters in terms of these few examples, we see how far we have to go for a true greening of theology. If one visits the sessions of the American Academy of Religion, with the exception of one or two explicitly devoted to ecological concerns, the very topic of the natural world rarely appears. Indeed many of the discussions proceed as if the physical world did not exist at all. Even in the feminist sessions, the green sensibility is sometimes hard to discern. The greening of the academy lies far in the future.

Similarly, if we examine the curricula of our seminaries, we find this discussion still at the extreme periphery in most cases. A few sessions in a course on Christian ethics or the inclusion of an eco-feminist book in a course on women and religion would be typical examples. There is also the chance that the professor of Old Testament will deal with the critique of that document for its anthropocentricity. A course on the ecumenical movement may discuss the positions the WCC has taken on green issues. Even this is progress from where we were fifteen years ago, but, for the most part, green concerns remain extra-curricula.

If we turn to the local church, the situation varies. Here and there are congregations that have been somewhat greened. But we know that is rare. An occasional mention in a sermon or an occasional lesson in an adult class may be hoped for, but little more. Sometimes, on the other hand, in working with the smaller children attention is given to living things and the wonder of them. It seems we are expected to outgrow this and go on to more important matters.

At the denominational level there has been more progress. Under the leadership of Jitsuo Morikawa in the seventies the American Baptists dealt with Christian responsibility for the natural world with great seriousness and remarkable depth and wisdom. Recently the Presbyterians have adopted a fine report from its eco-justice task force on Keeping and Healing the Creation. The Unitarian-Universalists have adopted a remarkably green plank in their short creed. Indeed, most of the denominations are moving in the right direction. The greening of the denominations, like that of the World Council of Churches is in advance of the greening of the academy.

Indeed, the academy is peculiarly resistant. Greening involves seeing things in their interconnectedness. The academy is structured around the division of subject matters and into departments. Greening involves a sense of relatedness or unity that is deeply subjective and then also implies kinship in what is felt. The methodology of the academy involves the strict control, if not the elimination, of the student's feelings and the neglect or denial of the feelings of what is studied, whether that is human or not human.

As long as theology is a university discipline seeking respectability in that context, it is hard to see how it can be greened very far. Further progress will require either that it reduce its connectedness to the university or give leadership to the reform of the university. Instead of using its connection to the university to claim freedom from the church, it will need to use its connection with the church to critique the university and encourage reforms.

Keller knows that this has become a favorite theme of mine, and she has herself written brilliantly about the university. Neither of us has discussed the topic before under the rubric of greening, but much of what we have said fits under this heading. Rather than repeat my criticisms and proposals for university reform, I will focus on how the greening of theology would in itself contribute to university reform.

The first step in the greening of theology would be to orient research, whether in term papers, dissertations, or books and articles to the needs of the world. This would break with the role of theology as a discipline, where research is either a way of entering more fully into the discipline or advancing its reflection based on its history and current needs. In short it is a shift from allowing the discipline to determine the direction of research to allowing the needs of the world to do so.

This would be a shift from academic norms to Christian ones, and it is in this sense that I spoke of appealing to the church for leverage against the university. It would not mean that the work we did was less intellectually demanding. On the contrary, it would be more so. It would mean that the direction of study and research would be changed.

It is my belief that we already have more freedom as theologians to do this kind of work, and to encourage it in our students, that we utilize. I can testify to having found a great deal of elbow room myself. I have not only been able to write books on what I wanted, I have also been able to encourage students to select dissertation topics according to their deepest interests and concerns. Sometimes these expressed their place on a personal journey rather than their judgment of the needs of the world, but these are usually not too far apart.

I am arguing that we in theology are unusually free to make this move. First, the understanding of what constitutes theology even among ourselves is quite fluid. Nothing that we do will satisfy all our colleagues, but we can get ourselves excommunicated only if we go to outrageous lengths. Encouraging our students to tackle real problems will not put us beyond the pale. Secondly, our colleagues in other fields are more or less mystified by what we do and do not really expect it to conform to their patterns. Our dealing with real questions, that they too recognize as important, and encouraging our students to do so will heighten their interest rather than reduce it. The restriction lies not, in most cases, in departmental rules or real peer pressure. It lies in our internalization of university norms and habits of mind as they operate in the more secure and established disciplines. It is our desire to show that we are just as academic as the others that inhibits us.

Not every dissertation in order to be green must explicitly discuss the natural world. But if we understand the real problems of the real world in any depth, we will see that specifically human problems are not really separable from the larger reality in which human beings are embedded. Similarly, human ways of responding to other human beings are not disconnected from beliefs and attitudes about the natural world. Where that awareness is present, the work will be green.

The greening of theology as a challenge to the university does not require only that the direction of research be based on judgments about the needs of the world, it requires also that once a problem is identified, the question of how it is studied is not restricted by disciplinary boundaries. If it is a real need that we address, then our task is to employ whatever resources are most helpful in doing so. It is simply not the case that real problems can be dealt with effectively from within any one discipline. Only problems defined by the discipline or highly abstract expressions of real problems can be dealt with in that way.

Theologians have great advantages in this respect. Real problems involve questions of value. That is true almost by definition. Unless there is some question about how we should respond to a need, or, at the very least, how we should think about it, there is no real world problem. Theologians do not pretend to be engaged in value-free inquiry as do the practitioners of academic disciplines in general. A second advantage is the reverse side of an obvious weakness. It is very unlikely that much of the knowledge and informtion needed in order to deal with the problem can be derived from within the academic discipline of theology. We will go elsewhere for that, but in most cases not to just one discipline. We will ask for help in all kinds of ways. In the process we will involve other scholars in solving our problem. This is not likely to offend them; it is more likely to generate interest.

Third, we can try to attend to our own feelings, and can encourage students to attend to theirs. This is already involved in asking ourselves and them the question of what seems truly important as a basis for selecting topics for study. It is surprising how difficult that is for some students, or perhaps it is not so surprising, since they have been socialized into academia. They must also make their own judgments about how best to approach the topic, and that involves close attention to their own intuitions. It is another step from that, a large one, certainly, to becoming aware of the feelings of connectedness that contribute to the sense of importance of some topics and can guide the approach to the solution. The green sensibility, to whatever extent it is present, will lead to using information from other disciplines with a difference, working back from the abstracted data to the feelings that lie behind it.

One example of a dissertation that fits the pattern I am describing is that of Catherine Keller.

I am proposing that in doing all this, the theologian is true to her task or his. I am also proposing that to pursue such a task will be subversive of what is destructive and wrongly restrictive in the university. It will show the possiblity of giving thinking a place it is denied in the disciplines. It will show that such thinking can be directed toward real problems in the real world, rather than merely academic ones. It will build bridges among disciplines. And it will show that deep feeling and real understanding can contribute to constructive thought. It will inspire envy, perhaps even rebellion.

Today the greatest restriction on theologians is there desire to do work that is recognized as appropriate by the standards of the university. I am proposing that the greatest liberation of the university may come when its faculties demand the freedom to do the kind of important and creative work done by theologians. This is a mad dream, I know, but it is my dream nevertheless.


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