Annette Brill Bergstresser
The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) has named Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., as 12th in a list of 28 seminaries in North America that excel in offering courses on faith and ecology. The list is based on the number of courses that each school offers that focus primarily on environmental, ecological, creation-care or nature-based themes and their relation to faith teachings.
Based in Jerusalem, the ICSD seeks to promote an inter-religious vision for environmental sustainability by encouraging the cooperation and training of religious leaders, teachers and communities on ecological issues. According to ICSD’s website, it is the largest interfaith environmental organization in the Middle East.
The list of schools is part of the ICSD’s December 2015 “Report on Faith and Ecology Courses in North American Seminaries,” which includes research on 252 North American educational institutions that train seminarians to be religious clergy—including Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim schools. The 56-page report lists 190 course offerings in faith and ecology at 58 institutions training seminarians in North America.
“Christian leaders need to understand how the dynamic forces of environmental degradation—caused by drought, war, pollution, unsustainable agricultural and industrial practices, and so on—create a perfect storm for social and political instability,” says Rebecca Slough, AMBS academic dean. “Communities of faith bearing witness to Christian hope, peacemaking and God’s reconciling mission will be ministering in the midst of these intersecting realities.”
Ecological crisis as spiritual crisis
Co-authors Rabbi Yonatan Neril, Joy Auciello and Andrew Deutsch believe that because much of the world's population is involved with a religious or spiritual community, emerging clergy must learn “how their faith relates to environmental balance in order to aid their congregations in the healing of human society.” They note that many faiths understand the ecological crisis to be a spiritual crisis.
“It is encouraging to see religious institutions—in particular seminaries—increasing education about the environmental crisis based on faith teachings,” they write.
At the same time, they observe that despite the rapid growth of courses on faith and ecology in religious education, the percentage of seminaries offering these courses remains low—22 percent. They express concern that such courses still represent only a small fraction of overall seminary education at most seminaries and that students may only take one or two of them during their time of study.
The report specifically recognizes AMBS’s four faith-based environmental courses (see pp. 11 and 22):
- In Creation Care: Theology, Ethics and Spirituality, taught by Dr. Malinda Berry, students engage in understanding their connection to God and creation through the intersection of place and spirituality, the theological context of creation care, the ethical and economic frameworks of eco-justice, and creation care practices in the church.
- Eco-Justice: A Vision for a Sustainable City, taught by Dr. Clinton Stockwell and offered through the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) in Chicago, focuses on the question, “What does it mean to be a sustainable urban community?” Students evaluate the three components of sustainable community development: economics, environment and equity (or social justice).
- In Thinking Ethically, taught by Dr. Malinda Berry in Elkhart and Dr. Justin Heinzekehr in Newton, Kan., students explore how Christians should respond to violence, health care, creation care, sexuality and systemic racism. Students examine approaches to moral life and decision-making that draw upon the resources of Christian faith and theology.
- The Spiritual Practices: Water of Life seminar, taught by Janeen Bertsche Johnson, AMBS campus pastor, weaves together care for creation—specifically the resource of water—with study of biblical texts about water, reflection on the role of water in Christian faith, and practice of spiritual and conservation disciplines.
Berry says she tries to “bring ecological concern to bear on theological inquiry” in various classes, including a course titled Suffering and Hope, where students read The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, a book by Bill McKibben, a long-time Methodist and environmental author and journalist.
“As a faculty, we are intentionally weaving ecological concern into our curriculum, so what’s highlighted in the report is just a sample of how AMBS’s learning community is a setting where students can begin to embrace their calling as ‘Earthkeepers’ in God’s oikonomia—that is, stewards of God’s economy and caretakers of God’s household,” reflects Berry, who has taken students to Goshen (Ind.) College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center in Wolf Lake, Ind., as part of their coursework.
Offerings outside the classroom
The report also highlights “Rooted and Grounded: A Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship,” an event hosted by AMBS and co-sponsored by Blessed Earth’s Seminary Stewardship Alliance and the Institute for Ecological Regeneration of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. The conference has been held twice—in September 2014 and October 2015. AMBS has been a member of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, a consortium of seminaries working at creation care education and issues, since fall 2013.
The conference provides opportunities for pastors, theologians, farmers and other creation care advocates and practitioners to focus together on land and creation care, delving into the biblical text “to remember and imagine ways of living on the land that are restorative and reconciling.” It centers on the idea that people are becoming increasingly aware of “the intimate connection between the environmental crisis and humanity’s detachment from the land ... [and] perceiving the profound link between the (un)health of the land and the inner disorder of our Western society.”
Papal call for protection of the environment
Neril, Auciello and Deutsch note that the report follows the release of Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home on climate change and the environment, which they say has “significantly increased global awareness of the strong link between faith and ecology.”
They include Pope Francis’ first Papal statement on seminary education and the environment: “All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education. It is my hope that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.”
Photos: Participants in Rooted and Grounded: A Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship at AMBS in October 2015 gathered for worship throughout the event. Julia Baker designed the elements on the altar which consisted of natural and other items from the Elkhart region. Credit: J. Tyler Klassen. Brian Sauder and Veronica Kyle, leaders with Chicago-based organization Faith in Place, with William Kyle (center) at the October 2015 Rooted and Grounded conference. Credit: Jason Bryant. For more photos, visit the Facebook gallery.