In celebration of Earth Day, participants of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s first Ecotheology Conference were challenged to think of the implications and relationship between food and faith.
“If we’re interested in spirituality and relationship with God as a daily part of life, what better point to begin than in our eating?” asked Dawn DeVries, professor of theology.
Sponsored by the seminary’s Black Caucus, the panel featured representatives from the community, including DeVries, Toby Vernon of the Community Food Collaborative, Duron Chavis of Renew Richmond, and Sequoia Ross of Tricycle Gardens. DeVries is the John Newton Thomas Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Vernon asked the audience to think of food as a unifier and a divider, encouraging movement from an attitude that “moves from sustainable and towards regenerative.”
The event addressed a growing longing for practical response to the needs of creation.
“My generation is trying to figure out how to address systemic poverty in a way that is systemic and regenerative” said Chavis. “I believe that the Bible teaches us that we should live in abundance and I do believe that it is our birthright to live abundantly and to not be in a struggle. So urban agriculture and farming has been that space to try to entice youth and adults alike that control over food is something you can have.”
“Do I view the cosmos with a certain sense of terror? I’m glad you asked that question,” asked William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament. With the audience at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Howie Lectures in anticipation after this question, Brown continued to address the wonder that is discovered when theology, art, and science interact and overlap.
“Wonder is whatever takes your breath away and then restores your breath,” Brown said. “We learn to breath anew, gasp and then intake.”
Brown offered a seminar and conversation on the topic “From Ardi to Adam: How Anthropology Rewrites Genesis.” Grounded in Genesis creation narratives, groundbreaking scientific theories, and even a video of a starling murmuring, Brown ushered the participants into an understanding of the wonder of all of creation, which he called a “tangentially overlapping magisteria.”
The notion of collaboration between theologians and scientists “assumes that conflict and caricature are not an option,” said Brown. “Instead, it suggests that both the theologian and the scientist proceed from a common point of departure: wonder. Wonder is what drives science as much as it lies at the heart of theological inquiry.”
Later, Brown delivered a lecture entitled “From Ash Heap to Asteroids: How Astrobiology Rewrites Job.” He asked the audience “How do we read life that we are not familiar with?” and offered a response “consider alternative pathways to life a kind of ‘biological thought experiment.’”
“I’d like to look at the bible through one more lens, astrobiology,” said Brown. “God the creator of all is cosmic, Christ which all things are made is cosmic, the spirit which hovered over the deep is cosmic. We might even be able to talk about God’s preferential option for life itself.”
Through this cosmic lens, Brown offered an interpretation of Job that considered Job’s comfort in the interconnectedness between Job and all of God’s created order. “God is inviting Job to reimagine himself for just a moment… to see life, to see creation through the eyes of the wild – to receive something of the wisdom of the wild,” said Brown.
Brown led the audience in an exercise that immersed participants in the interconnectedness to creation through a poetic midrash that highlighted the creatures of the deep waters. In a way, the crowd seated comfortably in Watts Chapel experienced first hand what Brown called “Job’s baptism into nature.”
“Job’s comfort lies in a world that is cosmically queer and seductively divine that is made with him.”
You may access a recorded copy of Brown’s lecture here.
The Carl Howie Center for Science, Art, and Theology sponsors presentations through which church leaders, including seminarians, recognize and engage the insights and implications of the interplay of science, art, and theology for theological expression and the practice of ministry. The center generously provides funding for lectures, seminars, and displays at Union Presbyterian Seminary once or twice a year, featuring artists, scientists, and/or theologians in conversation about a particular topic.
“I stepped into Broad Street Ministry and Beacon last summer and immediately thought, ‘I have to come back here and bring my classmates,” said Rosy Robson (M.Div./M.A.C.E. student). So she did, with the Communities of Learning and Supervised Ministry and Vocational Planning offices, which sponsored a trip for Union Presbyterian Seminary students, staff, and faculty to Philadelphia for the first Alternative Ministry Break.
The group participated in various worship and service opportunities over the weekend, engaging with Broad Street Ministry, Beacon, and Arch Street Presbyterian Church. The trip included serving at Broad Street Ministry’s Breaking Bread service which provides high-quality meals to the city’s underserved population, and working at a local urban garden.
“We talked and reflected a lot on our sense of call this past weekend,” said participant Melissa Miller (M.Div. student). “Really, the question is not what position in the church are you called to but to what kind of work or cause are you called? The honest answer to that question will lead you to a church building, a hospital, a counselling center, a classroom, a homeless shelter, an urban garden, a church plant workshop, an administrator’s desk, a camp program. It’s about what makes your heart beat and your blood pump.”
The Alternative Ministry Break was the capstone of Communities of Learning’s year-long focus on creative expressions of ministry.
“In our classrooms and with our ordination committees, we talk about how the church is changing, but we struggle to conceptualize what this change looks like and what it will mean, said Robson. “Yet, these places are actual, living, breathing, examples of this change. These places are witnesses to the resurrection, and their lives of ministry and worship sing a song of hope for what God’s Church is unfolding into. We left Philadelphia inspired, energized, and excited for the paths that God has set before us.”