On the Spiritual Practice and Theology of Healing Creation



Both of the above courses or lecture series are based on the lecture material and research for two courses: my popular M. Div. course, Theology of the Land, first offered in 1992, and subsequently taught at several theological colleges or seminaries in both Canada and the U.S.A., and a related M. A. level course, Re-mythologizing the World: Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism, first offered in Chicago 1991. This course or lecture series focuses on the biblical and theological significance of land vis-à-vis our human longing to belong to a community through a sense of place.

I have combined the two course descriptions above because they are readily and thematically interchangeable, depending on the preferred focus of the lecture series or course. Because of the diverse range of narratives covered, it is simply not feasible to try and condense all six of them into one single course. We have seen enough of that kind of cultural assimilation in the course of Western history. As identified in the subtitles, the six narratives reviewed are agrarian and rural, ecofeminist, historical, aboriginal and First Nations, biblical, and Christian.

My theoretical and ideological stance is informed by each of these narratives, and in particular, by the various biblical and Christian theological traditions in which I have been nurtured in faith and to which I have been exposed in my thinking and reading. My thinking has been profoundly influenced by mentors like Rosemary Radford Ruether, the ecofeminist and historical theologian, and Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and author, who represent the ecofeminist and agrarian paradigms respectively. This course or lecture series, therefore, incorporates their agrarian and ecofeminist critiques with my own rural reflection and narrative.

My own narrative critique is based on my personal observations of the socio-economic and environmental costs of industrialized degradation of farmland in south central Nebraska. As a member of a small family farm where I farmed as an adult in the 1980s, I have witnessed firsthand the deleterious environmental effects of industrialized agriculture on rural communities and farmland across the Midwestern United States. Wendell Berry’s brilliant exposé, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), confirmed my own predilections and observations. Needless to say, my informed critique of the rapid changes brought about by the industrialization of traditional family farm agriculture since the late 70s has not always been welcome.

The agrarian and ecofeminist paradigm underlies my working premise for the promising role of community development in step with congregational renewal, in terms of practical strategies for revitalizing rural congregations and communities as outlined in my online publication, Alive and Kicking: Revitalizing Rural Ministries. Though modest in scope and dated, my most significant published work on the spiritual practice and theology of healing Creation is my above chapter, “Living in Denial? Lament as a Liberative Act” in Sacred Earth, Sacred Community: Jubilee, Ecology and Aboriginal People (2000). (Click on the link for Publications).

This chapter has been widely circulated and favorably reviewed (Catholic New Times, June 17, 2001). Appearing long before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it builds on Ed Ayres’s prophetic and timely book, God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future (1999), forecasting the inevitability of climate change a short decade ago. As the former editor of World Watch magazine, Ayres documents the pervasive information laundering in regards to the environmental crisis and “the huge market for denial” that has subsequently developed.

The focus of this chapter is illuminating the insidious role of crass consumerism in denying what is more and more on our minds these days: the grave ecological threat posed by climate change and global warming. This chapter stresses the imperative need among leaders of faith communities and religious traditions to purposively reverse the addictive denial of climate change perpetuated by the rampant consumerism of North American society. If any kind of spiritual practice can play a significant role in adapting ourselves to the seeming irreversible effects of climate change in the healing of Creation, it has to avail itself of the transformative and healing power of biblical lament.

In this course or lecture series, the agrarian and rural narrative includes the relationship of African American farmers to the land, articulated in books like Charlene Gilbert’s and Quinn Eli’s Homecoming: The Story of African-American Farmers. The immigrant exodus and longstanding settlement of Hispanic, Latino and Mexican Americans in small towns and farming communities across the U.S., including my native Nebraska, is also included in the agrarian and rural narrative. Here I draw on the writings of liberation theologian, Virgilio Elizondo, and ecofeminist theologian, Ivone Gebara, among others. I look forward to doing further research into both of these narratives and to further opportunities for networking strategically with colleagues in rural ministry and community development in African American, African Canadian, Hispanic, Latino and Mexican American and Canadian communities.

The Aboriginal and First Nations narrative includes their oral and written cosmologies in relation to the natural world. I draw here on the translated work of the Haida and other Native American myths by the internationally-renowned Canadian poet and linguist, Robert Bringhurst, in particular, his books, The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks (2006) and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2007).Both of my previous course offerings of Theology of the Land for the Francis Sandy Theological Centre (United Church of Canada) in Paris, Ontario, engaged the wisdom from the natural worldviews of the Hebrew (biblical) and First Nations (Aboriginal) traditions in tandem (1996/2002). For my Theology of the Land class at Saint Paul School of Theology, in Kansas City, Missouri (2004), our guest speaker, Janith K. English, Principal Chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, narrated the migratory history of her ancestral people, the Wyandots. The Wyandots are descendants of the Tionnontates or Tobacco Nation of the Huron Confederacy; their website is located at http://www.wyandot.org.

The practical thrust of this course is to help local ministers and lay leaders discern how the quality of life and health of their rural communities is compromised by the nonrenewable environmental practices of industrialized agriculture and corporate globalization promoted throughout North America. It coincides with the priority of ensuring sustainability and viability, socio-economically and ecologically, as discussed in my online publication, Alive and Kicking, for the immediate and long-term future health of rural and resource-based communities across Canada and the United States.

In addition to my own narrative reflections, lecture material for this course is drawn from my cumulative sociological research on rural communities and small towns across Canada and the U.S. for over thirty years. This research entails a sociological framework for critiquing the unequal historic power relationship between metropolitan and suburban centers vis-à-vis small towns, rural and resource-based communities. In the course of naming this phenomenon, I have theoretically adapted Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger’s (known for his concept of SRV – “social role valorization”) sociological concept of “social devaluation” in naming the devalued status and image of most rural people and their local communities. (I first learned about SRV while working in local community development within the Greater Toronto Area in directly supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.)

The rationale for this ruraljustified website is in accord with this systemic and historical critique of the disproportionate and unjust power dynamic favoring urban and suburban constituencies over those residing in small towns, rural and resource-based communities. This socio-economic disparity is, in general, as descriptive of North America as it is of the systemic inequality and monopoly of wealth between developed and developing countries worldwide. The subsequent expropriation and ‘devaluation’ of rural labor, land, workers, and resources in the process has historically benefited metropolitan and suburban populations as well as those rural élites whose political clout and social position shelter them from the socio-economic marginalization and poverty that render many rural populations and communities vulnerable.

One of the lectures for Re-Mythologizing the World or Theology of the Land is based on the above research and my lecture delivered at the Faculty Forum at Saint Paul School of Theology, in Kansas City, Missouri: “Out of Sight, Out of Mind”: The Relegation of Unwanted Wastes and Faces to Rural Spaces” (2005). This lecture identifies the symbolic and cultural factors that substantiate my sociological argument that the presumably ‘empty spaces’ of rural areas are frequently deemed ideal places for exactly what suburban and metropolitan centers do not want in their own backyard.

For the sake of alliteration, I note the increasing concentration of at least seven Ps in which ‘undesirable’ industries, resources and/or people are physically relegated to designated rural areas and communities across North America: 1) poultry and 2) pigs (both in CAFOs, i.e., concentrated animal feedlot operations), 3) pollution (garbage and waste landfill sites), 4) prisons and penitentiaries (correctional and detention facilities), 5) ‘dirty’ pharmaceuticals (meth production, epidemic in some rural areas), 6) pornography (adult bookstores) and 7) poker (gambling casinos).

For example, while residents along the U.S.-Canadian border frequently indulge in ‘cross-border shopping,’ my home town of Toronto has been guilty of ‘cross-border dumping.’ Until quite recently, tons of Toronto’s residential garbage was trucked on a daily basis to landfills in Michigan’s rural communities in return for their revenue.

Amid the above influx of corporate and profit-driven profit-industries, utilizing the low cost of labor in most rural areas, and the increasing number of school consolidations, failed local businesses, and church closures, bold and creative leadership among local ministers and/or leaders of rural congregations and communities is imperative. But well-informed and astute pastoral strategies will only come from building the community ‘capacity’ for this designated pool of local leadership. This course or lecture series precisely underscores the desperate need for educating and mentoring a pool of promising leaders at the grassroots community level.

Furthermore, the various historical, Christian and biblical narratives in either Re-Mythologizing the World or Theology of the Land often intersect with the agrarian and rural narrative in this course or lecture series. For example, I recount the ancestral historical struggle for women and men in farm families like my own family. Refer to my chapter, “’Reluctant Feminists’: Rural Women and the Myth of the Farm Family” in Religion, Feminism and the Family (1996). (Click on the link for Publications.)

In sync with the initial lecture, “In Search of Canaan: Retracing Our Ancestors’ Routes/Roots to the Promised Land,” my own ancestral narrative is only one among others. As already mentioned, Gilbert’s and Eli’s Homecoming recounts the difficult historical plight of African-American farmers. In his book, Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature, Donald H. Matthews reclaims the literary and cultural import of narrative theology and African-American spirituals in the very survival of African-American religion.

The first written assignment for M. Div. students in my Theology of the Land course is to write a narrative and/or autobiographical reflection on their own historical relationship to the land, relative to the religious, socio-economic and cultural background of their immediate family of origin. The text I have consistently used for explicating the biblical narrative is Norman C. Habel’s The Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies (1995), which I reviewed for the Toronto Journal of Theology (1998).

First, based on their reading of Habel’s biblical exegesis of six discrete ‘ideologies’ in the Hebrew Bible, students are asked to write papers on some of the following questions: Identify which one of Habel’s six biblical land ideologies that best describes your biblical and theological understanding of the land, and God’s covenant with the land and God’s chosen people. Which one most accurately reflects your biblical understanding of God and land entitlement/stewardship, i.e., Sabbath and Jubilee?

Second, identify which one or two of the theological, historical, or cultural traditions studied in this class most poignantly describes your own theological understanding of the land, and God’s covenant with the land and God’s chosen people – especially in light of Jesus’ mission and announcement of the coming kingdom of God. Which one most explicitly reflects your theological understanding of God and land entitlement/stewardship, especially in view of present agricultural policies and environmental practices that degrade the land instead of ones that promise to regenerate or sustain it?


This course is predicated on the lecture material and content for a recent undergraduate course, Religious Ethics: The Environment, for the Department and Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto (2010), and related material from the two above courses: 1) Re-Mythologizing the World: Agrarian, Ecofeminist, and Historical Narratives, and 2) Theology of the Land: Aboriginal, Biblical, and Christian Narratives. It identifies the salient religious and ethical issues posed by widespread environmental degradation and the accelerating rate of climate change. Furthermore, it introduces students to the greening of the world’s religious traditions, i.e., Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, First Nations, Wicca, and other religious traditions, via their religious writings, teachings and spiritual practices – in working purposively on behalf of earth healing and ecological justice.

This course probes the specific religious and ethical implications of environmental degradation exacerbated by the following factors: clear-cutting and deforestation, overpopulation and the growing gap between the rich and the poor, underground and surface water pollution, drought and famine, oil spills and aquatic pollution, acid rain and air pollution, toxic waste, peak-oil, the depletion of natural and energy resources, etc. All of the above factors contribute in one way or another to the alarming rates of accelerated climate change and global warming. The documented rates not only exceed some of the most recent scientific projections; they tax the human capacity, scientific capability, and political will of developed and developing nations to actually reduce carbon emissions and learn how to successfully adapt to climate change in the foreseeable future.

One of the prerequisites for reframing religious and environmental ethics is my emphasis on recognizing the deleterious environmental effects of the industrialization of agriculture on the production of food. The antagonistic relationship that has often pitted environmental activists against organic and sustainable agriculture, for example, is now dissipating, allowing for more collaboration among them in fighting the monopoly of corporation-government collusion favourable to the corporate interests of transnational agribusiness. Refer to Paul B. Thompson’s The Spirit of the Soil: Agriculture and Environmental Ethics (1995), which I reviewed for the Toronto Journal of Theology (1998).

Interestingly enough, only five years ago the local food movement was roundly dismissed as nothing but a fad by agricultural experts. The growing demand for organic food and increasing public support for sustainable agriculture is now visible in the remarkable boom of farmers’ markets. The sudden consumer demand for locally-raised and chemical-free food, and subsequent willingness of consumers to pay more for it, clearly demonstrates the growing consumer concern with nutrition, food safety, and the alleged complicity of factory farming practices in producing more and more greenhouse gases.

The lack of public and government scrutiny regarding our food until very recently is alarming. I suggest it not only shows a glaring naïveté and lack of public awareness about the economics and politics of food production; it shows a radical and disturbing disconnect between most urban and suburban consumers and the very people involved in producing food for them – that is, farm workers and farm families in rural communities. As an antidote to how disconnected most consumers are from the field and farm gate from which their food comes, one of my colleagues, Eric Skillings, and I were recently invited by the editor of Mandate magazine to design a workshop template on this topic: “From Field to Table: A Workshop on Appreciating the Gift of Food” (Mandate, The United Church of Canada, 2010).

As referenced in my course above on 4) Loss is More: Lament as the Door to Spiritual Renewal and related chapter, “Living in Denial? Lament as a Liberative Act,” people are feeling more and more overwhelmed by the ominous prognosis of climate change, discernible in the severe and anomalous weather systems and volatile fluctuations of seasonal weather in general. In addition to learning more about the extent to which we need to adapt to climate change in the immediate and long-term future, this course or lecture series reiterates the same urgency as stressed in this previous course and in related courses on the Theology of the Land: we need to draw deeper from our own spiritual wells and religious traditions to help us deal with the unprecedented challenges and adversity brought by global warming and climate change.

In summary, this course will help students to reframe traditional religious and environmental ethics for this expressed purpose: to critically question and analyze the role religion plays in contributing to environmental degradation, and/or in resisting and condemning it. The latter role will be examined in relation to how the received traditional teachings and wisdom of the world’s religions are reconciled or not with their recent advocacy on behalf of environmental justice and sustainability. Class lectures will be supplemented by a combination of audiovisual presentations, guest lectures, and plenary as well as small group class discussions.

As intimated by the heart-breaking title of James Wilson’s book, The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America (2000), the knowledge of the historical pain and suffering endured by Native Americans and other Aboriginal people can easily make all of us cry – as it should. We should also lament, needless to say, the historical enslavement and brutal humiliation of African Americans, the planned genocide of Jews and other groups in the Shoah (Holocaust), and numerous other atrocities.

As I stress, however, in my course on the Theology of the Land among others, the earth and all of Creation, too, weeps and languishes. Hence, the desperate need for ‘re-mythologizing the world’ as I have suggested above, is premised on how the very material world and world of matter, from the Latin for mater (mother), once considered and revered as sacred, is being profaned in ways that not only make us shudder. They make us literally, and more frequently, terminally ill, as seen in the prolific rise of cancers. But this desecration of mater also threatens to snuff out more and more species of vegetative and animal life, leaving the tragic legacy of losing forever their beauty, being and benefit to human and non-human life.

Finally, this course or lecture series on Reframing Religious and Environmental Ethics: The Greening of the World’s Religious Traditions recognizes how incumbent it is on us that we sharpen our analytical and theological lenses as well as our pastoral strategies for engaging our respective faith communities in fighting for environmental justice. It recognizes, moreover, that critical thinking needs to partner with the critical ‘heart’ of compassion as taught by those same religious traditions, in exercising our prophetic calling as faithful stewards of Creation.

In his probing study of Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2006), author and philosopher Jonathan Lear distinguishes the nature of ‘radical hope’ from ‘mere optimism.’ If we rely solely on our own resources, which are often premised more on our will and ‘mere optimism,’ we may easily succumb to the paralysis and despair described above in relation to lament. How do we live with ‘radical hope’ in the face of potential environmental devastation posed by climate change? Unless we can summon forth and harness the same kind of courage, wisdom and resiliency as a Plenty Coups for the restoration and healing of Creation, I fear the earth and all its inhabitants shall weep unabatedly.