September 2015 Field Notes

Christianity needs an ecological conversion. That’s the core of Pope Francis’ powerful encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praised Be). His plea is aimed not just at Christians, of course. The human species has managed to run up a sizeable ecological deficit on pretty much all our earthly accounts—soil, water, climate. We’re all in need of conversion, and indeed, Francis’ missive is addressed to “every person living on this planet.” But the heart of his message is directed toward those within his own family of faith, and what he says amounts to a sort of family intervention: we need a change of heart. “The ecological crisis is a summons to profound interior conversion,” Francis tells us. The way we treat the earth is not a side issue; it goes right to the heart of what it means to call oneself Christian.

Trouble is, we Christians are still plagued by that old body/soul dualism, which lures our thinking away from the Judaism of Jesus (a rooted, earthy faith) and sends it careening off into the Never-Never Land of neo-Platonism. We’re tempted to think somewhere in the back of our minds that, because our souls are going to heaven someday, it doesn’t really matter what happens to our bodies or, for that matter, what happens to the earth.

Earlier this summer, we hosted a course called “New Heaven, New Earth”, where biblical scholar Barbara Rossing lectured on ecological themes in the book of Revelation. “The earth is not going to burn,” she said. “God loves the earth. God would never leave it behind.” The governing image at the end of Revelation is not raptured souls flying away to some distant heaven, but rather a vision of heaven coming down to earth. The New Jerusalem, the city where God will come to dwell, is among mortals. The salvation of the earth is part of the package.

It seems that the urge to seek God up in the clouds is an old one, beginning with Jesus’ own apostles. In the Book of Acts, immediately after they witnessed Jesus ascending to heaven, two angels appeared to the apostles and chastised them, saying, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In other words: stop pining for heaven. The real action is down here, before your eyes. Yes, Jesus is coming back. But he’s coming back to earth.

If we believe we’re headed toward a redeemed earth, then it matters how we treat it now. Which brings us back to ecological conversion. From the Christian monastic tradition begun in the 4th century, we’ve inherited the Latin phrase that’s useful in this context: conversatio morum, which means “change of behavior,” or “conversion of life.” To convert to following Jesus is not simply a matter of chanting a few magic words and getting “saved.” It’s a life-long process of turning one’s entire being toward God. Given our innate propensity to make a mess of things, such a turn must be made again and again. And again. Conversatio morum. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it, “You must change your life.”

There is no definitive checklist of what makes for an “ecological conversion.” But Pope Francis joins 97% of climate scientists who tell us that such a conversation is desperately needed. Laudato Si’ calls for nothing less than a complete overhaul of the way we feed ourselves, power our buildings, and transport our bodies. The key benchmark of success for all these actions is how we treat the most vulnerable. The choice between either ecological conversion or working for social justice is a false dichotomy. If we continue down this carbon-intensive path, it is the world’s poor who will suffer most.

We need to become carbon-neutral Christians. And that will require a conversatio morum on a massive, collective scale. It’s going to require a helluva lot more than dutiful recycling or swapping out a few light bulbs. It’s going to take conversion of life. Together.

Toward the end of Laudato Si’ Pope Francis writes, “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.”

I like that Francis rolls a) simplicity of life, b) contemplative spirituality, c) concern for the needs of the poor, and d) protection of the environment all into one package. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do at WFU School of Divinity. Our “house of formation” has much work ahead of us, but we are already facilitating ecological conversion among our students and participants at our continuing education events, and by the grace of God that work continues to grow and expand. This coming year, the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative will host a series of conversations on climate change, food systems, and the church’s role in fostering ecological conversion. Through visiting speakers, panel discussions, and workshops, we will consider such related questions as:

  • How can we shift our current food system to one that sequesters, rather than burns, carbon?
  • How can we support climate justice for the most vulnerable, at home and abroad?
  • How can we “teach and cultivate the theological habit that living in peace with the land and with non-human Creation is a core pastoral practice for religious leaders and the communities with whom they serve”? (one of the goals of the Initiative).

I hope you’ll consider joining us for these conversations. Some require a registration fee, but many of the events are free, and all of them are heavily subsidized through the generous support of Kalliopeia Foundation, Byron Fellowship Educational Foundation, and individual donors. Here are a few highlights:

  • Laudato Si’ panel discussions—on Oct.6th, along with three amazing colleagues from Wake Forest University, I’ll be moderating a discussion of Pope Francis’ encyclical. Over the coming year we plan to host similar panel discussions in Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh, and New York.
  • Saving Places, Savoring Graces: A Workshop Series Exploring a Grounded Worship Spirituality—led by my colleague Dr. Jill Crainshaw, Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at the School of Divinity, we are offering three different Saturday workshops on the spirituality of bread, fermentation, and water. Registration is open for our first workshop on Dec.5th in Asheville called “Bread of Heaven, Bread of Earth.”
  • Dolores Huerta— a co-founder, with Cesar Chavez, of the United Farm Worker’s Union, Huerta is an activist and civil rights leader in the areas of labor, immigrant, and women’s rights. She will deliver an address as part of the Office of Multicultural Affairs’ Journeys to Success speaker series on October 29th.
  • Re:Generate fellowship—we’ll convene our second cohort January 11-14, 2016. Applications are now open, and we’re looking for qualified applicants. Take a look at our first cohort from 2015, a talented group of young faith leaders.
  • In March, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, author of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love will deliver the Steelman Lectures at the School of Divinity.
  • In the October newsletter, I’ll announce more visiting speakers, including climate scientists, activists, documentary filmmakers, and food justice advocates.

Finally, I want to welcome my new colleague Hilary Floyd, from whom you’ve received this email. Hilary is the Program Associate for Community and Lifelong Learning at the School of Divinity and is lending her keen eye to much of the organizational work of the Initiative. She and my colleague Mark Batten, our Director of Creative Strategies, are the creative masterminds behind this snappy newsletter. I’m grateful to the both of them for their work.

“If we want to bring about deep change,” Pope Francis wrote, “we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behavior.” Perhaps the conversations ahead for this year can help instill what Francis calls an “ecological spirituality,” where we acknowledge that the scope of God’s saving love is not limited to humans, but includes the entire cosmos. Conversatio morum. I must change my life.






Fred Bahnson
Director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative and
Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ecological Well-Being


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