A few years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to hear Dr. Monica Coleman speak. Dr. Monica A. Coleman, a native Michigander (!), is the Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She’s also an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dr. Coleman was on a panel discusing how the church needed to re-imagine the imagery in our worship spaces. Some of our most cherished symbols are outdated and don’t bring people together, she argued. Most notably, Dr. Coleman emphasized how churches should remove crosses and images of the crucifix from their sanctuaries and replace them with wireless internet routers . . . because that is where everyone today is finding community and connection. That is what brings us together. To Coleman, a wireless router was a stronger image of connection, than a cross.[i]
I still remember this talk, and the symbolism of connection. In his seminal text on the history of Modern British Evangelicalism, David Bebbington names the four key components of Evangelicalism as, “conversionism, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism.”[ii] Bebbington argues that these have remained the same ‘core tenets’ from 1730 up until the 1980’s. And through a few commentators argue that Bebbington should have included ‘assurance’ as the fifth component, I haven’t seen anyone argue that crucicentrism should be replaced.
I do not believe that Colemen was critiquing Bebbington’s scholarly work on the history of the Evangelical movement, but rather making a statement about modern liturgical imagery and atonement theory. However, the bold statement does stand in contrast to Bebbington’s insistence that, “to make any theme other than the cross the fulcrum of a theological system was to take a step away from Evangelicalism.”[iii] Can community and crucicentrism co-exist?
My argument is that they already do in the modern eco-theologies of many prominent voices in and throughout the green movement. Caring for creation as a steward acknowledges that we are members of a beloved community[iv] not only of humans, but of animals, plants, minerals, single celled organisms, even down to the elements of earth, water, air, and fire.[v] The works of Pierre Thelliard de Chardin, Sally McFague, Karen Baker-Fletcher and Tom Berry, all connect humanity, (or in some cases, specific tribes or demographics) to God through the wondrous marvel and mystery of creation. Karen Baker-Fletcher perhaps puts it most directly when she writes, ““Our survival requires realistic vision for a new order in which, with the best of creation (plant, animal, soil, air, waters), we humans (black, white, brown, gold, red, rich, middle-class, and poor) can flourish in freedom.”[vi]
Conversion, Biblicism and activism all can be lifted up as key components of the modern eco-theology movement in Christianity. There commonly is a realization or an awakening to the main points of green theology – conversion. There are numerous texts throughout the Bible that point to caring for the earth, these are only made more poignant through Bible study and textual criticism – Biblicism. And if there is one thing the green movement does well it is social and community action – activism. If caring for the earth is the natural spiritual response to God’s unfailing love because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, which has drawn us all into him, with him, through him, (in the unity of the Holy Spirit) along with the all of God’s creation, then eco-theology too has – crucicentrism.
[i] Coleman, Monica A. “Theology and the Impact of New Media, a Vision for the Future.” Panel, Union Theological Seminary, September 12, 2014.
[ii] Bebbington, D. W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. New ed. n.p.: Routledge, 1989, 19.
[iii] Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 38.
[iv] This, of course, being one of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite theological descriptions of creation, used and cited intentionally in honor of his birthday and National Holiday in the US. The term “beloved community” was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
[v] Rasmussen, Larry L. Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics In A New Key. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, 22.
[vi] Baker – Fletcher, Karen. Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998, 56.