New lecture series addresses the connection between ecology and theology
Since Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si in 2015, the topics of ecology and the environment have comprised a growing area of discussion. At the surface, ecology and theology might seem to be separate topics and one may ask: “What have the environment and theology to do with one another?” The Notre Dame Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing, in conjunction with the Environmental Change Initiative, created a six-part lecture series to help answer this question. The lecture series is titled “A Broader Vision of Reality: Integral Ecology in the Great Lakes Watershed.” The lecture series it is meant to outline specific applications of the teachings in Laudato Si.
Father Terrence (“Fr. Terry”) Ehrman, CSC, is the lecturer for this series. Father Terry has a background in Biology, having earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Notre Dame and a Masters in Biology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He earned his Masters of Divinity from Notre Dame and his Ph.D. in Theology from the Catholic University of America. Father Terry currently serves as the Assistant Director for Life Sciences Research and Outreach at the Notre Dame.
Father Terry launched the lecture series on Tuesday, February 21, 2017 and began with the question: what has creation to do with redemption? As Christians, we are called to know, love, and serve God and we are, of course, greatly concerned with redemption. But, he asked, how does creation fit into all of this? The first lecture was called “Theological Anthropology: Identity and Mission” in which Father Terry outlined how we may best care for God’s creation as creatures ourselves.
As Christians, he began, we are called to partake in the redemption offered by Jesus Christ. Indeed, redemption and creation are fused together in the very person of Jesus. He cited the Gospel of John, which talks about the Word, or Logos, of God that called all things into being. The Word was present at the beginning of time and, in time, became incarnate in the womb of Mary. Thus, Jesus brings creation and redemption together in His own person. Saint Paul reminds us of this in Colossians 1:15-20 when he describes Jesus as the “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation” and when he goes on to say that “all things” were created in Jesus.
In the creation story itself, Fr. Terry went on, God creates creatures and things progressively more like Himself but culminates His creative work with the seventh day, reserved for rest and worship of God. This is why we believe that all things are ordered towards the worship and glory of God. Father Terry described humans as being “priests of creation,” which comes from the mission given to mankind in Genesis 2:15, where we are commanded to “till the earth and keep it.” In the original Hebrew, the word “to till” comes from the word abadah, which means “to cultivate, work, worship” and is also related to the word for “servant.” Similarly, the Hebrew word meaning “to keep” comes from the word shamar which means “to protect, care for.” With this understanding, then, we, as humans, are called to serve the earth, to cultivate it, and to protect it. As priests of creation, we are meant to orient all of creation towards God and that means fulfilling our own mission to care for the earth and to keep it so that it may be a beautiful and ongoing gift. We offer glory and worship to God by caring for His creation.
Unfortunately, Fr. Terry said, Christians are sometimes accused of not taking care of creation but rather of exploiting it and using Scripture as justification for doing so (in Genesis 1:26, humankind is given “dominion over” creation and in Genesis 1:28, God charges Adam and Eve to “subdue” the earth and all that is in it). This is not what we are called to do—we are not to exercise dominion and subdue the earth by exploiting it. As Catholic Christians, we begin with the belief that God created the world and holds it in existence. This means, Fr. Terry drew out, that at every moment, creation is ongoing. It is a constant gift, an act of generosity and mercy from God, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, for His mercy holds every creature into being at every moment. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, with this in mind, reminds us that we ought to stand in awe before creation.
According to Fr. Terry, when we do not treat the earth with the love and respect it deserves, we have sin to blame for that. Our own shortcomings and our own decisions to turn away from God, Who is Love, causes us to improperly exercise our dominion over creation. We often fall into mastering the earth instead of serving it.
Father Terry emphasized that Jesus, through His redemptive work, gives us the perfect example of how we ought to be. We are not to master and exploit the earth but to be humble servants. Thus, as Christians, it is our privilege and our duty to serve God’s creation and to care for it. The next lecture in the series is titled “Biodiversity and Invasive Species” and gives an overview of what, specifically, care for God’s creation might look like in the Great Lakes Drainage Basin, of which we at Notre Dame are a part.
Brie Bahe is a senior neuroscience major with a philosophy minor. She has a passion for petting dogs, drinking coffee, and one day becoming a physician. She also thinks creation is cool. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.