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Can a Theology Conference Have Practical Effects?

February 23, 2017

Yes, theologians can be more action-oriented people than you may think! Especially ones that would gather at a place like Claremont….

Claremont School of Theology, that is.  Intertwined with Claremont grad school, and especially its program in “Philosophy of Religion and Theology.”

In some important ways, the “New Frontiers in Theology” conference I was lucky enough to attend last week-end was a follow-up to “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization” of June, 2015 (see here and here).  That was a much larger conference, at neighboring Pomona College, of around 2000 people and was strongly oriented toward action.  It was attended and led by people from many academic fields and streams of activism, oriented around how to save both the planet and quality of life along the way.

Theology, once the “queen of the sciences”, is no longer thought of as impacting science, business or other “practical” things.  But it does! And many of the theologians and philosophers gathered last week-end at Claremont want to take that further.  The single topic that reflected the most urgency was climate change.

The man pictured, Alfred North Whitehead, was on the forefront of bringing together science and theology.  That is, helping re-join the two after a couple centuries in which they had drifted apart and science had claimed the larger influence over most of civilization.  And this was not an “ecological” civilization.  Whitehead was a master mathematician-turned-philosopher with a passion to show how relativity theory and quantum mechanics gave us insights into the nature of reality… God included within that reality (yet existing beyond it, in some sense).

In just that last sentence, you get some picture of why Whitehead, primarily in the 1920s and 30s, began a way of understanding all-that-is (reality) which is important for science, for theology (and religions), and for everything else. His work and that following him by “process” philosophers and theologians is really a new paradigm.  “Paradigm” has become a cliche but its meaning of a way of perceiving and interpreting our inner and outer worlds fits here better than about anywhere else.  Process thought has all along been highly concerned with ecology and the natural environment, as Whitehead so well demonstrated the interconnected nature of everything. He was “on it” a good while before the more well-known physicists and various “New Age” thinkers that may spring to your mind.

So the urgency of climate change…. Why would that emerge at a gathering of mostly theologians (me managing to crash the party)? For one, the legacy of Whitehead in process thinking means that some in philosophy and theology, teaching in our universities and seminaries, follow and highly respect science. They see no separation between these and other disciplines but look for the points of commonality and overlap.  And their ecological interests mean they have been following what many consider the most pressing of science subjects: climate change.

At least one of the presenters, Philip Clayton, has devoted much of his career to the interface of science and theology.  Not surprising he would be one who would most emotively express the urgency of turning current trends around… and very promptly! He has well-informed company in believing a president like Trump may not himself make a critical difference in 4 years.  However, a lack of aggressive action to slow the mechanisms of warming would not likely give us as many as 8 years before an irreversible cycle sets in.  We must continue to act, to press right now! Needless to say, for this and several other theological and ethical reasons, Trump had no fans in the group.

I confess we did not get, at the conference, to the point of creating further strategies regarding climate or social justice issues.  However, many present are activists in various ways or are connected to others in the midst of practical action as well as ongoing research and teaching to raise awareness and further action.  One such organizing structure goes back to the ecology conference of 2015 mentioned above.  It is a sizable network of local and other efforts, centered mainly in Los Angeles:  If you live in or near LA (or want to see what’s happening there), be sure to visit the “Pando Hubs” section. The website is loaded with many, many resources and links for learning and action.

If you are involved in either conceptual (theology, etc.) or “earthy” projects having to do with sustainability and ecology, combating climate change, etc., please share.



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