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In September of 2019, one of the strangest things I have ever heard of at a theological seminary occurred. As we find at most seminaries and Bible colleges, Union Theological Seminary in New York conducts a chapel service for its students and faculty. On one particular day, the leaders of the service set up a display of plants. There were peace lilies, pothos vines, ornamental millet, a rattlesnake plant, basil, a palm tree, and an assortment of common household and landscaping plants. All of them were living as they stood in pots of soil.
When the service started, attendees were invited to offer words of repentance to the plants. People were encouraged to repent over their failure to protect the environment.
One person offered, “I confess that so many trees held me in their branches as I grew, but I have not held you in return.”
Later someone tweeted, “Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt, and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?”
Apparently the seminary received enough blowback that they felt they needed to respond – and did so with a series of tweets. The seminary responded, “Change isn’t easy: It’s no simple business to break free from comfortable habits and thoughts. But if we do not change, we will perish. And so will plants and animals God created and called ‘good.’”
In another tweet from the seminary, “We’ve had many questions about yesterday’s chapel, conducted as part of @ccarvalhaes’ class, “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response.” In worship, our community confessed the harm we’ve done to plants, speaking directly in repentance. This is a beautiful ritual.”
Later, there was another response from the seminary that said, “So, if you’re poking fun, we’d ask only that you also spend a couple moments asking: Do I treat plants and animals as divinely created beings? What harm do I cause without thinking? How can I enter into a new relationship with the natural world?”
And another response: Churches have a huge role to play in this endeavor. Theologies that encourage humans to dominate and master the Earth have played a deplorable role in degrading God’s creation. We must birth new theology, new liturgy to heal and sow, replacing ones that reap and destroy.
Obviously both the faculty and the students took this exercise very seriously. But how can this happen? It was at a theological seminary, for Pete’s sake.
Well, it is actually not too hard to explain. For years, many seminaries that used to teach from a biblical perspective, including this one, have drifted off into some form of theological liberalism. Basically, theological liberalism is an attempt to teach the Bible using a naturalistic worldview. Over the years, this has resulted in such approaches to biblical interpretation as higher criticism, the “social gospel,” existentialist theology, liberation theology, postmodern theology, and others. Essentially, all of these expressions are attempts to interpret the Bible using naturalistic worldview concepts – which produces a perverted theology.
Seemingly, Union Seminary has gotten bored with naturalistic theology, and have now turned to animistic theology. The underlying premise of this teaching is that “the biblical world teems with beings, many of whom are nonhuman creatures with emotional lives, and nonhuman moral agents who are participants in God’s covenant.” What this means is that instead of treating the various kinds of literature in the Bible as what they are, they take poetic and metaphoric scripture passages and interpret them a literal sense. In doing this they say, for instance, “the soil witnesses Cain’s murder of Abel,” trees fight alongside David’s army, the stars and a wadi joined forces to defeat the Canaanites, forests applauded at the return of the exiles, and on and on. They have attempted to turn poetry and metaphor into historical narrative. I can just picture the trees running alongside David’s army as they chase the Canaanites through the valley, and clapping their branches when they win. Modern CGI [computer generated imagery] could make that look really good in a movie. (Oh wait, that has already been done in Lord of the Rings.)
But it doesn’t stop there. This theology then goes on to promote a political agenda – particularly as it relates to environmentalism. Applying this theology to modern times, they say Americans should support such things as blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline, and help Native Americans regain control over their ancestral lands (and, of course, jump on the global warming bandwagon). The purpose of all of this is to help preserve the environment.
It is truly sad that a once great theological institution has become such a bastian of theological perversion – while still calling itself a “Christian” institution. The fact is, it is not Christian. The theology it espouses is not even theistic. There is no belief in a personal creator God, much less the God of the Bible. And sadly, many of the graduates of that institution will go out to pastor churches and teach unsuspecting individuals a theology that will keep them separated from God.
There are, no doubt, churches in your area that hold to this kind of false theology – churches that still claim to be Christian. You probably know people who attend these churches. If you have any interest in counteracting the false beliefs these people are receiving, and helping them understand the truth of the gospel, you are going to have to understand their false beliefs, and learn how to share the truth across this worldview barrier. This is the calling God has given to every believer. Have you put yourself in a position to be a bearer of truth to these people?
Freddy Davis is the president of MarketFaith Ministries. He is the author of numerous books and has a background as an international missionary, pastor, radio host, worldview trainer, and entrepreneur. Freddy is a graduate of Florida State University with a BS in Communication, and holds MDiv and DMin degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker, particularly on the topic of worldview and its practical implications for the Christian life. He lives in Tallahassee, FL, with his wife Deborah.
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