I am fascinated by the Athanasian Creed (please don’t stop reading). Yes, I’m a seminary graduate, and yes, I’ve been known to nerd out on theology, and the Athanasian Creed provides ample opportunity. Every Trinity Sunday, we pull it out in order to make a big deal about our beliefs in the Trinity, and about a quarter of the way through my enthusiasm wanes. What fascinates me is not the words, but the circumstances in which the Athanasian Creed arose.
In Athanasius’ time, Arianism denied the divinity of Christ, a potentially lethal wound to orthodoxy. Athanasius sprung into action, defended the orthodox position at the Council of Nicaea, and left a Trinitarian legacy in the Athanasian Creed, written after his death, which asserted that “the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”
The lesson of Athanasius is that there are moments when faith needs to be reimagined in the face of an existential threat. Religion doesn’t change unless the world changes, unless it is threatened with existential annihilation.
Short-sighted Christian theology bears a great deal of responsibility for the danger we are faced with today.
The Arian controversy surrounding Athanasius was such a moment and, in our own day, climate change poses a similar threat, not just to our world but also to Christianity. Short-sighted Christian theology bears a great deal of responsibility for the danger we are faced with today. Many Christians, after all, have eagerly wedded American imperialism to environmental domination. Theologian Roger Gottlieb describes the phenomenon that has developed since the industrial age this way: “the dominant message of virtually all of Christianity was that industrialization, providing its fruits were distributed with a certain amount of justice, was a fine thing.” Except there was never any justice. Prosperity gospels and manifest destiny resulted in +450 ppm carbon in the atmosphere, loss of topsoil, loss of nutrition in food, and acidic oceans, to name a few. Profits from environmental degradation were funneled to a select few at the top, while the natural consequences of that devastation was widely distributed among the poorest and most vulnerable in the form of hunger, air and water pollution, fire, drought, and environmental racism.
To make matters worse, religious fundamentalism, which David Bentley Hart recently described as “a modern heresy,” has so divorced faith from the natural world that any consideration of the environment and environmental justice is labeled a liberal screed. Indeed, Robert Jeffress goes on Fox News to arrogantly state: “Somebody needs to read poor Greta [Thunberg] Genesis Chapter 9, and tell her the next time she worries about global warming, just look at a rainbow. That’s God’s promise that the polar ice caps aren’t going to melt and flood the world again.” Except, well, they are. Rapidly.
We cannot continue to live with a broken theology that denies justice and multiples suffering.
Fast forward to my pew on Trinity Sunday. Certainly science and politics will both play essential roles in teaching us to live in a changed climate. But we cannot continue to live with a broken theology that denies justice and multiples suffering. Now is the time to channel our modern Athanasius and develop a creed, rooted in a holistic understanding of reconciliation, that takes seriously the goodness of creation, the goodness of the Creator, and a vision of a new heaven and a new earth rooted in renewal. Ecotheology needs to be creedal. Fred Bahnson describes it well: “We are soil people. If nothing else the Anthropocene is forcing us to remember that we are not disembodied souls waiting to ride the Big Elevator into the sky. We are en-souled creatures, yes, but we are earthbound first.” It’s time to make that a feature of our faith.
Such a creed would be firmly rooted on scriptural grounds, beginning with Genesis: “God created the heavens and the earth.” Both heaven and earth are places for relationship with the divine. It would take seriously the Hebrew scriptures’ insistence that land, broadly understood, is a moral agent and participant in the covenant. It would hear the prophets who implored people to welcome the alien, to practice justice, to care for our shared heritage. It would be fundamentally incarnational and Christological, leaning into the Word who became flesh. It would channel the author of Colossians, whose conviction is that “God was pleased to reconciling to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20, NRSV).
Simply put, an eco-centric creed would revitalize and broaden our hermeneutics, bringing a clearer picture of the Kingdom of God to bear.
A straight line could be drawn from worship to work for the common good.
Such a creed wouldn’t just be for theologians, however. If an ecocentric creed were to be recited in church, week after week, it would soak into the minds and bodies of Christians as a soft rain, recentering the larger narrative of God’s sustaining wholeness for all life. Theology would lead to new praxis, where communities would proclaim good news for air and water, mountains and meadows, birds and bison. As folks are fed with bread and wine each week, they’d turn that spiritual work into actual sweat, working the land as an act of discipleship, advocating for good policy, implementing conservation strategies in our homes and cities. In this way, a straight line could be drawn from worship to work for the common good. Perhaps in all this work, in this Athanasius-style faith, Christians would experience something of the shalom that is already written into the whole of creation, and yet is waiting to break forth in new ways.