The Environment and My Journey of Faith
By Tony Arnold
Our study of the Neighborhood Church book as prompted me to offer to share a little about how I live out my faith in the world outside of Sunday mornings at John Knox – and what I see as some of the important issues that the church as the worldwide body of Jesus Christ is wrestling with in our time. This is the start of a 5-part series of article for John Knox Notes. The next 4 are: Creation and Environmental Stewardship; Communities and Environmental Systems; Love and Environmental Justice; and Mission and Environmental Action.
Many of you know that I’m a full-time tenured professor at the University of Louisville, teaching classes in land, water, and the environment. I also direct the interdisciplinary Center for Land Use and Environmental Responsibility. But you probably don’t know that I’m on the core team of Earth Keepers (http://www.earth-keepers.org/), a national group of spiritual leaders who are focused on environmental ethics as matters of faith and which was founded by a former student whom I have mentored (here at our local seminary and law school) and who is a Presbyterian pastor as well as a national environmental leader. In Genesis 2:15, God gives humans the responsibility to “serve and keep” His creation, with the Hebrew word for “keep” meaning “to guard, take care of, and look after.”
Early in my journey of faith as a child, I found God in nature, as well as in the Bible, church, and the lives and actions of others. A few mental “snapshots”: 1) the 4-year-old me exploring nature in our new home in a working-class neighborhood and finding frogs, plants, vegetables, rolly-pollys, leaves, etc. – what a cool Creator!; 2) the adolescent me going on walks in the country with my parents and sister – look at God building family relationships out in restorative nature; and 3) the adult me hiking and horseback-riding in amazing national and state parks throughout the USA with friends, colleagues, students, and even complete strangers – shared love for God’s majesty and the diversity of His creation.
In 1994, I went on a life-changing Presbyterian mission tip to Kenya, where I not only preached a sermon in a poor rural church as a newly ordained Deacon, but I also discerned that God was calling me to leave law practice in Texas to become a full-time professor. I had and still have a passion for mentoring students and sharing with them a love for the environment. I’ve been in full-time teaching since 1995, and in 2013, I received the University of Louisville’s highest faculty honor, given for “extraordinary impact on students.” It’s such a joy to see so many of my former students seeking to protect the environment, promote justice, and help the marginalized and oppressed.
I view environmental issues as being so much more than legal, policy, or scientific issues. They are ethical and spiritual issues. This has informed my research and publications, which have had national and international impact among scholars and in the real world. I was recruited to the University of Louisville in 2005 for a “Bucks for Brains” endowed chair in law and urban planning, and I’ve pursued an interdisciplinary research agenda at the intersection of land, water, the environment, governance, and social justice. I’ve been excited that my work has been used not only by professors and students worldwide but also by the United Nations, the US EPA, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the World Bank, cities, counties, environmental groups, and grassroots community groups. I believe that it would be good if communities of faith could engage in mutual-exchange conversations with academic and policy communities.
Christ calls us to serve, and I’ve responded by serving on the boards of directors of The Nature Conservancy, Habitat for Humanity, a microenterprise loan fund started by low-income Latinas in San Antonio and funded by the PC-USA, the City of Anaheim Planning Commission, the Louisville Metro Climate Change Task Force, and the West Jefferson County Community Task Force (environmental justice group in West Louisville), among others. In the last few years, I’ve created the Resilience Justice Project, in which students and I work to address the unequal and unfair vulnerabilities that low-income communities of color face. In all of our projects, unjust environmental conditions are important factors in why these communities are marginalized and oppressed. This is why I’ve been particularly concerned in recent years about supporting ministries to the homeless, to communities in Puerto Rico, and to low-income neighborhoods of color.
Still, when I look at all the environmental harms in our world and all the needs of so many people, I can start to feel ineffectual and overwhelmed. I know that God is in control, and that it’s Jesus who is the Savior – it’s not up to me personally and individually to save the planet. But as Christ’s body in this world, it is indeed up to all of us as a community of believers to care faithfully for the God’s creation and all the people – our neighbors – who depend on the environments in which we live, work, and play. In my faith journey, this is one of the most important spiritual issues that the church faces today, and I’m hoping that we might come together as a church family to wrestle with these issues. That’s why I’m writing this series: to explore how we might share as a community of faith in both conversation and action to be faithful earth keepers.