“ The most mundane, the most natural things on earth are where you find the presence of God in the world.” —Colleen Carpenter
From Destruction, Resurrection
Theology Professor Colleen Carpenter connects God and the earth
By Colleen Carpenter, Ph.D., as told to Andy Steiner
Until recently, Associate Professor of Theology Colleen Carpenter's scholarship has focused on the Christian response to human suffering. But lately the Harvard- and University of Chicago-educated scholar has turned her attention to another suffering being: the earth. Last spring, Carpenter asked baccalaureate students to examine the concept of eco-theology and its place in the modern world.
I grew up outside of Chicago, and I went to college and graduate school in Boston, Madison and Chicago. Most of my life was spent far away from the land. After I finished my Ph.D., my family and I moved to Montevideo, Minnesota, a rural farming community. Before that, I had little understanding of how people worked in the earth and no real experience with natural life.
When I was living in Montevideo, I made friends with Kay and Annette Fernholz, two sisters who are also School Sisters of Notre Dame. They run Earthrise Farm, an organic farm and retreat center on their 240-acre family farm outside of Madison, Minnesota.
Before I moved to the country, my studies had focused mostly on our understanding of Jesus and suffering. My encounters with Sisters Kay and Annette helped me connect my original focus with the theological issue of the suffering of the earth. Through the Sisters and their work on Earthrise Farm, I began to understand that suffering of people in the world is very much connected to the suffering of the earth.
Another huge influence on my theological scholarship is the work of Canadian artist Emily Carr. I first came across her work when I was vacationing with my family in Vancouver, British Columbia. I saw her paintings in a museum and purchased a published edition of her journals in the gift shop. As I studied Carr's work, I understood that many of her beautiful nature paintings were actually depictions of clear-cut forests. Somehow, Carr captured the beauty she saw amidst the destruction.
The whole Catholic notion of seeing the resurrection in the midst of the crucifixion, that's what Carr was doing in her art. Realizing that helped me think about our relationship to the earth's destruction and what it means to us in theological terms.
Some of that understanding starts with the Catholic tradition of finding sacred power in the ordinary things we can touch. Baptism, for instance, is not just a spiritual thing. We actually pour water over the person or child. For Catholics, water is a symbol of the presence of God among us. The most mundane, the most natural things on earth are where you find the presence of God in the world.
Last spring I taught an undergraduate course called "Women, Earth, Creator, Spirit." That name comes from a book by Elizabeth Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet who teaches at Fordham University in New York. She's been working on issues of theology and ecology for over 20 years, before ecology became one of the big, new, hot things in theology.
In my class, students were required to complete two short presentations on a nature writer. Students were also assigned a theological term such as baptism, mercy, wisdom or grace. They had to provide both the traditional definition and also a definition that explains how the word is related to the earth. I also sprinkled in examples of the writing of famous nature writers, including John Muir, Emily Carr, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams.
In the past, not enough people signed up for me to teach the class. Then, suddenly last spring, something caught fire. The class was full. It wasn't all theology students, either. It was filled with students from all areas of the University. It was this amazing validation that maybe we're seeing a turning point, that more students are focusing their attention on the destruction of the earth, wanting to learn how to create change.