Soteriology and Ecology

It's winter in New York. The trees outside look bare to a casual glance. Upon inspection, I notice they are not bare – not bare in the way a dead tree would be. There are buds on them: little buds. I never noticed the buds on the trees before until late winter or early spring, but here I have noticed that even before the last leaf had fallen, or turned completely whithered-brown on the branch, already there were tiny buds. They’ll stay tiny until spring. But they’re already there: the promise that this beauty of white will give way again to a beauty of green.

There’s a salvific power in this reliable rhythm. Salvific.

There’s a traditional branch of theology that deals with the study of what salvation is and how it is obtained. It’s called “Soteriology,” from the Greek “soteria” meaning “salvation.” “Salvation,” in turn, comes from the Latin “salvare”, to save, and it is from that root that we also get our word, “salve.” What, then, is the healing ointment for our hearts and spirits, the salve for our brokenness that will help us heal into wholeness? Which is to say: what saves us? And what does being saved, salved, salvation look like? What makes us whole? What sources are available to us for meaning and hope -- peace? For mystery, awe, and wonder before the fullness of reality? For equanimity, awareness of the beauty of each moment, and the one-ness of all things? For loving-kindness, compassion, and a trust of our own intuitive wisdom?

Let me ask you, then: what is your soteriology? What is your account of what it is that can save a person, salve woundedness, engender wholeness?

Salvation lies, I believe, in our connection with this world of ours. The salve for our woundedness, our fragmentation, lies in nature, in an ecological spirituality.

And, oh, we are feeling the wound. A sense of doom permeates the zeitgeist of our age. On the right-wing this manifests in the Left Behind series of books and all the talk about a rapture. On the left-wing it manifests as urgent warnings from environmentalists who describe impending catastrophe: climate change, melting icecaps, species extinctions from loss of habitat, impending shortages leading to resource wars.

Maybe those environmentalists are right. Indeed, much of what they say almost certainly is right. What they don’t tell us with any authority or consensus, though, is how much time we've got. Certain factors the models have overlooked might buy us a few more years. We might make some behavior changes that will buy us some more. Or not. Many of the environmentalists giving speeches on the first Earth Day back in 1970 didn't expect our planet would last 44 years without ecological collapse. The good work of the environmental movement since the 1970s helped buy us some time. How much, we don’t know.

What I do believe the evidence is clear about is that we will eventually need to change our ways. Hard times are coming – we don’t know how hard how soon. We as a species are going to have to develop and adopt sustainable ways of living if we are to survive – and our present ways, particularly in the US, are not sustainable. Nowhere close. Salvation for ourselves and salvation for the planet are inextricably linked.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "The Ecospiritual Imperative"
Next: Part 2: "Sustainability: A Spiritual Problem"

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