U-C: What I See

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Sharing the Waters of Life - Silver Bay, New York


Last summer one of the first commitments that went onto my calendar was the conference that I just attended on Lake George in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It was the 10th Anniversary Celebration of Presbyterians for Restoring Creation, called “Sharing the Waters of Life.” (For more information about this great organization, go to www.prcweb.org.)

Over two hundred participants gathered for three days of sharing and reflection about what it might mean to take seriously God’s call to hallow God’s creation. I went to this one as a participant, because I am convinced that the ecological challenges confronting us today must be understood as a theological challenge that God puts before us over and over again in the stories of the Bible. I went to learn, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Dr. Vandana Shiva, trained as a physicist but now the Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in New Delhi, India, moved me beyond words with her description of the challenge before us. She posits that we live in a world increasingly defined by commodification of the common good. Put another way, her concern is that the most basic elements of God’s creation that sustain all living things – especially water - are clearly at risk of being privatized for the creation of wealth rather than being protected in a way that will continue to sustain all living things in God’s world.

Without trying to encapsulate all of what Dr. Shiva had to say, here are a couple of gleanings from her talks that moved me the most. (As always, these are as close as I could get while scribbling madly and trying to keep up, so they are not truly direct quotes.)

“The next frontier in the creation of capital is the privatization and commodification of water. In a market system, if you have money, you will be able to buy water. If you don’t, you will be out of luck. Privatization is the dominant idea in water management today.”

“Access to water must be considered a human right and a basic right of all living things.”

“As a people, we have felt so small that we feel afraid. That’s why we must connect with one another as we expand ourselves into new communities and new understandings, even as we create an ever-diminishing footprint.”

“The problem of our time is that the wisdom of the common good has been conflated with the non-common good. We’re told that the “private good” is the same thing as the common good. We must stand against that understanding, because it leads to the notion that if some individuals are doing extremely well, then the public at large is doing very well. That is rarely true, and the needs of the whole community will always be most important.”

“The job of theology is to distinguish between an ethic of sharing and an ethic of capital or privatization.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge that Dr. Shiva put before the group was her conviction that it is the job of our faith communities to create grass-roots, local, community-based expressions of democracy in order to insist on that which sustains life being reclaimed for the common good. She has written many books about her experiences in India and around the world. One recent book is “Water Wars,” published in 2001.

The second speaker at the conference was Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology at Austin Theological Seminary Bill Greenway. Bill’s “awe-shucks” demeanor and his storytelling style belied his remarkable critical thinking about what the Bible has to say to us about God’s desire for creation.

He described our current understanding of our relationship with God’s creation as “toaster theology.” Our common wisdom today is that nature functions something like a machine to supply human needs. The theory is that this is only fair, since we are the highest beings among God’s creation. However, if nature is a machine, akin to a toaster, then it’s no wonder that God’s people have paid little or no attention to the long-term impact we’re having on God’s creation. What difference does it make in the long run: after all, you can’t redeem a toaster – it’s inanimate.

Bill’s talk cannot be easily summed up. Personally, he challenged me to examine the assumptions that undergird my own faith. Though I have always loved the wilderness, and I’ve been an avid backpacker, cross-country skier, and river runner, I come away wondering about all the ways in which I have missed the richness of God’s love for all of creation that is woven throughout the Bible. If nothing else, the gift of serving our church as the moderator has given me a new humility about all the wonderful ways in which God is evident in the world and the rich variety of ways in which God is experienced.

Perhaps this is yet another place in which our church can commit to a careful re-examination of scripture that refuses to be held captive by our divisions of right vs. left or conservative vs. liberal, evangelical and progressive. (Just so you know, my conviction is that “evangelical” and “progressive” are words that describe folks on both ends of the theological spectrum that currently defines our denomination.) In this area, as in so many others, we have a great deal of work to do in our effort to be faithful.

God is good – All the time!