Thoughts at the Start of the Theological Educators Conference (July 2023)

3 July 2023

I have been asked to say a few words at the start of our Conference. The basis for my comments is my own scholarship, my teaching, and my experience in theological education.

My first full time role in theological education was at the Pacific Theological College in Fiji, where I served for over six years. I had students from all over the Pacific, including some nations most vulnerable to sea-level rise, namely Tuvalu, Fiji, and Kiribati. One of my first PhD students was from Tuvalu – a very low-lying island nation with its highest point being 3m above sea level. His research was on the doctrine of providence and climate change, an understudied topic, but of central importance to the theology of climate change. Without a scholarship he had to work full time in the church and study full time – his studies suffered more than the work. He could have been the first Tuvaluan to gain a PhD in theology but is still working at it. He is a reminder to me that we need to use the opportunities we have and our privilege to make a difference to Tuvalu, Kiribati and other places that do not have the opportunities we have.

In my own student days at home in New Zealand some 20 years ago I wrote an undergraduate dissertation on Colin Gunton’s doctrine of creation and environmental ethics. Such work remains important, but I have since learned that every doctrine takes its rightful place in the church’s theological response to our environmental crisis. It is eschatology that is becoming increasingly important as we race toward destruction. But whatever our individual discipline, we can all contribute to helping churches and Christians understand the causes and deal with the effects of climate change. This theological task is both deconstructive and constructive. We need to identify the theologies, ideologies, idols, and heresies that contributed to getting us into this predicament and that prevent us from taking appropriate urgent action. We also need to rediscover scriptures, liturgies, practices, and theologians that can guide us into the future. This will demand nothing less than repentance, humility, and a willingness to listen to the minority and majority voice that are too often neglected. It is also a kenotic task – an emptying of our ideas, our cannon, and syllabi of what is not needful and even harmful.

In my current role as Director of the Centre for Faith in Public Life at Wesley House. Cambridge, I teach a short course on preaching good news into the climate crisis. One thing I emphasise in that course is that we need to focus on both the causes and effects of climate change. It is important to understand the causes of the climate crisis as best we can – including our human greed, capitalist economy, consumption patterns, and dependency on fossil fuels. We also need attention to the effects of climate change, such as flooding, uninsurable homes, eco-anxiety and despair, suicide, climate refugees, and heat wave deaths. By focussing on both causes and effects I think we can broaden the scope for theologians to make connections with our field and sub-disciplines. The world needs all of us, whatever our discipline, to get involved and play our part.

I for one welcome our conversations this week in this important task.

Thank you.

Dr Richard Davis