DIVINITY Online Edition

Living Within Creation
The Gospel’s Call to Honor the Earth

By Jonathan Goldstein

Ellen Davis, associate professor of Bible and practical theology, sees more than ecological crises when she reads about energy and water shortages, global warming, erosion and pollution. She also sees a grave theological crisis, with humankind twisting its assigned place in the order of creation.

Ellen Davis, associate professor of the Bible and practical theology, with student Andrew Coon. The divinity school's addition rises in the background.
Photo By: Les Todd


 Ellen Davis, associate professor of the Bible and practical theology, with student Andrew Coon. The divinity school's addition rises in the background.

People have become a geological force, Davis says, changing the earth to suit their needs rather than living within
creation to give praise to God.

“Human life is meant to be theocentric—focused on God,” Davis says. “By making ourselves this powerful force,
we no longer are operating on a human scale. I consider this the gravest theological issue the church faces today.”

In addition to teaching a class on biblical ecology, Davis is working with students, administrators and others both on and off campus to spread the idea that people have an obligation—articulated in the Bible—to live in harmony with creation. That obligation includes building ecologically sound churches and church-related buildings and making an effort to spread the word about building practices that affect the earth as little as possible.

As part of that effort, Davis is among the key speakers at a divinity school conference in January called “Holy & Beautiful: Greening Sacred Spaces.” The conference, sponsored largely by a grant from The Duke Endowment, is bringing together more than 100 people—clergy, builders, architects, designers and laity—with an interest in learning about “green” design. Other speakers include Norman Christensen, professor of ecology and founding dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and Kevin Burke, a design partner at William McDonough & Partners, an architecture and design firm in Charlottesville, Va. Both are experts in the effects of structures on the environment.

The idea for the conference grew from a number of efforts, including a student-led movement—known as the Duke University Greening Initiative (DUGI)—which promotes earth-friendly building practices. After divinity students approached Dean L. Gregory Jones about incorporating green design into the school’s 45,000-square-foot addition, their discussions quickly evolved to include others at divinity, as well as Duke campus leaders.

Although the addition was designed before the students spoke with Jones, revised plans have made significant strides toward environmentally friendly construction. Part of the Jan. 26-27 conference, presented by the divinity school and the Nicholas School of the Environment in cooperation with DUGI, will focus on this on-site model of greening construction.

Changes include water-saving bathroom fixtures; materials—including steel, insulation and carpeting—with significant recycled content; the use of local construction materials to minimize freight transportation; and individual office thermostats to help limit power use. Susan Pendleton Jones, the divinity school’s director of special programs, said the building can be inspirational, beautiful and kind to the earth.

“I think there are interesting intersections between theology and space—the spaces we design and how they reflect our desires and needs as human beings,” she said. “All other creatures build habitats that they burrow into, yet humans build spaces that soar sometimes 10, 15 times above our heads which reflects our longing for the transcendent. In a similar way, we should design spaces to be in harmony with their surroundings—both pleasing to the eye and ecologically sound. As Christians, we care about God’s good creation and want to enhance its beauty, viability and sustainability.”

Pastor Grace Hackney D’03, whose Cedar Grove United Methodist Church north of Hillsborough, N.C., is rebuilding after a fire three years ago, will be at the conference with her congregation’s architect and builder.

The Rev. Grace Hackney D'03 at an altar of stones recycled from Cedar Grove UMC near Hillsborough. The church, destroyed by fire, wants to rebuild using green technology.
Photo By: Michael Knight


 The Rev. Grace Hackney D'03 at an altar of stones recycled from Cedar Grove UMC near Hillsborough. The church, destroyed by fire, wants to rebuild using green technology.

“One of the things we want to learn is what we can do to be more responsible—how we can make our building a sign of God’s presence in the community,” Hackney said. The church has recycled stones from its 1934 structure to build an outdoor altar, which may continue to be used for open-air services or become a part of the new church.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity we’ve been given to build a building that will be dedicated to worship,” said Hackney. “We know we can learn things that we need to be watchful of.”

The Rural Church Division of The Duke Endowment, which is supporting the Greening Sacred Spaces conference, encourages churches to build responsibly. That’s not new territory for the organization, which spends about $3 million per year to help with construction and renovation projects at rural Methodist churches throughout North Carolina, said Joe Mann, director of the Rural Church Division and adjunct professor for the practice of Christian ministry at the divinity school.

A decade ago, Mann’s organization led an effort to weatherproof rural Methodist churches in the state, spending about $750,000 to help some 300 churches install insulation, weather stripping, ceiling fans and more. The idea was to save energy, the fuel needed to produce it, and the money needed to buy it. It’s long been time for churches to address ecological issues with a conference, Mann said.

“I think we certainly want to help architects, designers and builders have a better theological understanding of what it means to be church—the liturgical and communal needs of a congregation,” he said. “Also, I hope we will convince some people that they ought to be thinking about the design of churches in terms of green.”


"We should design spaces to be in harmony with their surroundings - both pleasing to the eye and ecologically sound. As Christians, we care about God's good creation and want to enhance its beauty, viability and sustainability."

-Susan Pendleton Jones D'83

The Rural Church Division is willing to back up that sentiment with another kind of green. Although he doesn’t cite a specific figure, Mann said his division of The Duke Endowment stands ready to help rural churches pay for some of the up-front costs of environmentally sensitive design—such as energy efficient fixtures, which may be more costly than less efficient fixtures, but save both power and money over time.

Andrew Coon D’05 credits DUGI with leading the way at the university and setting the stage for significant divinity school involvement in promoting green building. Now is the time for divinity students to embrace responsibility for stewardship of the earth.

“We’re the ones who are going to go out there and become pastors and be aware of green,” he said. “We are to be stewards of the earth as God is the steward of us.”

Ellen Davis gives much of the credit for the conference, and the overall church greening initiative, to Coon and fellow divinity students who have worked closely with DUGI.

“It’s quite amazing what these students have done,” she said. “They’re the ones who have been asking the questions about how we can build churches that meet higher environmental standards.”

For details about the conference, call 919-660-3448 or visit www.divinity.duke.edu/learningforlife/Events/greening.htm


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