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Living Within Creation The Gospel’s Call to Honor the Earth By Jonathan Goldstein
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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.”

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School