As a freshmen at the University of Oregon I was immersed in two seemingly disparate worlds–Pentecostalism and Ecology.
Through their life together they were learning to see and name the work of the Spirit in their everyday relationships and life.
The first sermon I heard in my Pentecostal campus ministry was, “The Kingdom of God is all about relationships” — a phrase I would have normally dismissed as mere sentimentality but for their actually living this vision out in two intentional community houses near the campus. Through their life together they were learning to see and name the work of the Spirit in their everyday relationships and life.
Pentecostalism, it turned out, offered a deeply relational vision of Christian discipleship.
Meanwhile my coursework immersed me in the disciplines of ecology and sustainability. These studies awoke me to the interconnectedness of all things, like the fungus which acts as a relay network between a forest’s trees. When a fire, drought, or chainsaw strikes one tree, the whole forest ripples with awareness. Relationships are everything in ecology. This realization deeply impacted how I saw the land.
Creation sparkled with life, relationship, and brimmed with holy mystery.
Over time, the resonances between ecology and Pentecostalism (as I experienced it) became quite evident. The kingdom of God was all about relationships, and so was ecology. The kingdom of God, in the Spirit, is ecological. And vice versa. This felt palpable in my verdant Cascadian context.
Sadly, few in that Pentecostal ministry seemed to grasp this connection, and along with it the value of ecology generally.
It is with great delight, then, that I get to review a book which bridges that divide between ecology and Pentecostalism. Better still is that I first met the author of this book, Dr. A.J. Swoboda, as my neighbor living just three blocks north of the Pentecostal community to which I belonged. Swoboda’s book, Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology, reworks his doctoral dissertation for a wider scholastic readership.
Swoboda’s task is formidable: originally written in an ivory tower format about intellectual frameworks for integrating two grassroots movements of practice and experience. He’s writing, in other words, in a top-down voice about a bottom-up tradition. Not easy. Thankfully, Swoboda succeeds in this task within the parameters of doctoral tradition better than I could hope for.
Other authors work to shoehorn the Holy Spirit into creation — essentially beginning with a mystical encounter with the land and then working upward from there. Swoboda takes the alternative (opposite???) route, exploring the biblical and historic witness of the person and nature of the Holy Spirit first, and then moving on to find grounds for a faithful witness within the discipline of ecology.
For summaries of each chapter, see this article’s appendix.
The Tower, the Steeple, and the Redwood
Swoboda’s central challenge is to convey academic, top-down ideas to the grassroots tribe of the global Pentecostal church.
Pentecostals have rarely parleyed in the ivory tower of the academy, still more rarely published self-consciously Pentecostal theologies. Pentecostals thrive, after all, as a generously egalitarian and closer-to-the-ground expression of the church. Swoboda does a commendable job – and I mean that – of meeting this challenge and crossing that formidable divide.
That said, his work still leaves me wondering how he would summarize the implications of his book to a Pentecostal pastor, an Assemblies of God district chair, from a Pentecostal pulpit, or among the Foursquare churches here in Portland he helped plant some years ago. What does it look like with fingers in the soil? Swoboda gives us a few tantalizing hints – laying hands on the land itself for healing, preaching creational eschatologies, and so on.
Yet I was left longing for more.
A more extended afterword of Pentecostal practices, ecological experiments, liturgical forays, mystical comportments, and homiletical nuances for the local church would have ideally rounded out this work.
The strictures of academia only permitted an abrupt, tidy conclusion without means to catalyze the readers toward active faithfulness. This is standard for Ph.D. dissertations, but it weakens the overall gift that this book is to the church. Indeed, this weakness speaks not so much of Swoboda’s scholarly capacities as much as it indicts academic theological etiquette’s which force scholars to serve the ivory tower before the wooden steeple. That Tongues and Trees’ ivory roots do not culminate in a greener steeple merits some lament.
Tongues and Trees thoroughly stimulated my imagination for how to faithfully respond to its insight in Cascadia.
In spite of this, Tongues and Trees thoroughly stimulated my imagination for how to faithfully respond to its insight in Cascadia.
Farm Workers: Pentecostalism is strong among Hispanic Americans. Might migrant farm worker communities be meaningful places to tangibly enact Swoboda’s ideas? They are the Pentecostals who already work with the land, and can immediately validate and apply green teachings from pulpit and study groups. Surely other Pentecostals will have much to learn from existing pioneers along these lines like the Skagit Valley’s Tierra Nueva.
Prayer Summits & Exorcisms at Eco-Tragedies: Lay hands on clear-cuts, the Hanford Nuclear facilities, salmon-blocking dams, and other sites of ecocide. Following the witness of Catholic nuns from Tacoma who snuck into a nuclear weapons site and poured holy water on it as part of an exorcism, Pentecostals can confront the principalities and powers in their own ways for the sake of the land.
Wild retreats: find creative ways to nurture the Pentecostal imagination to anticipate the Spirit’s life at work in the woods, meadows, summits, and scablands of Cascadia. If you can’t sense the Spirit in Cascadia, I doubt you can sense Her anywhere!
Indigenous bridges: Pentecostals and Indigenous Christians share a deep mysticism; finding ways to partner together may help the former grow in their gratitude for the land.
Cascadian metaphors: Our salmon, waterfalls, rainforests, and other wild treasures offer an abundance of close-at-hand metaphors and illustrations for songs and sermons, particularly the work and person of the Holy Spirit. Priming congregants’ hearts with green metaphors nurtures their own green consciousness. Though songs and sermons are common to all branches of the faith, I mention it here because the repetition that I’ve experienced in Pentecostal songs and sermons lend themselves to this sort of reverent priming.
My challenge, in reflecting on my own discipleship in Pentecostalism, is that Pentecostalism isn’t just a way of preaching, singing, gathering, or praying. It’s fundamentally the cultivation of hearts comported toward the activity of the Spirit. It is an active imagination of where Jesus may be at work through his Spirit.
Yet this Pentecostal comportment toward the Spirit refuses to be conveniently institutionalized, scheduled, or pre-packaged for ecclesial consumption.
Yet this Pentecostal comportment toward the Spirit refuses to be conveniently institutionalized, scheduled, or pre-packaged for ecclesial consumption. Comportment and imagination don’t work like that. They must be trusted, indwelled.
Swoboda seems to be summoning ecotheology toward nurturing our capacity to see creation as an arena for God’s life to show up. He, if I am reading him and Pentecostalism faithfully, wants to move us from becoming ecological theologians to becoming green wizards – mystical guides able to point to the magic this world is drenched in by the power of the Holy Spirit. The holistic, creation-baptizing Spirit whom Tongues & Trees points Pentecostalism toward is alive and active in the world. We need only have eyes to see Her, and respond repentantly.
The first chapter summarizes Swoboda’s journey toward this project and explains what motivates him in it. His perception of ecotheology, is that it has been predominantly Ivory Tower and theoretical. Worse, citing Lynn White’s seminal The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Swoboda maintains that the dominant chord of the discipline has been negative and reactive rather than constructive and actionable. “What is most needed now,” he says, “is a praxis-centered creation theology that equips Christian communities to care for the very earth God created and intends to restore and reconcile to himself.” (8) Mainliners, Evangelicals, Orthodox, and the Roman church have all attempted such things – yet the tradition whose distinctives are more embodied than theoretical, Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, has thus far had little to say on the matter. This tome begins such a project – or at least spells out its importance.
Swoboda’s project focuses on ecopneumatology, a discipline particular enough that readers need to have their bearings within one of its two host disciplines (ecotheology and pneumatology) to be adequately understood. Thus Chapter 2, “Ecotheologies,” summarizes the various ways that ecological thought and practice has rippled through theology. He introduces us to how Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Ecofeminist theologies have drawn upon their splendid dispositions and traditions to nourish their own budding ecotheologies – Catholics have their sacramental worldview, Orthodox their perichoretic and iconic imagination, and Protestants their, err, Moltmann, and feminism its prizing of nurture and naming of oppression. Though it has been a few years since immersing myself in ecotheology, to my eye Swoboda handles each of these stream of faithfulness with charity and confidence. It is an affirmative, not primarily critical, survey. Succinctly: all have quickly discovered abundant resources within their varied traditions for a vibrantly greener theological practice.
In Chapter 3, “Ecoglossolalia,” Swoboda summarizes and analyzes existing Pentecostal forays into ecotheology. Elsewhere he notes that “the problem remains that emerging Pentecostal ecotheological voices remain much like their glossolalia: full of meaning, hard to distinguish, and in desperate need of a willing interpreter.” (14) Not being a robustly academic or systematic tradition, Pentecostalism has relatively little to go on as far as furnishing its own ecotheology. Where Catholicism has, for example, a thick theology of transubstantiation to vitalize their ecotheology, what has Pentecostalism? Sadly little. It is, as I said earlier, a practice-empowered and bottom-up tribe of the faith. Growing a formal ecotheology in that sort of soil isn’t easy.
Still some contours of a Pentecotsal ecotheology can be identified. First, Pentecostalism’s emphasis on what Miroslav Volf calls “the materiality of salvation” (72) has historically lended itself to social justice issues – a disposition which opens itself up quite naturally both to the theme of honoring the material world and to the many instances in which creational devastation agitates existing injustices. Second, Pentecostal emphasis on the Spirit lends itself to the biblical witness of God’s Spirit vivifying and even baptizing all of creation; thus we must expect charismata not only from the charismatic church but the rest of the created realm. Chapter 3’s final contour of a Pentecostal ecotheology are the handful of explicit forays into that field, which applies Pentecostal themes of healing, abundance, and eschatology to the land.
Swoboda summarizes his review of Pentecostal ecotheologies with two crucial points. First, “if the Spirit of God creates and lives in creation and God’s people, the two are being restored to relationality. … [Relationality is] the very strength of Pentecostal theology and practice. … Ultimately that is the strength of the Spirit/creation theologies we have seen: renewed relationship” (106). That is, the Pentecostal emphasis on an interconnected-by-the-Spirit church summons us to join the conversation, I found in my ecology classrooms in Eugene: the interconnection of the land itself. Second, Swoboda concludes from this research that the task ahead is significantly one of nurturing a “‘pneumatological imagination’ regarding ecological care” (108); extending Pentecostal plausibility structures and etiquette toward the land.
Tongues and Trees begins to narrow its gaze in Chapter 4, “Wider Ecopneumatologies.” What, Swoboda asks, have Spirit-minded ecotheologians concluded? This was one of my favorite chapters, for the pioneering themes I will only name here were absolutely fascinating. In order of introduction the pioneers of ecopneumatology outside of Pentecostalism are Denis Edwards’ “Biocentric Spirit,” Sallie McFague’s “Hopeful Spirit,” and Mark Wallace’ “Wounded Spirit.” Swoboda harvests what he can from each before proceeding.
Swoboda’s fifth chapter, “Geography of the Spirit,” reviews four themes in Pentecostal pneumatology, searching eagerly for opportunities to prefix the matter with eco-. They and their resonances are:
- Spirit Baptism — mystical immersion into the life of the age to come; marked out as the eschatological people of God; ecstatic entrance into the life of God.
- The Spirit of Charismatic Community — the church of equal standing on the grounds of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling; a mystical imagination which anticipates the work of the Spirit or words of the Lord through any sister or brother.
- The Holistic Spirit — physical & inner healing, full-bodied musical worship, and global mission summon the Pentecostal church toward a holistic sense of how the Spirit acts.
- The Spirit of Eschatological Mission — Pentecostalism’s roots include a self-understanding that the contemporary outpouring of the Spirit signposted the imminent personal return of Jesus Christ, thus charging Pentecostalism with eschatological passion and mission.
Those themes, not surprisingly, do have some clear resonances with wider ecotheologies, so much so that they will form the pillars of Swoboda’s concluding proposals in later pages.
It is in Chapter 6, “Themes of a Green Pentecostal Pneumatology,” that Swoboda begins to carefully synthesize the previous “survey and summary” chapters into a confident first step toward a holistic Pentecostal ecopneumatology. The four big markers of Pentecostal identity displayed in Chapter 5 are here expanded from an individualized application to a holistic, ecological, and political vision.
Spirit Baptism breaks out from an ecstatic second work of grace near conversion of particular persons to an action which at Pentecost permeated all of creation. This is an odd claim when the Hebrew scriptures consistently blur the lines between creation and God’s Spirit – how, may we ask, is the Spirit-drenched creation of Jewish imagination different through the reality of Pentecost? Compounded further: there appears to be no clear text that the Spirit has freshly permeated creation in the New Testament.
Swoboda’s solution, following biblical scholar George Caird’s novel interpretation, is that Ephesians 4:7-11 (“What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended…”) refers to the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. I for one, am quite warm to this interpretation Swoboda deploys for a variety of reasons though it warrants a more patient argument than this review merits. Regardless: the Ephesians passage’s telling phrase for Swoboda’s ability to link Spirit Baptism with ecology is precisely how that passage concludes: “…in order to fill the whole universe.” Christ who ascends after Eastertide descends a’la Moses on Sinai in the person of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to fill the whole universe and the church.
If creation is Spirit-baptised, it summons the church to anticipate the presence of the Spirit they know on Sunday morning and daily prayer in the stuff of salmon, pines, irises, rocks, insects, and turtles. And just as the Spirit-baptised believer becomes through sanctification an advance sign of eschatological renewal, so also the Spirit-baptised creation can signpost its own belovedness by God, eschatological renewal, and (however you want to work this one out) its own journey of sanctification.
The second Pentecostal theme Swoboda thoughtfully expands to the land is that of the Spirit of Charismatic Community. The Spirit’s capacity to empower the ongoing life of witness in the church through unity beyond conventional separation lines is expanded to the separation between human and non-human creation. The people in which there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, is emblematic of a holistic redemption which peaceably swallows up the power lines between humanity and the rest of creation. “A charismatic creation theology,” Swoboda writes, “allows a new context of peace to take place.” The work of the Spirit in vivifying a reconciled people, a community of relationships being made right, is opened up toward the highly relational land toward a similar end. If, as my campus pastor said when we were neighbors of Swoboda’s in Eugene, “the kingdom of God is all about relationships” bent toward reconciliation, and if ecology is a deep vision of a relationally-animated world, then that kingdom people should be both giving themselves toward reconciliation with creation and learning how to be a relationally-vibrant-and-reconciled people through the interweaving of creation.
The third theme, The Holistic Spirit of Creation, has generous overlap with the first theme. Its distinctive contribution toward a Pentecostal ecotheology is the tactility of Pentecostal reality. The Spirit emobidies and animates; she vivifies and calls us to cry out and lay on hands and fall to the ground. The richer the pneumatological practice and vision, the more embodied it will be. With the palpable pulse of paradox that only orthodoxy can muster, the truly spiritually-minded person is the most refined materialist. Life in the Spirit, to Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals alike, should be splendidly physical, but more so for the Pentecostal. Healing, laying on of hands, physiological cues of the Spirit’s work or words, and even snake-handling are, after all, the nuts and bolts of Pentecostal life. This holism lends itself quite obviously to Swoboda’s cause. Dualism is every ecotheology’s great demon to contend with, and Swoboda demonstrates amply a strong Pentecostal capacity to exorcise it.
“The Eschatological Spirit of Ecological Mission,” rounds out Swoboda’s four Pentecostal-turned-ecological talking points. He argues that ecology summons us to a better eschatology than “It’ll all burn” pop-theologies have offered Pentecostals in recent decades. Their movement was inaugurated with a fresh sense of living in the final days; glossolalia was the canary in the coalmine heralding that the parousia was at hand. Thus, Swoboda muses, fiddling with eschatology should have effects among Pentecostals disproportionate to other tribes of Christianity. Nurturing a creation-affirming escahtology – perhaps along the lines of those advanced by N.T. Wright in recent decades – could thus propel Pentecostal activism toward decisively greener pastures.
Swoboda’s climactic chapter concludes with acknowledgements of the three big obstacles to a greener Pentecostalism, along with rebuffs to each.
- Pentecostals have few green sprouts within their tradition(s) – though Swoboda suggests that the Holy Spirit loves clean slates on which to work.
- Pentecostalism must look beyond its own halls for growing their ecological vision and practice, often from those they are firmly skeptical of – though part of the point of Pentecost is that the Spirit was poured out on all flesh, and that surely must include non-Pentecostals and left-of-center theologians.
- Near-sighted eschatologies woven into the heart of Pentecostalism inhibits the longer-term vision needed for practicing a durable ecological witness – though Swoboda assures us that the imperative edge of near-term eschatologies have historically hastened the church toward deeper holiness, not been used as an excuse for unfaithful lives.
Swoboda’s conclusion does what every dissertation should: summarizes the utility of its findings, responds to its challenges, directs us to its future developments, and gives readers a set of ecclesial implications.