Ecological Religious Education

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Jennifer R. Ayres
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jennifer Ayres is a leading practical theologian who examines ecological issues and their relationships to religious formation and education. In this remarkable book, Inhabitance: Ecological Religious Education, Ayres aptly imagines and explores what it means for Christians to inhabit their ecosystems and to educate individuals and communities to be responsible and loving inhabitants of God’s world. What sets this book apart is the author’s commitment to construct a theology and pedagogy of inhabitance with a profound concern for ecological “alienation, loneliness, unchecked industrialization, and environmental degradation,” particularly in the United States (4). This cultivation of inhabitance, Ayres argues, does not happen organically. It requires a robust and thoughtful pedagogy of inhabitance “that understands the contextual challenges to which it responds, sets a clear purpose for religious leaders and educators, and develops a set of ecclesial and pedagogical practices that form human ecological character” (5).

In chapter 1, Ayres claims that the cultivation of ecological faith is possible and necessary because not only do we act ecologically, but we are also ecological beings. As ecological creatures, we are to inhabit God’s world, “seeking to become loving, just, and responsible members of God’s household” (10, emphasis original). By drawing on biblical stories and Reformed theology, Ayres beautifully describes that we are called by God to live in rich relationship to God’s Earth, which is also understood, according to John Calvin, as the theatrum gloriae, “the theatre of God’s glory,” (17). Why, then, do humans struggle to be responsible members of God’s household? Chapter 2 answers, “human beings simply do not adequately care” (22, emphasis original). The significant lack of adequate care is due to the failure to cultivate the affective dimensions of ecological identity.

To live in, thrive in, and care for our ecological context, Ayres calls for the power of eros, “the divine desire for the creation, for the creature” (29). Humans as God’s ecological creatures are called to fall in love with God’s world erotically in order to desire and inhabit it “lovingly and longingly even as they do not fully understand it and, even less, control or manage it” (31).

If inhabitance requires eros, how can humans educate one another to live in God’s world well with wonder, grief, love, resilience, and hope? How can we become God’s ecological beings? In chapters 3 and 4, Ayres responds to these questions by creatively developing and constructing the pedagogy of inhabitance, ecological religious education that has theological, social, and philosophical groundings. In essence, learning to inhabit God’s world is a form of paideia, “a process of formation and, sometimes, transformation in the context of … the whole ecological community” (63). In this slow and ongoing process of nurturing inhabitance, members of the community learn and develop “a set of practices and reflection that engage human bodies, emotions, and creativity,” which culminates in ecological faith and commitment (80, emphasis original).

While the life of inhabitance means opportunities for experiencing joy and wonder, it also means acknowledging “the real possibilities of suffering and harm in this world” (82). In chapters 5 and 6, Ayres narrates and examines the stories of how various faith communities have educated members to cultivate the life of inhabitance and also “embrace vulnerability” in their particular places. The story of San Jose Parish in Beloit, Wisconsin, is a compelling example of a faith community finding and establishing a new inhabitance from the vulnerable place of psychological, social, and economic liminality. As a largely Spanish-speaking immigrant worshiping community, San Jose has trained its members to actively engage in farming and raising goats and chickens. For these immigrants who have been dislocated from their original inhabitance, this unfamiliar place in southern Wisconsin has slowly and gradually become their new place of inhabitance, their new home away from home. Ayres claims that ecological religious education ultimately forms “human beings into thriving inhabitants even in the most ecologically challenging contexts and times” (129). San Jose Parish’s work of planting and harvesting is a form of religious ecological education that truly empowers the members to mourn their experiences of displacement and subsequently to fall in love with their new inhabitance.

Inhabitance—from its wide-ranging theoretical grounds in theology, philosophical ethics, and environmental studies to its captivating case studies of educational practice in faith communities—is an excellent work of practical theology that can be widely read. For teachers and students of theological education, the sheer comprehensiveness of this book will highlight the importance of engaging in a grounded theological practice like this “pedagogy of inhabitance” that deeply understands and responds to particular contextual challenges. For lay leaders and members in churches, this book will lead to metanoia, “turning toward God,” in order to fall in love again with God’s creation.

Because Ayres speaks as a theologian, indeed as a Reformed theologian who is committed to ecological religion education, Inhabitance would be a difficult read for non-Christian readers. But this book can still speak to a larger audience. Particularly in the last two chapters, Ayres invites fellow religious educators from all religious traditions to pay close attention to what members of their churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues have been doing in their particular places. How are rural faith communities handling agricultural crises? How are faith leaders collaborating with local civic leaders and health-care professionals to deal with a global pandemic? For a long time, as Ayres eloquently discusses, many faith communities have been doing contextually grounded ecological religious education for inhabitance, without naming and describing it as such.

While ecological concerns have long been of research interest to religious education, this urgent topic is seriously underrepresented in the North American practical theological community. That is why Ayres’ contribution is a rare and welcome addition. Inhabitance can be used to generate more conversations on ecological faith and commitment in the classroom and faith communities, and also to inspire further research in the larger scholarly community of practical theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eunil David Cho is visiting assistant professor of pastoral theology and care at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer R. Ayres is associate professor of religious education at Candler School of Theology and Emory University, where she also directs the Doctor of Ministry Program.


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