Elmhurst College: Stewards of the Planet

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Stewards of the Planet

Humans have the power to enable life to flourish or perish, and whether people use that power in a responsible, ethical manner will determine the future, said William Schweiker, a noted theologian, ethicist and author, during the annual Niebuhr Lecture on February 23.

“Human beings are increasingly responsible, if not solely responsible, for the integrity of life, our own lives, that of other species, further generations and our planet’s ecology. Our decisions shapefor good or illthe conditions for future life,” Schweiker told the Frick Center audience. Schweiker is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the University of Chicago Divinity School and director of the Martin Marty Center.

Schweiker issued a “call of conscience that summons us to lives of moral and spiritual integrity” to people of all faiths and those of no faith.

“The call of conscience is the way and will of God, uttered not from some heavenly realm but from within the structures of lived reality. The question we confront in our post-secular and global age is whether we will answer the call of conscience or deny it,” he said. “Responsible action is the living interpretation … of beliefs about God’s power and the power of Christ.”

Schweiker outlined three simultaneous revolutions that are changing the world and how humans interact with each other. The first revolution, human action, is fueled by technology and gives humans the power to “shape forms of life from the level of the planet’s environment to the genetic make-up of life. The proper use of this power requires thinking in terms of an ethics of responsibility.”

“Can we rightly decide in the present to alter the genetic make-up of human beings and (create) ‘designer babies,’ or does this rob future persons of some of their freedom because they are the product of our design?” he asked. This dilemma affects how people view God.

“One traditional picture of reality is that God made nature and that human beings and God together make social realities,” he said. But now “human making is enfolding nature within itself,” and that raises concerns that future generations will be marked by “domination of the made over the born.”

The second revolution is that people increasingly experience life in a holistic and interdependent way, and the third is the resurgence of religions.  Schweiker said the three interlocking revolutions mean that people must recognize they have a responsibility not only to ensure their own needs are met but to exceed those needs with moral goods that enhance the integrity of life, such as care, honesty, love and friendship.

“Religion is about the way one lives life rather than creeds professed. It is about how we organize social institutions rather than just a set of doctrines and ideas,” Schweiker said.
“That way of life is deeply religious, rooted in a specific community, and yet one that accepts with others responsibility for the integrity of life in the name of a humane nature.”

The Niebuhr Lecture dates to the early 1960s and honors two of Elmhurst College’s most esteemed alumni, theologians Reinhold Niebuhr  ’10 and his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr ‘12, who served as Elmhurst College’s sixth president from 1924 to 1927. The lecture is part of the College's yearlong focus on religion, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.

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