Whitworth professor acts as a wilderness guide
By Asher Ali
Jonathan Moo likens teaching students theology and environmental studies at Whitworth University to being a wilderness guide, taking them places he has been, but letting them explore, discover and come to their own conclusions.
For 11 years at Whitworth, he has taught courses that focus on the New Testament, Greek and exegesis, faith in relation to science, ecology and environmental ethics. He guides students through questions that led him to pursue creation care, but lets them decide for themselves what the best way is for them to answer their own questions.
As a wilderness guide teacher, he also hopes students might come to love the places he takes them the way he does, but "it's ultimately their journey to find new paths and new ways of looking at the landscapes we explore," Jonathan said.
For him, part of being a wilderness guide means taking his students into the natural world.
Jonathan leads a class in the Cascade Mountains every other January, where he brings students from many sides of the science-faith spectrum to explore the beauty of the mountains and the relationship between science, faith and ecology. The opportunity to see students from diverse backgrounds and beliefs make new connections between science and faith and to begin to love and understand the natural world is why Jonathan loves teaching.
He also draws on his graduate training in both wildlife ecology and biblical studies in a number of books and articles he has written, including his 2018 book, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World. The book analyzes biblical texts from a perspective focused on the entirety of God's creation rather than just human beings.
Jonathan's aim is to draw attention to how God's love and purposes for the whole creation mean that Christians have an obligation to care for the earth because God created the world to serve more than just humanity.
"The world is not simply a backdrop for the human drama, but all of creation is caught up in the drama of Scripture, from the beginning until the final vision of a new creation in which all things are made new," Jonathan said.
This call to action started in the form of questions he had when he was younger. His father, Douglas Moo, who co-wrote the book, Creation Care, with Jonathan, has been a scholar of the New Testament for 40 years and is the Kenneth Wessner professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School.
While Jonathan was growing up in Illinois, his parents often took him outside, sparking his love for the natural world. He learned there is never a question relating to theology that's off the table for a Christian to ask, because solving these problems helps Christians grow in faith.
"My parents had a profound impact on me. They showed me what it means to follow Christ in a context where no question was off-limits and where there was no suggestion that Christian faith and science could not go together," Jonathan said. "In fact, the Christian faith provides a basis for doing good science. The example my parents set and seeing my father's work as a biblical scholar prepared me to follow in his footsteps and study scripture and theology myself."
Jonathan's interest in theology came later in his academic journey. In master's studies in wildlife ecology at Utah State University, he wrestled with his faith and with the apathy and apparent failure of the Christian church to take seriously ecology, climate change and the responsibility to care for the earth.
"I was fascinated with the natural world and moved by the ethical challenges science threw up for me," Jonathan said. "I found myself asking bigger questions about how science and faith go together. The more I studied the natural world and recognized threats to it, the more I longed to see Christians take more of a lead in restoring our relationship to the earth and caring well for it as part of our love of God and love of neighbor."
After graduating from Utah State, Jonathan went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston and then to the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, where he earned a doctoral degree in biblical studies and studied early Jewish and Christian conceptions of the natural world.
He then worked at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion on a project exploring the connection between Christian faith and environmental studies.
He believes the Christian hope for the reconciliation for all things in Christ can inspire and sustain faithful work to care for creation.
Jonathan said that it is easy for environmental activists and climate justice advocates to grow discouraged, and Christians, too, lament injustice and all that is lost and being lost, but biblical hope can inspire Christians to persevere even in dark times.
"Redemption is not a concept of human beings escaping this world, but instead of this world being restored," he said. "This can enable perseverance, hope and even joy in this world in all of its brokenness. This world is still beautiful and good, and God hasn't given up on it."
His passion for creation care and teaching led him to his role as professor of theology and environmental studies at Whitworth University. In 2014, he was Whitworth's Innovative Teacher of the Year, and the classes of 2018 and 2020 named him Most Influential Professor.
In September 2019, Jonathan became the Lindaman Chair, a role that rotates through Whitworth's senior faculty every four years. It gives professors time for research and expanding their sphere of influence on national discourse on their topics. He often speaks on Christianity, climate change and the environment.
As Lindaman chair, Jonathan focuses on studies relating to the book of Revelation, climate change and a new project on belonging and limits.
He explores how Christians' understanding of belonging shapes students' engagement with each other, God, technology and the natural world. He seeks to discover what limitations humans might embrace for their own flourishing and the flourishing of the rest of creation.
During the pandemic, he worked on natural disasters.
"With COVID-19, I returned to work I had done on framing natural disasters in a biblical light to see how Christians might understand and respond to disaster," Jonathan said. "The hope is to think better about how to respond and engage in times like these and to prepare for and, where possible, prevent and mitigate the impact of future potential triggers of disaster."
He challenges the idea of a cosmic fall, which is sometimes derived from Genesis 3, and used to excuse human involvement in and responsibility for disasters like the current pandemic.
The pandemic made educators' jobs like Jonathan's more challenging as they shifted their teaching online or to hybrid formats. It was difficult for his classes, so he was glad to return to in-person classes this year.
He has been pleased to see his students continue to excel despite the challenges of this time.
Jonathan said his students encourage and inspire him. That along with his delight in the natural world and biblical faith, enables him to do his work with joy and hope for the future.
He is a keynote speaker for the "Hope for Creation" Conference the Cathedral of St. John is hosting April 22 and 23.
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