As Seminarians Pray to Plants, Critics Cry Heresy, Idolatry

Union Theological Seminary in New York has drawn the bewilderment of several leading evangelical thinkers for its latest “progressive” move—having students utter prayers of confession to … plants. The kind one waters.

“I’m all for caring for our plants and wildlife,” wrote theologian Michael Brown in a Christian Post op-ed, “And I’m all for responsible environmentalism. But I’m not going to pray to Mother Earth. And I’m not going to confess to plants. Nor will I look to plants as the ‘beings who sustain us.’ There is one Being who sustains us (and the plants), and I will make my confession to Him.”

On Sept. 17, seminary students gathered around a display of house plants set up in the chapel of the school and confessed their sins. The ceremony, part of a class called “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew immediate criticism and mockery, prompting the school to tweet this explanation:

“Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer, offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?”

The seminary issued a statement, which said in part: “We are in the throes of a climate emergency, a crisis created by humanity’s arrogance, our disregard for creation. Far too often, we see the natural world only as resources to be extracted for our use, not divinely created in their own right—worthy of honor, thanks and care. Churches have a huge role to play in this endeavor. Theologies that encourage humans to dominate and master the earth have played a deplorable role in degrading God’s creation. We must birth new theology, new liturgy to heal and sow, replacing ones that reap and destroy.”

The confessional created a furor because Union, the nation’s oldest independent seminary, is  affiliated with neighboring Columbia University in Upper Manhattan. German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among the school’s more famous alumni. Bonhoeffer was appalled by the liberalism of the school’s students, even in 1939, according to an article in the Washington Examiner.

The event is indicative of what can happen when a seminary throws out the full inspiration of Scripture and denies the uniqueness of Jesus’ work of redemption, Brown said. Such practices lead to theological and moral bankruptcy.

Al Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, expressed the danger in the seminary’s views in his podcast The Briefing.

“If you do not worship the Creator, you will inevitably worship the creation, in one way or another,” Mohler said. “That is the primal form of idolatry. We cannot be pleased with the desecration of creation, but we can also not be pleased or ever satisfied with the idea that creation exists unto itself, that human beings are a blight upon creation, and that it is wrong for human beings to exercise dominion over creation.”

Like Brown, Mohler took particular issue with the school’s reference to plants as “the beings who sustain us.”

“A stalk of wheat is not a being, nor is a rhododendron, nor is an oak tree, nor even an acorn, nor is an entire forest,” he said. “Plants are not beings, but what you see here is the confusion that happens when the Biblical worldview is abandoned.”