Eschatology and Community Gardens by Colin Bossen

As the economy stagnates and concern about sustainable agriculture grows community gardens are on the increase across the United States

By Colin Bossen|October 6, 2011

As the economy stagnates and concern about sustainable agriculture grows community gardens are on the increase across the United States. In many places congregations are starting them as sites for building community, creating a more ecologically sustainable world and providing the marginalized with an important healthy food source. These gardens are a place where the religious community meets the wider world. And how a religious community approaches the world around it is fundamentally a theological matter.

Among the religious communities in Greater Cleveland, community gardens are clearly on the increase. In the last few years I know of at least five congregations, including my own, that have started community gardens. These congregations range in size, location and religious and demographic make-up. Some are small. Others are large. Some are located in affluent suburbs and others can be found downtown or bordering blighted neighborhoods. Some are largely white and some are racially integrated. Some are Christian and others belong to my own Unitarian Universalist tradition, which includes but is not exclusively Christian. All, however, belong to mainline or liberal denominations and have long histories of involvement with social justice.

Our garden started a couple of years ago when one of the residents in the low income senior apartments across the street contacted me and the Ohio State University's Extension Garden program about creating a community garden. He had first approached his landlord about a garden but had been flatly denied. Then he came to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland to ask if we would sponsor the garden instead. OSU Extension offered to provide training and materials to the would-be gardeners if we provided the land.

It was an easy decision for the congregation's Board. During our discussions several people cited the Unitarian Universalist Association's Green Sanctuary program, which is an effort to "create a world in which all people make reverence, gratitude, and care for the living Earth that is central to our lives." Board members felt that starting the garden was a small effort that we could make to address some of the ecological and social issues present within the larger culture of the United States.

This brings us back to theology, specifically eschatology. In his text "Paths in Utopia" Martin Buber distinguishes between two types of eschatology, the prophetic and the apocalyptic. Religious communities that are prophetic see "every person... as endowed with the power to participate by his decisions and deeds in the preparing of Redemption." In contrast, an apocalyptic religious community is one in "which the redemption process in all its details, its very hour and course, has been fixed from everlasting and for whose accomplishments human beings are only used as tools..."

Buber's typology is useful because it provides insight into how religious communities approach their relationship to the world around them. Prophetic communities are more likely to take ecological issues seriously for they understand that humanity has a role to play in shaping the environment and addressing the current ecological crisis. Apocalyptic communities, in contrast, are likely to see environmental issues as beyond the pale of human agency and within the sole purview of the divine.

The prophetic nature of Unitarian Universalism helps explain why the Green Sanctuary program has found popularity within our religious movement and why my Board was so willing to sponsor a community garden. It also suggests why religious liberals have been active in efforts to stem climate change while religious conservatives have often numbered among climate change's most vehement deniers. How religious traditions understand human agency and responsibility impact how their members act.

Every couple of weeks in the summer and early autumn I walk into my office and discover a plastic bag filled with tomatoes, Chinese long beans and the occasional squash sitting on the conference table. They are the fruits of my congregation's community garden, supported by my Unitarian Universalist congregation's shared, though usually unstated, understanding of eschatology.


Martin Buber, "Paths in Utopia," translated by R.F.C. Hull (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).

Unitarian Universalist Green Sanctuary Program 

Ohio State University Extension 


Colin Bossen is minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. He keeps a blog at