Ecological theology is a relatively new movement in the world of christian thought and practice and therefore is neither widely understood nor easily defined, even by those who are variously involved in the movement.2 But however one might understand this theological trend, this much we know. From the outset, particularly in the United States, Lutherans have been deeply involved. One might even argue that american Lutherans have played a central role in the cultivation of this new field, both at the reflective, theological level and in the wider dimensions of church life, especially by the production of two theologically substantive social teaching statements (1972, 1993) and by the emergence of a host of practical ministries in lutheran circles that have embodied and, in some sense, tested the viability of the theological reflection and the social teaching statements.3
To be sure, as Hegel famously observed, the owl of Minerva does not take to flight until the dusk has come. Which is to suggest that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the meaning of any historical era until its trends have run their course. It is much too early, I am suggesting, to draw any kind of satisfactory conclusions about where ecological theology as a whole – now a global, ecumenical phenomenon – is going and what its influence might be, much less to assess the significance of american lutheran contributions to the field along the way. This paper, therefore, must necessarily have a modest scope.
So I will restrict myself to historical impressions, rather than trying to develop any kind of historical argument. More particularly, I will explore the story of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology as one who has had a hand, here and there, in shaping the first chapter of that engagement, for better or for worse.4 Indeed, as far as I can determine, my 1970 study, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, was one of the first books on the american scene in ecological theology and the first book of its kind written by a Lutheran.5 This, of course, makes it all the more difficult for me to see the forest for the trees. But this is what I think I know. The first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology was not written by a committee, nor by any kind of “theological school” comprised of teacher or teachers and disciples. This chapter was written by a number of often isolated individuals who happened to have shared some theological and contextual assumptions and who were variously moved, some more self-consciously than others, by the challenge of fostering what a number of us thought of from the start as an ecological reformation of christianity.6
I will endeavor, then, to identify some trends in this first chapter in the story of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology, assess the significance of those trends as best I can, and then call attention to some areas that require or even cry out for, further discussion and field-testing, especially in the ranks of those Lutherans, and others, who care about ecological theology and related ethical issues. I do this with the hope that these musings will then be of some value to those who are already engaged in making contributions to the second chapter of this critically important theological movement in american Lutheranism and in the life of the church more generally.
Do note that this paper is entirely about that first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology. This paper has six sections, all of which pertain to this first chapter, in one way or another. The second chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology begins today, as scholars and practitioners chart their courses toward the future, presupposing their learnings from the first chapter, positive or negative. This is an essay, in other words, that seeks to describe what was, in order to facilitate and, hopefully, to strengthen the work of those who already are involved, or who would like to be involved, in writing the second chapter of the story I am telling here.
The beginning of the first chapter of the story I have in mind, in terms of historical significance, can be precisely dated.7 In 1961, a then little known american lutheran theologian, Joseph Sittler, stepped to the podium of the World Council of Churches Assembly in New Delhi and delivered an address calling for a christology of nature. In retrospect that address can only be considered to have been a theological tour de force (so recognized widely today, by Juergen Moltmann, for example), although at the time many members of the then reigning theological guilds appeared to have had little or no awareness of what the import of Sittler’s prophetic presentation actually was and therefore tended to downplay its significance to the point of insignificance or even derision. Sittler’s address was published a year later, which I will take as our point of departure.8
If 1962 is a clearly fixed point at which to begin these explorations, the end point of the first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology is much more difficult to identify. We meet Minerva’s owl once again. It is not easy to make judgments about the trends in which one is immersed. With total and perhaps entertaining arbitrariness, therefore, I will simply say this. The end of the first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology is provided by the body of writings and practical ecclesial initiatives produced by a cadre of american lutheran theologians and practitioners who, as of 2012, either have died or who are in or very near retirement. Which gives us fifty years of theological engagement which to survey in the course of these musings, a daunting task in itself.
Autobiographical Reflections: Encountering the Lutheran Mainstream
I begin with some autobiographical reflections, in order to highlight the milieu in which those of us who were interested in an ecological reformation of christianity initially worked and continued to work for some time. Today there is widespread awareness of the extent, if not the depth, of our global ecojustice crisis. Today is a time, more particularly, when the christian churches and their leaders around the world – Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and ecumenical – have become highly visible advocates of ecojustice and when written works in ecological theology have proliferated virtually to the point of infinity.9
Those who live and work in this context may find it difficult even to imagine the theological situation faced by some of us who first addressed the challenge of an ecological reformation of christianity in the sixties and seventies of the last century. We knew that something momentous was unfolding in the world around us and we felt called upon to address the then emerging crisis theologically, but most of us also felt very much alone – and without viable theological resources with which to work.
When, for example, in 1963, I first broached the possibility of doing a doctoral dissertation on the theology of nature with my then recently assigned advisor at Harvard Divinity School, Gordon Kaufman, he told me that “theologians are no longer interested in nature.” I remember those words vividly. Some years later, to be sure, Kaufman would do an about-face on this issue, and would become a highly vocal champion of the theology of nature.10 But his 1963 comment to me typified the theological assumptions prevalent in those years in seminaries and graduate programs in theology, as well as in the preaching and teaching of the churches at the grass roots, at least according to the anecdotal evidence that I was able to accrue.
The theology we had inherited circa 1963 was self-consciously anthropocentric or, in Karl Barth’s memorable language, “theo-anthropocentric.” Its chief concern was God and humanity, often to the disinterest in or even to the total abandonment of the wider world of nature.11 With the exception of only a few theological projects, such as Paul Tillich’s12 or Joseph Sittler’s,13 dogmatic or systematic theology at that time was thoroughly theo-anthropocentric.14 Biblical studies, dominated by the self-consciously existential New Testament interpretation of Rudolf Bultmann and his followers, and by the over-against-nature Old Testament hermeneutics of G. Ernest Wright and the Albright school, were also generally theo-anthropocentric. Christian ethics, whether domesticated in the form of personal, contextual ethics or more publicly responsible in the forms of the ethics of technology or politics, was likewise mainly theo-anthropocentric.
We should not forget that there were profound contextual reasons behind this trend. It was not simply a matter, as it is sometimes portrayed, of anthropocentric arrogance, predicated perhaps on western imperialistic pretensions. It was that in significant ways, but it was also an expression of soul-shaking revulsion against the National Socialist ideology in Germany, and the “German Christian” movement in particular. The Nazis and their theologizing ideologues were, in their own demonic ways, champions of the theology of nature! Their ideology of Blut und Boden presupposed a heroic, amoral fascination with nature red in tooth and claw and a social darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest. Not for nothing, then, did Barth sound his resounding Nein to Emil Brunner’s proposal for a very modest, reconfigured “natural theology.”
That kind of theological revulsion against the Blut und Boden ideology as a matter of course also shaped the american theological world – including, perhaps above all, the hearts and minds of Lutherans – where the story of the Confessing Church and the resistance-theology of Bonhoeffer understandably had come to preoccupy theologians and practitioners. All this was predicated on the rejection-story of any theology even thematically associated with nature.
For a whole range of reasons, then, the larger world of nature was rarely considered in its own right in what might be called mainstream american theological circles circa 1963. Nature was viewed mainly as the stage for human history and as the world of resources given to humans by God for the sake of human well-being and human justice. And things did not quickly change in this respect, certainly not in the teaching in mainstream denominational seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as far as I could determine at the time, notwithstanding the fact that manifestos like Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring15 in 1962, the ecological critique of christian thought and practice by the historian Lynn White, Jr.16 in 1967, and the first, much hailed Club of Rome Report, The Limits to Growth,17 in 1972 were widely being discussed in the media and in academic circles generally.
The global cultural context had begun to change radically. No longer was the issue before the church the challenge of nature understood in terms of Blut und Boden. The issue was fast becoming the desecration and ongoing destruction of nature, our earthly home, primarily by the principalities and powers of western imperial aspirations. A range of american theologians, however, a number of lutherans among them, were slow to realize that that change was underway.
Fast forward some years now to 1984, to a period when ecology had emerged as a public issue of considerable proportions. The tenth anniversary of the first Earth Day had been celebrated in 1980. Ecology had become a public cause celebre. Juergen Moltmann was giving his 1984-85 Gifford Lectures, God and Creation: An Ecological Theology of Creation.18 Nineteen-eighty-four was also the year when a major, two-volume lutheran summary and synthesis of major christian teachings, Christian Dogmatics, appeared in the U.S.19 Its title suggested that it may well have been intended to provide an american lutheran alternative to Barth’s multi-volumed, reformed Church Dogmatics. Written by a number of the leading lights of american lutheran theology in that era, Carl Braaten, Gerhard Forde, Philip Hefner, Robert Jenson, Hans Schwarz, and Paul Sponheim, that massive 1190 page work was in many ways historically well-informed and systematically coherent, notwithstanding the fact that it had been forged by many hands.
The word “ecology,” however, did not appear in the index of the Christian Dogmatics. I do not want to make too much of this bland fact (actually, I have noticed that the word ecology does appear in these volumes at least three times). Nor do I want to exaggerate the fact that Joseph Sittler is referred to only twice and in passing. Not every theologian of note could find a place in such a comprehensive project. Further, themes pertaining to the world of nature did emerge here and there in those two volumes, as in Hefner’s exposition of the meaning of creation, Jenson’s description of the beauties of the creation (under the rubric of the works of the Spirit), and Schwarz’s inclusion of nature in his discussion of eschatology.
Still, coming where I had come from autobiographically, as one who had to fight to do a – critical – dissertation on Karl Barth’s theology of nature, as a student of Tillich for six years who had fallen under the spell of his nature-mysticism, as one who had developed what was to become a life-long fascination with the story and the theology of Bonhoeffer, and as one who was excited by Sittler’s 1961 New Delhi address, early on I concluded that that 1984 Christian Dogmatics was deeply indebted to the theo-anthropocentric tradition of theological reflection exemplified by Barth, and had not been fundamentally responsive to the issues raised by Sittler in 1961 and thereafter. For sure, the Christian Dogmatics was not written, in part or in whole, in order to foment an ecological reformation of Christianity.
Such, apparently, was the shape of mainstream lutheran academic theology during the second half of the last century. No wonder that lutherans committed to ecological theology in those days had to invest enormous energies even to be heard in official lutheran theological circles. But numbers of lutheran theologians and practitioners did work energetically and imaginatively in the field of ecological theology during the last fifty years and did leave a legacy, I believe, which is worth reclaiming – critically, to be sure – by those Lutherans and others who now are beginning or even well into their work in this field in the twenty-first century.
The Paradigm-Shift From Theo-anthropocentrism To Theo-cosmocentrism
To take some steps toward identifying the legacy of that first chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology, 1962-2012, I now want to invoke a construct that some might find tiresome: Thomas Kuhn’s highly valuable, in my view, but perhaps overly popularized idea of a paradigm shift.20 Beginning with Sittler’s 1961 address and followed by a range of works over the ensuing fifty years, a number of lutheran theologians and practitioners – call this a minority witness or the lutheran theological sidestream – began to take for granted a theological paradigm shift, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes consciously, from theo-anthropocentrism to theo-cosmocentrism, if I may introduce this neologism here for the sake of clarity.
What was the character of that paradigm shift, from theo-anthropocentrism to theo-cosmocentrism? I want to identify that shift here, as clearly and as briefly as I can. For those who thought in terms of the first, the theo-anthropocentric paradigm, the chief objects of theological reflection are God and humanity, with the natural world often identified as the stage God puts in place to make possible God’s history with humanity (Emil Brunner actually proposed this metaphor in so many words). The accent for this paradigm also tends to be on the divine transcendence of nature, since God and humanity are the primary objects of theological reflection, with the natural world emerging into the picture only in a secondary, often instrumental fashion. Likewise, the accent tends to be on human transcendence of the world of nature, for the same reason.
The ethos that typically accompanies this paradigm ranges from total neglect of or even scorn for the natural world (fostering theoretical or practical expressions of gnostic traditions) to emphatic and energetic commitment to the “wise use” or the “responsible stewardship” of the natural world for the sake of supporting God’s primary purposes with humanity. This ethos is typically underwritten, in biblical terms, by the received translation of Genesis 2:15, according to which God places Adam in the garden of Eden in order “to till and to keep it.” Human justice and ecojustice issues more generally are then worked out in the framework of this theo-anthropocentric ethos, often in terms of the construct of responsible stewardship.
For the second, the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, the chief objects of theological reflection are God and the whole created world (the latter sometimes called “nature” in the traditional, comprehensive theological sense, including therewith what in common parlance today we call “the natural world”). The accent here tends to be on the divine immanence in nature, since God is, as it were, equally near to all things, the human creature not being privileged in this respect. The accent here also tends to be on human immanence in nature. Humans, according to this way of thinking, are fully and irrevocably imbedded in nature, notwithstanding the fact, variously expressed, that humans, even as they are essentially interconnected with all other creatures, nevertheless have a divinely bestowed vocation that in some sense differentiates them from all other creatures, just as all other creatures also have divinely bestowed characteristics that in some sense differentiate them from one another, in the one created world of “nature” (Joseph Sittler) or the one created earth-community (Larry Rasmussen).
The ethos given with this theo-cosmocentric paradigm is typically one that accents the kinship of all creatures and, in particular, human caring or even love for all creatures, however differentiated these creatures may be from one another.21 The language of human communion and cooperation with nature (or with the earth or the cosmos) is also sometimes used. This ethos has come to be underwritten biblically, with increasing frequency, in terms of a fresh translation of Genesis 2:15, according to which God places Adam in the garden of Eden in order “to serve and protect it,” no longer “to till and to keep it.” Human justice and ecojustice issues are then worked out in the framework of this theo-cosmocentric ethos. But the enormously popular protestant construct of stewardship tends to fall to the wayside, in the context of this second paradigm, in favor of kinship categories such as caring or loving, communion or cooperation.
In a paper like this, I will not be able to delve into all the works by lutherans that show evidence of having claimed that new paradigm as their own, 1962-2012. But I will mention several of them, and highlight two in particular: the contributions of Sittler and, most recently, Larry Rasmussen. I will also consider, briefly, how the two lutheran social teaching statements, to which I have already referred, also presuppose the new theo-cosmocentric paradigm, as do a variety of practical ecclesial initiatives in lutheran circles.
The Case of Joseph Sittler: The Lutheran Sidestream Comes Into View
While Joseph Sittler’s ecological theology burst upon the public theological world in 1961 and the following year when it was published, he himself had been working on such themes for some time. Thus in a 1954 essay, “A Theology for Earth,” he identified two ways that humans had characteristically related to the world of nature in the past: (1) subsuming nature under human life and, (2) the exact opposite, subsuming human life under nature.(S 27) In contrast, said Sittler (using the sexist language and categories many of us employed in those days), “Christian theology, obedient to the biblical account of nature, has asserted a third possible relationship: that man ought to stand alongside nature as her cherishing brother, for she too is God’s creation and bears God’s image.” (S 28) Sittler then called attention to Psalm 104, a doxolological parallel to the Genesis 1 creation account, and – as ecological theology began to unfold as a field in its own right – a text that was to become a key biblical rallying point for many:
Here [in Psalm 104] is a holy naturalism, a matrix of grace in which all things derive significance from their origin, and all things find fulfilment in praise. Man and nature live out their distinct but related lives in a complex that recalls the divine intention as that intention is symbolically related on the first page of the Bible. Man is placed, you will recall, in the garden of earth. This garden he is to tend as God’s other creation – not to use as a godless warehouse or to rape as a tyrant. (S 28f)
Sittler concluded that essay, suggestively, anticipating his 1961 New Delhi address, and even foreshadowing conclusions that have been drawn by others in recent second-chapter discussions, concerning what is now sometimes called “a deep Incarnation”:
The Incarnation has commonly received only that light which can be reflected backward upon it from Calvary. While, to be sure, these events cannot be separated without the impoverishment of the majesty of the history of redemption, it is nevertheless proper to suggest that our theological tendency to declare them only in their concerted meaning at the point of fusion tends to disqualify us to listen to the ontological-revelational overtones of the Incarnation. (S 31 it. his)
Already in 1954, then, Sittler had put in place the scope, if not all the content, of a theology that was predicated on the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, a theology of God and the whole creation and an ethos of human kinship with nature. Notable also was his inclination to shape that theology, not solely or even primarily or in terms of a theology of creation and its frequently, although not always, invoked stewardship ethic, but primarily in terms of a christological vision. This christological focal point would then allow him, with texts like Philippians 2:5ff. in mind, along side of Colossians 1:15ff., to envision an ethos of service to nature, framed by the vision of the servanthood of Christ.
Lifting up the claims of Colossians 1:15ff., in particular, then, Sittler forcefully set in place the theo-cosmocentric paradigm in his 1961 New Delhi address, with a vivid picture of what was to become his signature christological vision:
A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his home, his definitive place, the theater of his selfhood under God, in cooperation with his neighbor and in caring relationship with nature, his sister. (S 40)
In Sittler’s view, christians in the modern period lost the power of this robust faith in cosmic redemption, because they allowed the Enlightenment worldview to reign unchallenged. “A bit of God died,” he said, “with each new natural conquest.” (S 43) The claims of human autonomy ruled the day. The realm of grace retreated.
But the reign of human autonomy, in this respect, according to Sittler, has left us and our world bankrupt. The relationship of humanity with its God-given home, nature, is now in profound crisis in every culture around the globe. So, Sittler concluded, presciently, drawing on imagery from Colossians, “the root-pathos of our time is the struggle by the peoples of the world in many and various ways to find some principle, order, or power which shall be strong enough to contain the raging ‘…thrones, dominions, principalities’ which restrict and ravage human life.” (S 45)
In this situation of global crisis, Sittler then announced that for Christians “the way forward is from christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God.” (S 48) Hence Christians, in Sittler’s view, should not be driven, first and foremost, by the thought of our global crisis, but rather by the reality of God’s grace, established cosmically in Jesus Christ, according to the witness of the Bible as a whole, of which the vision of Colossians 1:15ff. is but one stellar example, in Sittler’s view:
For it was said in the beginning that God beheld all things and declared them good, so it was uttered by an angel in the apocalypse of John, ‘…ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth neither the sea, nor the trees…’ (Revelation 7:2-3 KJV) The care of the earth, the realm of nature as a theater of grace, the ordering of the thick material procedures that make available to or deprive men of bread and peace – these are christological obediences before they are practical necessities. (S 48)
Nine years later, in 1970, in an essay entitled “Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” (S 76-86) Sittler drew out implications of this vision for the christian ethos. To this end, he forcefully announced the theme “the integrity of nature,” one of the bedrock notions of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm. Sittler did this in response to Jesus’ saying, as Sittler believed it should have been translated, not “Consider,” but “Behold the lilies of the field.” (Matthew 6:28):
The word “behold” lies upon that which is beheld with a kind of tenderness which suggests that things in themselves have their own wondrous authenticity and integrity. I am called upon in such a saying not simply to ‘look’ at a nonself but to ‘regard’ things with a kind of spiritual honoring of the immaculate integrity of things which are not myself. (S 80)
Sittler argued that “this way of regarding things is an issue that the religious community must attend to before it gets to the more obvious moral, much less the procedural and pedagogical problems.” (S 80) This means, he says, bringing into question the notion that humans in their historical experience and in their selfhood as individuals are so set apart from the rest of God’s creation that they can deal with it in olympian arrogance. We are in fact siblings of the whole creation, he concludes, and called therefore to care for the creation. Which means, finally, in Sittler’s view, “that ecology, that is, the actuality of the relational as constitutive of all our lives, is the only theater vast enough for a modern playing out of the doctrine of grace.” (S 85)
Sittler would then develop this core of theological reflections in a variety of directions in ensuing years. The literature on his work is thankfully growing.22 But this overview of his thought is sufficient here, in order to show how creatively and how vibrantly he claimed the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as his own, as early as 1954 and then with his grand public statement in 1961 and in his 1970 article.
Others In The Lutheran Sidestream
Before I conclude this portion of my discussion with a review of Larry Rasmussen’s thought, however, I want to mention in passing several other theologians who, in my view, also made contributions to the first chapter of the american lutheran engagement with ecological theology and whose works, more particularly, show, I believe, that their authors also had – consciously or unconsciously – presupposed the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as their own. Further research and reflection about this theme may indeed show that many others – biblical scholars, ethicists, and practitioners, as well teachers and historians of doctrine – along with those who I am citing here, also had adopted the same kind of thinking.
But the short list I have chosen at this point should suggest at least this much: that adoption of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm was a visible and viable trend, albeit not the dominant trend, in lutheran life and thought during the last fifty years. Moving with the currents shaped by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, in other words, was not just the hallmark practice of two widely known theologians, Sittler and Rasmussen, but of many others. I will also highlight, in this connection, two major lutheran social teaching statements from this period and other practical ecclesial initiatives, since they also show the breadth of lutheran theological commitment in these years to what I have been calling the ecological reformation of Christianity.
The lutheran theologians I have in mind at this point, in addition to Sittler and then Rasmussen, have worked in many, sometimes overlapping fields, but all are, to various degrees, dependent on the theo-cosmocentric paradigm. Philip Hefner23 has focused much energies on explorations in theological anthropology, particularly as that field intersects at many points with the findings of the natural sciences, above all in his 1993 study, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion.24 Hefner understands human beings to be thoroughly immersed in nature, especially in its evolutionary history, although distinct from other creatures in important ways. For Hefner, even though his chief interest is in the human being as created, co-creator, the primary objects of theological reflection are thus God and the cosmos, which is understood to be an intricately interconnected, ecological whole.25 Behind all this, for Hefner, is the biblical vision of God’s history with nature, announced in scripture by the story of God’s covenant with Noah and by the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.26 Seen from any angle, then, Hefner’s thought is fundamentally shaped by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.
Ted Peters has likewise been extensively interested in the interface – for him, the “consonance” – between science and theology. In this context, he, like Hefner, as a matter of course developed a keen interest in ecological theology and environmental justice over the years. He publicly entered the discussion of the environmental crisis in 1980 with theological themes that he would later bring to completion in a number of major works: his vision of the eschatological fulcrum of theology, his view of God’s consummating future as encompassing the whole of cosmic history, not just human history, his understanding of the church’s vocation as a proleptic community, called to embody the cosmic promise of God’s future, here and now, insofar as that is possible in a broken world, and his eagerness to engage secular thought, both in its popular and its most sophisticated expressions.27
By 1992, Peters’ theological eschatology had come into full view, as what is perhaps his most important work, God – the World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era, shows.28 Peters’ vision of God, from beginning to ending, comprehends the whole cosmos and, above all, the cosmos’ eschatological future, not just God’s history with humankind. God creates and brings all things to fulfillment from that future. God also initiates the consummation of the whole creation by sending Jesus Christ to the here and now, says Peters. Jesus is thus the first embodiment or the prolepsis of the eschatological Peaceable Kingdom. Through Jesus, in turn, in Peters’ view, God then calls together a community of the end-times to love the lost and to care for nature.29 At its most fundamental level, then, Peters’s thought presupposes the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, eschatologically elucidated, to be sure.
Terence Freitheim has been one of several biblical scholars in the ecumenical community who have fostered a figure-ground reversal in Old Testament studies in recent years.30 For this new reading of the Old Testament, the theology of creation, in general, and the theology of nature, more particularly, is now the primary framework for biblical interpretation, rather than the theology of human redemption, as it was for the preceding generation of biblical scholars, such as the aforementioned work of G. Ernest Wright. Freitheim’s magisterial 2005 study, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation,31 indicates the fruitfulness of a biblical scholarship that presupposes, consciously or unconsciously, the paradigm of theo-cosmocentrism. Fretheim shows, again and again, how the theologies woven into the Old Testament understand creation as one world, with which God has a history, and not as some alleged stage for God’s history with humankind. More particularly, Fretheim documents how Genesis 1:26-28, the notorious dominion text, is not to be read as an excuse for domination, as that construct is often understood, and how Genesis 2:15 is rightly to be read in terms of Adam’s serving and protecting the earth.32 Fretheim’s exegetical investigations thus, in effect, read the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as a fundamental datum of Old Testament theology.
In liturgical studies, a field that has often been self-consciously theo-anthropocentric in character, Gordon Lathrop has interpreted the classical christian liturgy as deeply embedded in God’s good earth and indeed in the whole cosmos of God, both in the liturgy’s various current formations and as profoundly shaped by eschatological hope. Lathrop’s pioneering 2003 study, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology,33 shows how the formative ritual of the christian community is developed not only as embedded in the earth and in the greater cosmos, but as a praxis that shapes the christian life to be a life of caring for the whole creation, not just for other humans. To this end, Lathrop emphasizes the liturgy as rooted in local, natural places and as maximizing gratitude for the material gifts of God, such as water. Lathrop’s work is also noteworthy because it is shaped throughout by a theology of the cross, interpreted suggestively in terms of the earth and the cosmos. Lathrop’s achievement is perhaps all the more remarkable, because he takes the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as a datum, which, for him, requires no defense, as the subtitle of his major work, “a Liturgical Cosmology,” indicates.
I mention, lastly, at the end of this listing, my own work in historical studies in the theology of nature, particularly my 2000 outline of classical christian attitudes toward nature, The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology.34 I followed a method of motif-research in that work, and identified two major motifs in the history of christian thought about nature, the spiritual and the ecological (or what I elsewhere called the theology of ascent and the theology of descent). Those motifs are more or less expressions of the two paradigms that I am discussing in this paper, the theo-anthropocentric and the theo-cosmocentric. This method allowed me to adduce and to discuss a number of representative classical theologians,35 whose thought was shaped by the ecological motif. Ireneaus, the later Augustine, St. Francis, and Luther and Calvin, can helpfully serve, I argued, as conversation partners with those working in the field of ecological theology today. From this perspective, ecological theology in our era is not something totally new under the sun in the history of christian thought. Something like the theo-cosmocentric paradigm has been presupposed by a major christian theological trajectory since the second century.
Practical Ministries In The Lutheran Sidestream – Now Mainstreamed?
While such a list of theologians, in addition to Sittler and, presently, Rasmussen, shows that the lutheran sidestream of ecological theology is a historical trend of note during the last fifty years in the U.S. – that this theological sidestream had, as it were, its own kind of discernable and moving currents – there were also more mainstream expressions of ecological theology in lutheran life and thought during the same period, readily visible, I believe, for all who have eyes to see. First I want to call attention to two lutheran social teaching statements and the supporting theological interpretation of the first.36
The 1972 statement by the Lutheran Church in America was called “The Human Crisis in Ecology,” as was the theological guidebook that was circulated church-wide with the statement during the approval process.37 Of special interest for my purposes here is the central theological chapter of the guidebook, “The World as Community.” Not only did that chapter speak of God and the whole creation, nature included, as a community, it also highlighted what it called “the integrity of nature.”38 Moreover, both the guidebook and the statement itself favored the language of caring, rather than stewardship language (that term was used once in the statement) in their references to the human-nature relationship when it is as it should be. Both the guide and the statement also stressed the importance of social justice in response to all ecological concerns.39
The 1993 social teaching statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice,” was, in my judgment, a much sharper and richer document.40 Its biblical foundations were more clearly identified and its analysis of the then current crisis was much more extensive. Its ethical discourse was at once much more comprehensive and much more sophisticated. But like the 1972 statement and guide, the 1993 statement also projected a vision of God’s universal history with the whole creation, of the human creature as immersed essentially in that history and embedded in nature, and of human caring for nature – not stewardship over nature (this terminology does not appear in the1993 statement) – as the proper theological framework for interpreting what the human relationship with nature is intended by God to be. The ethic toward nature that the statement recommended was also global and focused on the just claims of the poor and the oppressed around the world. And it affirmed nature’s own standing as a participant in God’s history with the whole creation.
In retrospect, in my judgment, both the1972 statement and guide, and the 1993 statement were paradigmatically shaped by theo-cosmocentric assumptions. Accordingly, the ethos proposed in both cases was predicated on kinship imagery, rather than on management imagery. And social justice imperatives were remarkably well-integrated into both the substance and the recommendations in both 1972 and 1993. How much, however, these materials, widely circulated in lutheran circles as they were, led to appropriate behavioral changes in grassroots lutheran communities or to organized ecclesial pressure in behalf of substantive theological, liturgical, social, and political change for the better in public arenas is an entirely different matter. But better to have tried and perhaps to have failed, than not to have tried at all.
It did appear to me at the time, and it still appears to me, that the theological impetus that produced these social teaching statements and that first supporting theological document was sustained and developed, along the way, by a number of grassroots theological initiatives in lutheran circles. I have in mind especially the emergence of the website “The Web of Creation,” sparked by the New Testament scholar, David Rhoads, and the Lutherans Restoring Creation movement, also fostered by Rhoads, a venture that championed the establishment of “Green Congregations,” “Green Synods,” and “Green Seminaries” in the world of american Lutheranism, all in conjunction with a variety of programs and groups focused on ecological issues in lutheran colleges, universities, and campus ministries. From this movement, moreover, again at Rhoads’ initiative, also arose a proposal for an experimental liturgical lectionary, for a portion of the church year, focusing on ecological theology and ecojustice issues.41 Rhoads edited a volume of “Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet,” too.42
Not to be overlooked, either, has been the marked impact the social teaching statements have had in the context of lutheran liturgical life. As a longstanding “consumer” of such services in those years, I often recognized the language and the theology mandated by the social teaching statements in a variety of church publications intended for parish clergy. The prayers made available to congregations through the lutheran bulletin-service, “Celebrate,” regularly included thoughtful references to nature and ecojustice concerns during in this period. Likewise for suggested eucharistic prayers in the new 2006 hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, along with a number of new hymns that reflected creation and ecojustice themes.43
The church-wide adoption of those social teaching statements and the implicit sanctioning of the accompanying theological document of the first, along with the ensuing church-wide practical initiatives, some of which I have catalogued here, were not, I believe, a result of some popular fancy, a thought that I have heard from critics over the years. Did all this happen on the basis of a cultural frenzy that came to expression in Earth Day celebrations in those years, which then flowed over into the life of the church, particularly into the world of the laity, prompting them to call on their churches to address ecological issues? Yes – and no. The enthusiasm for “environmental issues” generated by the widespread cultural impact of trends collectively known as the Ecology Movement in the U.S. surely prepared the way for the church-wide actions in 1972 and 1993 and for ensuing practical ecclesial initiatives. But the church-wide support for those statements would not have happened, I am convinced, on the basis of extensive anecdotal evidence, without the practical support of a widespread church ministry that flourished in those years in lutheran circles, the outdoor ministry movement.
I like to think of that movement as an alternative system of theological education in that era of american lutheran history. In those years, scores of “church camps” flourished and served large, even huge, numbers of laity of many ages and many clergy as well, in every corner of the lutheran church in the U.S. While there were undoubtedly numerous false starts in those settings, theologically speaking, for example a certain overly-innocent cozying up to Native American traditions or a facile romanticizing of nature, especially wild nature, in a Thoreauvian mode, serious theological reflection about nature and the global ecojustice crisis was also underway in many of those outdoor ministries during the last fifty years, sometimes self-directed, sometimes dependent on published works that could, willy nilly, be plucked from the Lutheran ecological sidestream that I have been discussing.44
Prima inter pares, perhaps, among all the lutheran outdoor ministries in this era, from the perspective of ecological theology, was Holden Village in Washington state. A former mining town (with much polluted soil), nestled deep in the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains, Holden Village has fostered serious theological engagement with ecological issues for many years and has, thereby, been a source of theological renewal for many lutherans all over the U.S., above all in ecological theology. There, significantly, theological specialists such as Larry Rasmussen and a wide variety of grass roots church leaders, experienced in the struggles for ecojustice, have been teachers, off and on, for many years.
In my judgment, which I cannot document at this point, the often-unheralded work of countless lutheran outdoor ministries, like Holden Village, prepared the theological way in the lutheran churches in America for the popular church-wide adoption of the aforementioned 1972 and 1993 social teaching statements and the 1972 supporting theological document, and for serious-minded follow-up initiatives such as Lutherans Restoring Creation. In this practical respect, if not in others in the last fifty years, lutheran theological engagement with ecological theology appears to have been mainstreamed.
The Case of Larry Rasmussen: New Currents in the Lutheran Sidestream
Larry Rasmussen, alongside Sittler, is the second and the last theologian I want to feature here in my discussion of the first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological issues. I read Rasmussen as a lutheran theologian-ethicist, notwithstanding the fact that he has written publicly as an “ethical monotheist.”45 In my view, all along he has presupposed the kind of rejuvenated lutheran faith and praxis proposed by Bonhoeffer’s “secret discipline of faith” and Bonhoeffer’s view of “a world come of age.” 46
Not for nothing does the theology of the cross emerge organically in the flow of Rasmussen’s exposition in his major, prize-winning 1997 study, Earth Community Earth Ethics.47 Not for nothing, as well, did he chose to write from the context of communities of creative ecojustice formation, especially those, such as a variety of christian communities, which have considered themselves to have been eschatologically shaped by the biblical vison of the coming Peaceable Kingdom, announced by Jesus. Not for nothing, likewise, has Rasmussen celebrated Luther’s often misunderstood vision of the divine immanence, of God “in, with, and under” the whole cosmos. For Rasmussen, above all, in historic lutheran fashion, everything depends on grace, and then faith.48 Everything, in Rasmussen’s view, particularly the biophysical matrix in which we all live and which lives in us, is a divine gift. Everything, in this sense, for Rasmussen is sacramental. On the other hand, Rasmussen gives shape to that vision not in the familiar and evocative christological terms of a Joseph Sittler, but with his own, to me, compelling pneumatalogical and sacramental musings, terms that some Lutherans might, perhaps ironically, find to be new and therefore not immediately accessible.49 It is of particular interest to me in this context, that one of the frequent criticisms that was directed against the works of Joseph Sittler was that, in a sense, he quoted poetry too much, and that he did not identify the foundations of his theological argument with sufficient clarity. Could it be the case that there is something about thinking under the influence of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm that requires us to plumb meanings from the arts and the sciences, as well as from the normative theological tradition? Still, in my view, Rasmussen moves freely within that lutheran theological sidestream that I have been highlighting, presupposing throughout in his writings the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.50
Rasmussen’s thought can be approached from many different angles, as a recent Festschrift in his honor revealed.51 I will concentrate here on those elements of his theology which disclose his particular expression of paradigmatic theo-cosmocentrism. All that Rasmussen writes in Earth depends on his analysis of the current global ecojustice crisis, which he describes vividly in cultural, social, and scientific terms, yet with an underlying theological cantus firmus. His search, he says, is “for an earth cosmology and an earth ethic, carried out in the recognition that nature and earth compose a single community. Whether we like it or not, it’s life together now or not at all. Earth faith and earth community – this is humanity’s next journey.” (R19) Rasmussen insists that we are concerned here with one community, indeed, “not of culture and nature, or history and nature, but of culture and history in and as nature.” (R32) This is the kind of vision of the one created world that the theo-cosmocentric paradigm fosters.52 This is the vision of the one created world, which as a whole has its own integrity and each part of which also has its only integrity. (R98)
Rasmussen develops his argument in Earth with a kind of inductive sensibility, rather than beginning, say, as Sittler did, by exploring and explicating the meaning of key christian symbols. Rasmussen’s point of departure is the world as all can in principle know it, seen globally and through the eyes of numerous cultures. This is the global context in which the theological cantus firmus can be heard, he believes. People of all cultures cannot resist speaking of religious concerns, and dreaming dreams and seeing visions. “Whatever the wishes of the cultured despisers of religion,” Rasmussen comments, “as a species we yearn to see things whole and sacred. We insist on telling a cosmic narrative and locating ourselves somewhere in it.” (R178)
In this global religious context, in Rasmussen’s view, “the peoples of the Book,” Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, hewed a bold line from the beginning that Rasmussen wants to commend, “a certain focus and concentration on community and social justice as a God-given vocation.” (R183) Rasmussen thus wants to commend these particular religious traditions, which have kept faith and justice-ethics in the closest possible relationship. But not at the expense of a vibrant faith itself. So he argues that “an evolutionary sacramentalist cosmology offers the richest conceptual resources for addressing earth’s distress,” on the one hand, but that that cosmology must be “infused with a profound earth asceticism and married to prophetic efforts aimed at ‘the liberation of life: from the cell to the community’ [Charles Birch, John Cobb],” on the other. (R247)
Seamlessly, then, Rasmussen moves from his general discussion of the human need for a cosmic narrative, which need religions address, and from his commendation of religions of the book, in particular, for their accent on communities of social justice, to explore the ambiguities and the promise of the christian tradition more particularly. First, regarding the ambiguities of the christian tradition: Rasmussen presents a nuanced critique of the classical christian accent on contempt for the world (contemptus mundi). Yes, wealthy Christians, in particular, must be overcome by a new ascetic spirit, he says. But all too often, in Rasmussen’s view, the attitude of contempt has more generally paved the way for rapacious patterns of hostility against the poor, women, and the whole earth, as well. Even in our own era, he says, “neither existentialism, neoorthodoxy, liberalism, common church practice, nor society at large in the North Atlantic world has a cosmology worthy of the name in many influential circles.”(R191)
In this connection, Rasmussen mounts an extensive and insightful critique of the familiar american christian fascination with stewardship.(R230ff.). He illustrates these dynamics with a revealing account of his own efforts, which ultimately failed, to influence the 1991 Canberra meeting of the World Council of Churches to move beyond stewardship theology. (R227f.) Such a theology, in Rasmussen’s view, will inevitably prove itself to have been counter-productive. It all too easily goes with the flow of our freewheeling industrial society. On the contrary, he believes, what is needed now is for christians, and adherents of other religions and ways of life, too, to claim or reclaim “those symbols that effect a ‘reenchantment of the world’ [Max Weber] that edges out the deadly cosmology of mindless and valueless nature worked over by ghostly human freedom in all too much of modernity.” (R194)
What can a christian faith – or the faith of many “christianities,” as Rasmussen prefers to say – do to respond to this situation which requires a new and enchanted global cosmology, which can heal the earth and transform the christian life? Something radically new is required, Rasmussen announces, as he quotes the cry of the Korean theologian, Chung Hyun Kyung, on the floor at the Canberra meeting, with reference to the then emerging voices of the so-called Two-Thirds World: “We are new wine. You will not put us in old wineskins.” (R233) Rasmussen then tries to suggest some directions, perhaps not yet fully developed proposals, for further theological reflection.
To this end, he reaches deeply into the currents of the lutheran tradition, as an exercise in critical, but creative theological ressourcement. He explores Luther’s rich theological immanentalism, in particular. Luther presents us, in Rasmussen’s view, with a cosmos – not just human history – charged with the presence of God.(R272f.) The whole cosmos is God’s, intimately, powerfully, and pervasively, in Luther’s view. Luther further accents the solidarity of humankind with otherkind, with the animals, in particular. Tutored by Luther, in a word, the universe can once again be enchanted for us. And we can care for nature in solidarity with all the creatures of nature. This is Rasmussen, in his own voice now, summarizing that aspect of Luther’s vision:[Luther’s] finitum capax infiniti – the finite bears the infinite – is grassroots earth theology. It is earthbound and limited. That is God’s way, among us. The body, nature, is the end of God’s path. God is not a separate item, even a very large one, on an inventory of the universe, but the universe itself is God’s “body”…. God is not totally encompassed by the creaturely, but the creaturely is the one and only place we know the divine fullness in the manner appropriate to our own fullness. Experiencing the gracious God means, then, falling in love with earth and sticking around, staying home, imagining God in the way we can as the kind of creatures we are. The only viable earth faith is thus a biospiritual one. Earth ethics is a matter of turning and returning to our senses. The totality of nature is the theater of grace. The love of God, like any genuine love, is tactile. (R280f.)53
The second major theme from Luther’s theology that Rasmussen commends to us to consider as we seek to identify a new cosmology appropriate to our own times of global crisis is Luther’s passionately affirmed theology of the cross. (R282f) This means for Rasmussen, to begin with, drawing on Luther’s own images, that This Jesus is wholly of earth. He is not a fleeting docetic visitor, nor a ghostly bearer of gnostic truth, but really mortal flesh and blood from the countryside. Joseph tickles his bare belly button and covers his bare bottom; Mary puts his hungry mouth to her bare breast. (R283)
It also means, for Rasmussen, a dual reference, to the universe as whole and to the meaning of this one particular person, Jesus:
Yes, God is the ultimate life-source of the entire universe, its creator, sustainer, redeemer; and this God is disclosed in the cosmos as a whole. But, in the manner appropriate to human experience and knowing, this life-source is disclosed most compellingly in Jesus. This Jesus is the incandescence of God in human form. (R282)
And this Jesus, born in and of the earth, is then made known by the formation of a people whose mission is to display redeemed creation as a just community. “Such is the pattern for both the formation of Israel and the ‘People of the Way’ of Jesus (Acts 4:32-35),” Rasmussen explains. “This is Luther’s argument for Jesus as the masked clue to the revelation of the Ineffable One. A humanly experienced historical event opens onto an apprehension of all reality.” (R283)
But Rasmussen believes that perhaps Luther’s most profound contribution to aid us in our quest for a new and vital cosmology is Luther’s sometimes misunderstood view of the suffering of Christ. “What is discovered via Jesus,” Rasmussen says of Luther’s perspective, “is this: only that which has undergone all can overcome all. In this sense, cross and resurrection ethics is an utterly practical necessity. Suffering, in its many expressions among its many creatures, will not be redemptively addressed apart from some manner and degree of angry, compassionate entry into its reality, some empowerment from the inside out, some experience of suffering as both a burden and a burden to be thrown off, some deep awareness of it as unhealed but not unhealable. (R286)
Rasmussen observes that lutheran cross and resurrection theology is thus curiously optimistic. It has seen the worst and discovered a mighty power for life. And this leads to a profound ethic of compassion and solidarity that “seeks out the places of oppressive suffering in order to overcome suffering’s demonic, or disintegrative, manifestations…. Its quest is not for victims but for the empowerment needed to negate the negations that generate victims…. It insists that environmental justice is also social justice and that all efforts to save the planet begin with hearing the cry of the people and the cry of the earth together.” (R291)
Rasmussen has many other things to say in explicating his vision of an earth ethics for a earth community, both in Earth and in his other writings. But we have seen enough at this point to permit this judgment, that this lutheran theologian and ethicist has dreamed dreams and seen visions of God and the whole creation, surely not just God and human history, in a way that makes it possible for us to see, if we are so inclined, the whole world as reenchanted with the presence of God and also God’s incandescent and compassionate self-disclosure in that person of the earth, Jesus and his cross, with Jesus thus pioneering the way of suffering love for the whole creation as it groans in travail. In that vision, in Rasmussen’s terms, we may also see an ethos of deep caring for every creature transfigured into the struggles of justice, again, for every creature, especially for those who suffer and are oppressed, a struggle to be claimed by that community of ecojustice that has received the name of that very Jesus for the sake of the whole world.
Lutheran Engagement with Ecological Theology, 1962-2012, in Retrospect
May I say at this point that this lutheran sidestream that we have been considering has indeed strong currents? From 1962 to 2012, lutheran engagement with ecological theology has proven to be commensurate with the scope of a world in crisis and with the challenge of fostering an ecological reformation of christianity because, in varying ways, it has presupposed the theological paradigm of theo-cosmocentrism. This has been particularly true of the contributions of Joseph Sittler and Larry Rasmussen. But others have played vital roles in this respect, too, as have church-wide social teaching statements and other practical ministries. But today is the ending of that first chapter, I am suggesting in this paper. What are we to make of that first chapter in retrospect, then, insofar as we can manage to find some critical distance to allow us at least to raise some questions? Should this beginning have a future? And if so, what should it be?
One question immediately come to mind. This has to do with a certain pronounced theological diversity, even within this lutheran sidestream. Each figure I have considered has moved within the currents of ecological theology. But each has also had his own characteristic sense of direction, sometimes sharply different from the others: christology (Sittler), anthropology (Hefner), eschatology (Peters), biblical studies (Fretheim), liturgical studies (Lathrop), historical studies (myself), and ethics (Rasmussen). And those engaged in the practical initiatives I have touched on in this paper on occasion, if not always, have seemed to speak with many tongues, too. How will those who are now writing or who will hopefully soon be writing the second chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology respond to what might seem to be, in some respects, that theological glossolalia of chapter one? Might it be possible to have a more unified lutheran voice – perhaps even a systematic lutheran voice – addressing all these issues? On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that the diversity has not been great enough.
This question points to the challenge of hearing other voices, as the second chapter is being written. The figures I have discussed in this paper, you will have noticed, all are men. Yes, they all have been sensitive to a variety of issues that transcend their social location. But this situation must change. And, as a matter of fact, as the second chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology is now being written, that situation apparently is changing, whether fast enough and extensively enough, however, is another question. How far away is the day when we all will be able to join in public accolades for a lutheran Rosemary Radford Ruether, a lutheran Sallie McFague, or a lutheran Elizabeth Johnson?
Related to this issue is the question of contributions to ecological theology, both academically and practically, from global lutheran communities. The figures I have discussed in this paper all are relatively affluent american academics. How are we american lutherans to hear other lutheran voices – not to speak of ecumenical voices and the testimonies of other religious traditions – from the front lines of the global churches, addressing ecological issues? I remain enchanted, in this respect, with the fruits of Larry Rasmussen’s sabbatical adventure of a few years ago, when he visited grass-roots, ecologically engaged christian communities in Zimbabwe, Scotland, Alaska, and the Philippines.
Perhaps a single revealing case for us all to ponder in this respect is the situation of the lutheran congregation in Shrishmaref, Alaska. These are lutherans who belong to a people which has lived in that area for countless generations. But now their ancestral home is about to be washed away by rising waters driven by global warming. Their voices and others like theirs must be heard and given a place in the unfolding second chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology. That process, it seems to me, is already underway. But can it be sustained and expanded?
Is it time, in this respect, for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to begin working on a new social teaching statement in the context of this our global emergency and our world of incredibly rich cultural and religious diversity? Hopefully such a statement would clearly address, in particular, what Rasmussen has called environmental apartheid, at home as well as abroad. This convocation, with its focus on sustainability issues, which are global issues and which are local issues, which are everyone’s issues, certainly seems to be a critical moment in the writing of the second chapter to which I have been referring. Perhaps this gathering could give impetus to the birthing of a new kind of church-wide deliberation about ecological and ecojustice issues.
Finally, from the global to the parochial, a personal plea for renewed attention, as the second chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology is being written, to historical investigations in the theology of nature, both studies of scripture and post-biblical christian traditions.54 We do not want to stumble, due to lack of knowledge, into the pitfalls of the christian past. Nor do we want to overlook the riches of the christian past. We need all the help we can get.
Epilogue: From Lutheran Minimalism to Lutheran Maximalism in a Time of Global Crisis
Which brings me at the very end to a single historical issue that must be addressed, in my view, if the lutheran ecological sidestream I have been discussing in this paper is ever to be fully mainstreamed, and thus be in a position to impact the crisis of our times head on, as Luther impacted the crisis of his times head on. This, then, is my question, at the end of these explorations. Are lutheran theologians and practitioners fully equipped today to foment – or to keep fomenting – an ecological reformation of Christianity and to do so with a sense of urgency?
This is how I propose to respond to this question briefly, by raising another. I know that the following question may sound regressive or parochial or even quaint to some, but I believe that it goes to the heart of the matter for those who approach ecological theology as lutherans in these times. How do we Lutherans read Luther? I have explored this question at length in other settings.55 Here I simply want to outline an answer and then sharpen it, in conclusion.
There are minimalist and a maximalist readings of Luther. The first, in all likelihood, if not inevitably, makes it all too easy for lutherans to think primarily in terms of the theo-anthropocentric paradigm. The second, in all likelihood, if not inevitably, makes it easy for lutherans to think in terms of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.
This is lutheran minimalism. You focus on those theological constructs that drove Luther’s reforming zeal at the outset: faith over against works; justification over against sanctification; the theology of the cross over against the theology of glory; the hearing of faith over against the seeing of speculation; the revealed God in word and sacraments over against the God contemplated in nature; the hidden God over against the God who is encountered in, with, and under all things; the Christ who is given for me over against the Christ who is given for the world; the Spirit of God who calls me to faith over against the Spirit of God who hovers creatively over the whole cosmos; and the book of scripture over against the book of nature. To that end, you will turn again and again to engage the Luther who wrestled with Romans 1:17ff. and who wrote the Heidelberg Disputation. Lutheran minimalism clings passionately to those moments in Luther’s life and thought that were his breakthrough moments to the reassuring and powerful and liberating gospel of the forgiveness of sins.
If that is how you read Luther, mainly in terms of his breakthrough moments, then, it seems self-evident to me, your own theology and spirituality and discipleship will in all likelihood, if not inevitably, end up being thoroughly shaped by the theo-anthropocentric paradigm. Because all those existentially traumatic and spiritually powerful breakthrough moments have to do with God and you. Or, more generally: with God and humanity. Accordingly, you will receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as given for you.
And in the spirit of Luther, perhaps one of the greatest polemicists in the history of christian theology, you may be moved to take your stand against anyone who says, in a manner Kierkegaard would also have abhorred, both/and. No, you cannot have it both ways, both faith and works; both cross and glory; both hearing and seeing; both word/sacrament and creation; both the book of scripture and the book of nature; both the Spirit who brings Christ to you and the Spirit who brings Christ to the whole cosmos. You must have it the one lutheran way, so-called. That is the spirit of lutheran minimalism in its most contentious form.
On the other hand, would it not be possible to be a lutheran maximalist? To begin with, you would, of course, affirm those lutheran breakthrough moments and never for a moment let them slip through your hands. But you would also explore the paradoxical promise of having it both ways: faith and works; justification and sanctification; the theology of the cross and a theology of eschatological glory; the hearing of faith and the seeing of inspired contemplation; the revealed God in word and sacraments and the God encountered in, with, and under nature; the immediately present Christ, given for me, in word and sacrament, and the immediately present Christ in all things, given for the whole world; the Spirit of God who calls me to faith and the Spirit of God who hovers creatively over the whole creation; and the book of scripture and the book of nature.
And you would read and ponder not only Luther’s commentary on Romans 1:17ff., but also his thoughts about one of his other favorite texts, Ephesians 4:10, pertaining to Christ: “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”56 You would, likewise, read not only Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, but also his sacramental reflections about God, in, with, and under all things, in his conversations with Zwingli, and his commentary on John 1, concerning the cosmic Christ, and on Genesis 1 and 2 about God’s gracious giving in the whole creation and God’s gift of solidarity with the animals to Adam in Genesis 2. You would understand the gospel not just as the forgiveness of sins, but, in Luther’s own words in the Small Catechism, as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. You would receive the bread and wine in the Eucharist as given for you and for the world.
Lutheran theological maximalism thus provides us with a way of thinking that can readily be shaped by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, which comprehends all things (ta panta). From this angle of vision, everything counts, not just God and humanity, certainly not just God and me. Embracing this theological maximalism will allow us, in turn, even encourage us, I believe, to find new and more forceful ways to address the distress of a creation groaning in travail, whether it be a polluted wetland, a low income neighborhood where people of color live, whose children have inordinately high asthma rates, the unprecedented extremes of weather in coastal or wilderness areas, or the ultimate demise of our universe as it accelerates itself toward a colossal heat-death. And lutheran theological maximalism, shaped, again, by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as it readily can be, offers us the impetus we need, I also believe, rightly to celebrate the goodness of the whole creation, the miracles of a grain of wheat, the wonders of a child’s caress, the glories of coastal and wilderness vistas, and the infinite mysteries of the resplendent heavens above and all around us.57
This is not to suggest that lutheran theological maximalism is the whole gospel truth for our times. We Lutherans still have much theological work and much deep soul-searching to do with our two kingdoms ethical heritage, for example. All the more so, time may not be on our side, if our modus operandi continues to be the often cautious and sometimes self-protecting processes of our scholarly discourse, the measured social teaching statements we produce, after three years of study and hearings, and the modest congregational mission initiatives to which many of us have grown accustomed.
Let’s assume, then, that that theological maximalism is what we Lutherans need, at this the end of the first chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology. The following question still is unescapable: is not the time – the kairos – at hand, perhaps as it never has been before, to translate that theological maximalism into public theological praxis and to do that with all the spiritual passion and moral urgency that our times require?58 Given the global emergency of the ecojustice crisis that we face today, enormously more pronounced than it was fifty years ago, when some of us first began to explore what an ecological reformation of Christianity might mean, must not we Lutherans now reclaim not only the full breadth of Luther’s theology, as lutheran maximalists, but also the apocalyptic sensibility which drove Luther’s reforming zeal?
Luther was willing to confront Pope and Emperor in the name of the gospel truth. He was willing to sacrifice all that had hitherto been of existential import to him in the furtherance of that cause. Is not the time at hand for those of us who treasure lutheran theology, now in its maximalist expressions, to confront the principalities and powers of our own world with the same kind of apocalyptic intensity? Has this not become for us a time of passionate public witness and resolute communal action, a status confession is, as Luther’s time was for him?59
1 A paper prepared for the Convocation of the Association of Teaching Theologians, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at Columbus, Ohio, August 13-15, 2012. The proceedings of the Convocation are to be published by Lutheran Universtiy Press, Minneapolis.
3 The focus on lutheran engagement with ecological theology in this paper is by no means intended to suggest, even implicitly, that Lutherans were the only ones during this period who were so engaged. The development of ecological theology as a whole, from its very beginnings, was ecumenical in character. Lutherans and Presbyterians, for example, worked closely together, from time to time, to identify an approach to this challenge. The Presbyterians also produced a substantive social teaching statement and a valuable theological guide of their own. The American Baptists, too, issued a statement on the environmental crisis in these early years. The Methodists, in turn, pioneered research and reflection about what they called (among the first, if not the first, groups anywhere to publicly identify this phenomenon), “environmental racism.” The Methodist, John Cobb, was an early and forceful voice in ecological theology, likewise (see his Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology [Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1972]). Above all, perhaps, the theological influence of those who might very cautiously be called the catholic ecofeminists, Mary Daly (later ex-Catholic, indeed ex-Christian), Rosemary Ruether, and Elizabeth Johnson, was enormous. Any complete story of ecological theology in this era would have to tell their stories and identify their impact. But sometimes it can be instructive to undertake this kind of vertical historical study of a single communion. When parallel vertical studies of the engagement of other christian communions with ecological theology then become available, our grasp of the field as a whole from a horizontal, ecumenical perspective will hopefully be strengthened.
6 In 1974, I and the staff of the Boston Industrial Mission organized a conference at Wellesley College with the topic “An Ecological Reformation of Christianity?” This was a theme that suggested itself to numerous Protestants in this period. Cf. especially James A Nash, “Toward and Ecological Reformation of Christianity,” Interpretation 50:1 (1996), 5-15.
7 I am passing by Paul Tillich. While I and others regard Tillich as a bona fide lutheran theologian, Tillich himself, even as he recognized his indebtedness to Luther, in particular, and to Protestantism, in general, did not regard himself as a lutheran theologian, nor was he widely regarded as such by many (other) lutheran theologians and practitioners in his time. Nevertheless, in my view, Tillich’s essay “Nature and Sacrament,” in The Protestant Era, tr. James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), can be viewed as an important first step toward an authentically lutheran ecological theology in the U.S., historically speaking.
8 Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity,” Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 38-50. For convenience’s sake I will hereafter cite this volume in the text as “S” followed by the page number e.g. (S 38-50).
9 It made sense in the mid-nineties for Peter E. Bakkin, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Robert Engel to produce what was more or less a complete bibliography of english works in ecological theology, Ecology, Justice, and Faith: A Critical Guide to the Literature (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995). It would not make sense to produce such a printed work today, since it would be out of date before it made its way into readers’ hands. Even some on-line bibliographical record of such works might not be all that helpful, since it would be difficult to keep up with the global sweep of such publications.
11 On Barth, see my study The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), chapter 8. This material is a summary of the findings of my doctoral dissertation, Karl Barth’s Theology of Nature: A Historical and Critical Study(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1966) [unpublished].
14 An important exception to this rule is the group of theologians whom I have elsewhere called “reconstructionists,” thinkers who generally held that the classical christian tradition is ecologically bankrupt and who therefore concluded that christian theology must be reconstructed from the ground up. Representative of this trend were the process thinker, John Cobb (see Is It Too Late?), and the ecofeminist, Rosemary Radford Ruether (see New Woman New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation [New York: Seabury Press, 1975]). For the categorization of ecological theologians as “apologists,” “revisionists,” and “reconstructionists,” see my book Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of ChristianTheology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 6-10.
21 One of the better books on ecological ethics in these years, written by a Methodist, presupposes the theo-cosmocentric paradigm; and it explores the theme of love explicitly: James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville: Abingdon, 199l).
23 Hefner, as I have noted, was one of the authors of the Christian Dogmatics, a work that I have associated in this paper with theo-anthropocentrism. If I am right about that judgment, Hefner’s place in that volume would have to be considered ambiguous, since, in my judgment, Hefner’s own thought is theo-cosmocentric.
25 In the following discussion of the doctrine of creation, Hefner essentially gives us a sketch of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, without using such language: “The doctrine of creation not only serves as an essential framework on which the soteriological statements of faith depend for their credibility and meaning. It is also one of the chief resources for overcoming what has come to be known, perhaps exaggeratedly, as the ‘unitarianism of the second article.’ The object of concern in this phrase is a reduction of christian theology to soteriology, which falsifies the christian faith because it cuts off the larger connectedness between redemption in Christ and the panorama of God’s intentions and actions from creation to consummation. Such a reduction also thereby cuts the link between redemption and the physical world, society, and world history. If theology does not overcome this tendency, it finds it difficult to relate the faith to such issues as ecological concerns, our vocation in society, and the manifestation of God’s Spirit in the world’s history.”(Philip Hefner, “The Creation,” in Christian Dogmatics, I, 272.)
26 Consider this elegant theological testimony by Hefner, “Nature’s History as Our History: A Proposal for Spirituality,” in After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, ed. Dieter T. Hessel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 182f.: “[The Noah story] occurs as the second reading within the ritual of the Easter Vigil. As such, the rainbow covenant with Noah is connected to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The meaning is unavoidable: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is an event within a continuum of events in which God has been active, and the continuum includes the history of nature. Here God affirms a covenant with every living thing and with the earth itself, in full recognition that in light of the evil that is in the human heart, this sets up a lovers’ triangle. In that triangle, consisting of God, humans, and all of the earth’s other biological and physical systems, humans could find themselves outside the chainlink of the covenant with nature. God will never again permit that covenant to be breached in favor of humans at the expense of the earth…. The rainbow covenant predicates God as a higher advocate for nonhuman nature.
“The proposals for organizing our consciousness contained in these packets of poetic, mythic information articulate themselves with forcefulness. They point outward in projecting possibilities for human involvement in community with the rest of nature that can make both for the wholeness of the Creator’s covenant shalom and also for the terror that accompanies the destruction of that wholeness. Shalom comes when we consider that our calling to be: sibling to the geese and the spider; eye, tongue, and heart to sweet earth; covenant partner with earth and its birds, cattle and every beast.”
28 Ted Peters, God – the World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). For a more succinct treatment of the underlying themes of his thought, cf. Ted Peters, Science, Theology, and Ethics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), chap. 4: “God as the Future of Cosmic Creativity.”
29 Cf. Peters, God – the World’s Future, p. xii (it. his): “The exhilarating impact of the gospel is that it evokes in us the life of beatitude. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus describes the life of beatitude as living a blessed life today in light of the coming of God’s kingdom tomorrow…. In the life of beatitude the Holy Spirit collapses time, so to speak, so that believers can. share ahead of time in the oneness of all things that is yet to come…. Amid the viciousness of devouring competition, one can envision the lion lying down with the lamb. Amid the desert of portending mass destruction, one can glimpse the river of life flowing from the throne of God. Amid the wanton lack of care for the beings and things of this world, one can feel the heart beat with the rhythms of the divine love that pervades and promises wholeness throughout creation.”
30 In addition to Fretheim’s work, two of the most important studies in this area are Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and William P. Brown, The Ethos of Cosmos: the Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
33 Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). My own work in liturgical ecology, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), is dependent on Lathrop’s argument in significant ways.
35 One of the several limitations of this book is that I did not attempt to review the classical mystical traditions of christian life and thought regarding nature, a context in which many women theologians flourished.
36 A more complete treatment of lutheran social statements in this era would also review a 1970 statement on the environment by the American Lutheran Church(ALC). I am not considering that statement in this paper for two reasons: first, to keep my own discussion within reasonable limits; second, because the LCA statement was accompanied by a study guide, which set forth underlying theological understandings explicitly. The ALC statement is available in the archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: https://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History/ELCA-Archives/Archival-Documents/Predecessor-Body-Statements/American-Lutheran-Church/The-Environment-Crisis.aspx
38 Full disclosure: I wrote that chapter (and another) and also helped – as a member of an interdisciplinary team, including Joseph Sittler – to draft the statement itself. Sittler wrote the concluding chapter.
39 A further popular publication came out of the working group that produced the 1972 statement, co-written by the chair of the group, who was an academic biologist, and myself: Paul E. Lutz, H. Paul Santmire, Ecological Renewal, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972).
41 The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, ed. Norman C. Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011). Cf. also the related lectionary aid written from the perspective of the science and theology dialogue, George L. Murphy, Lavonne Althaus, Russell Willis, Cosmic Witness: Commentaries on Science and Technology Themes (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 1996).
43 Cf., for example, the hymn “Touch the Earth Lightly,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 739, stanzas 1 & 2: “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care: gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear. We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live, we who would foster clouds of disaster – God of our planet, forestall and forgive!”
44 Anecdotally, in those years my book, Brother Earth, was widely read by leaders in outdoor ministry; and I was regularly asked to consult about educational materials in outdoor ministry. I even wrote some of those materials myself, see, for example, H. Paul Santmire, “Introduction to the Theme,” Creation: Called to Freedom. Outdoors Ministry Curriculum (Chicago: Division for Congregational Life, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1990), 1-10.
45 Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), xiii. For convenience’s sake, I will hereafter cite this work in the text and the notes as “R” followed by a page number, e.g. (R10.)
46 For Rasmussen’s relationship to Bonhoeffer, cf. John DeGruchy, “A Concrete Ethic of the Cross: Interpreting Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in North American’s Backyard,” in Fidelity to Earth: A Festschrift in Honor of Larry Rasmussen, ed. Daniel T. Spencer, James Martin-Schram, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 58:1-2 (2004), 33-45. 1-201.
49 And not only Lutherans. Consider this response to Rasmussen’s opus magnus by Charles R. Pinches, chair of the theology department at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton, in the Christian Century, August 12-19, 1998, p. 756: “[O]ne… feels the nagging tension [in Rasmussen’s book] between explicitly theological categories and those of the environmental crisis and deep ecology. In Rasmussen’s case, however, this is not because theological concepts are radically revised [as is done by the advocates of deep ecology] but because theology is not the primary language of the book. While Rasmussen does a bit of theology here and there, the book lacks a theological structure. He never decides to consider systematically or historically what Christian theology has to say about ecology, the earth, or even creation. As a result, there is no theological context into which the reader can place the book’s otherwise quite interesting reflections about our environmental troubles.” Which is damning, I suppose, by faint praise.
50 I do not want to push the question about Rasmussen’s lutheran credentials too far. On the one hand, who cares? The theological/ethical challenge before us in today’s world is too great for such parochial-sounding questions. On the other hand, I care, since I am instancing him and his work under the rubric of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology. So it has been necessary for me too say something about this question, in order not to say nothing, especially given the character of what might be called Rasmussen’s post-lutheran Lutheranism. If anyone would like to pursue this question further, I refer him or her to one of Rasmussen’s former students, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “Christian Ethics Toward Earth-Honoring Faiths,” Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review, 146: “Larry’s deeply critical, appreciative, and reconstructive relationship with Lutheran traditions, in which he stands, demonstrates his approach to tradition. His Earth ethic and call for eco-Reformation are notably Lutheran…. [He] finds riches in central Lutheran theological themes; and ‘thinks creatively with’ Luther, Bonhoeffer, and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Sittler and other Lutheran theologians to retrieve and reconstruct less recognized resources proffered by their work.”
53 I disagree with Rasmussen’s interpretation of Luther at this point. Nowhere that I am aware of did Luther suggest that the world is God’s “body.” For a discussion of this, and related, issues in Luther-interpretation, see my essay “Creation and Salvation according to Martin Luther,” in Ernst. M. Conradie, ed. Creation and Salavation, I: A Mosaic of Selected Classic Christian Theologies (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012), 183-187. On the other hand, in every other respect, I believe, particularly with regard to Luther’s rich theology of the divine immanence, Rasmussen presents a balanced and instructive interpretation of Luther’s thought.
54 My study, The Travail of Nature, was intended to be exploratory in character, more an effort to raise questions than to provide answers. I fully anticipated in 1985 that a wave of historical studies in the christian theology of nature would follow, with the result that my book would quickly be put on the shelf. But sadly, in my view, except for a few notable exceptions, scholars have for some reason not been generally interested in exploring the history of christian thought about nature in great detail. Two of those notable exceptions are the study of Tillich by Michael Drummy (see note 12 above) and the exposition of Calvin’s thought by Susan E. Schreiner, The Theatre of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991). Also cf. the previously referred to collection of essays edited by Ernst. M. Conradie, Creation and Salavation. Scholarly study of the theology of nature in the Old and New Testaments, however, has expanded geometrically in recent years. The trove of these riches, however, is too large to describe here.
55 See, for example, H. Paul Santmire, “Healing the Protestant Mind: Beyond the Theology of Human Dominion,” in After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, ed. Dieter T. Hessel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 57-78. On Luther’s thought about creation, in particular, see H. Paul Santmire, “Creation and Salvation according to Martin Luther: Creation as the Good and Integral Background,” in Creation and Salvation, I.
56 For an attempt to explicate Luther’s “cosmic christology,” see H. Paul Santmire, “Toward a Cosmic Christology: A Kerygmatic Proposal,” Theology and Science 9:3 (August 2011), 287-306. Also, see the study by the lutheran theologian/physicist George Murphy, The Cosmos in Light of the Cross (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 2003).
57 This lutheran maximalism, at home with the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as it typically is, it appears to me, could also have a sharp public impact, over against the dominant cultural trends of our times, which are so thoroughly shaped by “the information revolution.” The presuppositions of that revolution are radically anthropocentric, even gnostic, not cosmo-centric. The information revolution is predicated on the assumption that there is a technological fix to serve any human desire, nature to the contrary notwithstanding. Nature, in this perspective, is the mere object or the toolbox for the satisfaction of human “needs.” Nature has no standing, no integrity, no voice of its own. For an illuminating description of this current culture of power over nature, see Larry Rasmussen, “Next Journey: Sustainability for Six Billion and More,” in Ethics for a Small Planet: New Horizons on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, ed. Daniel C. Maguire and Larry L. Rasmussen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), especially 102f.
58 This is not the place to describe the extent and the depth of the global crisis before us. From many scientific and prophetic voices that might be amplified here, consider only one, the widely-respected Oberlin environmentalist, David W. Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, paperback edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), xii-xiii.: “The capacity and apparent willingness of humankind to destabilize the climate conditions that made civilization possible is the issue of our time; all others pale by comparison. Beyond some unknown threshold of irreversible and irrevocable changes driven by carbon cycle feedbacks, climate destabilization will lead to a war of all against all, a brutal scramble for food, water, dry land, and safety…. Sheer survival will outweigh every other consideration of decency, order, and mutual sympathy. Climate destabilization will amplify other problems caused by population growth, global poverty, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the potential impact of high consequence events that have long-term global consequences….”
59 I am aware that the expression status confession is is ambiguous, both historically and theologically. For a thoughtful exploration of this ambiguity, see Eugene Teselle, “How Do We Recognize a Status Confession is?,” Theology Today 45:1(1988), 71-78. The expression is rooted deeply in lutheran history, from mid-sixteenth century intra-lutheran theological debates in Germany, through the german church struggle of 1933, to the 1977 declaration of the Lutheran World Federation that apartheid is a heresy. Minimally, the idea is this, in Teselle’s words, that “to declare a status confession is is to say that the time has run out, that toleration has reached its limits, that a line must be drawn. It is to say that the time is ‘an evil time’ (Amos 5:13), but one in which we may no longer keep a prudent silence.” (78) Given the severity of the global crisis (see note 58 above), does the church today have any other option than, in the name of God’s love for the whole creation, especially for the downtrodden of the earth, to publicly and zealously speak the truth to power, and to its own members, with a willingness to put its own body at risk? Isn’t the burden of proof on the shoulders of those Christians, particularly Lutherans, who would maintain that ours is not a time of status confession is?